There will be clichés — they can’t be avoided. So let’s address them up front: canals, 17th-century gabled townhouses, bicycles, the Red Light District, coffee shops selling cannabis, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Anne Frank, Heineken beer, tulips, Edam cheese, wooden clogs. I guess we’re in Amsterdam.
The city is so heavily laden with preconceptions, you might wonder if it’s worth visiting at all. You start to think again as soon as you touch down at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. This is the world’s third-busiest international hub, maintaining centuries-old connections with all corners of the world. For all Amsterdam’s parochial trappings, it comes as a surprise to discover that it is among the most cosmopolitan cities in Europe.
Before you leave Schiphol, take a moment to marvel at the Dutch ingenuity that enabled it to be built on this spot southwest of downtown. Almost a third of the Netherlands is below sea level, including the airport, which occupies the site of a major naval battle fought in 1574.
Amsterdam has a love-hate relationship with water. On the one hand, it is engaged in a never-ending battle to protect the land reclaimed from the North Sea with an extensive system of dikes (equivalent to levees). On the other, the city planners created a spider’s web of 165 canals, bringing water to the doorsteps of most of the inhabitants.
Construction of the Grachtengordel (the “girdle of canals”) began almost exactly 400 years ago and helped to transform Amsterdam’s fortunes. Today, as you stroll along the leafy, cobbled banks of the canals, it is hard to imagine the industrious bustle of barges and schooners that once carried international trade directly into the heart of the city.
One of the most significant pillars of the early boom in international commerce is to be found inside an unassuming gabled entrance on Oude Hoogstraat, a narrow street in the center of the city.
Walk through the dingy passageway and you enter a beautiful 17th-century courtyard. Above a doorway on the far side are the letters “VOC” — Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie. The Dutch East India Company.
Established in 1602, the VOC was the world’s first multinational corporation, presiding over a commercial empire that spanned Asia. It was the first company to issue shares to the public and the first to pay its shareholders an annual dividend. Modern capitalism began in this brick building.
Thanks to the company’s 200 years of success, Amsterdam flourished, becoming the wealthiest city in the world. Merchant ships shuttled in and out, bringing cargo and people from far-flung lands.
Some port cities respond to immigrants by becoming insular and unwelcoming. Amsterdam embraced the outsiders and forged an enduring reputation for liberal tolerance. Today, about a third of the population is of non-European origin, though the city doesn’t have the kaleidoscopic, multicultural feel of London or New York. This is a melting pot in which the flavor remains uniquely Dutch.
Although old Amsterdam was built on trade, in recent years the city’s commercial center of gravity has shifted south to the district of Zuidas, where the multinational successors to the long-gone Dutch East India Company occupy a growing cluster of gleaming skyscrapers.
Now that the business of making money has been relocated elsewhere, something of the old city’s traditional dynamism has been lost. Yet it remains a richly rewarding destination, and for that we have the clichés to thank.
Take a bicycle ride along the dappled streets or hire a pedal-boat to explore the canals. The city is compact allowing you to immerse yourself completely without fear of getting hopelessly lost.
Both in preconception and reality, refinement coexists with a slightly seedy underbelly. Right next door to the Baroque finery of Dam Square is the gaudy excess of the Red Light District. The wafted aromas from a local deli intermingle with a pungent haze of cannabis drifting out of a coffee shop. Posters advertising the latest exhibitions at the Van Gogh Museum or the Rijksmuseum are plastered on walls that are densely sprayed with crude graffiti. This is Amsterdam, clichés and all.
Info To Go
International flights arrive at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMSAMSAMS), five miles southwest of the city. Transfers to the city center by taxi or bus take approximately 20 minutes. Schiphol Station, beneath the airport, provides 15-minute transfers to downtown Amsterdam as well as connections to other cities in the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Visit http://www.holland.com .
If you intend to do some serious sightseeing, be sure to equip yourself with an I amsterdam Card, which provides free or discounted access to most of the major museums and attractions as well as unlimited use of public transport. The cards can be purchased online or at local tourist offices. A 24-hour card costs about $46, a 48-hour card is about $58, and a 72-hour card is about $70.
Fine museums and attractions are scattered throughout the city. Three of the most important museums are situated close together a short ride southwest of the city center. The Rijksmuseum contains one of the world’s great art collections, including iconic masterpieces by Rembrandt and Vermeer. The Van Gogh Museum houses the world’s greatest collection of work by Vincent van Gogh, with 200 paintings as well as drawings and letters. Other artists displayed in the museum include Gauguin, Monet, Seurat and Toulouse-Lautrec. Across the road, the Stedelijk Museum, which boasts an important collection of modern art, is currently undergoing a radical renovation. A temporary exhibition will open in the old part of the museum this August. The New Stedelijk should open toward the end of 2011.
Closer to the center of the city, on the banks of the River Amstel, is the Hermitage Amsterdam, a branch of the great State Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Besides the museum’s permanent collections, there are important temporary exhibitions. From March to September, the flagship exhibition is dedicated to the pioneers of modern art, including Matisse and Picasso. A major exhibition devoted to Alexander the Great runs through March 18, 2011.
A short walk from the Hermitage is the Rembrandt House Museum, occupying the great artist’s former home. The museum exhibits almost all of the etchings Rembrandt made in his lifetime.
Another private house preserved as a significant tourist attraction is the home of Anne Frank, the ill-fated Jewish girl whose wartime diary provides a chilling and moving chronicle of Amsterdam under Nazi occupation.
The oldest church in the city is Oude Kerk, which in various incarnations has occupied the same site since the 11th century. Today it finds itself located rather uncomfortably within the Red Light District, where the world’s oldest profession is brazenly on view in gaudily decorated parlor windows. Sights and activities that would shock in other cities are presented matter-of-factly, encapsulating Amsterdam’s liberal mindset.
HEM Hotel Maas
Within walking distance of major attractions, this is a small, quiet, family-run hotel; and many of the rooms have whirlpools and waterbeds. Leidsekade 91, tel 31 20 6233868, $$
Hotel Pulitzer, Amsterdam
Occupying 25 17th- and 18th-century townhouses, most of the 230 individually restored guestrooms offer canal views. Prinsengracht 315-331, tel 31 20 5235235, $$$$
NH Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky
Since 1865, the Krasnapolsky has presided over Dam Square. Guestrooms are modern while public spaces retain the hotel’s Belle Époque character. Dam 9, tel 31 20 5549111, $$$$
Brasserie de Poort
Since 1870, each steak here comes with a numbered certificate; if the number is a round hundred, you get a free bottle of wine. Die Port van Cleve Hotel, Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, tel 31 20 714 2000, $$$
At this Dutch take on a Parisian brasserie, housed in a former tobacco factory, the menu is predominantly European with a contemporary twist. Nes 67, tel 31 20 4282222, $$$
Kantjil & de Tijger
Amsterdam has a long tradition of fine Indonesian restaurants. This is one of the best, with emphasis on the food rather than exotic atmosphere. Spuistraat 291-293, tel 31 20 6200994, $$$
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