Much of what we hear about Europe in the news these days is similar to what’s going on in the U.S.: currency fluctuation, fears of economic default, political battles. And yet, take a vacation in Europe, and you’d hardly know these troubles exist. Because their cultures have survived far worse events historically than the devaluation of the Euro, most Europeans take such economic turmoil in their stride. The fountains still bubble. Bread is still baked. Wine is still made. Life goes on as it has for decades, and even centuries, in Europe’s cities, towns, and villages, and it’s easy to get lost in the sights, sounds, and flavors of each new country you visit.
The first time I visited Amsterdam, I told my husband, “I could live here.” Before we had arrived, I was a bit of a reluctant visitor. I knew nothing about the city except its somewhat lurid reputation. In my mind, it was a mecca for naughtiness and excess in Europe: as Las Vegas is to the U.S., so Amsterdam was to the E.U. A place you’d go to do things you’d rather forget after the trip. (In other words, what happens in Amsterdam, stays in Amsterdam.)
But within a few hours of strolling the cobbled streets, learning the names of the canals, and tasting some of the hot chocolate and pastry being sold on every street, I was hooked. Here are just some of the reasons why.
Amsterdam is called “the Venice of the North” for a reason: canals, more than streets, are the known thoroughfares in the city, and function as a series of mirrors, reflecting long rows of beautiful and ancient buildings back upon themselves. On one of my trips there, unable to sleep, I rose early in the morning to take a walk. In the early hours of that frosty day in late November, there were trucks out laying grit across the canal bridges in preparation for the morning’s commute, a commute that is radically different from any I am used to: for as I walked down the sidewalk along the Herengracht (one of the major canals near Centraal Train Station), families began emerging from houses on the canal banks and side streets, all riding bicycles. Some tandem, some with seats on the back for children, all on their way to work and to school. It was marvellously quiet, so quiet I could hear conversations between adults and the children pedalling behind echoing off the water, mist issuing from their mouths as they breathed. I hate to use a word as trite as “magical” to describe the experience, but it was.
The row houses in Amsterdam belong on postcards. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder, brickfaced, and with unique roof lines that lend texture and character to each one; built on long, narrow lots, they were designed so that the maximum number of citizens could have access to the canals. So the buildings grew upwards instead of outwards in a strangely modern way for a medieval city. The nature of the buildings was so relevant, in fact, that centuries later, Amsterdam has one of the greatest distributions of historic buildings and monuments in Europe still in active use, with more than 7000 in and around the city center.
On my walks through the city–and that is my favorite pastime in Amsterdam, just walking–I note that residents rarely cover their windows with curtains. (Sleeping, cooking, and the more intimate parts of their lives, all take place in rooms at the backs of the buildings.) So anyone can see the spare and modern way they live their lives, gorgeous pieces of art on the walls, their unabashed love of primary colors. The experience is a bit mind-bending: if it weren’t for the IKEA-like decor you can see through their windows, and the bicycles parked along the canal railings, you could easily be in the 16th Century.
This is a place where art lives. At the internationally-renowned Rijksmuseum, you can gaze at walls filled with the works of the Dutch masters: Rembrandt, van Dijk, Vermeer, and more. After a few days in the city, you’ll understand the origin of the light they depicted: filtered, darkish, yet somehow pure. (In my mind their evocation of brightness, shadow and detail must have something to do with daylight bouncing off the canal water.) Nearby, the van Gogh museum showcases a selection from the impressionist master, from his early sketches in the Netherlands to the coveted masterpieces he painted in Provence.
More somber, and yet not to be missed, is a visit to the Anne Frank museum: seeing the secret annex in the Prisengracht where she chronicled her puberty and hid from the Nazis was one of my more hallowed experiences in Amsterdam. The rooms, although stripped of the occupants’ belongings by the Nazis after their capture, have since been furnished to look like they did when Anne lived there (secret bookcase and all.)
While living in the land of Walmart, Costco, and other superstores certainly has its benefits, there is something to be said for buying produce and other goods from small vendor stalls. The Albert Cuyp Market has fruit, vegetables, spices, meats, sweets, household items, and just about anything you can think of that would fit in a shopping bag. The Waterlooplein Flea Market is a mecca for people who like garage sales, bric a brac, and a good bargain. And as a flower lover, I have rarely seen anything as lovely (or tempting) as the floating flower market (Bloemenmarkt) on the Singel, right in the heart of the city. Every flower you could imagine is there, in every color, grouped in dazzling bouquets you could buy for only a handful of euros. And if you like window shopping, the gorgeous displays of blue and white Delft pottery sprinkled throughout the city will make you want to fill your china cabinet. Even if you don’ t have one.
These experiences–and so much more–await you on your next trip to Europe. If you’d like to get to know the Dutch capital for yourself, TakeTours offers a number of Amsterdam trips and excursions, many featuring the city as one highlight of a multi-day European experience.