Progressive, peaceful, rich in cultural history and a flair for the wildly creative makes Amsterdam a travel adventure must.
When John Lennon married Yoko Ono in 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War, they spent their honeymoon having a two-week “Bed-In for Peace” in the Presidential Suite of the Amsterdam Hilton. My guess is they picked this city because the Dutch are among the most peace loving, diplomatic and all round cool people on the planet. It seems to be in their DNA. Maybe it’s because for centuries Holland, and particularly Amsterdam, was the center for world trade. Ships sailed to the Baltic Sea, North America, Africa, Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka and Brazil ― then back again. It was a buzzing hub for travelers, merchants and adventure seekers from all over the world, all with different languages, customs and religions trying to make their fortune ― and that required getting along.
Amsterdam also has a distinct cool factor that some describe as “quirky.” It’s not the Hollywood cool of Los Angeles or the sleek cool of New York ― the cool factor in Holland comes from smart, urban living, necessary when you live in one of the most densely populated countries on Earth. Cool too for their progressive social attitudes about gay marriage, marijuana and the sex industry. The “green” cool is obvious. Where else can you see dozens of businessmen riding bikes to work and thousands of bikes parked at the train station? There’s the “smart” cool too. Just watch how seamlessly they move from one language to another with complete aplomb. All this and more I discovered in just 4 nights and 3 days in Holland.
With no time to spare, I focused on two cities: Amsterdam and nearby Haarlem taking a 14-hour nonstop flight on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines from Los Angeles. In Amsterdam, as in many European cities, public transportation abounds. Trains run from the airport to wherever you’re going and everyone speaks English and is happy to point you in the right direction.
The day I arrived, all the hotels near the historic center were booked, so I stayed at the 4-star Novotel Hotel on the southern side of Amsterdam. This contemporary high-rise has complete amenities and is just a few blocks from the massive RAI Exhibition and Convention Centre. Judging from the jackets and ties in the lobby, it’s a favorite for business travelers.
To save time and money, I purchased an I Amsterdam City Card, a “smart card” that comes with a guidebook, coupons for 50 free and 60 discounted activities and restaurant offerings, and a GVB card for unlimited public transportation during the period of my stay. This trip was all about doing the most I could in just a few days, starting with a dinner appointment that night at Brasserie Harkema near the center of the city. With my trusty GVB card in hand and encouraged by the Novotel’s concierge (who assured me numerous times that I didn’t need a taxi), I boarded a tram and headed off into the night, praying I wouldn’t get lost.
I missed my stop by a few blocks, but I didn’t mind the walk back to the Spui Square area where my dinner was waiting. Located on a pedestrian-street between two of the hundreds of canals that form a web across the city, the contemporary Brasserie Harkema provided a delicious repast of pumpkin soup with crème d’anise followed by grilled tuna with wasabi and an apple tart with cinnamon ice cream for dessert.
The architecture in Amsterdam is fascinating, whether it’s ultra-contemporary in the newer areas or hundreds of years old at the city’s center. One of the best ways to enjoy the historic areas is on a canal cruise. I enjoyed mine thanks to a free coupon in my I Amsterdam guidebook. What a treat to lean back, relax and glide by the multi-storied houses. These distinctively gabled structures are so tall and narrow that furniture is moved in and out of the upper floors with block and tackle pulleys mounted to the rooftops.
If the houses seem to be leaning forward, it’s not because you’ve had one too many of Amsterdam’s hometown Heinekens. These structures are supposed to lean forward. How else do you keep the piano from scraping against the walls as you pull it up to the 5th floor?
Since Amsterdam was once the world center for banking and trade, it was also an attractive habitat for artists who made their living painting portraits. To this day, Amsterdam calls to those with a creative flair and provides ample space for art — from the priceless works of Rembrandt and Van Gogh to the hippest pieces of modern art. The Van Gogh Museum is a must with works like Sunflowers, The Bedroom, Wheatfield with Crows ― and most unexpectedly striking, Van Gogh’s hypnotic self-portraits ― all on permanent exhibition.
In the same Museumplein (Museum Square), you’ll find the Rijksmuseum (the national museum with works by Rembrandt and other Dutch masters), the Stedelijk Museum with classic modern and contemporary art, and the Diamond Museum (Amsterdam was once the diamond capital of the world). Bistros dot the landscape, assuring visitors they won’t have to starve for their art, but I decided to head over to Blue Amsterdam, a great place to get a bird’s-eye view of the city, since this super-contemporary eatery is perched above the Kalvertoren shopping mall in the heart of Amsterdam.
