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What’s New in Amsterdam.
1. The Best of Amsterdam.
2. Planning Your Trip to Amsterdam.
3. Getting to Know Amsterdam.
4. Where to Stay.
5. Where to Dine.
6. Exploring Amsterdam.
7. Strolling & Biking in Amsterdam.
9. Amsterdam After Dark.
10. Side Trips from Amsterdam.
Appendix A: Amsterdam in Depth.
Appendix B: Useful Terms & Phrases.
Everyone seems to tell the same standard story about a first trip to Amsterdam. First you go to the appropriate cafe to either eat hash brownies or drink jenever, then you get lost in the canals, roam the Red-Light District, see a live sex show "by mistake," and finally end up at the Van Gogh Museum.
If you want to come home with more than the same standard story, you have to know how to approach this city. The whole of central Amsterdam, within the semicircular Singel-gracht canal, could fit on the tip of Manhattan. Add in the 19th-century Old West, Old South, and East neighborhoods, with the main museums, Vondelpark, and Artis Zoo, and you've got a midsize town. But don't let the size fool you: The number and quality of attractions is very high indeed. It takes time to discover and explore them. So do like the locals and bring clothes in which you can comfortably pedal one of the city's 500,000 old-fashioned fietsen (bikes), and most important, a pair of sturdy walking shoes. Amsterdam is not just a stroller's city. It is the stroller's city.
Amsterdammers are very proud of their doll's house of a capital, and do their sightseeing and cultural accounts like CPAs. Within this densely populated cosmopolis of 725,000 inhabitants are about 7,000 landmark buildings (from the 16th through the 18th centuries), 2,400 houseboats(probably closer to 5,000, with half docked illegally), and 1,400 cafes and bars. Not to mention the 1,281 bridges (eight of them wooden drawbridges) spanning 165 canals and rivers, or the 28 parks and 42 museums. These numbers are important-everyone knows them. In fact, an obsession with the huge, the minuscule, and all other manner of impressive statistic, is rampant here. For instance, canal tour-boat guides gleefully point out the world's narrowest house (Singel 7)-even though it's something of a cheat, since the house widens out to more sustainable proportions behind its pencil-thin facade-and diamond marketers boast about the world's tiniest diamond (.24mg, cut by Van Moppes). The fact that the Royal Palace sits on exactly 13,659 wooden pilings thrills school kids and tourism officials, as does the knowledge that there are 22 paintings by Rembrandt in town and 206 by Vincent van Gogh-guaranteed tourist draws. I might add that there are probably 1,001 pool tables where you can challenge local sharks. And 9,999 places to sit under one of the city's 220,000 trees and take in the view-of quaint old houses, boats, and tree-lined canals, or of sizzling neon winking meretriciously on Damrak or in the Red-Light District.
You don't have to work hard to enjoy all this. For example, half of the historic buildings have dates engraved on them; exactly 726 of them bear brightly colored plaques called "gable-stones" that, before street numbering was introduced by Napoléon, explained pictorially who had the house built and what it was used for-a sailing ship for a sea captain, beer barrels for a brewer, fish for a fisherman, and so forth (but watch out for a growing number of brand-new gablestones masquerading as the real thing-usually the new ones look too pristine, but it's not always easy to tell the difference). The past is easy to read here, and Amsterdam is an open book.
Getting Your Bearings
Attractions are spread fairly evenly throughout the center of town, though the big three museums-Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh, and Stedelijk-are within a few hundred yards of each other in the Museum District in the Old South neighborhood, just beyond Singelgracht. So too is the most popular city park, Vondelpark (pronounced "fon-dle-park," appropriately, since it's a steamy pickup spot by night). If crowds are what you want, cross Singelgracht and head for Leidseplein, a lively square near Vondelpark, or for Rembrandtplein, an equally lively square a bit farther east near the Amstel River. Between these lie the three concentric, semicircular 17th-century grand canals of the Grachtengordel (Canal Ring)-moving inward, Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, and Herengracht-where all the canal-house museums are. Cupped within them lies the Singel (not to be confused with Singelgracht), the curving canal that defines the border of the old city center-the focal point of which is the tacky, crowded Dam. Between the Dam and Nieuwmarkt, to the east, lies the city's historic Red-Light District, usually packed with tourists and gawkers at night.
