Amsterdam, Amsterdam, Amsterdam… where to start. Well, let’s just sum it all up and say that this city, as lovely as it is, just didn’t live up to the ‘party’ hype. Don’t get us wrong: we had a great time. But this disjointed town, sitting several meters below sea-level, and named after the dam built on the river Amstel (which was, itself, named after the light version of Heineken), has a bit too much and a bit too little going on. Whatever do we mean? Who knows? We’re suffering from not a small bit of hypoxia on our way to pick up the third member of the crew, that still-missing beast of a ride which would teach normal folk to be happy with what they have, but, of course, has no effect on Top Down Timers. And the photo you’re looking at? We included it to show you something VERY common in Amsterdam which you’ll read more about later in the article: a bell gable!!! Yes! It’s what we came to this city to see, for sure.
Where are we?
We’re in the country of Holland. No we’re not. It doesn’t exist. Amsterdam? That’s the city. The Netherlands! That’s it. What’s the difference? The Netherlands (the country) contains North Holland (the province, not to be confused with South Holland) containing Amsterdam (the city). If someone asks you which country you visited, and you tell them Holland, it’s about the same as visiting Charlotte and telling people you went to the country of Carolina. Now, the people of the two Hollands are Hollanders, but they are also Dutch (not to be confused with citizens of Deutschland, which would be Germany). Educate yourself. Oh, and if you got all that, keep in mind that the Kingdom of the Netherlands is not the Netherlands. You’d have to throw in three other countries (in the Caribbean, of course) to make it a Kingdom. Oh, but Amsterdam IS the capital of the whole Kingdom, though the government of the country is in located in The Hague. The King is the one guy who can remember all this.
For the record, the following experiences all stem from our visit to Amsterdam south of the Ij (pronounced “eye”) waterway (not a river) which bisects Amsterdam. The southern half is where you will go if you vacation in the city. Stay in the canal rings, close to the Rijksmuseum. And if you’re driving, figure out parking beforehand, or you’ll be paying 40 euros a day (4 euros an hour if you’re parking on the street)!
Canals and other things man-built
Bruges somehow got the title of “Venice of the North.” Who are they kidding? Unless Venice has 3 canals with 20 boats, that is. Amsterdam is literally riddled with dozens of canals and thousands of boats and barges of various shapes and sizes—a few sitting half-sunken beneath the brackish waters, holding a space or forgotten in time, while others jump bridges James Bond style (not true) or dredge bicycles from the depths of the canal (totally true). People live on the water. People commute over and under the water. Amsterdam is not so much a city with a number of canals as it is a very neat archipelago, stitched together by hundreds of arching bridges. Take the canal boat tour. For 10 euros, you get to cram 6 hours’ worth of walking into a 1 hour boat tour, all from the safety of a no-bikes-allowed Top Down boat!
Plus, it’s a great opportunity to snap a selfie, with or without duck-face. (Can you spot the Top Down Time crew?) And it’s one of the best ways to see a few more sights you’re not otherwise going to see, such as the northern entrance to the tunnel which runs underneath the Ij waterway, complete with an absolutely mad public area up top with flags and plants and house-looking-things! Craziness!
And besides the modern sights on the Northern side of the Ij (pronounced “eye”, remember?), you also gain a new perspective on the older architecture on the Southern side, which can be difficult to see from the crowded, canyon-like southern streets:
Lining the dozens of canals are trees. Hundreds of trees. Thousands of trees. Millions of.. no, probably not. And row after row of houses, rammed together like crayons in a box–tall and thin. The reason for this forced coziness is that when the city was being built, residents were taxed based on the width of their homes, not the square footage. So it behooved them to build taller and narrower, creating a unique architectural style.
Anything to beat the tax-man, Top Down Time always says!
The houses were so narrow that getting furniture up the thin, winding stairs proved so difficult that many homes were built leaning INTO the street, and furniture hooks are visible jutting from the various styles of gables (so furniture could be hoisted through windows old-timey black-and-white three-stooges-pre-Shemp style). Above the furniture hooks, in the photo above, you can clearly see four distinct styles of gables used to adorn the homes: funnel, bell, step (as in Bruges) and flat cornice.
