One of my favorite things visiting any city is feeling that I’ve discovered some of its secrets. Often there are particular festivals or open days which let you into buildings and gardens that are normally inaccessible to the public. During the third weekend every June in Amsterdam around 30 of the large, private canal houses open their doors and gardens. Walking past these grand facades it’s difficult to guess at the greenery hidden behind them.
Famed for its liberal policies and thriving red light district, Amsterdam has long been the favored destination of over-eager European students hoping to embrace their newfound freedom from the depths of a smoky café. Amsterdam’s reputation for rebellion is overrated though – it’s the city’s effortless creativity and laidback charm that really makes the Netherlands’ capital so captivating, from the clusters of quirky art galleries and cozy cafes, to the vibrant summer festivals and infamous party scene.
The Red Light District (De Wallen) in Amsterdam is one of the major draws for tourists. It’s not far from the Centraal Station, centered around Dam Square as it has been for centuries, and it’s where a lot of people head as soon as they reach town. Later they find a coffee shop to take part in The Netherlands’ other unique feature: legalised cannabis at coffeeshops.
The Netherlands has historically been a very religious country with many different strands of Christianity represented. This has declined in the 21st century with many fewer people attending church, but the magnificent religious buildings constructed during past centuries still dot the city and are worth visiting.
Winter can be long and cold in The Netherlands so when spring comes there is cause for celebration. Put this together with the importance of flower and bulb cultivation in the country’s history and it’s no surprise that the way the Dutch celebrate spring is with a massive parade of flowers.
For one weekend only, on April 14-15 2012, more than 500 museums around The Netherlands will waive their often-high entrance prices and allow free or discounted entry. Many of them will charge a symbolic ticket price of €1. This is the annual National Museums Weekend. It includes such important galleries as the Rijksmuseum which houses Rembrandt’s famous Night Watch painting; the Van Gogh Museum which also has a rich program of events including a creativity studio for children; and Anne Frank’s House which is one of the city’s most popular visitor attractions.
When I was old enough to start visiting bars (18, as I was in Australia), my eye was immediately drawn to those shiny, pretty-colored bottles gleaming on the shelves behind the bar. They were the colors of precious jewels, much brighter than the rainbow. I confess, for a while I drank only things that matched my outfit–again, I was 18. So, it was inevitable that when I got to Amsterdam, I had to seek out the place that made these magical – and frankly sickly sweet – alcoholic tints.
The House of Bols is located at Museumplein in the center of Amsterdam, very close to the Van Gogh Museum (another house of wonderful colors). It has won a Dutch Design Award for Best Exhibition and Experience.
The Dutch love their art and rightly so – they have an incredibly rich history of painting and have given the western world some of its best painters and imagery. The famous Rijksmuseum in central Amsterdam is one of the most visited art museums in the world and also one of the most innovative.
The people behind the Rijksmuseum are the first to have opened an annexe at an airport. Don’t let’s downplay how important Schiphol airport itself is in this – it’s a fantastic airport and obviously very interested in making travelers lives more bearable as they await a plane.
I’ve pretty well run the gamut of places to stay in Amsterdam. From five star hotels when visiting the city for a conference to a squat by the railway line when self-funding a trip, also in many different style apartments borrowed from friends and friends of friends. So here are my ideas of where to stay in the wonderful city of Amsterdam:
The Netherlands is all about the sea. Firstly because it exists in constant danger of being flooded by the North Sea and therefore spends a fortune on defensive dikes and floodgates, and also on reclaiming land. Secondly because the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century – during which all those glorious buildings and artworks that we flock to see in Amsterdam originated – was built on an incredibly successful seafaring trade in spices, silk, porcelain, etc.