Baby went to Amsterdam / She put a little money into traveling / Now it's so slow, so slow / Baby went to Amsterdam / Four, five days for the big canal / Now it's so slow, so slow
Amsterdam was stuck in my mind
-'Amsterdam' by Peter Bjorn and John
The Netherlands consistently ranks as the best place in the world for bicycles, and Amsterdam is the poster child for good urban planning. Toss in some coffeeshops and I was excited for my first trip to the capital of the Netherlands. When I arrived, the city met all of my expectations yet I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed. Yes, the city has amazing history, architecture, food, charm, public transit, and bikes as far as the eye can see, yet I couldn’t help but feel frustrated with rude and aggressive cyclists (pedestrians take a back seat to these guys), expensive museums and attractions, and the feeling that I was just another tourist in a city teeming with them. The historic city center has unfortunately become a tourist trap avoided by most locals, but it is still beautiful and packed with world-class museums that make it a must-visit destination. I love a good museum and had my pick of them in Amsterdam, I just had to be selective in what I visited because tickets ran from about $10 to more than $20 each; I looked into a museum pass but found them to be complicated, limited, and expensive, so I just visited the attractions that seemed most appealing to me. With the exception of the Foam Photography Museum ($13 to look at a few night shots of the ocean, boo) I was not disappointed.
Amsterdam City Center
The capital of the Netherlands is best known for its 17th-century canal ring, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. City planners created this network of canals that encircles the city core by draining swampland and "using a system of canals in concentric arcs and filling in the intermediate spaces." Amsterdam's finest museums and buildings are located along the canals, and taking the canal tour is totally touristy but worthwhile. Fun fact: the casket-looking beams jutting out of the top of canal houses are pulley systems for moving heavy furniture and equipment.
With a name that translates into ‘concrete village,’ it’s easy to imagine what this unique little neighborhood south of the city center is like: lots and lots of concrete buildings. Betondorp was built in the 1920s as an experiment in the garden city movement “intended to contribute to the ideal, small scale, residential area for workers and civil servants” and its nine hundred units were built in ten different Art Deco styles. Architects and planners created the community to address the post-World War I housing shortage and unemployment, and concrete was selected as the building medium because it was inexpensive and did not require craftsmanship. Mango and I visited Betondorp on an overcast day and things were quiet as we walked around, definitely much different than packed, lively central Amsterdam. Green spaces and gently curving streets were devoid of people, and the aging, orderly buildings lacked charm. I enjoyed visiting the site and thought it was interesting, although its distance from the city (very far in the 1920s) make it more of a dense, car-oriented enclave than self-sufficient community.
Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic)
What’s in your attic? Christmas decorations? Perhaps some broken appliances that you can’t bring yourself to throw away? What about a Catholic church?? Yes, that’s what in the top floors of this this grand 17th-century house built during the Dutch Golden Age in 1663. A full-scale church was built here during a time when celebrating mass was prohibited, but officials turned a blind eye to churches in homes (there are other examples of this phenomena around the city). The church takes up the narrow space of three floors, and has all the trappings of a Catholic church including a petite organ and a pulpit that folds into the wall. Below the church are furnished living quarters, including the priest’s humble apartment, and visitors are welcome to navigate this dark maze in their journey to the top floors.
Hash, Marihuana & Hemp Museum
There's a museum for everything in Amsterdam, so it's only natural that there's one for weed. This museum was quite interesting and provides a lot of little-known history about the herbal products. For example, marijuana and hemp made its way to the Netherlands from India centuries ago and served a variety of important purposes, including agriculture (ropes, anyone?), natural remedies (labor pains, yikes!), and personal consumption. Marijuana and hemp have been used since 4000 BC and its negative image is a result of U.S. authorities stigmatizing it in the 1930s by equating it to hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine. Thankfully, now the U.S. is changing its policy on marijuana and hopefully this much-needed softened stance on the substance will have a global impact.
This grand home on the canal was built in 1687, making it another great example of Dutch Golden Age architecture. Two hundred years after it was built, the wealthy couple living in it bequeathed the house and its valuable contents to the city. A year later in 1896, the elegant home with its refined 18th- and 19th-century period rooms was opened to the public. In 1972, the French-style symmetric garden in the back was reconstructed, and bigger changes are planned as the house museum celebrates its 120th anniversary.
Rembrandt House Museum
This refined brick house served as artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn’s home and workshop for more than twenty years, or until 1656 when he went bankrupt. It was built sometime in the 1600s and the interior exudes a cozy elegance, with fabulous art work, of course. I’m generally not an art person, but one thing that really left an impression on me was that artists in those days had to create their own paint. Since paint couldn’t be purchased like it is today, people had to identify, source, and mix natural pigments from all over the world. And as if that wasn’t impressive enough, these natural, homemade paints used in Rembrandt’s and other artists’ masterpieces has survived over time. So, Rembrandt was clearly a gifted artist which makes his bankruptcy that much more tragic. (The silver lining of the bankruptcy is that the auction list of the his possessions allowed a thorough reconstruction of the house’s contents.)
Museum of Prostitution (aka 'Red Light Secrets')
Ever since I first saw ladies advertising their goods in the windows of Brussels and Ghent, I was curious to know how prostitution in Europe works. Enter Amsterdam's Museum of Prostitution, which explains Amsterdam's sex industry with a kitschy, tourist-ified spin. The tour includes a behind-the-scenes look at how ladies (and men) work, and it's very different than one would imagine. If my memory serves me correctly, I learned that the average visit is six minutes long and typically doesn't involve intercourse. Prices customers pay are negotiable, but sex workers rent their window and accompanying room for a flat rate of up to $150 a day, pretty steep considering that's what some workers earn a day. I didn't get a true sense of how and why prostitutes get into the line of work, but I get the feeling that it's not a choice for many.