Of course, what’s a trip to Amsterdam without a peek at the infamous Red Light District? I was told by a Dutch bartender that most people in Holland don’t really like the idea of prostitution (or using marijuana), but in typically pragmatic Dutch fashion, they realize that fighting it is futile.
The street with ladies offering their wares was nothing like the seedy zone I imagined, but rather a serene, canal-side neighborhood where white swans drift along the waterways. The only difference between this area and other shopping zones was the merchandise advertised in the windows. The sidewalks were populated by tourists and coltish fraternity boys, galloping about while the women behind the glass tempted them to pony up for what I was told is typically a 6.5 minute ride.
I spent my third night in Haarlem, one of the oldest cities in Holland and just a short train ride from Amsterdam. I stayed in the very center of town at the Joops Hotel. What I gave up in amenities, I gained by being in the best part of the city, just steps from the St. Bavo Cathedral in the heart of Haarlem. Besides being a breathtaking example of Gothic architecture, this awe-inspiring church is home to an enormous, still-working pipe organ that has known the touch of Handel, Mendelssohn and Mozart.
Although there are laws to preserve the facades of Haarlem’s historic architecture, inside you’ll find trendy restaurants, shops and bars. On weekend nights, it’s party time. Dutch yuppies overflow from the pubs onto the sidewalk and dodge bicycle riders bouncing along the cobblestone streets. As I window-shopped that night, a group of riders passed me, converging from adjoining streets. They rang their bicycle bells in a reflexive response, sparking laughter when I realized they’d created an impromptu bell concert.
As charming as Haarlem is, I couldn’t resist taking the train back into Amsterdam for one last spin through the city. It was a sunny Saturday, so tourists jammed the streets near the Dam Square, visiting attractions like Madame Trussad’s Wax Museum, the Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum and The Amsterdam Dungeon.
Flipping through my coupon book, I found one for the dungeon so I decided to go inside. To my surprise, The Amsterdam Dungeon delivers far more than a spooky thrill. What you get in this former church turned interactive theater is a fact-based, fascinating theatrical presentation from very talented young actors who deliver their lines ambidextrously in both English and Dutch.
Escorted from dark scary place to dark scary place, you watch the story of Amsterdam’s darker times — the Spanish Inquisition, the witch burnings and the black plague among them. As we moved forward in history, I wondered if they were going to include the Nazi occupation, but they didn’t, although it certainly qualifies as a very dark time indeed. When Germany invaded Holland in 1940, there were some 102,000 Jews living there, including Anne Frank.
From there, the Tropenmuseum, one of Europe’s leading ethnographic museums, renowned for its collection of artifacts from around the world. This is a cultural anthropologist’s Disneyland. When I arrived, an Indonesian gamelan band and dancers were rehearsing for an evening performance ― treating me to an unexpected “afternoon matinee.”
Since Indonesia was once a colony of Holland, there’s a strong bond between the Dutch and Indonesians. You’ll see evidence of their cross-pollination in Amsterdam, where next to the typical, very tall blue-eyed blonde, you see a similar type, but with dark hair, a café au lait complexion and sky blue eyes.
In fact, the East Indies theme at the Tropenmuseum reminded me that some of the best Indonesian restaurants in the world are in Amsterdam. Determined to have some, I made my way to Kantijl & de Tijger, an Indonesian restaurant located in an especially bohemian area of Amsterdam. It was the perfect place for my last dinner in Holland, drinking Hertog jan Dutch beer and chowing down on huge plates of “Nasi Rames” — rice with an abundant assortment of meat and vegetarian dishes on the side.
There are cities in the world that are fun and fascinating to visit, but not a place you’d ever want to call home. That’s not the case with Amsterdam. The people are accommodating, straightforward and smart. Their minds are open to new ideas and divergent voices; they enjoy a quiet pleasure for living well, in harmony with their neighbors. In Holland, they’ve decided to give peace a chance and it makes Amsterdam a very cool capital indeed.
Copyright © Kim Calvert/2015 Singular Communications, LLC.
Kim Calvert is the editor of Singular magazine and the founder of the SingularCity social networking community. An outspoken champion of people who are living their lives as a “me” instead of a “we,” Kim oversees the creative direction and editorial content of the magazine and online social networking community. She secures contributors and is responsible for maintaining the fun, upbeat, inspirational and often-humorous tone of Singular, a lifestyle guide for successful single living.