I’m not necessarily proud of the fact that I only spent a few hours in Amsterdam, but that was the plan from the beginning. We rented a condo in Brussels for a week and had planned a series of day trips to nearby cities. That’s the beauty of using Brussels as a home base; so many great cities are relatively close. From an American perspective if I spend two hours on a train I end up, well nowhere really. But in Brussels we could be in Paris, Amsterdam, Bruges, Koln – you name it, all in less than an hour or two. That’s what took us to the canal city of Amsterdam, and why we only had a few hours in town. But that limited amount of time allowed us to focus and to enjoy the city in a way more leisurely travelers don’t. So without further ado, here are my recommendations for experiencing a slice of life in Amsterdam when you have less than a day.
I stole this tip from fellow travel blogger Keith Jenkins of Velvet Escape, and I’m glad I did. The best way to get a quick and dirty overview of the city and experience it as it is meant to be experienced is by taking a canal boat tour. Like Venice in Italy, Amsterdam is a city defined by its complex canal system. This system wasn’t an organic creation, rather it was the result of some pretty advanced urban planning in the 17th century. There are three main canals and an impressive 90 islands and 1,500 bridges. Today the canals are still an important part of daily life, albeit less for defensive purposes than for practical ones.
Leaving the train station we booked the cruise across the street at the tourist office. It was a typical winter’s morning, grey and rainy but I didn’t let that spoil my mood. I was finally in Amsterdam, one of the most well-known and infamous cities in all of Europe. Most people know Amsterdam for its liberal attitudes on sex and drugs, but that is a negligible part of this great city. It has a certain gritty honesty that’s hard to find, but is also endearing.
The cruise lasted an hour and took us throughout town, with a guide explaining the sights and history of the city. One of my favorite ways to experience any city is from the water; you get a perspective impossible to obtain otherwise. In Amsterdam though this isn’t just a nice tour option, I think it’s a necessity to really get under the city’s skin.
After our cruise, we decided to slowly walk around town, with a general idea of where we were headed. Strolling along Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal (a street) and Raadhuisstraat (another street) we walked towards the historic Westerkerk church without a time schedule in mind. The best way to learn about a new city isn’t through museums or anything organized. It’s just getting out there and experiencing it on your own. There was no rush, so we leisurely watched the holiday goers rushing around trying to buy last minute Christmas presents. Unlike Paris, there was no Christmassy smell in the air. No hazelnuts roasting, no sweets tempting us, although I did get a hint of cannabis on more than one occasion. Amsterdam felt rough that day enrobed in hues of black and white, and it smelled just as raw.
There are countless cafes and restaurants along the path to Westerkerk, we stopped at a quiet establishment on Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal, but it wasn’t any better or worse than the hundreds of others in the area. Finally, just after midday we reached a somber corner on the bank of the Keizersgracht canal, home to the oddly named but entirely memorable Homomonument.
While I really hate the name, the Homomonument, situated on the Westermarkt in the center of Amsterdam, is one of the few monuments (and maybe even the only one) in the world to recognize the full range of LGBT suffering since the dawn of civilization.
The monument’s designers meant to honor both men and women and they were adamant that the monument wouldn’t be tucked away in some dark alley, the location of which known only by those with a keen interest. It was always the intention of developers to place the monument in a central spot in Amsterdam, and the Westermakt is indeed the perfect location. The original planners also wanted to make sure that the monument didn’t just honor those whom the Nazis killed, but gay and lesbian men and women who have suffered throughout the centuries and who continue to suffer today. Discrimination and oppression of the LGBT community is hardly a recent phenomenon and people still suffer greatly around the world for no reason other than being born the way they were born. The Homomonument recognizes and honors this.
