Amsterdam: Beyond the smoke and sex

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Think Amsterdam and one immediately thinks of smoky coffee shops, magic mushrooms, the infamous Red-light district with (mostly) doped topless girls by the window tempting you for a night of XXX fun and freedom to live life in your own terms; no questions asked. Amsterdam is like a scarlet-letter city; a city with reputation. But if you’re willing to look beyond the sexy haze of smoke; you will be rather surprised that the city has more to its reputation than the Red light district and cannabis kitsch.

Whilst I bypassed the Red Light district and the coffee shops what took me by surprise was the city beyond these two elements—the expansive parks, the beautiful old canals scattered around the city, the plethora of museums and the villages outside but very near to the city. And yes, Amsterdam is the city which gives you a whole new meaning to the word “freedom” but that has got nothing to do with the hash brownies and magic mushrooms; it lies squarely in people’s way of thinking, of accepting those of any race, any gender, any sexual orientation with no strings attached  while being friendly enough to help everyone not just with a polite nod but a smile.

Here are my top Amsterdam picks:-
Museums, museums and more museums:
The city is home to over 50 museums; a few of the most popular are located together on Museumplein (Museum Square; picture above). If you are an art buff, you will be spoilt for choice. The Rijksmuseum is one of the grandest museums; often considered as the “main” museum of Amsterdam. Designed by renowned Dutch architect P.J.H. Cuypers; the construction of this museum began in 1876 but was opened in 1885. The museum houses some of the best art by Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Rembrandt. Its exquisite collection also includes Delftware, sculptures, archaeological artifacts, clothing, Asian art, and items from Dutch maritime history.

Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh’s Museum–Van Gogh Museum is a firm favourite with art lovers from around the world. And why not? It includes more than 200 paintings, 500 drawings and 700 of his letters. This expansive museum will easily take more than half of your day!

Anne Frank Museum

Anne Frank Museum

EYE Film museum

EYE Film museum

Anne Frank was one of Amsterdam’s most well known residents. The Anne Frank House at Prinsengracht 263 was her home for more than two years during World War II. She lived here with her family and four other people in the hidden rooms situated at the rear of the building. The house converted into museum tells a rather sobering tale about the persecution of the Jews during the war whilst really forcing us to thinking about discrimination in general. A true eye-opener!

Whilst these are some of the more famous ones; Amsterdam has museums and galleries on various subjects from bags and beers to architecture and film.

Zaanse Schaans:

The Five windmills of Zaanse Schaans

The Five windmills of Zaanse Schaans

Located on the Zaan river bank and about half an hour’s train journey from Amsterdam Central is an open air conservation area and museum—Zaanse Schaans. This quaint little town houses some of the most well-preserved historic windmills and houses. The windmills were built after 1574; the whole place has a village like vibe to it and it can be easily explored on foot. As you leave the Koog-Zaandijk station; you will get an overwhelming smell of plethora of things from cheese to oil to paint; just follow your nose (or the instructions given) and you will reach the village of Zaandijk in no time.

A closer look

A closer look

Stumbling into a dream

Stumbling into a dream

As soon as you are within the vicinity, you will see the historic windmills standing tall and proud. The five windmills, the glistening river and the leafy by lanes surrounding the windmills gives you a feeling of walking straight into a dream.Some 250 years ago, well over 600 windmills were cramped into this relatively small area. This area was the first industrial site in the world and the windmills here produced a range of goods from paint to oil to paper.

Wake up and smell the cheese

Wake up and smell the cheese

And don't forget to try some Clogs

And don’t forget to try some Clogs

When you’re here don’t forget to visit the cheese factory and have a simple snack of hot cheese toast made with locally-grown bread with a selection of locally produced cheese. I normally run in the opposite direction at the mere sight of cheese but here you will get the best, gooey, melt-in your mouth, tender cheese made with a dollop of love which can comfort the most wrecked mind! And while you are at it don’t forget to take a closer look at another Dutch icon—clogs and how they were made.

Although quite tiny, Zaanse Schaans is well-worth a visit especially if you want to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city.

Cruising the Canals:

Cruising the Canals

Cruising the Canals

Amsterdam is often called the “Venice of North;” and for a good reason too. The city has more than one hundred kilo metres of canals, about 90 islands and 1,500 bridges. The three main canals: Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht were dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age, form concentric belts around the city. The 17th-century canal ring area, including the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Jordaan, were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010.

The Seven Canals

The Seven Canals

Enjoying the canal view

Enjoying the canal view

Even if you are here only 48 hours, don’t miss a chance to do a canal cruise. It is one of the best ways to explore the city whilst enjoying travelling to and fro the various canals and getting a slice of Amsterdam’s architectural history.

Sex, drugs and rock n roll:

The Red-lights (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The Red-lights (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The area consists of a network of alleys containing about three hundred one-room cabins rented by prostitutes who offer their sexual services from behind a window or glass door, typically illuminated with red lights. This district is one of the oldest areas of the city and has architecture and layout that is typical of 14th century Amsterdam. The area is also littered with a number of sex shops, sex theatres, peep shows, a sex museum, a cannabis museum, and coffee shops.

The Red Light District is a tiny part of the old center. It’s a place locals will always try to avoid perhaps because of the crowded streets and costly coffee shops. Many Dutch people generally avoid smoking  in coffee shops. This is not to say they don’t smoke at all but they buy it from their trusted source “man” and prefer it to do in the privacy of their homes. There are many locals who actually don’t get so excited about smoking (Surprise, Surprise) it could be case of forbidden fruit too easily available! But that definitely has not stopped the thriving business of coffee shops as 80% of tourists would definitely make one visit to the shops and perhaps make a purchase.

As far as sex work is considered, Netherlands has been listed by the UNODC as a top destination for victims of human trafficking.In 2007 a statue called “Belle” was unveiled on the Oudekerksplein. The  inscription said “Respect sex workers all over the world”. According to a former prostitute who produced a report about the sex trade,  75% of Amsterdam’s prostitutes are from Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia. A former Amsterdam prostitute who is now a city councillor said: “There are people who are really proud of the red light district as a tourist attraction. It’s supposed to be such a wonderful, cheery place that shows just what a free city we are. But I think it’s a cesspit. There’s a lot of serious criminality. There’s a lot of exploitation of women, and a lot of social distress. That’s nothing to be proud of.”

The vibrant city center:

The Grand Amsterdam Central Station

The Grand Amsterdam Central Station

Amsterdam’s city center or Central Amsterdam is definitely one of the most vibrant and cheerful places I’ve ever seen. It has a variety of shops, restaurants and can be easily explored on foot or bicycle. My favourite spot here would be the Rembrandtplein (Rembrandt Square).

Rembrandtplein

Rembrandtplein

Named after the famous painter Rembrandt van Rijn who owned a house nearby from 1639 to 1656.The defensive walls of this square was constructed in the Middle Ages to protect the city. This site held a gateway into the city. By 1655, the city had expanded beyond this area and it began to attract visiting farmers who brought their butter, dairy and poultry products to sell in the city and it became known as Botermarkt or butter market. The market continued under this name until 1876 when a statue of Rembrandt by sculptor Louis Royer was moved to the center of the square and it was renamed Rembrandtplein.

By the early twentieth century, the square developed into a center for nightlife drawing artists, youngsters and labourers. The Square still has a hippisque vibe to it. This place would be one spot where you can simply get lost, indulge in shameless people-watching or get acquainted with yourself.

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