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Steam engines roaring from the boats crossing the regal canals; screams and hollers coming from half-clothed women dancing under red lights; piles of tourists shoulder width apart standing two feet from a world-renowned Rembrandt; trollies whistling their bells helplessly at the flocks of people walking aimlessly along the cobblestone streets. These sights and sounds could only come from Europe’s Sin City.

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Amsterdam, though regal and elegant like many older cities in Western Europe, has an untamed, free-spirited character. Compared to Paris and Bruges, Amsterdam—to say the least—took me by surprise. For starters, Amsterdam’s city center is tiny. I always pictured it being a much larger city. Because so many Americans flock there, you’d think they’d have room for all the tourists that venture to this Bohemian paradise in the summer. I’m so glad I got to see Amsterdam when I did. Not only because I avoided (most of the) tourists, but also because fall was in full bloom. The weather could not have been better for the end of October. Compared to the rain I’ve trekked through endlessly in Copenhagen’s streets, getting to see the sun and clear, blue skies for three days (despite the cold) was a blessing. I will never complain about weather in Northern Europe if it’s not raining.

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Speaking of Northern Europe, it became incredibly apparent that we had entered Northern Europe when our train arrived in Amsterdam. Ultra-modern architecture pervaded amongst the green fields and windmills; English was spoken fluently by all, and the Dutch were more than eager to provide directions; the yellows and oranges characteristic of autumn overpowered the remaining green on the trees alongside the canals; urban, hipster, dark-colored clothing styles replaced the colorful, pompous styles of Paris and Belgium. I immediately developed a sense of familiarity with Amsterdam moments after arriving—canals and H&M’s on every street corner aside. Seriously, there’s at least one H&M per street in every major city in Northern Europe. It’s like their version of a Starbucks obsession.

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What struck me most about Amsterdam was the carefree, wild environment encapsulated amongst royal, elegant buildings. The older brick buildings, the canals that could be found on every street block, and the old cable cars provided an authentically elegant vibe to this Dutch haven. Yet, a piece of Bohemia can always be found in any place where propriety dominates. One unique element of Amsterdam is the legal use, selling, and distribution of coined “euphoric-inducing substances.” Though regulated to a slight degree by the state, marijuana and some hallucinogens are legal, and they’re sold in headshops and specialty cafés throughout the city. So as you walk down one of the grand canals, that potent, smoky, distracting smell is, in fact, not a skunk. Controversial to some; paradise for others.

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Of course, Amsterdam does have its fair share of healthier, family-friendly attractions that bring visitors from all over the world (though I wouldn’t exactly call Amsterdam a kid-friendly city). The Anne Frank Museum, a tour of the house where Anne Frank and her family hid for some time during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, provided me with the context I desired after reading The Diary of Anne Frank in a Holocaust Literature class last year. I no longer had to imagine what the living conditions were like, because I was walking through them. The entire house was bare, but I could picture perfectly the furniture, the smells, and the tensions that Anne describes in such great detail in her diary. Definitely an enlightening, moving experience. In addition, the Rijksmuseum—perhaps Amsterdam’s most famous art museum—hosts many of Rembrandt’s works, including the famous “Night Watch” painting. You actually have to walk into this separate room in the gallery to see the painting because it is ENORMOUS. Just outside the Rijksmuseum stands the photo-famous “iamsterdam” sign. Warning to all: don’t expect to get a picture of yourself in front of the entire sign without a photo-bomb. If you’re going to see tourists in Amsterdam at any point in the year, I guarantee 90% of them will be in front of this sign at any point of the day. I shouldn’t criticize though. As much as I pretend I’m not a tourist, I’m the stereotype of one…

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Finally, you can see many of Van Gogh’s works currently at the Hermitage Amsterdam. Due to renovations at the Van Gogh Museum, many of the paintings were moved temporarily to the Hermitage. Though the museum generally doesn’t attract many visitors, I’m glad I got to see it because, aside from the incredible Van Gogh paintings, the gardens outside the museum could not have been a more ideal place to sit down and relax a little bit before seeing more art.

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It would be unfair of me to write a post about Amsterdam without any mention of the Red Light District. Aside from some ‘soft’ drugs, prostitution is legal to some degree in Amsterdam. The (in)famous Red Light District is a collection of streets where sex-workers stand in front of display windows covered in red lights and bring in potential costumers. After walking through it on the Saturday of Halloween festivities (the place is always packed with tourists), I felt more upset than shocked about the area. Seeing the Dutch state permit such commodification disappointed me. Of course, I recognize I’m writing with a bias as a college student whose mission it is to question everything and anything. As hard as I try to adopt another paradigm for justifying the existence of the Red Light District (one that maybe the Dutch government uses), I just cannot. I do, however, recommend that everyone who visits Amsterdam walk through it briefly to see it as an educational experience. The other bars and nightclubs make the area pretty cool and a hot spot for nightlife in the city.

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Being in Amsterdam during the weekend leading up to Halloween was kind of extraordinary. I’ve always had an affinity with Halloween because I was born the day before it, so I grew up with Halloween being one of my favorite holidays. And Amsterdam DOES Halloween. The Dam, one of the main squares in the city, constructs a carnival with rides, haunted houses, and games. The bright lights, the screams coming from the rides, and the people dressed up for Halloween provided an interesting contrast with the surrounding older, elegant buildings of the Dam. It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen in Europe.

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Amsterdam was easily the most interesting city I’ve seen thus far during my semester abroad (probably my favorite city I visited that travel week). The people, the art, the canals, and the culture felt at once familiar yet so removed from reality. It’s a proper European city with a wild attitude and a free-spirited disposition. 

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