What is it about Amsterdam that attracts so many thousands of visitors every year? A recent tourism survey proclaimed Amsterdam as the fourth most popular holiday destination in Europe after Paris, Rome and London – a very respectable rank indeed considering the intense competition. So just what is it that makes Amsterdam so attractive?
A popular city indeed
There are plenty of reasons for its popularity – the wonderful scenery, relatively cheap prices and a populace known for its laid back attitude and great tolerance. It’s easy to communicate, as almost everyone speaks English, German and/or French, as well as Dutch. And, unlike the other more popular destinations, it’s amazingly easy to move around the city – a great boon to the visitor on a tight budget.
As befits the capital of a completely flat country, Amsterdam is perfect for walking – no hills no vast distances, and plenty of sights in between, and even during the winter, the weather is mild for walking to be a pleasure. There’s no need to hire an expensive, gas-guzzling car, or search for exorbitant taxis and if you absolutely have to get somewhere speedily, you can hop on a bike. You don’t even have to pay – there are free communal ‘white bikes’ stationed at various points around the city, which can be picked up at one point and dropped off at another when you’re done. And yes, Amsterdam has a lot of bicycles. A LOT. In a city of 730,000, there are more than 600,000 bikes constantly weaving their way through pedestrians and motorized traffic.
Even if you’re not the bicycling kind, have no fear – the Dutch take the concept of public transport pretty seriously, and the bus, tram and train systems are some of the best in Europe. And, if you’re not sure how to get around, you can just phone 0900-9292 and tell the operator (in English) where you’re staying, your destination, and when you want to leave or arrive. You’ll get detailed directions of how to get where you’re going, complete with time estimates. Who needs maps? Amsterdam is definitely a visitor-friendly city.
It’s a good thing the city’s so easy to travel, as there’s plenty to see (which is another reason for the hordes of visitors every year). When it comes to history and heritage, Amsterdam is literally bursting with it. There are 6,750 monuments in the city centre along, and 42 museums, more than any other city. Many are within walking distance of each other and seven marked walking routes cover 30 attractions.
One of the most famous of these museums is the Rijksmuseum, which houses works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and almost every other Old Master. If you want to see the works of Vincent Van Gogh, they’re all in the Van Gogh Museum, only a short distance away. For contemporary art, the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art showcases modern and contemporary paintings, pottery and photography; and for a look at the lives of Dutch life in the past, the Museum Willet-Holthuysen is an enchanting 17th century canal house restored to its wonderful former glory. Also, the Old Town quarter of Amsterdam is under consideration for the UNESCO World Heritage Site and is well worth a day visit in itself.
If it’s more contemporary attractions you’re after, Amsterdam has plenty of that too. It’s a lively city, and there’s always plenty of festivals and outdoor concerts going on in the summer. If you’re in the city on 30th April for the Queen’s Day celebration, you’ll find the whole city turned into one massive street party. In June, there’s the artsy Holland Festival and for a bit of street theatre at any time, you can head to the Noordermarkt, where the lively market hosts numerous events and is almost never without its street performers.
Activities on the canals
There’s also plenty of things to do in Amsterdam all year round, so visitors are sure to find something interesting happening whenever they visit. One of the most popular activities for visitors is going on a boat ride in the canals. Not for nothing is Amsterdam known as the Venice of the North: the city has 100 kilometres of water way, which are crisscrossed by 1200 bridges and are one of the most picturesque elements in a very pretty city. There are an abundance of barges, houseboats, cruises, boats, and water bikes available and on a warm summer evening, a slow cruise around the canals is a great way to see the city without too much effort. Just don’t trail your hands in the water — the canals are pretty, but they’re not all that clean!
If you’re there in the winter, are really lucky and the canals freeze just right, then you may even get to watch, or take part in, one of the legendary skating events in Europe — the Elfstedentocht or Eleven Cities Journey. This challenging race takes the competitors through the Friesland country side in January and is one of the most exciting races of the year.
Even more attractions
Another popular thing to do in the city is go to the park, as they’re the best place to go to see the country’s most famous symbol — the tulip. In spring, the flowers in all their multicoloured splendour erupt from their warm brown beds and transform the pleasant green into a riot of colour for the summer. During peak tourist season (from July to August, when the weather is at its best), the parks are crowded with visitors enjoying the scenery and the sunshine. The Dutch are famously proud of their flowers, and when you see the endless beds of tulips — and daffodils, narcissus and a hundred other flowers — all bursting with life and colour under the warm summer sun, its not hard to see why.
On the more risqué side, the Dutch are also famous for their relaxed attitudes towards drugs and sex and don’t see anything particularly reprehensible about coffee shops selling weed, or raunchy sex shops being located right next to stuffy museums. And of course, there is the famous, or infamous, red light district,where women pose in various states of undress in shop windows, for the perusal of prospective customers and not a few curious tourists. The area also houses, appropriately enough, the Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum, the Amsterdam Sex Museum, and the Tattoo Museum, which are interesting attractions for those less straight-laced in nature. Interestingly, some of the city’s finest buildings are located in the district, giving a more legitimate reason to wander around the area.
There are also cafes, bars, pubs, restaurants and night clubs galore in Amsterdam, where you can take a break from sightseeing and maybe try the traditional Dutch food. The recommended drink to go with a good Dutch meal is of course the national drink: jenever, a clear, distilled alcohol flavoured with juniper berries. You can try the shops around the Rembrandtplein for some good, reasonably priced meals, or around the Spuistraat. Amsterdam also offers an amazing variety of cuisines. The city is home to the greatest number of ethnic minorities in Europe, and its shows in the number of restaurants offering Asian, African, Mediterranean and other cuisines.
There are plenty of other things to do, see and take part in when you’re in Amsterdam. Despite the Netherland’s stereotypical image as the land of windmills, tulips and clogs, Amsterdam offers some of the liveliest scenes on the Continent — and when coupled with the reasonable cost of living, ease of transportation, and some of the most laid back and tolerant people anywhere, its no wonder the city is such a popular place to go to on holiday.