After a couple of weeks of rest, we travelled to Amsterdam for a long weekend in January to celebrate my birthday. Of the cities we have visited so far, this has been my favorite. Not because of the legal pot and hookers (I turned 38, not 22), but because its grey, gloomy weirdness (not to mention all the hippies on bicycles) reminded me a lot of Portland. Some highlights:
*The Red Light District was pretty fascinating, even considering it seems to cater more to straight guys at least ten years younger than me. It is centrally located and relatively close to the train station (hookers need to be close to trains, I’ve found). Rather than being the dirty/seedy area one might expect, it is actually well maintained, and there is a pleasant mix of various businesses, shops, restaurants, and “coffee houses.” We had a blast just walking around our first evening there; having grown a bit tired of tourist buses, we preferred to just walk around and explore. That can be an adventure in Amsterdam, as–walking along innocently looking for a place to have dinner– you may turn a corner and find yourself in an alley with wall-to-wall hookers. They’re behind rows of big glass windows with doors, like giant perverted vending machines. Some come out to say hi (they were aggressive in a non-threatening way), and some have the curtains drawn as they entertain a client.
They understandably don’t want tourists snapping photos here, so I’m afraid I can’t fully relate the experience.
*After viewing the hookers in their natural habitat, we ate a delicious late dinner at a Peruvian restaurant in the area. We then discovered during our walk back to the hotel that Peruvian restaurants are as prevalent in Amsterdam as Starbucks are in the US. It became amusing over the next few days to try to count how many Peruvian restaurants we saw.
*I was clearly enamored with the canals, which wind all over the central part of the city. After having lived near the Willamette in Portland and being blocks from the ocean in San Francisco, I’d been feeling a little landlocked in Luxembourg. For anyone who feels more at home near water, this place is a paradise. The city actually has more canals than Venice, and provide countless beautiful photo ops. Our only mild disappointment was a canal cruise (several photos were taken from the boat); it started off fairly interesting and relaxing, but then we made a stop where several groups of parents got on with at least a dozen small children. As an aside, the phenomenon of parents allowing their screaming, disruptive children to run around and severely annoy people without disciplining them in any way, is not exclusive to the US.
*We had originally intended to see the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijkmuseum. We were disappointed to find that the Van Gogh Museum was closed while we were there. Without fully investigating where the collection was temporarily moved (our fault), we mistakenly ended up at the Beurs Van Berlage, which is more of a convention center than a museum. They had advertisements for a Van Gogh exhibit, so we paid our admission only to find out that it was just a display of several Van Gogh prints. Though there were a few interesting exhibits showing Van Gogh’s work in 3D, we felt it was a tad deceptive and not worth the money. Be very careful if you are visiting Amsterdam, as the Van Goghs are actually currently housed at the Hermitage Museum. We figured that out in time to make it to the Hermitage, but missed out on the Rijkmuseum in the process.
*The Hermitage Museum is a must see for tourists, even for those who may not be typically interested in art. It is large enough to house impressive collections without being intimidating (for intimidating, see the Louvre). The self-guided audio tours are easy to use and can be taken at the tourist’s own pace. During our visit, there was an enormous wing dedicated to Van Gogh, which was breathtaking. Another wing was dedicated to the Impressionists (Monet, Renoir, Delacroix, Cezanne, Gaugin, etc.). Though I know a fair amount about history and literature, I admit I don’t know as much about art as I could (though I’ve now been inspired to learn more), and I found these tours incredibly informative. There was also a third wing dedicated to the history of Amsterdam; we would have loved to have seen that, but I had been a bit pokey during the Van Gogh portion (it’s that good). By the time we were done with the Impressionists, the museum was closing.
*Our most anticpated stop was The Anne Frank House. The lines to get in were quite long–even in January, so I would strongly advise tourists to purchase tickets ahead of time online . I can’t imagine how long the wait must be in the warmer months. The experience is well worth it, though. Prior to the tour, a guide sits the group down for a quick overview of the history–which may not be necessary if you have already read Frank’s diary. The guide then leads the group through Otto Frank’s business, and through the hidden staircase into the Achterhuis. By Otto Frank’s request, the rooms have been left empty since it became a museum, but the effect is profound (the emptiness is meant to evoke a sense of loss, which it does). The only evidence left of the families who hid there are the marks on the wall used to measure Anne’s and Margot’s heights, and the photos Anne had plastered to the wall in her room. To say it is moving is an understatement, but then to see (in the last room) portions of the actual diary itself is indescribable. Anyone visiting Amsterdam must make this a destination.
We will be making several more trips to Amsterdam, as it is nearly impossible to fully explore the city in the three days we were there. But this was definitely a good start!