Sunday, July 13, 2008

Trip Report: Amsterdam

(This is from a trip on May 31/June 1. Yeah, yeah, I know.)

I will say this of Amsterdam: Aside from the prostitutes, it's a fantastic city.

I didn't so much take a trip to Amsterdam as I had an extended layover there. Flying in and out of Amsterdam's Schipol airport was a cheap(ish) way for me to get to a meeting in the south of the Netherlands. I extended my trip by a day to have 20 or so hours in Amsterdam.

I arrived late in the evening, checked into my hotel (the quirky and amusing Times Hotel, whose location can't be beat but whose obvious lack of insulation will be problematic if you're a light sleeper, particularly if you get the room over the front door, as I did), and headed out to Dam Square for some dinner. I ended up at the pricey but ideally located Majestic Cafe, where I had a delicious tuna steak and fabulous apple pie.

I got back to my hotel just before a thunderstorm unleashed. In the morning after I checked out (about 12 hours after checking in), I headed to a restaurant called Pancakes, which was highlighted in a New York Times article. It was plenty good -- I had an enormous crepe-style pancake with yogurt and fresh strawberries, all sprinkled with sugar -- but I'm not sure it was the destination I had turned it into. Nevertheless, it's a great street for cute restaurants, so check it out if you're in the general vicinity of the Anne Frank house.

Then it was back to Dam Square for Sandeman's New Amsterdam Free Tour. It's a great model -- the tours are free and the guides work for tips, so they're highly motivated to give you a great tour. It also happened that the tour guide Laura is working on a master's in journalism at the University of Amsterdam, so I felt particularly compelled to tip her handsomely. After all, the tour was well over 3 hours long, and a 2-hour guided tour in Cambridge will set you back $18.

After Dam Square, the tour heads into the Red Light District. I was glad it did, as it's silly to go all that way and not see the city's most talked about neighborhood, but I'm not sure I would have gone on my own. (Prostitution is legal and marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms are decriminalized in Amsterdam, and the Red Light District is the nerve center for all of the above activities.) It was like any other place (er, well, most other places) at 11 in the morning, and smack in the middle is the beautiful Oude Kerk ("old church").

From there, the tour went to most of the city's highlights: The Nieuwmarkt, the Jewish quarter, the university, the Begijnhof, the beautiful Jordaan neighborhood, the Anne Frank house, and many others. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I really enjoyed Amsterdam. Laura gave us a great overview of the city's history, and some important cultural lessons, too: First, don't take pictures of the prostitutes; it's considered disrespectful. Second, "coffee shop" means a place where you can purchase and smoke marijuana. The "menu" won't be on display; ask for it at the bar. Third, make sure you always buy your magic mushrooms from a smart shop; you never know what you'll get from the dodgy places. Important lessons, those.

Also: There's a break in the tour for a snack/lunch, beverage break. She took us to La Place inside the V&D. This place is awesome! Tons of different stations for sandwiches, smoothies, pasta, stir fry, etc. If you want a decent, fairly cheap, and fast place to eat that satisfies multiple hankerings, this is a good one.

After my tour, I went to a supposed Amsterdam institution, the Vlaamse Friethuis on Voetboogstraat, for French fries with mayonnaise and curry sauce. (Mini-review: good, but not all that.) I then wandered back to the Oude Kerk, where the World Press Photo Foundation was holding an exhibit of the best photojournalism of the year. Really fascinating! After that, I returned to the Anne Frank house. Everyone who has ever read The Diary of Anne Frank should go to Amsterdam and see this. It's just incredible that those families survived as long as they did in such tight quarters -- and that the world was such that they had to go into hiding. It's hard to even wrap my brain around it.

I finished my brief visit at an outdoor cafe in the Jordaan neighborhood near my hotel (and my suitcase). All in all, I'd say I made the most of 20 hours in Amsterdam. As for my one-sentence review of Amsterdam at the beginning: I was bothered far more than I expected I would be by the prostitution. The women openly sell their services from behind windows at all hours of the day. My first exposure to this was well outside the Red Light District and caught me completely off guard. Maybe I'm just a prude. Maybe it's because I work for a careers magazine -- I don't want to judge based on their career choice, but I just want to talk to all of them and emphasize the importance of a job with better transferrable skills.

Also, I heard almost exclusively American accents, very often coming from college-aged students. I met some really great college students on my tour, in fact. But it did make me wonder if American college students are the primary customers of the coffee shops and smart shops, given that Laura told us that something like 92% of Dutch people have never even smoked marijuana. I'll leave the coffee shop research to someone else.

More tidbits and photos are here.

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