Ah, Amsterdam – with its infamous reputation. Before we get to that, however, it’s worth noting that there is much more to the city than its somewhat relaxed standards.
Our first impression of the city was when we arrived at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station (sic). This fantastic 19th century building is at the head of the city, and everything fans out from there. The ground is soft and muddy, and so the tall, narrow houses along the canals seem to lean precariously in all directions. The houses are so narrow, that when people move in and out, the furniture is hoisted in through the windows since it can’t fit through doors and up the tight stairwells. To help with this, every home has a “furniture hook” at the top similar to American barns that used to store hay bales in the loft.
The network of canals gives this busy city a relaxed, old-world kind of feeling. They’re beautiful (if not always the most sweetly scented), and the boats plying up and down them allow you to take a relaxed pause from the frenzy of bicycles on the roads, sidewalks and bike lanes. (The vast majority of Amsterdamers bike everywhere and, in marked contrast to America, don’t seem to give an Amster-damn if a pedestrian steps out in front of them. They were described to us by one local as “black ninjas of the night,” and it’s true – you often don’t see or hear them coming until that little bell makes you jump out of the way. Sometimes there is no bell so you never hear them at all; you simply catch a glimpse of them out of the corner of your eye with a start.) As pretty as the canals are by day, they’re even lovelier at night when they’re all lit up.
Of course, there is really no way to avoid Amsterdam’s two most well-known tourist attractions. Amsterdam historically has a policy of tolerance, provided you don’t rock any boats. First are the “coffee shops.” Technically, you can get coffee here, but if you’re looking for food, you’re better off at a café or restaurant. The coffee shops are licensed to sell marijuana in small quantities. Cannabis is illegal, but not punishable, so as long as there are no hard drugs, no large transactions, and no public disturbances. There are about 300 of these throughout Amsterdam, and the number keeps dropping since the Dutch government has stated that it will never again issue a coffee shop license. FYI, if you’re interested in this type of tourism, I suggest you hurry – the Dutch government is proposing to limit sales of cannabis to residents only beginning in 2013.
Then of course, there is Amsterdam’s red light district. Sex-workers (don’t call them prostitutes) are all independent entrepreneurs. They rent a block of time in a small window with a red, neon light outside, and interested customers negotiate directly with them. The area feels surprisingly non-sleazy (which is more than can be said for the souvenir shops). Maybe that’s because the red light district radiates out from the 14th-century Oude Kerk (Old Church). Or maybe it was due to Stephanie who, while in the midst of packs of college guys ogling the girls, would exclaim: “Oooh, *her* outfit is cute!”
We did not hire any services, but we did visit the much-hyped Sex Museum which was equal parts historical, sleazy and hilarious. If you’re planning a visit, I would encourage you take in all the city has to offer, and not just focus on the sex & drugs (sorry – no rock & roll to be had).