The former Jewish Quarter, rich with historical and cultural landmarks, lies south of the Red-Light District, just east of Waterlooplein. Though it has few mainstream draws, the Jordaan neighborhood, west of Centraal Station and just beyond the Grachtengordel, is an atmospheric part of town for a stroll, a bike ride, or a game of pool at a brown cafe. Ditto the Westerdok and Western islands, up-and-coming areas to the west with a Greenwich Village feel. To the east is the Java-Borneo island development, with daringly eclectic architecture. The Amstel River cuts across the city's canals from the southeast; a complicated series of locks feeds water from the Amstel into the canals. The IJ (pronounced Ay) used to be a bay in a sea called the Zuiderzee (just to confuse you, the sea's now called the IJsselmeer), but over the centuries has been dammed, harnessed, dredged, and turned into a wide channel. Maps rarely seem to indicate street numbers, and if you set out from Centraal Station to, say, Prinsengracht, looking for number 400, you can walk for several miles if you start on the wrong end. Just remember that house numbers always start from the west and run counterclockwise on the concentric, semicircular canals (the Grachtengordel). For example, if you step out of the train station, turn right, and walk to the canal ring, you'll find number 1. On radial arteries, numbers begin at Centraal Station and increase as you move away from the center of town.
The City of the 7,000 Gables
Before Napoléon imposed a rational numbering system on Amsterdam, gablestones indicated who owned the building and what went on there. Walls in the Begijnhof and on Sint-Luciënsteeg at the Amsterdam Historical Museum have some good gablestones, including the oldest known stone, from 1603, showing a milkmaid balancing her buckets. That goes partway to explaining why most of Amsterdam's 7,000 landmark buildings have gables. Gables also hide the pitched roofs (plain, boring, old sloping roofs that the gables ornament like the false fronts of town centers in the American Old West did) and demonstrate the architect's vertical showmanship in a city where tax laws encouraged thin buildings. If you can pick out Amsterdam's various gable styles without developing Sistine Chapel Neck Syndrome, you can date the buildings fairly accurately. The neck gable, for example (about 1660-1790), looks like a headless neck, with curlicues on the shoulders-see the first one at Herengracht 168 (the Netherlands Theater Institute), a 1638 mansion. The earliest is the wooden, triangular gable (circa 1250-1550). Only two remain-in the Begijnhof and at Zeedijk 1.
Where the tourists go ... One of Amsterdam's prime industries is tourism-more than 17 million visitors swim through in a good year, most of them in spring and summer. As in Venice, many stick to well-trod canals and gathering places in the small historic center of town. Unlike many other Europeans, most Amsterdammers actually seem to enjoy their company, which cranks up the energy level of the tourist areas even more. Authentic touristy Amsterdam can be a supremely kitschy experience-don't skip it entirely. Most visitors' first experience of Amsterdam is a stroll from Centraal Station down Damrak, a living Pop Art installation with fast-food eateries, souvenir shops, and bumper-to-bumper traffic. At its end is the Dam, the historic heart of town overlooked by the gaudy Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace). Today the area is noisy, tacky, and a prime spot for pickpockets, so stay alert, but the view from the Dam back up Damrak is an unforgettable 21st-century cityscape (no skyscrapers, but lots of neon, tacky stores, and tacky storefronts). If you're allergic to crowds and noise, avoid the L-shaped Leidseplein and its surroundings on the southwest side of town (not far from the Rijksmuseum). In summer, swarms of trinket hawkers and street musicians besiege Leidseplein's chaotic sidewalk cafes. Rembrandtplein, south of the Red-Light District, is a handsome, though frowzy, square ringed by a mix of cafes, touristy restaurants, and sleazy coffee shops frequented by dope smokers and lager louts. While most of Rembrandtplein's cafes cater to the theme-park crowd, a few attract hip locals (De Kroon-see p. 88) or serve as hangout spots for the literati (Cafe Schiller-see p. 38). Other tourist magnets are the dozen or so big diamond factories scattered throughout town, especially Van Moppes (sparkling with busloads of gawkers who've seemingly never seen a real gemstone; see p. 180) and the no-longer-brewing-but-still-serving (the beer there is shipped in from its suburban brewery) Heineken Experience, where a certain brewing corporation charges for a no-holds-barred marketing presentation. When the tour buses from Germany roll in, it's Oktoberfest on the Amstel. Holland Experience is the kind of "multidimensional film and theater show" (their words) that draws the coach crowds, couch potatoes, tulipand-clog lovers, and their bawling brats. Here's how the tourist office's monthly newsletter describes the show: "Seated on a moving platform, in the comfort of an aircraft seat, come with us on a trip through the many different faces of Holland. It's all there, the waterland, the agricultural areas, all the tourist-sites, the culture and even the high-tech industry." Gee, maybe we could just buy the video and save on airfare? The NEMO science and technology center is a cut above, mobbed by virtual-reality fiends and their nerdy offspring, who want to forget Amsterdam and become a mechanic, doctor, ballet dancer, explorer....
