Amsterdam Feature


Quintessential Amsterdam

According to 19th-century French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans, Amsterdam is "a dream, an orgy of houses and water." More than 100 years later, that's true, though one might venture to say the orgy's components have expanded.


Amsterdam's canals are constant reminders that man—or the Dutch, anyway—can control nature and actually make a nice life off it. More than 97 km (60 miles) of canals, 400 stone bridges, and 90 islands have been created since the 17th century. Today, the Grachtengordel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, not to mention prime real estate. On days with even the slightest sun, cafés with canalside seating become a game of musical chairs. In warmish weather, the waterways truly come to life, as locals hop in their boats, taking anyone and anything normally welcome in their living room for a riparian wine-and-cheese soiree. Once associated with 1970s antiestablishment types, houseboats are increasingly a more affordable option for domicile-desperate locals, as well as visitors seeking quaint lodging (and not minding unpredictable plumbing).


If you listen carefully to local speech and detect what sounds like a mild throat clearing, no doubt you're hearing one of the most cherished words in Lowlands parlance—gezellig. The term is frequently translated as "cozy," though anyone who has had the chance to experience Dutch gezelligheid ("coziness") will confirm that cozy doesn't quite cut it. From the word gezel meaning "mate," gezelligheid quite literally refers to the general conviviality of a place or a person.

Even if you don't have the chance to snuggle up on an Amsterdammer's couch, you can still witness signs of the spirit in lingering café conversations, those unsolicited cookies alongside your coffee, little lights along the canals at night, and house cats meowing out the window.


"Tolerance" has long been a buzzword of the historical live-and-let-live approach to governance in the Netherlands. The nation as a whole has been seen as liberal and left-leaning, though "tolerate" is a simplistic translation for the Dutch verb gedogen, which suggests something more like "turn a blind eye to." Problems are increasingly zoned to their own neighborhoods (e.g. prostitutes) or regulated (e.g. pot). One famous Amsterdammer notorious for refusing to sugarcoat anything he found intolerable, notably organized religion, was filmmaker Theo van Gogh. In 2003, he was brutally murdered by a fellow Dutchman associated with a homegrown Islamic terrorist group. To many, the event marked a cataclysmic shift in the tides of so-called tolerance. So while a progressive paradise compared with many other places, the Netherlands today is warier than ever.


Although their heyday has faded, cannabis and call girls are still relatively plentiful, professionalized, and, most remarkably, permitted. But this open society does, however, have protocol apropos. First, use with caution. Don't consume more marijuana or hash than you can handle, whether smoked or ingested in the form of a "space cake" (a pot brownie).

Likewise, legally employed, tax-paying prostitutes are likely to insist on condom use but, if they do not, you should. Second, do not take photos. Doing so while socializing with prostitutes could result in your being literally kicked to the curb, if not by your subjects than by their surveillant superiors. Vice visitors are advised to check for the latest updates, per city, on evolving legislation, althought the 2012 laws still permit the purchase of soft drugs.

Updated: 11-2013

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