Absolutely Amsterdam

By Ed Boitano

Peter the Great modeled St. Petersburg after Amsterdam, itself one of the great planned cities of Europe. He traveled there in 1698, studying its layout, learning the craft of ship building, even pounding nails alongside Dutch workers at the world’s largest shipyard. It was part of the czar’s plan to modernize Russia and make his new Baltic capital a window to the west. His selection of Amsterdam was well chosen. Both cities were built on marshes, but Amsterdam took it a step further, transforming its marsh into Europe’s largest grand port. Amsterdam soon became, and still remains, one of the most advanced and forward-thinking cities in the world.

Back Story

Located on the western coast of the Netherlands, Amsterdam began as a small 13th-century fishing village on the mouth of the Amstel River. Much of the city is below sea level and would flood if not for a network of dykes. The city rapidly expanded to a major sea trading center, and by the 17th century became the center of a massive world empire. This period, known as the Dutch Golden Age, saw the building of stunning canals and opulent gable homes. Amsterdam was hit hard by military occupations, but rebounded after WWII and entered the modern age with one of the world’s strongest economies. The Dutch are also the tallest people in the world, with an average height of 6 feet 1 inch for males and 5-foot-7 for females. Scientists attribute this to having one of the best healthcare systems in the world.

Hedonism or Tolerance

Say “Amsterdam” to most Americans, and you are met with questions regarding the Red Light District and coffee houses, where the use of cannabis is technically not legal, but openly tolerated. This world does exist, but it is only a small part of the city. Amsterdam has a long tradition of social tolerance. Due to its importance as a merchant center, traders from all over the globe brought not just goods, but other viewpoints and cultures into the city. The motto “No one should be harmed by the actions of others” is a defining characteristic of the Amsterdammer. The untranslatable word gedogen refers to the Dutch practice of turning a blind eye to things which are officially illegal but tolerated, such as soft drugs and euthanasia.

Getting Around Town: What I Learned

Amsterdam is a compact city of 750,000, and easily negotiated by foot or tram. The train station and Dam Square are at the heart of the city and the starting point for most tours. Or hop on a bicycle and explore the city like a local. Approximately 63 percent of Amsterdammers ride their bikes on a daily basis.

Museum Square is a brief tram ride from the city center. It is home to the Rijksmuseum, which includes works of Rembrandt and Vermeer. The Vincent Van Gogh Museum is a short walk away, and contains the world’s largest collection of paintings and drawings by the artist.

Anne Frank House: During World War II, more than 103,000 Jews were deported from the Netherlands to concentration camps. The most famous was a 13-year old German girl named Anne Frank. In 1942, the Frank and van Pels families went into hiding in the upstairs of a canal building. For two years, Anne worked on her diary, giving an account of growing up during the most inhumane of times. She made her last entry three days before being arrested. Anne and her sister died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen in March 1945, only a few weeks before the concentration camp was liberated. Her father, Otto Frank, the only member of the group to survive, returned after the war. Miep Gies, who had helped to hide and feed the family, found the manuscripts and gave them to Otto. In 1947, the first Dutch edition of the diary appeared. Since then the diary has been published in more than 55 languages. The Anne Frank House is now a self-guided museum.

Joods Historical Museum consists of four adjoining synagogues, linked by internal walkways to form one large museum. The synagogues were central to Jewish life until WWII, and were restored in the 1980s. Most Amsterdammers who visit the museum today are not Jewish, and consider the museums very much a part of their own history – which of course it is.

Eet Smaakelijk! Amsterdam offers an array of ethnic restaurants. Dining options should also include Dutch delicacies like smoked eel, herring and cheeses. A trip to a Dutch pannekoeken house is an introduction to a plate-sized pancake, often times not sweet and never served for breakfast. Rijsttafel (rice table), brought from the former Dutch colony of Indonesia, features dishes served around a mound of rice.

Brown Café: No, not of one those. A Brown Café is a local’s hangout. Some say the name stems from the interior brown wood; others, the years of tobacco smoke on the walls. Either way, it’s a great place to meet locals.

Like-a-Local.com: The best way to experience Amsterdam is on foot – but the best way to understand it, is to see it with a local. Like-a-Local offers travelers an opportunity to spend time with real Amsterdammers. This can include bicycle and canal tours on private boats, lunches in private apartments or even spending the night at a local’s home.

For further information, visit holland.com.