Besides the beautiful construction of the homes, Amsterdam boasts plenty of wonderful bell towers, churches, governmental buildings, even warehouses and shopping centers! The Magna Plaza shopping center (pictured above) near Dam Square is a 19th century neo-gothic masterpiece, and just might be the fanciest-looking mall ever to overcharge a tourist for chain-store clothing.
A block to the east of the Plaza is the Royal Palace (pictured above), built at the very heart of the city: Dam Square. Originally built as the city hall in the Golden Age of the mid 17th century in the style of Dutch Classicism, and later switching functions to become a palace on the orders of one of the Napoleon clan (a brother of “The” Napoleon, born Luigi in Cosica, and known as Lodewijk to the Dutch and Louis to the French), it is still in use today for state functions and other assorted high-fallutin’ events. Originally a yellow sandstone, darkened by the passage of time and diesel fumes, it is one of central Amsterdam’s few free-standing buildings, and was once the largest non-religious building on the planet. It also makes a lovely backdrop to illustrate just how much tourism has improved the scenery of this town!
Statues also dot the city, and you won’t go far before encountering yet another example of this art form with no description as to what the piece is called or the name of the sculptor. We suppose you could use your GPS-enabled cell phone to Google or such, but who has time for that? You’re too busy dodging…
Death comes in many forms. Few would expect it to come in the form of the valkyrie-ridden-two-wheeled-non-motorized-death-machine variety. The last thing you’ll see will generally be a 6’3” blonde, texting on her cell phone, barreling towards your tiny sliver of real-estate, the wrong way, in traffic, riding a massive beast of a cycle made of equal parts cast-iron and bones of her prior victims. And if you manage to survive her, you’ll likely lose your life a half-dozen other times in the next several minutes, until you are able to seek refuge indoors. You see, the problem is not the lone, rogue 2-wheeling maniac. It’s the absolute stampeding herds of them. They seem to follow no law but their own, and you had better make way. The scooters and cars are only marginally less dangerous, with scooters taking advantage of any stretch of convenient sidewalk or pedestrian path. And cars give no quarter, freely running you down if you are caught in a crosswalk as the pedestrian crossing light turns red. Careful out there!
The sheer volume of bicycles is perhaps most visible in the parking structure by the railway station, where some 30,000 bikes are kept locked up by commuters. We would guess that, since you could purchase a bike for 50 euros at the flea market, and that a rental bike costs some 10 euros a day, many of these bikes might belong to savvy tourists who may want to return one day. So they purchase a bike, lock it up, and may or may never return to use it again. As you can imagine, this is causing quite the space issue for a city which rides year-round, regardless of weather.
And when you can’t find a spot inside the structure, you park behind the structure:
And when too many bikes clog the streets, they spill into the canals, where dredges comb the depths to pull their rusting carcasses so that they don’t pile up as high as to endanger boat traffic. Think we’re kidding?
Though the architecture is very neat and orderly, with the city well-maintained, and the canals beautiful, the problem lies in the sheer volume of madness around you. We’ve already mentioned the insanely nerve-wracking bicycle traffic with which you’ll have to contend. Add to that the absolute throngs of tourists you’ll have to deal with, restaurant barkers second only in annoyance-factor to those of Istanbul, and you will quickly see how this is NOT a great place to lay back and relax in quiet solitude. Sure, you can find tamer side-streets with less hustle-and-bustle, but those tend to be few and far between. And if you’re expecting to get some good sleep, we hope your bedroom is not on the street-facing side of the building. Revelers leaving clubs and bars at all hours run around the streets laughing, singing, and screaming with their friends. It’s one thing if you’re one of the drunken masses, but quite another when trying to get some shuteye at 4:45 AM and some Brazilian is fighting with his girlfriend in Portuguese after lights-on time at the club while Italian soccer hooligans sing to their team success.
