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 still true, although one might say the orgy has 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 here since the 17th century. Today, the Grachtengordel, or Canal Ring, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (not to mention prime real estate). On days with even the slightest sun, cafés with canalside seating overflow with people. And when the weather is warm, the waterways truly come to life, as locals hop in their boats, often with wine and cheese. Once associated with 1970s antiestablishment types, houseboats are increasingly a more affordable option for domicile-desperate locals, as well as visitors seeking quaint lodging (who don't mind 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 refers to a general feeling of coziness and conviviality. 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.


It's hard to overstate the cultural significance of the tulip in the Netherlands. When the stately perennial arrived on the Dutch scene from Turkey in the late 16th century, it was a bright antidote to a dreary climate and also a symbol of a new market economy. Today, these flowers are just about everywhere you look. A trip to the Flower Market, or Bloemenmarkt, will confirm the flower's place at the top of Amsterdammers' weekly shopping lists. The tulip's hold on the Dutch artistic imagination is visible in the stately halls of its grand art institutions. On display in the Rijksmuseum are Jacob Marrel's watercolors, Hans Bollongier's paintings of potted arrangements, and the specially designed vases made to display one expensive tulip at a time, while in the Stedelijk, look out for Marcel Wanders' funky Egg Vase.


Although their heyday has faded, cannabis and call girls in Amsterdam are still professional, relatively plentiful, and, most remarkably, permitted in Amsterdam. But even this open society has protocols. First, use with caution: don’t consume more marijuana or hash than you can handle, whether smoked or ingested in the form of pot brownies. Second, legally employed, tax-paying prostitutes are likely to insist on condom use but, if they do not, you should. Third, 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 then by their supervisors. Vice visitors are advised to check for the latest updates on evolving legislation, city by city.

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