ALL AROUND AMSTERDAM
Ah Amsterdam…. so many lovely canals, cute old townhouses, and wonderful little streets to stroll through. Named after the dam that was built across the River Amstel in the 12th century, Amsterdam was once a sleepy fishing village. Today it is the capital of the Netherlands, one of the most visited towns in the world (the city welcomes 5 million visitors a year), and a bustling city home to almost a million people. It’s also one of the prettiest cities we’ve seen, with its characteristic canals, lined with tall townhouses and grand old palazzos; narrow streets full of bicycles*; and busy squares.
*There are A LOT of bikes in Amsterdam, and they OWN the streets. Cars have to give way to bicycles and pedestrians should do. If you DON’T watch your back you run a VERY serious risk of ending up with what we call “bike-butt” (i.e. where a bicycle front wheel finds its way into the cleft of your buttocks, usually at high speed). NOT pleasant. Best to watch for bikes and give way when in Amsterdam.
Today was our first full day in Amsterdam and we wanted to see everything! Well, maybe not EVERYTHING…, there are some streets in this notoriously liberal city that we skirted around. Mind you, as we found out, even if you try your best to avoid the, ahem, “coffee” shops and Red Light District, the smell of whacky weed is everywhere and the boundaries between the residential areas and De Wallen are not as clearly delineated as you might think. We stumbled across one of THOSE alleys this afternoon, without even realising it – the scantily clad ladies in the windows displaying their “wares” gave the game away pretty quickly though!
We have no moral objections to the liberal approach to sex and drugs that’s applied around here; it’s not what WE’RE here for, but if that’s what floats your boat, more power to you, we say (as long as no one’s getting hurt in the process). And generally things around Amsterdam seem to be pretty safe and tourist-friendly, despite the permissiveness of the regulations. We saw a few dodgy/sleazy characters during our sightseeing today (mostly guys who looked seriously drug-addled OR seriously in need of their next fix), but nothing too disturbing. Probably the worst/funniest moment was when we turned a corner and startled a gentleman who was busy, er, “amusing himself” beside a tree. Must have seen something he REALLY liked… (snigger snigger)
So even if you don’t go looking for it, you’ll still stumble across bits of Amsterdam’s “liberal side”. If you follow the locals’ lead though and just live and let live, it all just blends in with the rest of the city to add some spice (and occasional amusement) to the mix.
Beyond its reputation as a place to party, Amsterdam is actually a beautiful city with some great history and a lot of fantastic museums and art galleries. THESE were the things we were interested in and sought out today!
Amsterdam became one of the most important ports in the world during the 17th century (i.e. the Dutch Golden Age), a result of its innovative developments in trade and city planning. It was during these boom years, when migrants were flocking to the city from all over the then known world, that Amsterdam’s iconic canal system was devised and constructed. Today Amsterdam has more than 100km of canals – hence its moniker “Venice of the North”. We spent much of our day just strolling alongside many of these canals, admiring the characteristic houses that line them.
Most famously, the canals of the Grachtengordel were laid out during the early 1600s, with the city’s richest citizens building grand townhouses all along the 3 most picturesque canals: Herengracht or ‘’Patricians’ Canal’’; Keizersgracht or ‘’Emperor’s Canal’’; and Prinsengracht or ‘’Prince’s Canal’’. So unique is the Grachtengordel area that it was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010. It was in this area that we started our day.
Within the Grachtengordel district lies a tiny enclave of homes known as the Begijnhof. This cluster of homes was originally a béguinage*, set up as a closed community for the 100 or so women who lived and did their charity work there. The homes there are now private dwellings, but the residents kindly open up their little community to tourists during the day and so we got to have a look at the communal chapel, lovely 17th century buildings, and pretty inner courtyard.
*A semi-monastic community of women who sought to serve God without retiring from the world, but who did not necessarily want to become nuns.
Just beyond Begijhof we found the Bloemenmarkt, the world’s only floating flower market. With stalls selling all manner of gardening and floral supplies, the market was bustling with tourists and locals alike (the market is one of the main suppliers of flowers to central Amsterdam). No doubt in spring it’s a blaze of colour, but right now, in full summer, the displays were a little toned down. Still, it was nice to stroll through the market and see where the locals go to buy the supplies they use to make the city so colourful and fragrant (there are flowers EVERYWHERE here – in front of homes, in pots outside windows, lining the bridges).
During our travels through Grachtengordel we stopped to see the Dutch Protestant Westerkerk. As is typical of this style of church it was quite austere inside, though still beautiful.
Next door to the Westerkerk was the Anne Frank House Museum, where you can tour through the house where Anne Frank lived in hiding with her family for more than 2 years during World War II. The queue to get in was really, really long however, so we decided to leave that one for another day. (We should have remembered: what did we learn from London? When travelling in peak season, pre-buy your tickets online!)
Continuing our tour through Amsterdam we came to Dam Square, the historical centre of Amsterdam. The square derives its name from its original function: a dam on the Amstel River. Built in approximately 1270, the dam formed the first connection between the settlements on the sides of the river.
On the west end of the square is the neoclassical Koninklijk Paleis (i.e. Royal Palace), which served as the city hall from 1655 until its conversion to a royal residence in 1808. It is one of 3 palaces in the Netherlands which are at the disposal of the Dutch royal family, but given that they don’t live there in the summer, it’s open to the public during July and August. We love a good palace and so had to go in for a look.
The palace was built as the Town Hall of the City of Amsterdam and was opened as such on 29 July 1655. However, in 1806 the Netherlands was forced by Napoleon Bonaparte to become a vassal state of France and accept Louis Napoleon (Bonaparte’s brother) as king. At this time the building was converted into a royal residence and has remained so every since. The palace is still used by Willem-Alexander, the King of the Netherlands, for entertaining and official functions.
Beside the palace is the 15th-century Gothic Nieuwe Kerk (i.e. New Church), which is no longer used as a church but as an art gallery and exhibition space. The current exhibition is on Dutch history and the Dutch royal family. We went for a look through and, though the exhibit didn’t really excite us too much, the building itself is quite something.
In contrast to the New Church, Amsterdam’s Oude Kerk (i.e. Old Church) was built in 1213. We visited the Oude Kerk and found the church itself is quite simple and plain. Most intriguing, however, was what has grown around the church: over the centuries, the area around the Oude Kerk has developed into Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Talk about an interesting juxtaposition!
Last, but certainly not least, on our list of sightseeing stops was Sint Nicolaasbasiliek (i.e. St Nicholas’s Basilica), Amsterdam’s only remaining Roman Catholic church. The church is dedicated to the city’s patron saint of seafarers – no wonder given Amsterdam’s rich maritime history. Built in 1887 the church was much richer in design than the Protestant churches we had already seen, with ornate Baroque trimmings and dark, brooding colours throughout.
After such a busy day of sightseeing and trawling through the city we decided to finish there and headed home to our little attic apartment where we enjoyed a quiet drink whilst sitting and looking out our window at the passing boats on the canal below. This city really is beautiful and very easy to enjoy. If only we lived close enough to visit for the weekend every now and then!