You do see the occasional bit of graffiti on the street, but for some reason, it seems to be orderly, as if placed there by commission. The bit that seems to inevitably hit the odd unwilling business or home appears to get cleaned up rather quickly. Even the canals are not immune from the effects of taggers. And thought some garbage is visible in the streets, no doubt from tourist jerks used to their own dirty cities back home, it doesn’t seem to pile up, as cleaning crews are often seen doing their best to maintain their lines against the tourist herd.
Speaking of canals, the canal rings and the center of town, as mentioned, are absolutely awash in tourists. Though the sea couldn’t drown this town, the tourists absolutely have (and it was not lost on us that we were adding to the crush). But tourists bring euros, and euros draw performers, from those creepy human statues to some straight-up good music.
Luckily, music is easy to find, and you don’t have to be in a club spending mad loot to hear it. We saw quite a few street musicians, some of which, such as ‘The Famous Unknowns’ pictured above, were really quite good, performing for the donations of passers-by to the unique backdrops of gothic and Dutch classical buildings. But one unique feature was the organized concerts set up by the city. These would often take the form of artists performing on barges and canal boats, attracting throngs of admirers both in the canals, on boats, and by the sides of the canals, blocking traffic. And it happened often enough that even if you didn’t seek these performances, you would eventually happen upon one or three. Free good music is an excellent thing!
If you come to Amsterdam, you expect to come into one of the great party cities on the planet. Well… not so fast. It seems as if this city has taken the easy route out, stamping out bar after bar with little difference in personality in order to maximize their euro intake. You’ll positively love the atmosphere if you’re into the frat-boy/sorority-girl/nightclub-bar-hybrid. And are pub crawls your thing? No shortage of them in Amsterdam. The best thing is that there really is an exciting party atmosphere in the air. You might not feel like going out, but if you head to the store to buy a late-night snack, the contagious atmosphere will draw you out, and you’ll find yourself getting all dolled up so you can get yourself totally sloppy. Don’t fight it. It’ll keep you young.
But you’ll need to get used to watered-down drinks. Yup. Actual water in the alcohol. Due to years of precise scientific research, we’re experts on what rum tastes like, and it doesn’t taste like that! We’re not saying every place does this (they don’t) but more than one establishment we attended thought that this was a prudent cost-cutting strategy. Best bet: pre-party before you head out, and use the bars to maintain your buzz. Employing this strategy, you won’t mind being ripped off for shots of alcohol-plus-water. And the music is good. And the people are looking to have a good time. Let there be merriment!
Oh… a note about the people. If you wanted to come to Amsterdam to party with six-foot-eight genuine Dutch, you’re on the wrong side of the river. The young Dutch party on the other side of the water, where they live, away from the tourists, where the drinks might not be watered down, and the crowd might not be as exuberant. But you won’t go there, because it’s a trek and a half. Instead, party with some drunk Brits or incoherent Germans. It’s good for you. You might even get a free souvenir* to take home!
*consult your physician immediately
What a bill of sales this place is! So, there are two things this part of Amsterdam is famous for: the drugs and the whores. What? You thought this was a G rated site? Think again! Top Down Time is here to report the truth, in all its seedy glory! So where do we start? Drugs! Always good to get a little high before hitting the whorehouse.
Well… by the looks of this party, it’s not all that glamorous. We’ll explain the venues like this: If it’s called a café, it serves coffee. If it’s called a coffee shop, you go there to light up. Yeah, that kind of light up. Honestly, the places looked like sad, run-down cafés where the unemployed gathered to vegetate away their days. The clientele was young, overwhelmingly male, and in bad need of several baths and not too few haircuts. But hey, if that’s your thing, I guess it leaves more room in nice places for the rest of us. ‘Connoisseurs’ of the icky will find numerous varieties to sample, and though the strict interpretation of the law forbids foreigners of partaking in said activity, in practice, the law is not enforced. So go ahead. Skunk it up. We won’t judge the wisdom of why you flew all this way to turn yourself into a zombie.
