Mention Amsterdam to those unfamiliar with the city and chances are you’ll hear them mention “pot” and “prostitution” in their opening breath. It’s sad really, when there’s so much more to Amsterdam and indeed the Netherlands than its unwholesome reputation suggests. I’ve just wrapped up my second trip to the Dutch capital and to date have not stepped foot into a “coffeehouse” or taken a gander at the Red Light District. The truth is that outside heavily trodden tourists zones “coffeehouses” are much more discreet and pretty unremarkable from the exterior, so unless you’re actually seeking these places out, chances are you won’t notice them.
“Eccentricities” aside, Amsterdam is one of those cities that leaves you Googling your way through pages of apartment listings and real estate ads. It’s just so gosh darn livable and it has reminded of why I moved across the pond to begin with. Just as I did on my first trip, I chose to stay just outside Amsterdam’s center to enjoy the city for what it really is, not what it’s advertised to be. Our hotel was a few blocks west of Leidseplein and within walking distance to the Rijksmuseum. While I enjoyed seeing all the remarkable masterworks from the Dutch Golden Age of painting and reveled in the opportunity to visit the Royal Palace of Amsterdam, the real pleasure came from visiting local restaurants, cafes and simply walking around town.
Thanks to a little internet research, I stumbled across a few great bars and restaurants that really summed up Amsterdam for me. The first was called Gollem Proeflokaal, which was just a few minutes from our hotel. Offering 20+ beers on tap and dozens more in bottled form, this tiny bar with dimmed lighting and generous wooden benches made me feel right at home. Gollem’s patrons were all Dutch, though the bar staff seemed to speak with more English fluency than I can claim. As we sat at a table sipping our beers and discussing our weekend options, we were greeted by the only member of the staff who couldn’t speak English, or Dutch for that matter. One of Gollem’s cats (yes, CATS) parked its caboose right next to mine and kept me company while I dined on Flemish stew and french fries.
The next night we visited a small street corner cafe called Toussaint on a quiet block of residential homes just outside of the Jordaan district. It consisted of an impossibly small kitchen, a small grouping of candlelit tables and a chalkboard menu filled with the day’s specials in Dutch. Our patient waiter was kind enough to go through and translate each dish on the list for use. For the same price as dinner and drinks at the awful Zizzis (UK-based Italian chain restaurant . . . think Olive Garden), we enjoyed duck, seafood ravioli, desserts, wine and a beer all under twinkling candlelight.
If I had to describe Amsterdam in one word I think it would be “calm”. The people seem calm and the cafes and bars are cozy. Walking down the city streets I encountered numerous mouthwatering independent shops selling everything from the little wooden toys I once had as a kid to quirky home furnishings and handmade odds and ends. Next to the sidewalks an endless stream of bicycles outfitted with wicker baskets whizz past and it all seemed so comfortable. I think I’d like to live here one day, but until then I am content with the fact that I’m just an hour’s flight away.