Planning for the monument began in the 1970s and the winning design features a triangle out of pink granite that juts out of a bend in the quay-wall of the canal. The larger triangle is then divided into three smaller pink triangles. What many people may not know is that the pink triangle emblem was first used by the Nazis in World War II to mark homosexuals. After the war the community decided to claim the design as their own as an act of resilience and defiance. The rest of the monument is meant to meld with its surroundings so that when you first see it, you may be a bit underwhelmed. But its beauty is in its simplicity, as it was intended for daily life to continue on within the boundaries of the monument. This is the perfect symbol for the LGBT community; we are part of society and daily life in every city, yet you may not know it.
Anne Frank House
Just around the corner from this monument to one form of man’s prejudice stands an entirely different one, the Anne Frank House. Like many people, I remember vividly reading the Diary of Anne Frank as a young child. I think I was too young when I first read this powerful account of Jewish life during World War II. My young mind just couldn’t comprehend the true horrors of the war. Indeed even now I don’t think it’s possible to really understand it, to appreciate just how low mankind had sunk as a civilization. The book demands rereading as an adult and if you haven’t, I heartily recommend it.
The Anne Frank House is the site where the Frank family, along with four others, were hidden for more than two years during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. The old house reeks of a different era, but with an evil pall in the air. Still, the house is an important stop for any visitor to the city and indeed it is amazing to see the living quarters exactly as they were during the war. Dummy bookcases and secret staircases reveal a different world; one of darkness and fear. I won’t even pretend to be able to relate to the horror of the war, but I am thankful it stands today as a reminder of the tremendous evil man can afflict against one another.
Red Light District
We needed a pick me up after the Anne Frank experience, and retreated from the chilly and damp December air to a café next door for a coffee and cake. It felt good to warm up inside, but it was also important to digest what we’d seen and learned at the Frank house. We took the opportunity to try to figure out what to do next. The guidebook came out and still I couldn’t figure out what there was to DO in Amsterdam exactly. It was mid-afternoon, there wasn’t enough time to visit any of the museums or head out to sites in the suburbs. So, with a certain level of fatalism, we decided to walk through the section of town for which Amsterdam is most famous on the way back to the train station.
The De Wallen district of Amsterdam is the heart of the red-light activities and is conveniently located near the Old Church and the train station. It seems that Amsterdam has almost always had a reputation for numerous brothels, bars and other related activities. In more recent times the government decided to regulate these activities instead of prohibit them, in an effort to control and minimize crime and violence. More recently a Dutch court ruled that tourists will no longer be allowed in the infamous cannabis shops, which will undoubtedly change the neighborhood once again.
I’m not sure why I wanted to see this lewd part of town, except that I felt like it was expected. Prostitutes and pot are, after all, big parts of Amsterdam’s tourism image and while I had no desire to partake in either, I thought I should still see it. And you know what, it was underwhelming and sad.
Dour looking women of the night stood in “shop windows” next door to ‘cafes’ from which marijuana smoke billowed out in quantities rivaling college dorms around the world. No, this isn’t the best thing about the red light district; the best part was enjoying the stunning canal views found nearby.
We followed the canal and meandering roads and alleys, passing centuries old homes and businesses, some leaning from age and an unstable foundation. People on bikes were everywhere, making it clear why Amsterdam is known as one of the great bicycle capitals of the world. I stood on top of a small bridge over a canal and looked behind me. A beautiful city lay before me, teeming with people each on a very different but no less important mission of some sort. It was then that I realized I sort of liked Amsterdam, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
Amsterdam doesn’t have the luster of Paris or the charm of Bruges. There is no Eiffel Tower, Big Ben or Coliseum. Instead, the beauty of the city lies in its mixture of uncompromising urbanity and classic charm. How can you hate any city with canals lined by massive townhomes, painted in a rainbow of colors? How can you hate a city that is so warm and accepting that people rejected from every other place on earth can find a home there? How can you hate a city that has learned from its past and is trying to make a better future?
The answer is you can’t, and that’s why visiting Amsterdam is such a great experience, even if only for a day.
Have you been to Amsterdam? What did you think?