We were only in Amsterdam for a short time on our way to Germany, just long enough to meander through the postcard-perfect city and dodge bikers every few seconds. One thing I noticed immediately is that it must be nice to be an Amsterdamer. Amsterdamers are tall, beautiful, and lean (must be all that biking!), and it’s hard to imagine anything too unpleasant happening in such a progressive, affluent town full of flowers, art, and open markets.
The very existence of Amsterdam is an engineering feat. The Dutch used windmills to pump excess water into canals, creating pockets of dry land on which they built an entire city from scratch. Meanwhile, the canals became an essential part of the transportation infrastructure. What started as a small fishing village in the 12th century grew into the world’s richest city during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century.
Since Amsterdamers’ property tax was based on the width of their homes, most houses are tall and narrow, but extend quite far back. The city’s iconic gables are merely facades to enhance their sharply pointed roofs. The most popular gables are the point, bell, step, spout, neck, and cornice gable.
If a house is considered historic, owners need special permission and a lot of money to renovate. Some lucky Amsterdamers were able to simply tear down their house and replace it with a cheaply-made modern building — as long as it was done before the 1980s, when the city started enacting stricter building codes to preserve a cohesive architectural style. Other Amsterdamers either missed that window of time or had more money, so they recreated historic-looking homes that were completely modern inside.
Amsterdam has just as many bikes as residents, and it’s famous for being an ideal city for biking — flat, with bike lanes everywhere. In fact, the number of bikes almost felt overwhelming, as we had to look right and left multiple times any time we wanted to move, just in case a bike suddenly appeared. The amount of effort required to simply cross the street actually reminded us of Marrakech‘s rowdy medina. We must be the only people who think Amsterdam is like Marrakech!
For the past few years, local politicians have been trying to discourage more tourists from coming. It’s not hard to see why. For a city that has only 850,000 inhabitants yet is inundated by 17 million tourists a year, Amsterdam reminded me of Venice in more ways than one. Amsterdam has been nicknamed “Venice of the North” due to its impressive number of canals, but another undeniable similarity between the two cities is that they are both turning into a sort of Disneyland, with an atmosphere catering more to tourists than to locals. To curb tourism, the government has stopped the development of new hotels and capped the number of days people can rent out their homes on Airbnb.
Despite the over-tourism and menacing bikers, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Amstserdam. Like Santorini, I came for the photos but was considerably more impressed by Amsterdam’s history and development. If you have any interest in urban planning, you’ll be awed by the layout of this city. If you appreciate Van Gogh, Rembrandt, or Vermeer, you’ll love its art museums. And if you don’t mind biking in sardine-packed bike lanes, this is your place. It’s easy to see why Amsterdam continues to rank as one of the best cities to live in. As for me, however, I’d rather live in the next city on our trip: Munich. Vaarwel, Amsterdam!
Tips for future travelers:
- Eat Rijsttafel (Indonesian rice table) for at least one of your meals. Indonesian food is popular here since Indonesia was a Dutch colony from 1602 up until World War II. You’ll be served a lavish spread of dishes and sauces. Begin with a mound of rice in the center of your plate and surround it with a small sampling of each dish. We had a great meal at Sampurna.
- De Silveren Spiegel is a romantic restaurant with an affordable tasting menu that allows you to experience Dutch food actually done well — because you can only eat pancakes, bitterballen, and herring so many times, right? Don’t forget to make reservations.
- Roam around Jordaan for quintessential Amsterdam. Originally a working-class neighborhood, the Jordaan has become one of the most desirable parts of the country. Rembrandt and Anne Frank lived here.
- Take a canal cruise at night.
- If you’re a history buff, check out the Amsterdam Museum, which was once a 500-year-old orphanage but now contains thorough exhibits of Amsterdam’s history. Their point-and-sync audio guides are fun to play with — just aim your audio guide at one of the red buttons, wait for a beep, then listen.
- We enjoyed our stylish hotel, Sir Albert Hotel, located in the southeast neighborhood of De Pijp. They left funny little notes in our room and offered us a free glass of champagne every time we entered the lobby. We were upgraded to the top floor and had a balcony with a view of Amsterdam’s comically flat skyline.
- Book your tickets to Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Anne Frank House in advance.