The famous brothels, steps away from Dam Square, are a few strips of narrow, winding streets where full-length windows and glass doors display scantily clad-women smiling for your attention, asking if you want to come inside. They look to be having a great time until you catch one who hadn’t noticed you coming around the corner. She’d have the most dejected look you’d ever seen. But she’s perk right up as soon as she (or her pimp, who is a greasy looking mustachioed and hunched man of indeterminate Southern European or Middle Eastern descent) noticed your arrival. It was really quite sad to see. The place was tantamount to a human zoo where you could (literally) poke the animals if you paid the right fee… just like everyone else before you. Pretty gross. Yes, we know, they all get tested regularly, yada yada. But she hasn’t been tested since three days ago, before she screwed X number of guys who pay to sleep with whores. It’s gross for you, and sad for them. And no picture taking, or you’ll be chased by pimps (which could be fun, if you have a speedboat waiting for you in the canal). One more note: you can’t use a credit card, so bring cash. We won’t tell you how we came across that tidbit, but Top Down Time is here to educate.
Food, like anything else in the tourist district (which was pretty much anything anywhere near a canal) was quite expensive. But that’s to be expected. There are cheap deals to be had, such as the 5 euro pasta or pizza places. There are also several varieties of kebobs and such one can have for a reasonable sum. But to have a proper meal, you’ll either have to spend quite a bit at a fancy joint or take your chances with the type of place which hires a barker, and may or may not charge you two euros for sauce which you assumed came with your steak or five euros for the “bread for two” they happened to put on the table without asking. You’re not getting Bruges quality food, but you’re paying less—a little give-and-take.
Make sure you try the waffles… and whatever those little sweet nuggets of death-by-sugary-fried-carbs happen to be.
Luckily, there is quite the variety of very decent take-out joints if you’re trying to save cash, including several varieties of Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, and of course, quality American (i.e. McDonald’s and Burger King). OK… so some take-out is more decent than others. There’s even a Tokyo-style food vending wall serving all manner of mystery food. Totally do it if you’re drunk. Totally skip it if you’re sober.
DON’T try this at home. Though she found the taste delicious, Top Down Ella ended up suffering greatly at the hands of the colonies of bacteria infesting this particular feast.
But that Shoarma Burger thing pictured on the right… we’re not so sure you want to try that. Though we have no empirical evidence to support our assumption, we would posit that the effect of said food on your alimentary canal would be somewhat akin to that of liquid drano. But go ahead. It’s your vacation. We dare you to prove us wrong. We just want to make sure you understand that Top Down Time will not be performing a review of the local medical facilities for your convenience.
After getting your fill of stately, colorful, and distinctly Amsterdam architecture around town, you can head to the world-class Rijksmuseum (which is certainly no slouch in the architecture department).
Its collection of art is astounding, even though its sense of intimacy is severely lacking. It’s a huge museum, which you’ll struggle to navigate in a leisurely day, concentrating on art produced by Dutch masters, but including works from across the globe. But, like much of Amsterdam, this museum is overrun by tourists. Get there EARLY to avoid the absolutely MASSIVE lines, and buy and print your tickets at home using the museum website if at all possible. Getting there early won’t mean that you will have free reign inside the building, as you’ll be elbow-to-elbow with tens of thousands of others visiting that day, but at least you’ll be able to skip an hour or more on line at the entrance and ticket booth.
Of course, a big draw to the museum are the two fellows self-portraited (we just made up a word) above. The crazy fellow on the left, you’ll instantly recognize as post-impressionist extraordinaire–and generally tortured soul–Vincent van Gogh. Very few people knew of his work when he shot himself in the chest (apparently with an invisible gun) at the ripe old age of 37. Ouch. Of course, he’s now ridiculously famous, and his works are priceless… but in Top Down Time’s opinion, he’d only ever play second fiddle to the fellow self-portraited (there goes that word again) on the right.
