With a home-base in Gaiberg, Germany, just a few miles east of Heidelberg, we had a very advantageous central location to access Europe from. Italy? About five hours away. Switzerland? Only four. Paris? Four and a half hours with traffic. With so many options yet limited time, we made the choice any 20-something year old American would, Amsterdam! At a mere five hours away on the autobahn, we would be silly to skip out on the opportunity of a lifetime to see this amazing city! We drove north, rejoicing at the signs welcoming us to the Netherlands with our excitement growing as we passed more and more signs for Amsterdam. Being on vacation, we did not have our professional cameras with us. Only a small digital, and good, ole-fashioned disposable cameras. This is why the picture quality on this post may differ from our usual.
Entering the city was pure chaos. We were relying on the GPS to tell us which way to go, all the while getting honked at by cars for letting the bicycles go, then receiving a chorus of bells from the bicyclists we upset by not moving by fast enough. Amsterdam hosts over 3 million bicycles on average, with them littering the streets at every direction. We even saw one bike chained to a bridge, hanging over the edge. Signs for hotels were everywhere, but there was absolutely no parking to be had. After several nerve-racking minutes of negotiating our way on cobblestone side streets through crowds of pedestrians, bicyclists, and unattended children on roller-blades, we spotted a familiar American hotel name that appeared to have a parking garage. We made a bee-line and managed to check in to one of the most beautiful views of the city we could ask for. On the twelfth floor, there is an excellent bar with nothing but windows for walls, so that one may enjoy a full panoramic view of the city. In one look, you can take in a gorgeous cathedral, glows of red from the red light district, the sun flickering its reflection on the city’s canals, and a wonderful mix of old and new architecture spanning across the horizon. Day or night, Amsterdam is a beautiful city.
We took the advice of a bartender and left the hotel in search of a coffee shop called The Bulldog. It was touted as one of the best in town, so we were on a mission. After several blocks of wandering through a city I could only compare to Bourbon Street, New Orleans, I was ready for a break. We had not found The Bulldog yet, but I noticed a heart-shaped sign with the name “Sheeba,” and the title “coffee shop” underneath. This was to be our first Amsterdam coffee shop, and easily became our favorite.
Offering THE BEST cappuccino I have ever enjoyed, delicious side-treats, and a kick-ass atmosphere, Sheeba is my highest recommended coffee shop. They have several televisions through the shop which are always playing old concerts by artists such as Santana, Aretha Franklin, and Bob Marley. Occasionally, one TV will be used for soccer, but the chillax music continues. There are also murals painted around the shop featuring musical artists, soccer stars, and Hollywood celebrities. The employees are friendly, helpful, and know how to make an American feel welcome. As a first-timer going into a coffee shop and having no idea what to expect, Sheeba treated us with respect and made itself feel like a home-away-from-home; a place we can go to to relax and enjoy ourselves, undisturbed.
There is far more to Amsterdam than just the coffee shops, so after we had officially settled in, we hit the cobblestones again in search of adventure. There is an entire row of sex shops, the Sex Museum, the Human Torture Museum, more sex shops, tourist shops, and hey, another sex shop, with the occasional restaurant in between. Personally, seeing how many groups of men would stand gawking at the miscellaneous display windows was even more entertaining than the content within!
Most restaurants we found offered fast food, such as easily heated pizza slices, hot dogs, hamburgers, etc. There were also many ethnic foods available, ranging from Halal shoarmas to sushi to roasted ducks hanging in windows. There were even several Thai restaurants as well as American-style steakhouses.
With all this great food available, you need something to wash it all down, right? Cue the countless bars littering the downtown streets. Irish bars, dive bars, speakeasy-style bars; every bar you could hope for featuring beers from just about every continent! That’s not all; Amsterdam is also home to the Heineken Brewery, which offers daily tours through its “Heineken Experience.” For a low fee, you get entry wristbands, about four fresh, 3-day old beers, a tour of the facility, and access to all sorts of fun Heineken-related games. This was a fun behind-the-scenes look at the process of a brewery, as well as a great opportunity to try some of the freshest beer of our life! It was crisp, flavorful, and refreshing.
Amsterdam is famous for many reasons, but I had never heard of its canals. The city is intertwined with a canal system offering boat tours, romantic boat houses, and a beautifully rustic taste of old Europe. To get anywhere, you will at one point cross a bridge. They are arched gracefully to allow enough room for the passing boats, and give the city such a historic flavor. I had always associated canals with cities like Venice, but never Amsterdam. They were an excellent surprise an addition to this amazing city.
The streets are lined with eye-catching buildings left and right! There is a wonderful blend of old and new, with classic architecture proving its strong influence. There are several areas under construction, but upon closer inspection, they appear to be under renovation. The locals take great pride in their historical buildings and put great effort into keeping them available for future generations to cherish.
We discovered that the most intimate and efficient way to see the city was with bike-taxis. Whizzing through the crowds and buildings as gracefully as a bird flies through the sky, bike-taxis offer a ground level perspective at low enough speeds for you to take the sights in and enjoy yourself. The fares are usually quite reasonable and the bicyclists are fairly eager to share tour-like information while taking you to your destination. After several hours of wandering from our hotel, we had no earthy clue how to get back. What did we do? Hail a bike-taxi, get an awesome tour-like ride, and we got back to our hotel safely and quickly. One could compare it to restarting a video game; we wandered until we were lost or tired, got a bike-taxi back to the hotel, recharged and hit the streets again!
