I read a study several years ago about how we don’t like new kinds of music initially because our brain doesn’t recognize the patterns in it, so it finds the sound discomforting. But after you hear it a few times, your brain starts to make sense of it and you may even start to like it.That’s how I felt about Amsterdam at first.
Even the language there, Dutch–it has similarities to English and similarities to German, both of which I can understand, but it’s not either of those things. My brain wants to get it, but it just can’t quite.
So when I first got out into Amsterdam, I really felt I didn’t like it. It was too different for me to connect to. I was glad I was only there for 36 hours. That was the first way it reminded me of New Orleans: initial distaste.
Like New Orleans, I think it’s probably beneficial if you have someone there who can show you the ropes. They are both very unique cities, and it helps to have someone who knows them. That’s how I came to love New Orleans. That, and just giving it a chance instead of changing the music because I didn’t like it right away.
But, alas, I have no friends in Amsterdam. So I walked. And I walked and I walked and I walked. And I ended my first day still not really liking it any more than I started. It didn’t help that my flight was delayed and I got in after most places to eat had closed and I was a little hangry. (Note: things close up earlier in Amsterdam than in London or certainly Barcelona.)
Also like New Orleans, I think Amsterdam gets somewhat of an unfair reputation. When you say New Orleans to someone who’s never been, they think of Bourbon Street and drinking in public and flashing boobs for beads. When you say Amsterdam to someone who’s never been, they think prostitutes and weed. And while all of those things are true about those cities, there is so, so much more to them than that. They are both actually quite family friendly and have a lot to offer even if indulgence and vice are not your thing.
Here are some recommendations, other than those already mentioned (I mean the museums, not the weed and prostitutes, although I’ll address those, too):
Shopping: Even if you don’t want a bunch of extra stuff to haul back with you, it’s fun to check out the shops. On one street there was a vibrator store next to a McDonald’s next to a high end local furniture company–it can be a fairly diverse lineup. Something for everyone! But there are also sections where it’s more designers and cafes (read: tamer) if that’s what you want, too. There’s also a lot of H&Ms. Weirdly so. [Update: Weird abundance of H&Ms is the standard for everywhere in Europe I’ve been on this trip, not unique to Amsterdam.]
The Red Light District: I found myself in the RLD by accident. Part of what you get when you walk aimlessly. But it wasn’t very late yet and the crowds were pretty well behaved. The vast majority of the crowd was big groups of guys, with a couple of hen/bachelorette parties and some couples sprinkled in. I noticed the change in the crowd and the vibe first, and then happened to look into one of the windows to see a woman peddling her wares with the signature red light across the top. Yep…this is the red light district. It really doesn’t feel much different than Bourbon Street except that it was cleaner and there were mostly naked ladies in the windows, and it lacked music and street performers and the drinks were non-novelty and normal sized (or maybe I was just too early for all that).
They offer a surprising (at least to me) amount of literature for tourists on the RLD. Most important tip for those sightseeing (if you’re there to buy, you’ll have to do your own research): be careful about taking pictures. Broad, scenic pictures are okay, but photographing the girls themselves is a big no-no. From what I read and was told, this generally ends in a physical altercation and your phone/camera being thrown into the canal. So be mindful and respectful.
Since we’re on the hot topics of the city…Coffeeshops: I have to say, there were fewer than I expected. In the more commercial shopping areas, there are hardly any. I was expecting it to be like Starbucks in LA where you can be standing virtually anywhere and there are three within eyesight. It’s not like that. Also, I expected everyone to be smoking weed everywhere all the time. That’s not the case either. You occasionally get a whiff of it, but I’ve seen people smoking weed probably just as much in cities in the U.S. It’s not that big of a deal. But, if that’s your primary purpose of travel, don’t worry. The shops are abundant and you won’t have a problem finding what you’re after.
Moco Museum: Again, after doing my research, I decided it wasn’t how I wanted to spend my time or money this trip, but if I had more time, it’s something I definitely would have done.
Vondelpark: Another thing that really surprised me about Amsterdam, especially after coming from London, was the lack of green space. In London, there are little parks and gardens tucked everywhere. It’s easy to escape from the city. Not so much in Amsterdam. And I think I needed it even more in Amsterdam. It has a chaotic energy to it (except in the mornings), another quality I liken to New Orleans.
I was expecting Amsterdam to be like a college campus during the summer. In reality, it’s like a college campus during the 10 minutes between when class lets out and the next bell rings. But, what Amsterdam lacks in the frequency of green space, it makes up for in the amount. Vondelpark is massive, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s a great place to people watch, bird watch, stalk cool dogs, sit down with some coffee, and take a breather.