Nestled in the lowlands, where the River Amstel meets the banks of the IJ, is the city of Amsterdam. A bastion of liberal values and tolerance, in the last century the Dutch capital has earned its place as one of the most active and entertaining destinations in Europe.
Characterized by its watery environment, Amsterdam is criss-crossed by a network of more than 62 miles of canals. These have inevitably led to comparisons with Venice, and the parallels don’t end at the waterways, as both cities owe their rise to their emergence as key trading ports: Venice on the Adriatic coast, as the ultimate meeting point between East and West; Amsterdam as a major player in the once hugely profitable markets of the North and Baltic seas before the rise of the Dutch Republic as a colonial superpower.
But unlike its Italian doppelgänger, which has in many ways become a museum of itself, Amsterdam is dynamic and thoroughly modern — a city that has not only forged ahead with the times, but that often forces societies and cultures clinging to the past to keep up.
Amsterdam owes its reputation — for some progressive, for others libertine — to its permissive laws concerning the use of soft drugs and the sex industry. As is the case with most stereotypes, there is an element of truth amid a sea of speculation about both.
Since the 1970s, Dutch authorities have turned a blind eye to individuals carrying small amounts of cannabis for personal use and have sanctioned its safe consumption through authorized establishments known commonly as coffee shops, which are even certified with an emblematic green and white license. While over the past decade the government has clamped down on the domestic production of marijuana, and it has tightened the rules regulating coffee shops — most notably, prohibiting the sale of both alcohol and drugs at the same location — there are still around 200 of these establishments in Amsterdam alone. Adult locals and visitors alike are free to choose from a menu of different varietals of the weed with various degrees of potency and desired effect.
Similarly, Amsterdam’s famed red-light district stands out as the gold standard among the many such destinations that exist across the continent, and there’s a good reason for this. Not only is there a legal scaffolding that ensures the sex industry is largely legitimate and above board, there is also a centuries-long tradition linking the area known as De Wallen to the procurement of sexual services. Indeed, the connection between the two is so deep that in 2007 a statue paying tribute to all sex workers titled Belle was unveiled in the area right in front of Oude Kerk, the oldest church in the city. But that’s just quintessential Amsterdam, a striking blend of old and new.
There's a lot more to Amsterdam than a big red light shining on a thick cloud of smoke. Comprising close to 100 individual islands joined by more than 500 bridges, this is not only the commercial and financial center of the Netherlands, it is a vibrant northern metropolis — and there is no better time to explore it than summer.
The main draw this year is certain to be EuroPride, which is returning to the city for the first time since 1994. EuroPride kicks off with Pink Saturday, an event that since 1979 takes place annually in a different Dutch city and that on this occasion will lead to the traditional Pride Walk from Vondelpark to Dam Square. The two-week festival culminates in the world-famous Canal Parade, which includes dozens of LGBT organizations whose extravagant floats showcase their cause, as well as the joie de vivre that is endemic here.
Amsterdam’s proud history of tolerance toward people of varying sexual orientations dates back to the interwar years, when the lax attitude of the so-called Lost Generation spread across continental Europe. In 1987, it became the first city in the world to erect a monument in memory of the LGBT victims of the Nazis. In the city center, right on the banks of the Keizersgracht canal, the Homomonument’s three large pink granite triangles form a larger triangle that pays tribute to those who have suffered persecution because of their sexuality and is meant to “inspire and support lesbians and gays in their struggle against denial, oppression and discrimination.” In 2001 the Netherlands became the first country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage as a basic right.
Reguliersdwarsstraat runs from the Place Royale to Rembrandt square. Once a de facto gay district, it has become more mainstream as the world has caught up with Amsterdam’s progressive pace. Still, it’s home to a number of LGBT-owned and gay-friendly businesses, including clothing retailers, hairdressers, coffee shops, bike rental outlets and galleries.
But the evolution of this once “gay district” doesn’t mean there aren’t any places for the LGBT crowd to feel at home. Increasingly classic gay-bars have just morphed into a series of trendy spots where the open-minded straight audience can also get its fix of good music and great ambience. Club NYX is a popular nightlife destination. It offers three floors of graffiti- and glitter-covered concrete, as well as a DJ in the restroom that keeps patrons from missing a beat — even as they wash their hands at a giant pink phallus. Established in 2008, the Church nightclub lures in the crowds with its impressive sound system, outrageous stage shows and fantastically fun theme nights.
For the less club-oriented, entertainment is available at places like Lellebel and Prik, where drag shows and speed-dating events go hand-in-hand with cocktails and tasty bites. And then there’s Café ‘t Mandje, which serves up smooth drinks with a heaping side of history. The legendary bar was among the first LGBT establishments in the city. Bet van Beeren, herself a lesbian, opened the spot in 1927 and ran it with the mission to promote fun and respect to all. Though she died in 1967, her youngest sister Greet ran the place until it closed in 1982. Through great foresight, she chose to keep the interior intact and even allowed people to visit upon request. Just before her death, Greet got the ball rolling for the bar to make a comeback, and it’s been drawing crowds since it reopened in 2008. A family business, it has been managed by Diana — Bet and Greet’s niece — since its reopening. The pub is such an iconic part of the city that the Amsterdam Museum houses a replica.
Other destinations that offer a healthy dose of culture include Albert Cuyp Markt, just outside the ancient city walls. About 300 stalls line both sides of the street and sell everything from fruit, vegetables, cheese and fish to clothing, make-up and home décor at low prices. The market is next to Oud Zuid, where you can find both the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, among other galleries and institutions. World-famous Vondelpark is not just a Pride destination. Its open-air theater stages a seasonal line-up — from May through September — that makes it a tremendously popular summer destination.
Famously bike-friendly, a network of more than 248 miles of cycle lanes stretch across and just outside the city. Touring the neighborhoods on a bike allows you to check out places at a leisurely pace and do as the locals do. It’s a particularly good way to take in the splendid architecture. Near the town center, monumental constructions recall the country’s sumptuous past, from the old city gate of De Waag to the Royal Palace on Dam square. Adjacent to the northern end of the palace is also Niuwe Kerk, which was consecrated in 1409, destroyed by the Great Fire of 1645 and turned into an exhibition center in 1979.
The neighborhood of Jordaan — the Dutch answer to New York's Tribeca — offers a delightful combination of art galleries and trendy boutiques along the outer rim of the canal belt and is possibly the most charming cycling route away from the bustle of the city center.
But when it comes to charm, nothing beats a cruise along the Grachtengordel — Amsterdam's four concentric canal rings. Though many of the houses along the canals have been refurbished, as you’re gliding past them you still get the unmistakable feeling that you're traveling through the pathways of history.
Beyond bicycles and canals, you can also indulge in yet another iconic symbol of the Netherlands just 12 miles away: windmills. More than 9,000 of them once peppered the Dutch landscape, and though that number has shrunk by about 90 percent, there are still close to 1,000 left. Of those, only a handful are close to Amsterdam, but there are worse ways to spend your time than heading to Zaanse Schans to visit a cluster of restored windmills on an idle summer’s day.