Overall, it was a pleasant city with a lot more to see than we initially expected. We were definitely able to cover the sights in three days. Painted as a very liberal city, I just didn’t get that vibe. I guess if you consider liberal as legalizing prostitution and pot, then maybe. There is a very carefree attitude. No one or nothing there seemed to be on a schedule. Just because the sign says "open at noon" doesn’t necessarily mean it opens at noon; it opens when the workers get there. So maybe that counts as liberal somehow. It’s also touted as the "Venice of the North" – not quite, since Brugge would better fit that description. Yes, Amsterdam has canals, and yes, the city is pretty, with old yet well-maintained structures. But it’s no Venice.
Most of the homes are tall/skinny and brick with three to four stories. All have the connected-to-the-other look. Originally, taxes were paid based on the width of the house (which is why most homes are very narrow). Getting furniture through the front door became a problem, and so pulleys were attached to the front/roof part of the home for the purpose of getting furniture in. There are also houseboats (or barges) located along many of the canals. Although some are nice-looking, it gives the canals a very different look. I have never been so cautious when crossing the street, mainly due to the excessive amount of bicycles blasting by. Bicycles here are the transportation of choice by the locals, and it’s almost amusing when you walk around and see the amount of them locked to posts in town. It also seems (due to theft) that the older and more rusty the bike, the better.
Smoking is everywhere here, but considering it’s Amsterdam, there is pot as well. Although no longer legal, assuming you aren’t starting any trouble, no one bothers you. There are several "coffee houses" (bars) in town that sell pot, and many of those patrons enjoy it in-house. You can definitely tell when walking down the streets which coffee houses are traditional and which are not. Overall, people were nice, even though you could tell Americans weren’t their first choice in visitors.
Fast-food dining was a very interesting experience. Napkins were hard to come by, and we were given one paper napkin per person. Having lived in the States all our lives and having napkins by the case if we wanted, that was a challenge (we are messy people). Condiments were another story. We had lunch one day in Leidensplein and had to pay 35 cents per packet of ketchup, mayonnaise, etc. This, of course, was in addition to paying for the bathroom everywhere we went, between 20 and 45 cents.
The Red Light district was definitely a new experience for us--basically alleys, located along a few square blocks of town, surrounding the Old Church where prostitutes, scantily clad, stand in a glass doorway (in some cases, windows) with a red light above and wait for customers to pay them a visit. While "working", the curtains are pulled over the doorways. I cannot even put into words what this was like as a prude female walking around. Many of these women were young and very good-looking, and all I kept thinking to myself was, why are they doing this for a living? Yes, the money, obviously. The men we saw coming and going were from all walks of life and were having a grand old time. Surrounding these "doorways" were porn shops selling very explicit items and fast-food restaurants.
The St. Nicholas Boat Club is a non-profit organization that runs a canal cruise for tourists at no cost. Boom Chicago is where we found out about the club and where we were able to sign up for a boat ride. Our guide was American but a resident of Amsterdam for 10 years, so we were able to understand everything he was saying, both in language and analogies. Technically, there was no charge for the ride, but they did ask for 10 euros per person to cover the cost of the boat maintenance, which we were happy to pay. The trip was about 90 minutes, and we were able to get some great pictures and see a different side of the city from the water. A canal cruise is something I really recommend doing.
We were there during Easter weekend, and believe it or not, we never got to see the inside of any of churches. Our hotel was very close to the Westerkerk church, a very large (from the outside, at least) and pretty church. We would pass it every day and every night, and it was always closed, as was the Old Church in the Red Light District. That was sort of a disappointment. Dam (Damrak) Square was a large area – not like St. Mark’s Square in Venice, for example. The Damrak is the main drag where you will find the most fast-food places and tourist traps (inflated money exchanges booths, souvenir shops, etc.). Unfortunately, there was a large carnival in town – set up in Dam Square – while we were there, so it was hard to get any good pictures, and it was also hard to get a feel for what the square was really like. That was also a disappointment. The streetcars run up through the Damrak, and we found them to be a great way to get around town - very clean and very inexpensive.
Keunkenhof (see my other journal) was a real treat, and if you happen to be in town during the end of March through mid-May, check it out. It’s really an incredible sight. Vondell Park is Amsterdam’s largest park to speak of. Many people compare this to NY’s Central Park. Maybe in size, but not in content. I found there to be dog crap everywhere and no set bike paths, so you were constantly dodging cyclists. Not many benches or trees, either. There was one lake in the center, and we were told there was a theater but never saw it - that was about it.
Traveling in and out of central station was very easy. We took the train from the Schiphol Airport (AMS) to Central Station and caught a cab from there to the Pulitzer Hotel. On exiting the cab, a bicycle crashed into the cab door -welcome to Amsterdam! On the way to our next country, we again left out of central station. There are several signs, and the train conductors and station staff were very helpful. As an aside, the trains were extremely clean and an efficient way to travel.
We found the weather to be very quirky here. We would wake up, and it would be cold and damp with fog, and then, by lunch, it would be beautiful, even warm some days. By dinner, it would be pouring, and by late night, totally clear. That said, for a 3-day trip, I had to pack for at least two different seasons and a small umbrella that would fit into my bag midday when I no longer needed it. We found that the city was a casual one. By that, I’m not suggesting sweatpants and sneakers everywhere you go, but it’s not a high-fashion city like Rome, for example, where people get dressed up to do laundry.
Food was very good, and the selections were numerous here. Mayonnaise is the topping of choice on french fries, and there are as many fried potato stands in Amsterdam as there are hot dog carts in NYC. I said it in my other journal, and I will say it again: stop and try some poffertjes. They are the little Dutch pancake treats, and they are phenomenal. You would be remiss if you didn’t try them once while in town. If you’re the late night drunk-stoned wandering type, I recommend you try the FEBO, which is where you can buy "food out of the wall." It’s a small storefront that has walls of small doors with food items inside (a giant vending machine). After inserting your coins, the door is unlocked, and you can remove the item. Beer and fries are also for sale at the counter, and you will find these FEBOs everywhere. The bottom line with Amsterdam, I would say, is this: don’t visit unless you have an open mind. It’s as safe as you make it (walking around drunk at 3am will get you mugged anywhere – regardless of the country), pickpockets are everywhere (just like every other major city near tourist attractions), and it’s a nice trip on your way to or on your way around Europe. As an aside, most of the city is cobblestone, so leave the heels at home. Recommended.