A Tale of Five Cities (Part 2)

Private Property South Africa

In this, the second part of a five part series which seeks to highlight some of Europe’s most famous cities, Amsterdam comes under the spotlight.

Mention Amsterdam and people almost automatically think of drugs and the Red Light District. While these aspects are indeed very much a part of the fabric of Amsterdam and openly promoted, there is a lot more to this city than initially meets the eye. Amsterdam began as a fishing village at the mouth of the River Amstel in the late 12th century. The city flourished on the back of trade and became one of the most important ports during the Dutch Golden Age which spanned the 17th century.

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Keukenhof bulb fields

The Dutch, specifically Amsterdam has long been known for its tolerant attitude. Knowing this, Jews, Huguenots and refugees from a number of other countries besides all found refuge in Amsterdam at various periods throughout history. The upshot was that the city became a proverbial melting pot of cultures, religions and trades at an early stage of its development. This characteristic is still very much in evidence today.

At the heart of the city is the UNESCO World Heritage listed ‘Old Centre’ which is oval in shape and characterised by small, cobbled streets, charming canals and the tall, elegantly gabled, 17th century buildings most commonly portrayed on postcards of Amsterdam. One of Amsterdam’s major canals-the Singel-forms a ring around this area. The Singel is part of the city’s famous ‘canal belt’ which fans out in cleverly designed rings from this point.

Should you visit Amsterdam it will quickly become apparent that a number of the old buildings in the Old Centre appear to be crooked or lean forward drunkenly over the streets. This is due to the fact that much of old Amsterdam is built on wooden piles which have deteriorated or sunk with time. These piles are now slowly but surely being replaced with concrete.

Somewhat surprisingly, this charming, chocolate box pretty area also plays host to the Red Light District which lies just east of ‘Damrak’, one of Amsterdam’s main thoroughfares. In my opinion, Damrak is no less seedy than the Red Light District itself. The street is lined with tacky souvenir shops, overpriced restaurants and is usually packed with people.

The Red Light District consists of a maze of narrow passages and alleys punctuated by sex shops and neon illuminated doors outlining women of all shapes and sizes. Suffice to say a walk around the district is an educational experience. The ‘Condomerie’, the world’s oldest condom speciality shop, the Hemp Museum and Erotic Museum are also located here. It’s important to note that pictures are not allowed to be taken anywhere within the district and that this rule is strictly enforced.

You’ll also find a large concentration of Amsterdam’s famous cannabis ‘coffee shops’ in and around this area. ‘Space cakes’ and ‘magic mushrooms’ are also sold at the coffee shops. Intriguingly, most coffee shops offer colourful menus outlining the strength and effects of the various drugs.

While fascinating in its own right, it’s not advisable to visit the Red Light District and coffee shops on your own, particularly at night or if you intend to indulge in any drug-related activities. These indulgences may soon be a thing of the past though if proposed new legislation banning foreigners from buying drugs in coffee shops comes into effect. Plans to close the Red Light District have also been proposed. Given that over 3, 6 million international tourists visit Amsterdam ever year with the express purpose of visiting the district and coffee shops, the legislation could have far reaching effects for the city’s tourism market.

Controversial as these elements may be, I feel it would be a bit of a shame to close the Red Light District and bar foreigners from Amsterdam’s coffee shops as they lend Amsterdam a certain gritty charm and pay testament to the city’s refreshingly progressive nature.

Red Light District and coffee shops ticked off, take the time to just walk around the city and absorb its rich, vibrant atmosphere. Away from the madding crowds you’ll find quiet, tree lined streets populated by residents going about their everyday business. Pockets of greenery are sprinkled across the city and quaint little cafes and eateries are plentiful. I was struck by the friendliness of the city’s people and loved the fact that most people seem to cycle everywhere.

There are of course a host of other attractions in Amsterdam to keep visitors busy for days on end. Most major attractions are located within the inner city which, given its incredibly compact nature, can be traversed in less than an hour. On the somewhat tacky side, there are myriad cheese ‘tasting rooms’, the Medieval Torture Museum, Madame Tussaud’s, and the Amsterdam Dungeon which showcases history’s gorier periods. The ‘Xtra Cold’ ice bar, rather disappointing Heineken Experience and Leidseplein-the city’s main square and party venue-are geared for groups out to party.

Fortunately, Amsterdam also provides for art and history lovers. Particularly worthwhile attractions of this nature include the Jewish Historical Museum and the Rijksmuseum whose architect also designed Amsterdam’s magnificent Central Station. The Rijksmuseum features a fine collection of 17th century art including Rembrandt’s magnificent ‘Nightwatch’. The Anne Frank House is of course a must as is the Van Gogh Museum which contains the world’s largest collection of Van Gogh paintings.

Somewhat less overrun but no less worthwhile attractions include, amongst others, the Amsterdam Museum, the Hermitage (sister museum to Russia’s Hermitage) and the Diamond Museum. NEMO, an unmissable boat shaped science and technology museum also came highly recommended. There are plenty of attractions outside of Amsterdam too, including the spectacular Keukenhof Bulb Fields which are open from mid-March to mid-May. Some six million flowers, most of which are tulips of the most unbelievably beautiful hues are displayed here every year. Suffice to say a visit to the fields is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

In terms of the basics, visitors can take their pick of eateries, many of which are Indonesian, Chinese and Thai, and accommodation options range across the board. Visitors can even stay on one of Amsterdam’s many quaint houseboats. Interestingly, according to city guides, the purchase price of these boats fluctuates in line with the local property market.

In a nutshell, Amsterdam is a city of contrasts. It’s gritty and beautiful, historically rich and over the top in many ways. I for one wouldn’t say no to going back.

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