While I was abroad in 2015 and 2016 I wrote about every trip except Amsterdam. It was a strange weekend which I spent mostly alone, then in part with an aunt, uncle, and cousin who were passing through on their Scandi-German vacation. While I liked it a lot, I also was sad to see how overrun and diluted it is, like Venice. There is more to the city than legal drugs and prostitution.
Traveling alone is a taste that many acquire by necessity. I have always embraced my independence, but realized on this trip and in general living alone in a new country with no existing friends, that I do like the companionship of a good group to explore a brand new city.
I remember thinking that I would meet people online or in coffee shops and bars, but life is rarely that serendipitous. What was equally alienating: I didn’t have mobile service or data (backward Italian WIND), so I relied solely on paper maps and wifi.
Before arriving in Amsterdam I received some recommendations from a Dutch friend in my program (Stein!), but went in blind otherwise, including where to stay. Lodging is pricey, even for very small rooms in glorified hostels. I booked three nights in a hipster motel off Sarphatipark—the Arcade. My single-bed room was the size of a large shower stall. The shower was the size of a small bureau. And the bureau was surprisingly spacious.
Amsterdam’s urban layout is a half-moon of concentric circular canals and boulevards along the axis of the IJ (big main canal that connects to the North Sea). Parts of it feel a lot like New York or Boston. The brownstone and townhouse architectural styles of those cities are clearly lifted from the Dutch. It’s a compact area, logical to navigate because everything radiates from a central point and streetcars run along almost every major road, to and from the center or around it.
I passed and partook in many juice bars (The Cold Pressed Juicery), local coffee chains (coffeecompany, Scandinavian Embassy), and organic markets (Marqt). I ate lunch at a darling cafe called Pluk. The city’s embrace of “clean” eating reminded me a lot of the US. Far beyond anything I see domestically were the prolific electric charging stations connected to electric or electric-hybrid cars that are still considered niche elsewhere. This is a trend incentivized by the Dutch government.
Of course biking is the primary mode for commuting around the city, which I did and many others do in a comically serious, focused way. Don’t dither about!
To my delight, there are also countless 1980s-era Mercedes (W114, W123) in various states of preservation. They fit with the maritime West Village artsy-analog vibe. And everyone speaks English in addition to Dutch and, probably, German or French. Like Stockholm, and most of Northern Europe, English is virtually a required second language given its place as a common currency in the world. This in contrast to Southern Europe (like Italy), where English is still hit or miss.
Amsterdam is a blend of ruffian, chaotic Southern Europe and orderly, logical Northern Europe. It’s sophisticated, progressive, and globally relevant, while its upbringing feels gritty and hedonistic. I got plenty of whiffs that recalled New Orleans and Brooklyn, with a dash of Seattle for its weather and liberalism.
I would (will?) definitely return to Amsterdam. It is worth a longer visit. The cat museum (ahem, kattenkabinet) alone is a worthy stop to pause and pet a furry one. It would be even more interesting, I think, to see other parts of the country, much of which sits below sea level. A recent CBS Sunday Morning segment highlighted the Dutch mastery in preserving its delicate landscape—and how US cities late to the climate change game might do the same.
My map of Amsterdam Spots.