I was a little dismayed when I first found out that I had only an 18 hour stopover in Amsterdam on my way back from Vienna. I'd always hoped that I would be able to devote more time to my first trip to the Netherlands. However, I made the best of it and got out to see the city as soon as I dropped my bag off at my hotel near the airport. I loved it immediately and ended up spending around 13 of those stopover hours wandering this incredible city...
Amsterdam is possibly most famous for these places... coffeeshops. Don't mistake these for something like your neighborhood Starbucks, though...oh no...that's not why Amsterdam's coffeeshops are famous. Amsterdam is one of the few places in the world where smoking marijuana is legal (though the rules are getting a little more strict now), and coffeeshops are where you go to relax and take a nice smoke.
This is the Amsterdam I was hoping to see...the canals, riverboats, and characteristic, gabled houses. I must say, I wasn't let down. I fell for the city as soon as I stumbled upon the Brouwersgracht. I must say, I was a little biased coming into Amsterdam. I had never met a Dutch person while traveling that I didn't like. Nor had I met one that spoke less than four languages (at least conversationally). I wasn't let down at all by what I found in Amsterdam. The people were friendly and helpful, and most spoke excellent English. I was also very pleasantly surprised to find such a multi-ethnic mix of people wandering the streets...something that is truly lacking in most European cities. I liked Amsterdam right away.
Again, there may be some bias in my take on the city. I was very fortunate to have my very long stopover occur on Queen's Day eve. Queen's Day is the celebration of the Dutch Queen's birthday, and they don't take it lightly in Amsterdam. The whole city was partying! It was incredible. This is one of many floating parties that I saw go by on the canals.
The city was also done up in all orange or the tri-color (sometimes seen with the lion as shown on the banners here). It was very relieving to see a country as proud as we often are in Canada...especially when it is a country with such a great modern reputation for tolerance and peace.
And back to the canals... several parts of the city center are just stunningly beautiful. This has turned into a picture-heavy post because of that simple fact... Anyway, the canals were a planned addition to the city in the 17th century. They served the city for defense, water management, and transportation. The canals form concentric half-rings around the old city center...they have also very effectively cut off most efficiency of having a car in the center, leading Amsterdam to be one of the most bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly (but after the bikes, of course) major-cities in the world.
Gables on Amsterdam's buildings started showing up in the early seventeenth century. They were basic at first, but then got more and more elaborate over time. Now they are seen on the vast majority of Amsterdam's most picturesque canals. Many incorporate cantilevered pulley systems too, which are supposedly still functioning and used to move heavy furniture into upper level apartments!
One of the things I liked most while wandering the city were all the little quirks and fine touches... like these traditional clogs turned flower pots decorating a wall.
Near the Jordaan area, which is also famous for its bric-a-brac (odds and ends and/or antiques) shops, there were plenty of cool art galleries scattered about. I didn't get the chance to go into any though, since they were all closed for Queen's Day!
Now back to the canals...and the party. As I mentioned above, the whole city seemed to be out enjoying the festival. There were several places where bar keeps or boat owners or just locals set up loud speakers and were blaring party music. These inevitably gathered crowds of revelers and ended up shutting down entire intersections.
There were some very pleasant, quiet parts of the city too. I particularly enjoyed my stroll through the Brouwersgracht, Jordaan, near Spui, and...
near the Westerkerk (West Church)...an immensely photogenic section of town.
Again here, as in many of the pictures...bicycles (and the Westerkerk).
Amsterdam is also home to the previous residence of Anne Frank... during the very dark occupation years of WWII. There was an immensely long line, so I ended up not getting inside, though I've heard the museum is quite touching. They have preserved the secret annex that her and her family hid away in. The entrance was hidden behind a hinged book shelf, which still conceals the entrance today.
If you haven't already noticed all the bikes...seriously... keep track. They are EVERYWHERE. Everyone uses them and pedestrians must be wary of the ringing of bells (and walking around blind corners). Everyone has a bike rack over the back tire too...or even a seat on the front (like the bike seen here) to carry goods and people. It is apparently a fine skill to be able to ride, while drunk, with a drunk friend on the back rack...I saw plenty of that while I was there and even had the honor of having a Canadian guy I met at the brown cafe (see below) show me his skills (with me on the back and him driving).
How awesome is this? Note the orange bow tie... the people of Amsterdam literally went all out for Queen's Day celebrations. There was barely an alley that didn't have at least a flag or orange banner hanging somewhere.
Along Spui. There were a few neat book shops along here, but of course, they were closed for the celebrations. It was a neat little section of the old city center though...one I'll have to make my way back to when I get back.
Amsterdam isn't very car friendly, but there is a great network of street cars. Just be careful as they tend to zip right along and it is up to pedestrians and bicyclists to get the hell out of the way!
Triple-X flag and coat of arms of the city. Notice how crooked this building is...I don't know if it is the unstable, soft ground or just shoddy construction, but there were A LOT of crooked buildings around town.
Reflections in the canals...
These are many of the things that Amsterdam is better known for...for better or for worse. The city is incredibly liberal, but I didn't find it at all to be a bad thing. There was definitely an interesting mix of people there, but the good ones were easy to find, and the seedier ones were easy to avoid.
This rickshaw summed up what many young tourists are probably looking for.
Ahhh, here we go, FOOD! I found this awesome street south of the city center courtesy of my Rough Guide. I had one goal in mind...
...Indonesian food. Due to it's colonial-era history, the Netherlands has some very strong connections to Indonesia, and thanks to this, Amsterdam is blessed with some of the best Indonesian restaurants outside of that archipelago nation. I had actually never had a legit Indonesian dinner before. Satay skewers yes, but the rest of the fixins, nope. Boy, was I happy with it too...delicious stuff. Peanuts were a dominant flavor in the noodle and beef dishes, but there was also coconut rice, flaked coconut chicken and a spicy sauced chicken. There were even pickled veggies. Amazingly good stuff! And of course, Bintang beer to wash it all down.
Being so far north, night settled in late, but that didn't stop any of the Queen's Day celebrations.
If anything, the setting sun actually brought more people out into the streets. There were certain areas that were just a sea of people. I ended up getting lost multiple times just wandering and taking it all in.
I stopped for a beer in one of the city's lesser-known (to outsiders) brown cafes...so named for the color of the interior. Legend has it that the interiors are brown from decades of smoking, though that is now illegal indoors. And don't get these places confused with the coffeeshops...you can't buy any ganja in these places. The brown cafes are just great, atmospheric little bars to enjoy a beer or cocktail while listening to some chill music or chatting with friends.
Prime example of a crowded square full of Queen's Day revelry.
I'm already looking forward to returning to Amsterdam sometime in the near future. I REALLY enjoyed the city. It is beautiful and the people are just wonderful. I hope to have more time next visit to explore a bit more (and definitely eat more). I also want to take some time to explore the rest of the Netherlands when I get back...flying out, I was treated to a colorful show as the plane passed over the brilliantly bright, multicolored fields of tulips. Just a great end to a good trip.