I have a historical attachment to Amsterdam. My Grandfather is from there, and used to skate on the canals in winter. By the time I arrived in late March this year, the icing of the canals was long over, and I was down to two layers of clothing, no longer needing the thermal gloves and woolly hat ensemble.
So what’s Amsterdam like now? Well, it’s a nice city, where the core has been partially ruined by tourists. In this regard, it’s a like Prague. The old city, that was clearly once a functioning downtown area has now been largely replaced by a tourist trap of little more than a themed collection of cafes, “Coffee shops”, “marijuana museums”, cut-rate hostels, sex shops, bars, kebab shops, and Argentinean steak houses. The saving grace is that in Amsterdam’s, this area is compressed into the a pair of avenues flanking a canal that makes up the infamous red-light district, and few surrounding streets. Escaping is merely a case of walking a few more blocks. This might be a problem if you’re ankle is still twice the size it’s meant to be, like mine is. There’s a good tram and subway system, and the buses looked like they were probably useful.
In addition, the the proximity of the central train station and various other central points appears to have kept central Amsterdam from being completely overrun by tourists. That, and the lack of disparity between the income of tourists and the locals.
Central Amsterdam is cramped. The Dutch love affair with bicycles is not a myth. Attached to railings everywhere are bikes in various states of repair and decay. What you will not find, is a large selection of mountain bikes like I’m used to in New Zealand. This is probably due to the lack of mountains in the Netherlands. In fact, the lack of any hills of any kind means that gearing is largely useless. The vast majority of bicycles here are the single gear upright type that I associate with 1950′s USA. Traveling in via train and out to the ferry terminal via coach, I got the feeling that the majority of Hollanders are leaving the old city in droves, spreading out in what appears to be European variant of suburbia, where large collections of apartment blocks are built on the edge of the city, connected to commercial districts and amenities only by cars and highways, rather than bikable avenues and canals.
For all that, it’s a laid back city. On the narrow streets of the central city, you will get stuck in traffic, a lot, and everyone else will just have to sit there and wait till that truck finishes unloading. If you’re after a non-stop action, then you should look elsewhere, though New Zealanders and Australians will probably feel right at home – which is probably why there’s so many of them there. If I have the opportunity, I’ll be back. Next time however, I’ll get a room away from the Red Light district.