What do you mean you don’t know who that is? Seriously? OK.. for real, how many of you know who that is? You all get a gold star! For those of you with the skunk scratch-and-sniff, that’s a dude so awesome that he only needs one name…. and a first name at that, like Michelangelo, and Prince! It’s none other than toothpaste inventor Rembrandt himself. Alright, he didn’t really invent toothpaste, but what he did do was create some of the most amazing, dramatic lighting to ever grace a canvas. I mean, look at that piece! Who DOES that? And he wasn’t even using it for his facebook profile shot. By the way, to score points with the art-history chicks, don’t call him Rembrandt… call him Rembrandt van Rijn. It confuses people, and confusion leads to fun.
And if Rembrandt isn’t to your liking, you need to get your head checked. OK… cheap shot at St. John’s expense. We admit it. But at this point, what do you expect from us? Don’t lose your head, alright? In case you were wondering, the work is “Salome with the head of John the Baptist”, by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen. Keep that name in mind for a bit.
Now, what does the above painting, “The Holy Family,” teach us? That Gepetto likes to skulk in corners? No. It teaches us that not even baby Jesus is immune from the gonad-shrinking effects of anabolic steroids. Jesus says, “remember kids, while it’s cool to have a 12 pack, nobody likes it when you drop your drawers and all you’ve got are a pair of raisins and a desiccated Vienna sausage. Peace out!” And again, for a tiny sliver of time, remember that the artist’s name is Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen. No… that’s not the same guy that did the Head painting… that was Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen. You’re not impressing random art-history chick by forgetting.
Now, here’s one that caught our attention: “The Massacre of the Innocents.” by Cornelis Cornelisz van Haarlem. What caught our eye, you ask? Is it the wanton baby-slaughter? Is it the way dead people instantly turn grey? Is it the ass-to-the-faceness of it all? Nope… it’s the artist’s cool first-name, middle-name combo. He’s clearly twice as awesome as the painters of the prior two works because he has not one, but two Conelisz’s’z’s in his name. Top Down Time would tell him to go all out and change his name to Cornelis Cornelisz van Corneliszszsz, but he’s already dead.
What’s that? You’ve had it with paintings? Fine… you art heathen! We’ll educate you on other fine mediums you’ll find at the museum. To the right is a vase, painted with various Roman gods, including Venus and her insanely pert boobs (I mean really… look at those things. She must have had work done.) No idea what diarrhea-baby shooting fruits out of his arms is all about, but we dig it. Someone get that kid a diaper, will you? Oh, and this pic is way better than the one the museum uses on their website, so someone fix that, will you? And we were getting jostled by Helmut and Bertha from Bonn. kthxbye.
Now THIS is cool! An FK32 World War I biplane. You can even see the hole in the top wing where the pilot’s begoggled, leather jacket, leather helmet wearing upper half would protrude. This thing was GORGEOUS. It was shined up like a SEMA hotrod. We dig museums that appreciate art in its many forms, even the death-machine variety. And we dig hidden rooms in overcrowded museums that are out-of-the-way enough that people only wander into half your shots. By the time most people have gone around a couple of the lower levels, they are so tired they won’t make it into this room, but you really should persevere. You’re never coming back here. Make sure you see the whole place, ok?
Now who’s this fine lady with the tight ass, you may ask, after seeing her derriere. Not so fast. That’s a dude, bro! The fine 12th century bronze is Shiva Nataraja, destroyer of creation, to be exact. He’s dancing in a ring of fire, symbolizing something, because fire always does, with one foot in the air, and the other standing on Kim and Kanye’s baby. Actually, it’s not a baby. It’s the dwarf Apasmara, who symbolizes ignorance. So yeah.. maybe it is Kim and Kanye’s baby. It was mentioned that the curators were shocked when they x-rayed the work and discovered that it was cast from solid bronze. Shocked? Hadn’t they ever tried to pick the damn thing up? It must have (literally) weighed a ton! Still, he does have a fine thong (no offense to all the polytheists out there). This work is located in the Asian Pavilion, a newly build structure meant to contain works… Asian. It would be on the exact opposite end of the museum from that biplane we want to fly. Don’t miss it.
