Amsterdam Feature

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Amsterdam & the Netherlands Today

Welcome to Amsterdam! Built on a latticework of concentric canals like an aquatic rainbow, this remains the City of Canals—but Amsterdam is no Venice, content to live on moonlight serenades and former glory. While many images are imprinted on your consciousness even before you arrive—the gabled roofs of its mansions, the Rembrandts hypnotizing all viewers in the Rijksmuseum, the splendor of its 17th-century Golden Age—time does not stand still in this city. Indeed, there's an undercurrent of significant changes happening here that might not be immediately apparent. Ask the savvy locals and they will tell you that Amsterdam …

. . . is less red.

Or better said, the world's most nice-on-vice neighborhood is no fewer than 50 shades of red—and other Pantone swatches. Since 2007, when Amsterdam unveiled a plan to clean up its Red Light District, surveillance cameras began rolling 24/7, whole bordellos were bought out, and lights went down on a hundred prostitute windows (and counting). Meanwhile, in a move of gentrification par excellence, many spaces were turned over to studio-seeking artists and designers. Project 1012, named for the area's postal code, was initiated to counter rising rates of human trafficking and derivative forms of illegal ickiness. In so doing, the city's historic center was meant to return to "the people," though whether the creatives in residence fairly represent them is up for debate. Still, for inhabitants and visitors both, the de-sleazing efforts have made room for unique, unabashedly boho opportunities—vinyl-record shopping, bespoke pottery, courses for aspiring cordwainers, and wine tastings, to name a few.

. . . is more tasty.

Sex, scatology, assisted suicide: little is difficult for the Dutch to discuss. But to see an Amsterdammer go all awkward, you might raise the issue of dining. Up until a few years ago, besides the pre-theater brasserie deal or a few Indonesian and Surinamese establishments, a quality-seeker's best bet was a traditional brown café, akin to a pub. But there the meal would be formulaic: meat or fish, salad, fries. For such a pleasure-permissive city, how could a side of mayonnaise be the only opportunity for Burgundian indulgence? Clearly, others asked this, too. Today, food quality, variety of venues, and, yes, even the historically depraved customer service all get an A for effort; many deserve at least a B for substance. Amsterdam currently counts nine Michelin-starred restaurants and hosts a twice-yearly restaurant week. National grocer Albert Heijn now has an eco-friendly Puur & Eerlijk ("pure & honest") line, and basic Dutch cable is proud of its very own food network. Not unrelatedly, gym culture is growing.

. . . is more comfy.

Not unlike the gastronomy sitch, Amsterdam's offerings for accommodations long lacked Goldilocksian middle ground. For luxury, you'd have to spend oodles of euros on a Dutch five star that would still charge for "extras" like gym use and Wi-Fi. For comfort, you'd settle on a ho-hum chain. Enter the boutique hotel. More and more of these small, stylish lodgings are appearing—and in prime spots. The design-catalog-worthy rooms are exciting enough, and their personable, polyglot hosts, Apple-inclined workstations, and organic breakfast spreads are definitely something to write home about.

. . . is less cushy.

Bezuiniging. Don't bother trying to say it; every Dutch person and their boss already does. This, by now soporific, word—a fancy term for "cuts"—has been uttered over and over to explain the butchering of budgets since late 2010. The conservative government that began the movement blamed global recession and the euro crisis. Bezuiniging has closed arts foundations, shrunk public broadcasters, caused small businesses to go bankrupt, and is responsible for many a hard-working do-gooder getting sacked.

. . . is more connected.

The Dutch will never not be ready to talk about the weather, but to really ignite conversation among Amsterdammers, try this: "Noord-Zuidlijn." Completion of the metro's latest addition is delayed till at least 2017 and is costing an extra €1.5 billion. Yet when ready, the 10 km (6 miles) spanning the hipster-happening borough of Noord and the chichifying Zuidas business hub will be but a 16-minute poof! On Tuesday through Sunday afternoons, you can check on the progress yourself at the city's underground observation station, the Uitkijkpunt (Rokin 92). Better mobility is happening, thanks to the improved tram network, the refillable swipe-n-go OV-chipkaart, and announcements in English at stops of main attractions.

What's New: Weed-Wacking

"Amster-damaged." "Good girls go to heaven, bad girls to Amsterdam." Slogans on gift-store T-shirts are testament that, more than anything else, the city's decadent reputation is a self-perpetuated industry largely fueled by tourism. While your average Dutchman wouldn't balk at a joint, theirs, in fact, is the last language you'll hear at one of the city's coffee shops, famed for their soft-drug use and sale. In 2012, legislation was drafted to prohibit blowen (smoking pot) in coffee shops if you're not a native Hollander.

The shut-down began with a rule enforcing the closure of all coffee shops located within 1,000 feet of a school, a particularly ominous proviso for Amsterdam, the country's most coffee shop-friendly city. By May 2012, the Limburg, North Brabant, and Zeeland provinces began requiring coffee shops to become "members-only." Meaning? To purchase marijuana or hash, their customers had to hold a wietpas. Only catch? To get a "weed pass" you must be a Dutch resident. On January 1, 2013, it was decided this regulation would take effect for all 12 provinces, including North Holland, home to largely pro-pot Amsterdam. BUT. The wietpas experiment only caused more drug dealing on the streets, coffee shops the size of supermarkets, and enormous traffic jams. So, in October 2012 Amsterdam's New Labor/Liberal government canceled the wietpas, and the city will keep welcoming all visitors and will not deny tourists access to coffee shops. This also goes for the major towns of the Randstad, like Rotterdam and Haarlem.

Updated: 11-2013

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