We just finished a week in Amsterdam. It did not make a good first impression on either of us. Amsterdam has 800,000 inhabitants and appears very busy. Walking down the street felt like a challenging sport for which we were woefully out of shape. A typical main street has one lane each way for things like cars, trucks, and busses. In the middle, the trams run both directions, sometimes vehicles inexplicably drive on the tracks too. On each side is a cycle path that is full of bicycles and scooters and I mean full with exponentially more bikes than vehicles. Then there is the sidewalk, which is often narrow and broken up by lampposts, trees, front steps, benches and parked bicycles/scooters. What made us particularly uncomfortable was the scooters in the cycle lanes, passing bikes and pedestrians within inches at about 30 mph. The sidewalk seemed like it provided no relief and no escape. Did I mention there are a lot of bicycles? They say the city has 1,000,000 bikes which is 200,000 more than there are residents. After seeing thousands upon thousands parked, being ridden by wobbly tourists, or in shop windows for sale and rent, I believe it. We saw few helmets on bicyclists or scooter operators.
Fortunately, we learned how to go with the flow and to avoid main streets, which allowed us to begin to appreciate Amsterdam. By the time we left, we were happy to be there and liked the city. The chaos of the first day became more understandable. You have to value a place that lets bicycle riders be king. Beyond traffic, Amsterdam appears vibrant, diverse, and easy to get around. You commonly hear multiple languages spoken on the street and almost everyone speaks English. Our guide book said that Amsterdam has more English speakers than Los Angeles! Public transportation is extensive with trams, busses, subway, and trains. Boats cruise up and down the canals as well.
The city itself is very old, settled about 1200, and built on land recovered from wetlands. There are many canals and dykes built by hand with shovels and wheelbarrows. The land is flat, so a height difference of a foot makes quite a difference in how the water flows. There are reminders of the past everywhere. The house in which Anne Frank and her family hid is a museum. Plaques are common with stories of heroes, leaders, and events.
Houses are all narrow town homes because properties were taxed on the width of street frontage, so they built up and back while keeping a very narrow face. Because the front doors are so skinny, people cannot fit furniture through so each house has an extended beam with a pulley at the top. Furniture is brought up and through the windows! Many old houses are leaning and there are two types of leaners: intentional and unintentional. The intentional leaners come forward, towering over the street. Our walking tour guide said that they did this for several reasons: 1) they thought it looked pretty, 2) it gave a little more space on each floor, and 3) it helped protect the windows when moving in. The unintentional leaners are listing to one side or the other. This happens because Amsterdam is built on wetlands. Old houses were built on wooden poles that extended 12m into sand. Modern houses and repaired older homes have 30m concrete pillars under them, still only in sand. With the passage of time, the wood rots away and things shift.
Because of our interest in history, we signed up for a harbor cruise. We were the only passengers on a boat built for 150! The Amsterdam Harbor hasn’t been really active for a couple centuries, with most shipping going through Rotterdam. Nonetheless, we saw many long narrow motorized barges for long-distance canal shipping. Our captain explained that such a boat can take canals and rivers from Amsterdam all the way southeast into Turkey! These barge captains live aboard so barges have laundry hanging, dogs on the deck, a car and/or small boat craned onto the back. The most recent action around the harbor in the last decade is the creation of new islands filled with apartment buildings to provide housing in a growing city.
One afternoon we took one of the free ferries across the River Ij to the northern part of the city. The area ,called NDSM, is an abandoned derelict industrial site that has been converted to an art community. An old enormous shipbuilder’s warehouse has now been turned into working space for hundreds of artists. There are 350 homes made from old shipping containers. The place is buzzing with hipsters, artists, graffiti, bars and restaurants. An old crane has been turned into a hotel. An old ocean platform (that once was positioned 6 miles off the coast and housed a pirate TV station before the government shut it down) has been moved into the river and converted to a fancy restaurant. A platform for movable cranes to load containers now has offices of many marketing companies and organizations like National Geographic. Wandering around NDSM was a great way to spend an afternoon. You can see more pictures of the area in our picture gallery.
The Rijksmuseum is a very large art museum. If a line was drawn through each room you would have one and a half kilometers of gallery. It would take many visits over multiple days to do it justice. We focused on Dutch art, looking at masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Van Gogh among unfamiliar names. The collection is in a gorgeous building that they spent ten years renovating and finished last year. We also had the opportunity to look at art in the private collection of a wealthy family. Jan Six the First was the mayor of Amsterdam, heir to a large textile dyeing company, and a friend of Rembrandt. Twelve generations later (and several marriages to other wealthy families that brought their own art) the collection is quite impressive. They open the house a couple days a week to small groups and we were able to see one floor of the family mansion and many lovely pieces of art. Megan particularly liked seeing the old family portraits and the original props that appeared in the painting (like a riding whip, a pair of wedding gloves, and a feather-adorned hat).
As is our custom, we sought out a neighborhood farmer’s market. The Jordaan market, or as Jim called it ‘the on and on market,’ had a range of great food (bread, produce, cheese, mushrooms, chocolate, berries) and lots of stuff like books, shoes, clothes, electronic gadgets, toiletries, etc. In addition to a tasty lunch and fruit, we liked the neighborhood, the active cafe scene, the busker, and people watching. A warm early-fall weekend brought a lot of people out into the sun.
To see all of our Amsterdam pictures, click here.