AMSTERDAM: History with a Sexy Underbelly

Amsterdam

When I tell you that Amsterdam, capital (though not seat of government) and most populous city of the Netherlands has an official city flag with a triple-X rating (that’s “XXX”), technically I’m not kidding. They have a red flag with a black horizontal center bar that has three white X’s on it, the same shown on the shield of their coat of arms (with the black bar now vertical). I suppose the joke just goes with Amsterdam’s most prevailing current reputation stereotype. After all, it’s probably the most-visited place in the Netherlands by tourists, and while the whole country has lenient laws of drug use and a sex industry where the workers get the same rights and benefits as “wholesome” business employees, it all gets painted very vividly in Amsterdam. But take note, that’s not really all there is to it in this city of canals a la Venice, but Dutch. This historical yet also modern city is so much more.

The Dutch Heart

History tells that Amsterdam was granted the right to be a city in the early 1300’s, though it has been reclaimed from the sea for much longer than that. The River Amstel, for which the city was named, naturally would have ended where the reclaimed land that became Amsterdam now stands. As settlement grew, canals were built to accommodate the river’s flow into an outer moat (now take inside the modern city). Amsterdam flourished with trade, and from here ships carrying trading goods and settlers reached across the world. They earned great revenues and founded colonies that strengthened Dutch power into a golden age, with the city becoming the wealthiest in the 17th Century.

With the decline of Dutch influence in the 18th and 19th Centuries so did Amsterdam lose prominence. The rise of industrialization helped it recover until the German conquest in World War II. Post-war rebuilding helped Amsterdam regain its historical splendor alongside modernization and expansion, and now parts of the city are included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Arranging Travel

If you’re planning to go and visit Amsterdam then you’re quite in luck. Although no direct Philippines-Netherlands route flies there, you can simply stop over at Hong Kong International Airport via Philippine Airlines, and then book with Cathay Pacific from there to Amsterdam Airport Schipol. While on Amsterdam, car travel is a tad more limited than you’d be used to in an international city, due to being crisscrossed by canals. Thankfully there are also light railway options in the Amsterdam Metro and Amsterdam Tram. Buses also ply routes in the city, but the best personal private transport for getting around Amsterdam’s center is the bicycle. Water transport and ferries are also in use to get around sections of the city.

Scores of Attractions

It may be only one city out of the entire Netherlands, but Amsterdam didn’t become the center of the Dutch world for centuries, for nothing. You’ll find plenty of gorgeous sights to behold as you travel the streets, cross the canals, and even cruise along them.

The Amsterdam Royal palace was built in 1655 as a town hall, in 1806 it became a palace when French Emperor Napoleon’s brother Louis Napoleon took up residence there as King of Holland. Afterwards King William I made it his residence as well. Currently it’s one of the three official Dutch royal palaces (the other two are at The Hague). The present King Willem-Alexander only uses this palace for ceremonies, so tours are available.

The city is also home to a couple of the world’s most acclaimed painters: Rembrandt and Vincent Van Gogh. Museums in Amsterdam feature their works, the former at his home (which includes his other possessions in addition to some of his art) and the latter at a dedicated building that also houses paintings from his contemporaries Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet and Bernard. Other museums in the city are the Rijksmuseum for art of the Dutch masters (more Rembrandts here), Amsterdam Museum for general history, and a local branch of the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum from Russia.

There are several historic residences too, such as the house with the secret annex where the famous and tragic girl diarist Anne Frank lived with her family during the Nazi occupation, until their capture and sendoff to the Jewish concentration camps.

But perhaps the most tantalizing locale that some visitors would like to check out would be the red-light De Wallen district, where Amsterdam’s prostitutes ply their trade and coffee shops sell marijuana for customer use. Hence my XXX joke about the city flag. Note though, that this sexy glitzy scene has only been hyped up for tourists. Proper behavior is still expected.

So there you have it. At times historically heavy, at times cutting edge, at times naughty, but at all times tourist-friendly, you’ll never regret a trip to Amsterdam. It’s sure to be an eye-opener.

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