Open-hearted, welcoming, and prosperous, Amsterdam is a good-time city that merrily opens its arms to all comers. It embraces its tourists, its cyclists, its boat-folk, and its multicultural community. It is friendly, unflappable, and approachable; a city confident in its own skin but with one eye fixed on the future, buzzing with creativity and bonhomie.
But it is also a city of surreal juxtapositions; an elegant cityscape of 165 waterways, 1,280 bridges, and thousands of venerable 17th-century mansions exist side by side with the sleazy alleyways of the Red Light District. A city with some of the most impressive art museums in the world that tolerates sex clubs and dope smoking; that has one of Europe’s best concert halls but also a gritty nighttime scene springing up around Westerpark and NDSM-Wharf; and a city that offers Michelin-starred restaurants alongside grungy brown cafes.
It’s a long-outdated cliché to regard Amsterdam as some sort of latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah, for the winds of change are blowing through the streets. Tolerance may be embedded deeply in the Dutch psyche, but even the most open-minded of people can run out of patience. The very existence of Amsterdam’s notorious coffee shops and red-light haunts is now threatened as the city fathers toil to improve its quality of life; druggie haunts have been closed down as have some of the prostitutes’ infamous windows, and smart restaurants, bars, and upmarket independent stores are starting to move in to the pretty side streets of the Rosse Buurt (Red Light District), which ironically hides some of the most unspoiled architecture in Amsterdam.
In any case, Amsterdammers themselves have never drifted around town in a drug-induced haze. They are all too busy revitalizing rundown areas like the Jordaan, filling it with offbeat art galleries and cool hotels; or redeveloping the derelict harbor waterfront along the IJ waterway into a shiny, futuristic city that’s light years away from the refined spirit of the Golden Age. Between dips into Amsterdam’s artistic and historical treasures, be sure to give yourself time out to absorb the freewheeling spirit of Europe’s most vibrant city.