Amsterdam, a city where anything and everything goes, is a mecca for youth all over the world. Intrepid student traveller JAMIE KHOO and pal discover a whole lot more to the Dutch capital than sex and drugs.
AMSTERDAM, with all its highs of drugs and sex, beckons as a mecca for youth all over the world. Students in their grubbiest, grungiest jeans set off for weekends which they will either proclaim to be the best fun they’ve ever had or dismiss as a foggy blur that they cannot quite remember. Indeed, a holiday with hash-induced hallucinations and scantily clad women in windows hardly requires much attention to detail.
It’s a shame that the best of Amsterdam has to slumber silently beneath the lurid attractions of drugs and sex and I was sick of raised eyebrows whenever I mentioned Amsterdam. And so, armed with the most detailed of maps and a staunch refusal to join the slums of hardened druggies, (defiance in the face of drugs and sex, how subversive!), a friend and I trawled Amsterdam’s canals to awaken its more silent attractions.
Because public transport is expensive and Amsterdam too small to merit sitting on trams all day, we decided to walk. Buying carnets of tram/bus tickets (stripenkaarten) for the week is much cheaper but typically, we didn’t find out about that until the last day. Anyway, we figured walking was the best way to see everything and nothing could go wrong with our big map, could it?
Wrong! Canals running throughout the city made every street look just like the one we walked two hours ago. Unaccustomed to cars driving on “the wrong side of the road” and the swarm of cyclists hurtling round street corners shouting obscenities at pedestrians, walking proved terribly confusing; forget “magic mushrooms”, we had hallucinations just getting our bearings.
We realised soon enough that the city was too small to get lost in and walking for hours was a good way to discover Amsterdam’s finer details. With all its drug and sex associations, people have forgotten how stunningly beautiful Amsterdam really is. It is probably the only place in the world where views from the red-light district sit comfortably beside the delightful charms of canals and boats, where dingy coffee-shops selling hybrid strains of hash form part of lively, cobbled streets.
Amsterdam offers the escape that you want on a holiday – whether you decide to smoke a bong all day or sit on bridges eating ice-cream. For me, it was good enough walking through hidden sidestreets and dinky little shops around Spui and Leidestraat, selling everything from posh shoes to stone goblins. I can’t emphasise how much you see just walking all day. Amsterdam is full of hidden niches and finding them is half the fun.
Having done the obligatory walk down the main tourist traps around Dam Square (the main square in town), we learnt soon enough the guidebooks told us nothing we wanted to know. We decided to take Amsterdam’s carefree, liberated attitudes literally by doing everything differently and avoiding all tourist sites. We skirted round the outskirts of town and didn’t bother with any of the famous cultural attractions, like the Rijks Museum, the Van Gogh museum or Anne Frank’s house.
We only made it to one museum. Pretty poor for a week’s stay in a European cultural hotspot but the Stedelijk modern art museum was plenty for us. The two main exhibitions – the history of children’s playgrounds, and pottery depicting scenes of subversive, violent social commentary – were just the quirky, alternative culture befitting Amsterdam’s fashionable post-modernism. Forget Rembrandt and his classical croonies, Grayson Perry’s defiant pottery and brash social outlook was the Amsterdam of “now”.
Like all trips to European cities, we had to pay homage to the city markets. The most obvious to start with was the Bloemenmarkt (flower market) just off Munt Tower. With all the kitschness of windmills, tulip bulbs and clogs (from wearable ones to fridge magnets), it was our initiation rite into the quintessence of Dutch antiquity.
A walk through Nieuwmarkt, in the middle of town, saw all the usual paraphernalia of handicrafts with a sharp edge of bohemian “coolness” – funky clothes, coloured incense, crazy gigantic sarong-type throws.
The Albert Cuyp market, just outside town, was our favourite. This market caters more to the local population and is kookier and fun, more Dutch than the hyped-up eagerness of tourists-trying-to-be-Dutch.
Energy spent on getting lost and playing hide-and-seek with Amsterdam left us exhausted. On to the grub and booze. Dutch food isn’t much to write home about and because we were cheapskate students, couldn’t afford much more than chips smothered in mayonnaise, found at every street corner. An odd-combination, but almost a staple in The Netherlands and so much better than the usual ketchup and chilli sauce deal.
For sudden hunger pangs, we resorted to raiding their supermarkets for all imaginable types of cheap food – bread, cheese and toppings, evil-looking desserts. It is a brilliant option for the student budget and infinitely more fun for tourists, thanks to the huge variety of food and indecipherable labels. Enough about food; we didn’t eat much anyway preferring to save every little shiny euro coin for beer. No flat commercialised Carlsberg mind you, but proper continental lager! Forget grungy and stoned; we wanted trendy! Tough one. They were either far too expensive or far too trendy for the likes of us.
Amsterdam is a beautiful city filled with equally beautiful faces and tall people. Looking conspicuously short and unfashionable we couldn’t help but feel despairingly out of place. We were even told that we would have to buy new shoes if we wanted to go clubbing because what we had on wouldn’t get us through the door!
We eventually found our niche for the week – Leidseplein, a cool little part of town with good shopping and watering holes to get our daily bottle of gorgeous citroney white beer, Wieckse Witte (try saying that to the waiter without making him laugh at your pronunciation). Complete with a naked man swinging from a pole, street drummers and the hub of museums around the corner, it was exactly the unpredictable melting-pot we had expected of Amsterdam.
We spent most of our evenings in a chic little bar called Chicago Boom, a bar-cum-comedy club popular with both locals and tourists. The shows were pricey though, so we settled for gorgeous Cosmopolitans, the usual run of beers and chilled acid jazz. Lots of cheap and cheerful restaurants in the area too, fortunately without the usual run of over-zealous waiters waiting to pounce on unsuspecting tourists.
We also discovered the fun of picnicking and lounging in Vondelpark or Museumplein, large sprawling greens which are only a stone’s throw from Leidseplein. Parks there are not the tacky, spruced-up tourist attractions but rather, a defining part of trendy Dutch city life. Indie guitarists and their groupies, rollerbladers and sunbathers seeking respite from brassy tourist crowds, are dotted about the park making it the perfect place to catch glimpses of Amsterdam’s beautiful people and alternative lifestyles.
Indeed, seeing the aesthetic wealth of Amsterdam’s people and architecture was probably the closest we could get to tickling our senses for free. Everything else came with a larger price tag. Amsterdam is a very expensive city. Despite staying for free with a friend, and skimping on train fare by feigning ignorance when train conductors came round, I still spent about 300 euros on food, drink and market sprees.
On hindsight though, being on a budget is probably the best way to discover Amsterdam. We found things that were fun for us without resorting to the dictates of a guidebook, and learnt to get high on the city’s hidden charms without the aid of inebriating substances.
Amsterdam really is a city where anything and everything goes. But it will show you nothing unless you pry open the sleeping spaces for yourself. Don’t go looking for anything in particular and don’t carry with you the cool hippie pretension of “finding yourself” through drug-induced visions or the high-brow intellect of museums – Amsterdam will only fully open up to you if you make the effort to dig through its many crevices and hidden corners.