Don't believe the brochures ... The must-see sights in Amsterdam are not as advertised-most of them come with disclaimers. The celebrated "Skinny" Bridge isn't skinny; the Heineken Experience "brewery" stopped brewing beer in 1988; most of the Bloemenmarkt "floating" flower market doesn't float; Queen Beatrix and Prince Claus don't live in the Royal Palace (see "Lifestyles of the rich and deceased" on p. 119); and some of van Gogh's best work is in New York and Paris, not the Van Gogh Museum (see "For culture vultures," below). That doesn't mean these sights aren't appealing, though. The Skinny Bridge is broad but handsome; the Heineken Brewery is swell for beer guzzlers; the sidewalk flower market is gorgeous; the Royal Palace is appropriately palatial; and the Van Gogh Museum is heaven for van Gogh fanatics. The most quintessentially Dutch nonattraction in town is the Skinny Bridge (Magere Brug-on the Amstel River at Kerkstraat). It's the same kind of white drawbridge van Gogh (and a thousand others) painted as emblematic of Holland. Here's the doubtful tale: Two rich sisters named Mager, living on opposite sides of the Amstel at Kerkstraat, had the bridge built in 1672 so they could visit each other with ease. Well, maybe, but the original bridge-which was authentically narrow-more likely got its name from the Dutch word for skinny (mager). At any rate, it was replaced with this overfed one in the 18th century, but the brochure writers haven't heard about it yet. The Heineken Brewery brewed its last lager in 1988, but the name hasn't been changed to "museum" yet-instead, welcome to the Heineken Experience. If you take a tour and are disappointed to learn that the beer you are offered after visiting the antique vats is brewed in the suburbs, well-let the boozer beware. Don't forget that for centuries Amsterdammers couldn't drink the local water, and brewing it into beer was simply a sanitary precaution. (Tap water is still called gemeente pils-"municipal beer.") How about the "oldest house in Amsterdam?" The brochures say it's in the Begijnhof, and indeed there is a wooden house there, dated 1475, but it was taken down from its original location and moved there and totally rebuilt. So I suppose the accuracy of that one all depends on how you define "old." At Zeedijk 1 you'll find a similar wooden house, from about 1550. Though heavily remodeled, at least it wasn't moved and you won't find it anywhere in the brochures. As to the "narrowest house in the world," the local misinformation bureau claims it is Singel 7, not far from Centraal Station. It looks like it's just over .9m (3 ft.) wide, but actually only the front door is narrow; the house, built on an irregular lot, widens behind it. The house at Oude Hoogstraat 22 is wider-2m (6.56 ft.)-but it's small all the way back, running only 6m (19.68 ft.) deep. This makes it, according to the Amsterdam tourist office, the narrowest house in Europe, at least-no cheating. And as for the "floating" flower market (Bloemenmarkt), well, for the real thing you'll have to go to Bangkok, which has a real floating market, on boats and rafts. Amsterdam's market is on the sidewalk of Singel; some of the shops are built on piers, a few on rusting, permanently moored barges. But at least you can get everything from apricot trees to zinnias here, including marijuana seeds and starter kits, but the only things you'll be able to take home-if you live in America-are phytosanitary-certified bulbs (see the Shopping chapter).
For culture vultures ... Culture vultures and coach tourists alike seem to think the Rijksmuseum is synonymous with Amsterdam; they simply must see Rembrandt's Nightwatch. Luckily, the painting is larger than the Louvre's embattled Mona Lisa, so you stand a better chance of seeing it over hundreds of heads. But don't get too close: A security guard hovers nearby. If you're lucky enough to view it in silence, this painting will take possession of you: Irresistibly, one face after another in the Civic Guards company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and Lieutenant Willem van Ruytenburch draws your eye in.
Excerpted from Frommer's Irreverent Guide to Amsterdam by George McDonald Excerpted by permission.
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Posted November 23, 2009
Posted November 26, 2011
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