Eight Highlights of My Amsterdam Trip


Dutch pride overwhelms Amsterdam in the form of orange flags after Holland wins the European Cup. (Billy Laboska/The Observer)

Published: August 28, 2008

When I traveled through Europe this summer with my friend Zack, we covered a lot of ground including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. Zack had been to Amsterdam several times, and he insisted that we spend a few nights there; this way I could judge the city for myself rather than have to listen to him constantly rave about it. Well, now I deliver to you my own verdict: It is a crazy, crazy place. The first thing people ask is if it lives up to its rep as a party city, and it does. But there’s so much more to it. I could go on for hours, but I’ve narrowed down the experience to eight highlights:

1. Coffee Shops

Amsterdam coffee shops aren’t the place to get a mocha frappuccino. They primarily sell marijuana and hashish, the use and possession of which is tolerated in the Netherlands. They are really laid-back and are about as frequent as the Duane Reades that litter New York City. I observed that the relationship between client and dealer is very professional, almost analogous to that of a shopper and a salesman; the customer explains what they are looking for and is instantly accommodated. It is also similar to a patient/doctor relationship, as the oft-tongue-pierced dealers appear to have a startling knowledge of pharmacology.

2. “Gingerbread-Tombstone” Houses

My friend Zack coined this term to describe the residential houses. This stems from his claim that they bear a striking resemblance to both gingerbread houses and tombstones. It sounds ridiculous, but I cannot quite dismiss the claim. Though I don’t agree that the houses look edible, many are inspired by Gothic architecture, built on slants and are engraved with the year of their construction.

3. The Van Gogh Museum

The Van Gogh Museum is awe-inspiring. The halls display the largest collection of Van Gogh’s original work in chronological order, giving you a feel for his evolution as an artist. None of the paintings were glassed-in and few were displayed behind rope, so I was inches away from countless masterpieces. “The White Orchard,” an early version of “Sunflowers,” and “The Potato Eaters” (which is much larger than most of his paintings) all look tremendous in person.

4. Sissy Boy

Amsterdam is a city full of Sissy Boys. Shall I elaborate? Well, Sissy Boy is a Dutch clothing chain geared toward men and boys. Yes, that’s right. Imagine a poor kid having to go to his first day of school wearing the clothes his mom bought him at Sissy Boy. The clothes themselves are pretty standard (casual, bright colors), but that still doesn’t justify the the brand name.

5. Red Light District

Prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, and the red-light district is where most of the “business transactions” go down. Basically, prostitutes rent a room and lure in clients by flaunting themselves in the windows. Also home to several coffee and sex shops, it is one of the most touristy spots in the city, which is surprisingly innocuous (at least during the daytime).

6. The House of Anne Frank

The house where Anne Frank and her family hid during Nazi Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands now operates as a museum preserving her legacy, as well as that of other Holocaust victims. Much of the house has been preserved or has been supplemented with believable substitutes to recreate the surroundings during WWII, including a reconstruction of the famous bookcase which leads to the Secret Annex. Each room in the museum played a different video. An interview with Anne’s father Otto, the only member of the family to survive the concentration camps, was particularly moving.

7. A Breast in the Street

In the middle of an otherwise normal street beside the Old Church, there is a bronze sculpture of a breast being caressed by a hand, originally mounted one night by an anonymous artist. It was initially deemed vulgar and was to be removed, but the people of Amsterdam clamored for it to remain as a symbol of the city’s tolerance.

8. European Cup Madness

On our final night, Holland faced Italy in the European Cup, and Amsterdam was transformed into a sea of orange. Wrapped in the excitement, we did what any red-blooded Americans would do: Went to the nearest store and draped ourselves in Holland gear—shirts, flags, wigs, the whole nine yards. We celebrated the victory over the world champs by partying at a bar where the locals, so impressed with our fanaticism, gave us a round of Heineken as well as… homemade fish tarts. And then there was the blonde tour guide named Lauren. But that’s a story for another time…