Amsterdam - It's Not All Smoke & Peepshow Mirrors
Updated: Jul 13
When people think of the capital of the Netherlands, sometimes the obvious tourist attractions come to mind. Oh Amsterdam, you are so much more than your cannabis cafes and Red Light District. In fact, the government is currently looking to ban non-residents from visiting these cafes, along with moving sex-workers out of the city center. It's aim, to combat illicit drug trade, and in their words, invite "better tourists". Currently, about 58% percent of visitors come for the cannabis. There has also been a proposal to close brothel windows in the famous district and open an "erotic center" in the suburbs instead.
That being said, other than a whiff of the herb now and again, and an almost absent existence of prostitution in the red light area, we found Amsterdam offered so much more than these highlighted characteristics. Three days was the perfect amount of time to explore her beauty and uniqueness. I had booked these reservations months in advance for our anniversary, not knowing that it was Gay Pride Week. What a colorful and energetic surprise it turned out to be. The city was taken over by just the right amount of people, locals and tourists alike. We felt the enthusiasm for freedom of choice, summer vacation, and strolling through the canals of a city and country that is consistently on the Top 10 list of the happiest places to live in the world.
Amsterdam has over 160 canals running through the city, so finding a hotel that overlooks one of these waterways is easy to do and truly the best way to wake up in Amsterdam. We chose Hotel Estherea, and as soon as you enter the lobby you are transported back to 1940's elegance. Crystal chandeliers, lush carpets, elegant furnishings, and touches of a tropical Miami-inspired resort pamper you in every space of this hotel. Hotel Estherea is now run by the third generation, and you can feel the personal attention in every detail.
Hotel Estherea overlooking the Singel canal. Video shot by Julie Stevens
Make sure to visit Maria's bar, which is open 24/7 to hotel guests only, and ask for Leo. He may recommend a Dutch classic of Jenever with a Heineken chaser, otherwise known as a kopstoot, or headbutt in English. Aside from his bartending prowess, Leo is a wealth of knowledge for all things Amsterdam, and offered up great ideas for day trips outside of the city.
In the hotel, we particularly loved the Blue Butterfly Room offering specialty coffee, tea, fresh lemon-mint water and decadent daily pastries. You will also find a sophisticated library, three elegant meeting rooms, bike rentals, a gym, and more importantly, Wimmel the fluffy hotel security cat.
Renting a bicycle to explore the city is a great way to get around, and feel like a local. There are over 800,000 bikes in Amsterdam and there are several companies ready to rent you a two-wheeler for the day. Some shops will even schedule a drop-off and pick-up from your hotel. You have your choice of Standard Bikes, E Bikes, E Cargo Bikes, and even Tandem Bikes for those who enjoy pretending to pedal while letting the person in front do all the heavy lifting.
There are also plenty of cycling tours to enjoy during your stay and this is a great way to meet other travelers. Just be cautious of those beer and bike adventures, or you may end up kaput! As much as we had wanted to take part in these festivities, there were just too many people in the city for Gay Pride Week, and we were concerned for their safety. Speaking of pedestrian safety, it is imperative that you have your wits about you at all times while strolling these streets. This can be tricky after a few of their famous micro-brews, but do your best. As much as cycling is a way of life here and most major roadways have a designated bike lane, a lot of the side streets do not. This means constantly looking both ways and walking in a very straight line to your destination. If you tend to veer as you stroll, it's been nice knowing you.
Amsterdam is host to over 60 different museums, so you'll never run out of places to explore. The most popular seem to be Rijksmuseum, which pays homage solely to Dutch artists, showcasing famous works by Rembrandt and Van Gogh, The Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum, and the Moco Museum for a taste of modern and contemporary art. The art scene here is inclusive, just like the city itself. You'll find Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, The Amsterdam Dungeon, Tulips Museum, The Heineken Museum, both an Erotic & Sex Museum, and once you're finished with those, meander on down to Our Lord in the Attic Museum. Like I said, all-inclusive.
The evening of our anniversary, we took a 1-hour Dutch Cheese & Wine Canal Cruise. This was definitely a highlight of the weekend, as with any city surrounded by water, the best way to see it is from a different perspective. Our captain and guide shared stories of the origin and current laws of owning a houseboat, the history of the distinctive architecture, wartime anguish and the unbelievably delicious beginnings of what is now Old Amsterdam Cheese. The wijn and kaas (wine & cheese) flowed freely, and this, partnered with views from the boat, made Amsterdam seem even more magical.
Views from our canal cruise by Julie Stevens
One of the things we have come to enjoy when traveling to a new city is taking some form of a food or drink tour with a local guide. We chose a 2-hour & six tastings walking tour with our guide and historian, Sebastian. He has a passion for this city and the many cultures that contribute to the food scene. We started off with smooth and silky Dutch coffee, and Sebastian made sure we saved a few sips for our next stop, homemade stroopwafels.
A stroopwafel is a thin, round waffle cookie made from two layers of sweet baked dough held together by caramel filling. It's a popular Dutch treat and even more delicious when partnered with a warm cup of joe.
We sampled Vietnamese lumpia, homemade truffle goat cheese that was to die for, a taro root sandwich from an authentic Surinamese restaurant and we finished with fresh, raw herring, which was so refreshing and tasted of the sea. Sebastian escorted us through vibrant cafe-lined streets and bustling Saturday markets, and we learned that because of the large Jewish population, "hot dog" stands actually serve chicken in a bun. It was the perfect way to begin and end an afternoon.
When dining out on your own, make sure to try the bitterballen, a mixture of beef and spices deep fried and served with mustard. It's the perfect partner to a good Dutch beer. Poffertjes, which are miniature pancakes with butter and powdered sugar, make a wonderful breakfast treat. Oh, who am I kidding? Eat them all day long! Try all the cheese, and finally, black licorice. They have plenty of variations to choose from, including salty or sweet, and apparently the Dutch consume more black licorice than anyone else in the world.
If you are a jewelry fan, visit one of the several vintage and antique shops throughout the city. While we weren't ready to drop 20k-50k for a Rolex or Omega, you can find unique pieces for much less. If you fancy a nice cigar, there are various shops in the city center that offer a beautiful selection of cigars, humidors and accessories. And don't forget to purchase a tiny pair of wooden shoes for your travel souvenir collection.
Amsterdam is full of surprises: street dancers performing their best windmill into flares (yes, I know my breakdancing lingo), elderly women cycling with flowers in their baskets and headphones in their ears, party boats idling by while playing Lady Gaga, and the aroma of pastries, gouda and occasional weed. There are countless cities in the world that are described as picturesque, cosmopolitan, historic or vibrant. Amsterdam is just plain cool.
Canal Cruise With Cheese & Wine/Walking Food Tours/Museums
A Model Traveler