Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – Amsterdam’s liberal lifestyle is a magnet for many of its three million-plus international visitors a year.
They want to experience smoking marijuana on the street or walking though the red light district – but the Dutch capital has a culture well beyond its wild reputation. There is a reason why influential musicians and painters have found their inspiration in the sprawling streets, lush inner city parks and intertwining waterways. It’s beautiful.
Unlike other European cities, such as Paris or Rome, everything is very clean and green. And while the three-storey homes are jammed-packed together, it never feels claustrophobic and with gorgeous parks just a cycle away, there’s a relaxed, bohemian vibe to the city.
Take a cue from thousands of locals and see the city from the seat of a bicycle. You can walk but it’s much easier (and faster) to get around by bike. And drivers here tend to be quite accommodating.
An organised bike tour is recommended for first-time city riders – we got up early and joined Mike’s Bike Tours. Our tour was led by a couple of laid-back British guys who were not only informative but also funny, giving us a real-life view of what it’s like to live in a place where it’s permitted to have sex in the Vondelpark after sunset.
I was feeling a little unsure about swapping a bus for a bike, particularly as the locals don’t feel the need to wear helmets. But after a few shaky metres I learnt how to dodge traffic and traverse intersections without traffic lights.
Everything is accessible in this city, with just a few blocks dividing culture, arts and nightclubs. For history aficionados, no trip is complete without a visit to the Anne Frank Museum, the house where the young heroine hid from the Nazis during World War II and where she wrote her famous diary. A top tourist spot, the key is to go early and expect to queue. Arrive late in the day, and you are looking at up to an hour.
Another cultural hot spot is the Van Gogh Museum, which holds the world’s largest collection of the artist’s works.
Enthusiasts of a different kind of culture – beer drinking – should take a walk around the Heineken Experience. Although beer-brewing moved to the city’s outskirts in 1998, this is the original 1867 site.
While much of the tour is quite gimmicky, with activities such as customising your own bottle label, riding a 4D simulator as if you were a hop, and watching adverts played in a room surrounded by thousands of glowing beer bottles, there is also more hands-on stuff – trying the hops and barley, and checking out the original vats.
While the peaceful pedaling was a nice change of pace, as the afternoon warmed up it was time to see the sights by foot. Amsterdam is a mass of circular canals, with streets running alongside. It’s easy to get confused, but a good tourist map will see you right.
The city is also a shopper’s paradise, whether you are looking for market bargains or high-end labels. We came one of many farmers’ market down a little side street. Here you can find everything from second-hand electronics to boutique designer clothes.
It was also a great place to get produce, a snack or lunch. We tucked into satay kebabs and mini pancakes covered in maple syrup and icing sugar. We watched them being made in a run-down caravan and were well worth the wait.
For the “shop ‘til you drop” experience, head to bustling Kalverstraat, the city’s famous pedestrian-only lane of clothing chain stores (Esprit, H&M, Zara), shoe stores and upmarket department stores, such as Maison de Bonneterie.
As the evening sets in, the city lights shine brightly across the waterways, giving Amsterdam a romantic glow. However, venture down the wrong street and the soft golden hue may be replaced by pink and red neon lights. Embedded in the heart of the city is the famous red light district. Sex shops, “coffeeshops” (where marijuana is legally sold and smoked) and X-rated shows are all concentrated in one place and offer a very different view of the city once the sun goes down.
You can visit the “girls in the windows” for an eye-opening view into the sex industry. Women of all ages, sizes and ethnicities stand behind the windows of their homes, side by side, posing and preening for onlookers. But while some do their best to attract customers, flirting and stripping off, others go about their lives, texting or even brushing their teeth.
But although there is an openly seedy side to this bustling, beautiful city, it’s easy to turn the other cheek to enjoy a more PG-rated European experience.