Amsterdam: Beyond the reputation

Amsterdam: Beyond the reputation

by: Stacey Peters | .
Stripes Europe | .
published: July 05, 2016

“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.” John Green

When I read that quote, I thought it was a perfect way to explain the “concept” of a city like Amsterdam to someone who hadn’t been there yet. Amsterdam is an easy-going city with a notorious reputation. The city is well-known for its Red Light District and legalized marijuana, but Amsterdam is more than that. One of the prettiest cities in the world, it’s called “little Venice of the North,” and is celebrated for its open-mindedness, diversification, Dutch painters and miles of canals.

Rent a bike and traverse more than 1,200 bridges that form 90 small islands all connected by three circular, intertwining canals. Visit the Heineken Experience at their old brewery and museum. Or, ride a canal bus tour and learn the history behind the colorful canal homes. Whether you have one, two or three days, the city has more than a few distractions to keep you busy — none of which need to be X-rated. 


Medieval maps show most of the Netherlands was once submerged. Its landscape has since been reclaimed and maintained by the innovative use of windmills, dykes and canals.

In the 12th century, fishermen built a dam on the Amstel River, producing areas of land for settlement. The area became known as Amstelldamme, then later, Amsterdam. During the 400 years after that first dam on the Amstel, the fishing village grew to a busy river city, later considered one of the most important ports for trade in Europe.

In 1568, the separated Dutch provinces signed a treaty to unite and rebelled against Spanish rule, starting the Eighty Years’ War. In 1648 the United Provinces won their freedom established the Dutch Republic.

The Dutch India Company, one of the world’s most notorious companies, was founded during the war to control trade in the Indian Ocean. The company helped build Amsterdam into the center of trade in Europe, thus beginning the Dutch Golden Age. Heavily armed with weaponry and governmental power, they destroyed the competition and built a monopoly of trade. Skilled laborers flocking to the city, and aristocrats and wealthy merchants invested in the arts, trade and foreign and domestic real estate.

The city expanded outward during the 19th and 20th centuries to alleviate the mass overcrowding and disease that plagued the narrow streets of the old city. New canals were dug and the city was transformed into the beautiful city we know today.

The Canals, Trams and Bicycles

The 165 city canals provide a picturesque backdrop, interesting real estate for houseboats and beautiful and efficient transportation. Both tourists and locals utilize municipal canal buses to navigate the city for pleasure and work. Same-day, 24 and 48 hour passes are available, and historical commentary is provided along the way. City trams also provide a quick way to get around. Running along cables, they offer several routes with stops around and through the city center. 

Although Amsterdam’s public transportation is efficient, the most popular mode of transportation appears to be the bicycle. Thousands are everywhere, identical black bikes tethered to canal iron railings, and row after row are piled at every train or tram station. You can buy a cloth seat cover in an array of patterns and colors to help yours stand out, but with the piles of bikes, it’s amazing anyone can find their own. Daily bike rentals are available around the city and at many hotels.

Noteworthy Museums

Amsterdam’s fine art collection is one of its greatest attraction. The Rijksmuseum and State Museum house works of the great masters, and the Van Gogh Museum is the largest collection of his greatest work. But it’s the Anne Frank House and Museum that made the most profound impact on me.

Born in Frankfurt in 1929, a young Anne Frank and her family moved to Amsterdam in 1933 to flee Nazi occupation in Germany. Unfortunately, they did not escape the growing anti-Semitic hatred in Europe. After hiding for two years above the offices of the family business, in 1944 they were betrayed, captured and separated among concentration camps in 1944. Anne and her sister, malnourished and ill, died a few days apart in March 1944 at the Auschwitz camp — less than a month before its liberation by British soldiers.

Tour the empty offices where personal belongings and photographs paint a stark portrait of life under Nazi occupation. Follow the narrow staircase to the empty, rolling bookcase that obscured the entrance to the 3-story secret hiding place. The rooms are tiny, the floors creak loudly, the walls are bare, except for a movie poster Anne glued over her bed. Stand in the center and touch opposite walls and imagine three families living in that space for more than two years. View the pretty blue porcelain toilet that couldn’t be flushed until after dark. Climb the ladder to the attic space where she and Peter shared her first kiss.

Thankfully, Anne’s short life was thoughtfully detailed in one of the most famous diaries ever written. Published in 1947 by Anne’s father, Otto, the only surviving family member, it has been translated into 67 languages, selling more than 31 million copies.

Just for F-U-N!!

For kids and the kid-at-heart, head over to Science Center NEMO on the IJ River. You can’t miss it. It looks like a huge green-glass ship docked to the pier. Five floors of hands-on experiments, films and exhibits will keep you busy for hours.

Established in 2000, NEMO is the largest science center in the Netherlands. Don’t miss Teen Facts, an entertaining exhibit about the absolutely mind-boggling mentality of teen life. The exhibit is playful but informative, as it explains the changes the typical teen experiences as both their mind and body transform into adulthood.

Splashing Water Wonder is a wet exhibit held on the roof every summer. Kids try to divert more than 1,000 gallons of water through a network of pipes using wheels and taps. Parents can watch while sipping a cool drink from the café. Go to for more information.

So many people told me Amsterdam was not kid-friendly, and some parts are, some aren’t. Although not popularly known, most cities in Europe have a notorious neighborhood where prostitution is allowed or tolerated. It’s always good to read about each city where you and your kids plan to visit. 

Whether you decide to take a stroll along the canals, visit the Dutch masters in a fine museums or just relax in a cozy neighborhood brown bar, Amsterdam has a way for you to channel your interests. Go for the history, the notoriety, the beer or just to say you’ve gone … go for the experience. 

For more tips about living and traveling in Europe, check out our digital edition of Welcome to Europe on

Tags: beer, bicycle, bike, Dutch, Europe, fishing, Germany, history, Kids, museum, Netherlands, sport, summer, windmills, Anne Frank, NEMO
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