Travel Muse

If you have a Chance, Gogh to Amsterdam

Amelie Rothwell reminds us that a trip to Amsterdam is so much more than the usually associated stereotypes

For my friends looking at my Instagram feed, I restrained myself from writing: “Amsterdam definitely met my high expectations”; “Doin’ it for the AmsterGRAM”; “Do you like windmills? Because we’re big fans”; and “DAM I’m going to miss this place” (if you hadn’t realised and haven’t seen my insta feed, I went to Amsterdam recently and I recommend you go.)

Known as the city of prostitution and legal highs, Amsterdam is more than just a city of backpackers and young holidaymakers posing next to the ‘I AMSTERDAM’ sign. Amsterdam is the Netherlands’ capital with an elaborate canal system on top of swampy marshland. Its quaint narrow houses that tower over the canals, standing on over twenty stilts, are legacies of the city’s seventeenth century Golden Age.

As Europe’s most liberal city, Amsterdam is a melting pot of cultures. A variety of different lifestyles, religions and beliefs reside in the city and amount to an overwhelming 180 different nationalities. It is impossible for you not to find something beautiful in this charming city.

As a city of art and commerce, it gained the title of UNESCO city of world heritage in 2010 (York joined Amsterdam in 2014 as the UNESCO creative city of media arts) for its unique “urban development and architectural artwork, as well as the physical expression of the major economic, political and cultural growth of the city”, represented in its Canal Ring. Emphasis on preservation of the Canals and education by UNESCO ensures Amsterdam’s prosperous legacy lives on for many generations, so if you can’t leave your studies for a spontaneous trip, you still have plenty of time to go.

Although the best way to travel around Amsterdam is by canal, cycling is an essential aspect of the city’s character. Although sometimes dangerous, cycling is eco-friendly and everyone there cycles: from children to the elderly, policemen to politicians, Amsterdam has settled that cycling is the most egalitarian mode of transport. There are around 881 000 bikes in Amsterdam due to the Netherlands’ people-power and intricate city planning. Cyclists have the right of way across the city with around 400km of overlapping paths. So, watch out and do not walk in their lane!

Amsterdam is also renowned for its Museum District that houses the Rijksmuseum, showcasing the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, the Van Gogh Museum, and modern art at the Stedelijk. In addition to this, the Anne Frank Huis located along Prinsengracht 263 is visited by thousands of tourists to remember the trauma Anne Frank and her family experienced when hiding from the Nazis for two years.

Even though Amsterdam is a city on a swamp, the Netherlands is an agricultural country and as you walk through the city you are reminded of their agricultural expertise, most obviously through their stylish clogs. They are a vision of colour and craftsmanship, worn as an article of protective clothing on the muddy terrain that in turn has become a symbol of manpower in the Netherlands.

Contrary to popular belief, the smoking of cannabis and hash is not legal in Amsterdam, but it is tolerated. Tourists are able to freely buy five grams of marijuana in bars known as coffee shops. Smoking in the streets is banned but you will not get arrested (which is unsurprisingly liberal for Amsterdam.) The ignorance towards drugs stemmed from the Opium Act in 1976 that stated a strict distinction between soft drugs like hash and marijuana and hard drugs like cocaine and heroin, after harsh drugs were flowing into the city along the wave of hippies in the 1960s. Amsterdam was swamped in addicts and action had to be taken to prevent the ever-growing drug dealer’s paradise. Since 1976, dealers
have been taxed, which has increased the prices of soft drugs for tourists in order to reduce the fluidity of trade. There are (surprisingly) 193 coffee shops in Amsterdam, which is around one-third of all the shops in Holland, that still allows you to party with your good friend Maryjane.

As I have mentioned (a few times) the Dutch pride themselves on their liberal and embracing attitudes that originated in the fourteenth-century. This is evident in the Red Light District that is located in the oldest part of the city. Once known as the ‘centre of immigrants’; traders introduced prostitution to the city through sailors that would travel and trade around the commercial city before enjoying drinks and the company of young girls in the taverns.

Today, prostitution is legal in the Netherlands (but not on the streets) and this is why the canal is lit with 300 red windows with women standing behind them. Over the last few years, the Red Light District has become highly regulated and has more CCTV than in any other European city, ensuring the safety of the young women working there. As it is at the heart of the city, the district is very hard to avoid and is an eye-opener to the liberality and the nakedness of Amsterdam’s unprejudiced culture.

Remember that there is more to Amsterdam than just smoking and prostitution. It is not full of ‘lads on tour’, so when you book your trip, smell the tulips in the flower markets and try on some funky clogs (and do not forget the windmills and cheese… they’re Dutch icons).

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