I went to Amsterdam for the first time armed with my assumptions about the red light district, requests from many friends to bring something back (wink), and an open mind to encounter what the city has to offer. I left convinced that this was a place everyone must see.
I spent four days exploring the city, dodging the bike lane, and eating myself into a larger size. Here are the 5 reasons I'm convinced Amsterdam needs to be on your bucket list.
More than the red light district
When you mention to people, you are traveling to Amsterdam, the first response you are likely to receive is a remark about the red light district. This was the case for me, but what I experienced was so much more.
Upon my arrival, I headed straight to the I Amsterdam store in Amsterdam Centraal train station store to pick up the I Amsterdam City Card. This backstage pass gave me entry to public transportation, museum admissions, a free one hour canal tour, and many other discounts throughout the city. It was my magic wand, and I waved it constantly during my vacation.
As I scoured the city, I was pleasantly surprised. It was not what I had predicted. I passed through Old Amsterdam so I have no juicy insights on the notorious area. What I experienced was a well-mannered, hospitable city. There was no shortage of smiles or the automatic switch to speaking English when the Dutch greetings I received went unanswered.
I stayed in the city of Amstevel which was just a 15 minute metro ride from the city center. If it were not for the signs in Dutch, I wouldn't have realized I used my US passport to get there.
The one fact I noted was bikes -- everywhere! I saw bike rental locations that would put any car lot to shame. It took a few near misses for me to realize that the bike lane was not a suggestion but a definite transportation thoroughfare. The many professionals on the bike amused me in suits, ties, skirts, and heels. Also kids sitting in baskets and on back seats with adults.
The children's song, "stop, look, and listen before you cross the street; use your eyes, then your ears, then you use your feet" played over and over in my mind. It was as if my inner child was trying to save my adult life. I didn't rent a bike during my vacation because I took public transport instead. Okay, I'll be honest, I didn't think I could keep up and not cause an accident, so I let someone else drive me around. Yes, Amsterdam -- you're welcome!
No matter where you are heading, you can get there with little trouble. I took a day trip to Paris by the Thalys train from the Amsterdam Centraal Station. Amsterdam Centraal had all: there were places to eat, stores to shop for clothes, shoes, jewelry, underwear, fresh flowers, cell phone SIM cards, lotion, and mascara, to name a few. It was extensive, and I found myself sightseeing inside the active transportation hub..
History hiding in plain sight
I had the thrill of being escorted through the city on a fine boat to hear the African legacy infused in the history of Amsterdam and Dutch culture. The Black Heritage Tour took me on a course that started in Dam Square and continued past historical landmarks. The narratives are as much a part of Amsterdam as its canals. Amsterdam has a distinct record of cultural contributions woven in the architecture and hidden in plain sight, but you will have to look up to find some of it.
There is no scarcity of art to indulge in Amsterdam. With over 75 museums to choose from, you can drop into the museum of bags and purses, chess, horses, tattoos, or acquaint yourself with the world of the renowned artist Vincent van Gogh at the Van Gogh Museum.
My itinerary included the Van Gogh Museum, so I spent three hours with the work and soul of the accomplished, troubled artist. His letters, familial history-the loving and competitive relationships he enjoyed with his artist friends, and diving into his views concerning himself and the world around him moved me. I wish I lived during his time and could sit next to him in a Paris cafe exchanging ideas and having a meal.
On my last night in Amsterdam, I stumbled into Labyrinth, a wonderful restaurant that grabbed my attention with its window lettering reading, "Food, cocktails, and poetry." These three ingredients was the exact ending I sought to finish an incredible trip. Inside the intimate restaurant were paintings by local artists, neighborhood friends filling the barstools, discussing matters of mutual importance with each other and the bartender. There was no shortage of interesting individuals from many nations, all creating a synergy accessible to anyone who wanted it. I wanted it and it was given to me it freely.
Amsterdam is a destination that should experienced purposefully, with attention to its intricate details. If you go there, just remember -- the bike lanes are absolutely a thing! Enjoy!