One bike ride led to adventure; we were casually riding down a cobblestone street as a policeman on horse passed us, going the opposite direction. Instantly, he turned the horse around and took off in a thunderous gallop on the cobblestone street. He and another policeman on horse had just cornered and apprehended a man who had apparently just robbed a tourist. Our bike-taxi driver was just as stunned as we were, as he sat there less than two meters away from the scene, until we ushered him to pedal forward. Just minutes later, a taxi car swerved off of his road and into the bike lane, forcing our driver to an abrupt stop nearly jumping the curb to avoid being hit. The car driver was texting, and only realized his swerve at the last minute. Texting and driving causes trouble, no matter what country you’re in!
Another coffee shop I would like to recommend is the Coffeeshop 36. It backs up to one of the many canals and offers two large windows for patrons to look out and even hang their feet out. With a strange heat wave hitting Amsterdam during our visit, the open windows and cool canal breezes were very refreshing. Not to mention their extraordinarily delicious “green cake” brownies, made locally and holding a strong potency. There are also many hand-painted works of art through the shop, creating a very relaxing atmosphere.
It seemed as if everyone was in a good mood thanks to the weather and the natural good vibes that the city has to offer. With hot days encouraging locals to rest, it made the night life even more exciting. Back to my New Orleans comparison, the streets light up with a neon glow and herds of people roam from bar to bar, coffee shop to coffee shop. Whereas most of New Orleans’ activities are centralized on Bourbon Street, all of downtown Amsterdam is a part of the party. Every few feet, you hear a different genre of music blasting and see a different crowd dancing. With so many cultures meeting and partying in one place, Amsterdam truly is a melting pot.
As we walked, we would hear a group of British men signing a drinking song, then a group of French girls giggling and doing shots off of each other, then a group of Turkish men arguing outside of a red-light window, about who knows what. Moving deeper into the heart of downtown, we inevitably ended up in the infamous Red-Light District. There are glass doors decorating alleys and business strips, each holding a lovely lady in skimpy clothing. Some would be brushing their hair, others giving tourists a come-hither finger and flirty smile, and even some sharing a window and teasingly playing with each other to lure customers. There are also a variety of shows, ranging from comical to full-on XXX hardcore. There are countless toy shops, another sex museum, and many entertaining displays.
Feeling comical myself, we approached a group of three officers, standing on a bridge observing the crowds. Two men, one woman. Earlier we had witnessed this trio subdue an angry drunk Scottish man in a quilt, who had gotten upset about something and was yelling belligerently. After getting him to calm down, they simply instructed him to go home. No beatings, no tasers, no handcuffs and no paperwork. The way police work should be when dealing with fun-loving tourists. Now to the female officer; she had curly blonde hair and an official hat on, as well as her tool belt fashioning a gun, baton, handcuffs, and a taser. I approached her with a question in mind, and at the time, it seemed like a great idea.
“Excuse me, do you know where the lesbian sex show is?”
This truly shocked her. Just think of what this woman sees on a weekly basis while patrolling these streets, and my question was able to shock her. She required a moment to gather herself enough to say “Sorry, I don’t.” Already pleased with myself, we began to walk away when the older gentleman of an officer to her right nodded his head down the way saying “There. They do the lesbian sex shows down there.” He had such a matter-of-fact tone I had to question whether or not I had just imagined that response, but I can honestly say that an Amsterdam policeman directed us where to go to see the lesbian sex show.
At another point in the night, we had just come through an alley and made it back to a main street when Captain Jack Sparrow jumped out from the darkness. We were startled, then tickled at the idea of such an elaborately dressed pirate popping out of nowhere in downtown Amsterdam. This seems to be a town where truly anything can happen! We had discovered a true adult playground, now reminiscent of the City of Lost Boys from Pinocchio, where indulgences flourished and no one ever wants to go home.
With the sun setting at about 11pm during this time of year, it was easy to lose track of time while out enjoying the city. We ended our last night there around 3:30am, hailing one last bike-taxi to get us to our hotel. We certainly couldn’t have navigated our way back at that point, even with a map. Many neon lights had been turned off, the half-moon was shining brightly in a cloudless sky, and all we could hear is the pleasant buzz of the chain on the bike as we drifted through the darkness back to our hotel. Majestic, romantic, refreshing, and truly peaceful; we had fallen in love with Amsterdam.
Being American, we had mixed expectations for what we would and would not have access to in Amsterdam. We discovered that we had access to anything and everything our hearts could desire. We had access to things we didn’t even know existed! The most important thing is to act with respect. Respect for their city and their country, respect for their welcoming outlook, and respect for America and how we represent it. This blog is only the tip of the iceberg of our adventures in Amsterdam, but much like Vegas, what happens in Amsterdam, stays in Amsterdam! Please feel free to comment any questions you may have- we will be happy to answer!
A trip to the confessional is necessary…