Of course, the Asian pavilion hosts plenty of East Asian as well as South Asian. In this case, we’re looking at the very cool “Creepy Praying Baby with Dragging Robe.” Now, you might guess that we don’t know the name of this work, and you’d be right. That’s because we couldn’t find a label. Not on the pedestal, not on the floor, not on the opposite wall. And we couldn’t even find a description of the work on the museum website. Good job, Rijksmuseum. You’ve ruined our whole damn trip!
We suppose that visiting in the winter is a good option to avoid the throngs of tourists, but keep in mind that we visited in the summer and were hit by a particularly hot few days which reached well into the low 80’s! Local intelligence informed us that during the last two winters, the canals froze over, which was rather unusual. And the rain… oh, the rain. We have never seen weather which turned on a dime the way it did in Amsterdam. For most of the day, it would be bright and sunny. Then, a wind would kick up, and within five minutes clouds would overtake the sun and buckets would pour from the heavens. Wait another ten minutes, using the nearest café as refuge, and the rain would stop and bright skies would return. It was very strange. Winters have much more rain, and possible snow (leading to more dangerous conditions considering the already frightening bicyclist situation). Besides, if it’s winter, you need to head somewhere warm, like Morocco or Southern Spain. That’s where we’ll be! Find us and we’ll buy you a drink.
They know the sun will return. Head to the flower market to see them and buy yourself a few dozen tulip bulbs, while you’re at it. You can also buy plenty of varieties of “grass” seed.
All in all
And now, it’s time to leave this beautiful, hectic city. But we won’t be getting to the train station the same way the locals do. You really can’t compete with their two-wheeled madness at any level.
What did we mean when we wrote that Amsterdam “has a bit too much and a bit too little going on”? Too much refers to the hectic nature of the whole package: bicycle traffic which makes you feel unsafe even on a sidewalk, too many tourists clogging the streets and filling the museums, too many restaurant barkers annoying you as you try to get from one end of a block to another; the city is so crammed full of sight and sound that it can seriously get on your nerves at times… and we’re New Yorkers—we just don’t like to constantly feel as if we’re in Times Square! Too little refers to the authentic interaction you expect to have with actual Dutch. Where are they? By day they smile as they take your money at the museum ticket booth and angrily ring their bells as they whiz by on their iron bicycles, while by night, they retreat to their suburbs, leaving you to mix with foreigners from lands you are not visiting before you end your night eating ramen or falafel, all the while surrounded by the mocking shell of a city which is clearly Dutch in appearance and function but will give up none of its true denizens.
It doesn’t mean you can’t have a great time (which we did), but you do feel a little let down if you came to experience “Holland,” wherever that is. The irony of all this is that your visit only adds to that very problem…
Still don’t believe us? Maybe this will convince you. There are two “I amsterdam” signs we ran into. The first one is on the north side of the Ij, where the locals live:
The one below is behind the Rijksmuseum, where the tourist mill about:
And we quote:
Nidal: This place is more nyc than nyc ever was.
Ordering at the bar: I’ll have a porn star. Thanks.
Response: That’s a good way to burn off your eyebrows.
Ella: Somebody cut off the top of that girl’s shirt.
Nidal: I’m pretty sure that was self-inflicted.
At around 4 A.M.: What’s better than Chipsy King?
Ella: She looks like Pretty Women, if you know what i mean.
Nidal: Yeah, she’s probably a hooker, but she soooo cute.
Nidal: I’m starting a new trend in photography. Its called ‘afocus’.
Nidal: I love being the oldest one in the club!
Ella: Divide by 2, and you still would be.
Nidal: At this angle I can totally see into these real-estate ladies’ shirts.
Waiter: Do you ‘smoke’?
Ella: I don’t need Google, Nidal knows everything.
Ella: Lets get out of the street before we get killed by a giant blonde on a scooter.
6 foot tall Nidal: I’ve never felt so short.