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 dilutedÂ 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:Â 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 Sarphatiparkâ€”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 fromÂ the Dutch. It’s a compact area, logicalÂ 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. AndÂ everyoneÂ 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 landscapeâ€”and how US cities late to the climate change game might do the same.
My map of Amsterdam Spots.