The weather during our visit to the capital and largest city in the Netherlands has been largely picture perfect, an artisanal backdrop for exploring this ancient and beautiful city. The blue sky, bright sun, no rain, and warm temperature in the 60s, accented with crisp breezes from the North Sea, have signaled the end of winter. Amsterdammers are out in droves, and, being tulip time, now is also the height of tourist season. With Amsterdam situated so far north, dawn rises before 6:00 a.m. and sunset falls around 9:30 p.m.
Shopkeepers and waiters are quick to point out to us that spring weather has been a long time coming. We learned that lingering cold from winter, where the temperature can hover at the freezing point, delayed the start of tulip season by about three weeks, but the flowers’ growth and harvesting soon caught up.
Proclaimed a city in 1306, Amsterdam is a network of historic canals; dug in the 1600s, the canals form its epicenter. The canals lie in concentric arcs of a circle and form the basis of the urban layout, along with radial waterways and streets. From 1600-1672 were Amsterdam’s golden years, when it was the maritime trading center of Europe, and merchants and other wealthy residents built housing along the canals in keeping with their status. The city is essentially a swamp and the homes are built on wooden piles. Today the canal area is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Through airbnb we rented a fabulous apartment, a third-floor walkup in an early 17th century building positioned squarely at the intersection of canals Singel and Brouwersgracht (meaning brewers canal for the many beer makers formerly here). Our windows overlook both waterways, and we are treated to regular views of tourist and pleasure boats cruising past along with the permanently moored houseboats. Our host kindly gave us welcome gifts of a bouquet of tulips and a package of the ubiquitous stroopwafels, a crisp, two-layered waffle with sweet, sticky syrup in the middle.
The narrow, steep, tightly wound stairs in our building are so shallow in depth that even my size-eight feet comically overhang the steps by several inches. This configuration is common for staircases in the historic section, as land was scarce, taxes were based on a house’s frontage, and people allotted most of their interiors for living space.
On the street level below are two coffee shops (not to be confused with cafés), and a cannabis store. Amsterdam has a tolerance for “soft” drugs, and coffee shop patrons can buy and smoke small amounts of weed on the premises. When we open our windows a slight “aroma” wafts in.
In the next block are the bakery and fresh market that we frequent for breakfast items. We also shopped for organic produce at the weekly outdoor farmers market in the shadows of the 17th century Northern Church at Noordermarkt.
Besides canal boats, bikes are a hugely popular form of transportation, and Amsterdam has hundreds of thousands of bikes. We see them parked in gigantic linear formations along the canals. Near the Amsterdam Centraal Station (train) are massive parking decks exclusively for bikes, and they are crammed to the max.
Cyclists do not have the right of way, but they take it anyway. They expect pedestrians not to cross streets as they peddle, and they do not signal with their arms. If miscalculations on our part place us squarely in their paths, they do not slow down in the least. Some riders might chime their bells in warning of their approach, but not everyone. Timing our walking speed and body placement is important, and has become second nature for us already. It’s a little like playing a game of chicken, with the bikes always victorious.
For a reverse look at the canals, from the water level, that is, we took an hour-long guided cruise in one of the distinctive glass-topped boats. Touristy, yes, but the views were magnificent. Some canal fun facts: Amsterdam has 165 canals, 1,200+ bridges, 2,500 houseboats, and 90 islands. Some of my favorite points of interest were the seven leaning (aka dancing or drunken) houses, so situated because of their shifting foundation piles, and the skinniest bridge.
We have spent hours on foot roaming through the city. By happy coincidence, our friend Shanshan, a violinist with the New York Philharmonic, was in Amsterdam for their performances at the Concertgebouw, famous for its exceptional acoustics. We hired Peter Hooghiemstra of Holland Personal Tour Guide for a private walking tour of Amsterdam for the three of us prior to attending the concert.
Some highlights of our wanderings:
- The house with the narrowest façade.
- Houses with intentionally slanted façades. The aforementioned stairs necessitate hoisting hooks on the roofs to lift furniture and goods, and the slant protects swaying loads from damaging the houses.
- Original post office and its next-door neighbor, the original Heineken brewery.
- Dam Square, where Amsterdam began, with the Royal Palace, New Church, and National Memorial statue.
- The oldest still-standing house.
- The oldest still-standing building.
- Red Light district. Well, there are red lights, apparently because red lights make the women’s faces look healthier. The statue Belle acknowledges the women of prostitution.
- Anne Frank House, where the young woman wrote her famous and influential diary while in hiding from the Nazis during World War II.
- Rembrandt’s house.
- The nines streets, with their trendy shops and restaurants.
- The Golden Curve, or Bend, on the Herengracht canal, once home to Amsterdam’s wealthiest citizens.
- Begijnhof, a lovely inner court inhabited in the 12th century by a group of women, not nuns, who came together to live in a religious community, primarily to look after the sick.
- The blue bridge, which is a copy of the Pont Neuf in Paris.
- Museumplein, with its world-class museums – Rijksmuseum featuring Dutch masters, Van Gogh for his incomparable Sunflowers painting, and Stedelijk featuring modern art.
- Vondelpark, the largest city park.
Relatively small and quiet as cities go, Amsterdam is a gem – one of the great romantic cities of Europe.
With regards to Paris, we’ll be spending a few days there as well on this European trip. Catchy sounding or not, April in Amsterdam and May in Paris both suit us just fine.