Amsterdam: Escape the Maze
Amsterdam has been notoriously famous for its liberal views on marijuana use and prostitution for years. Even the city’s coat of arms, found on every public transport station, reads “XXX Amsterdam,” a symbol most commonly associated with “explicit adult content” (and occasionally “hugs and kisses”). But put that adult entertainment aside for a minute and explore what you can find if you manage to escape the maze that the center so famously can become, especially after a puff or two.
A melting pot of diversity
Amsterdam’s entire city center seems organized around offering people services that other parts of the world have criminalized. Whether it’s entering a coffee shop for the first time or taking a stroll through the Red Light District, you’ll find a unique combination of full frontal confrontation with all things sex-related and one of the most commonly smoked drugs known to man, cannabis. Luckily, however, there’s more to Amsterdam than meets the eye. As a home to over 180 nationalities, the different areas of the city have characters of their own and given this capital’s relatively small size, getting from place to place on a bicycle is by far the most convenient option, even for those who haven’t stepped on a bike since childhood. The city’s infrastructure is wholeheartedly built around cyclists, so as long as you stick to the right, everything will be fine.
The Best of the West
Pedaling west of Dam Square leads you to Jordaan, where Anne Frank famously stayed in hiding during the Second World War. Here, along with the famous Nine Streets, you’ll find some of the most photogenic canal views of the city. The area is buzzing with cafés, secondhand shops and design workshops, a real treat for window-shopping aficionados. Jordaan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with some buildings dating back over 500 years. Look up, and pay attention to how some of the buildings have started to tilt over the years.
The Jewish Quarters are the most adorable part of the city, and most definitely a sight to see. Cycle further west and you will reach the Oude Barsjees or the Old West neighborhood. Some of the best restaurants in town are around here, where the locals know they get the best value for their money. The West is home to both Vondelpark and Rembrandtpark, for vast amounts of greenery and birdlife. A tad bit further you’ll find a large lake, Sloterplas, in which you can take a swim on a hot summer day.
Head east for hip bar-hopping
Southeast of the center, right behind the Heineken Experience, lies De Pijp, which incidentally, bears the name of a common smoking device, a pipe. It’s a popular bar-hopping destination for the locals and home to the largest street market in the city, the Albert Cuyp Market. The rugged rawness of this area has a charm of its own, making it the most popular place for young people to rent a room. Prices for food and drinks drop considerably compared to the city center, making it an attractive option for anyone looking to make the most of their budget while hitting the town.
This area hosts a considerable amount of hip wine bars, some organic, others vegan, all original attempts at finding a niche in the market, separating themselves from the stiff competition. East of De Pijp you find Amsterdam East, which much like Amsterdam West has numerous restaurants worth visiting and the city’s botanical gardens and zoo.
Get inspired across the North Sea Canal
Bring your bike on the ferry free of charge for a complete change of scenery in Amsterdam North, location of the former shipping docks of the capital, where arts and creativity fill up the formerly industrialized part of town. This area is now home to an abandoned Soviet submarine from the Cold War, a restaurant made of shipping containers and the biggest secondhand market of Europe, the IJ-Hallen. The newly risen A’DAM Tower with Europe’s highest over-the-edge swing and the EYE Film Museum are also to be found here. Rest assured, you will find interesting concepts and sustainability initiatives on this side of town, especially close to the NDSM Werf area.
More than meets the eye
Amsterdam is a city with plenty more to offer than the sex-tourism-driven maze that the city center seems to represent at night. And although misleading at first glance, the city’s coat of arms has everything to do with cultural heritage, rather than serving as an advertisement for the Red Light District. In fact, several theories have evolved around what the triple X symbol signifies, including the traditional three kisses that the Dutch exchange when greeting or the three obstacles the city has repeatedly overcome throughout history; floods, fires, and Black Death. The most reputable theory, however, indicates that the three crosses represent the three towns that the wealthy Persijn family once owned, Amsterdam, Ouder-Amstel and Niewer-Amstel, with the black line running through the crosses representing the Amstel River, which today separates Amsterdam East from De Pijp.
It’s time to relive your childhood, do like the Dutchies, step on that bicycle and start exploring beyond the maze. Have a break by the canals with your favorite beverage in hand and enjoy the adorable cosmopolitan city that Amsterdam is and always will be.
by Thorbergur Kristjánsson