Americans love visiting European cities, from Madrid to Moscow and back. Amsterdam is easily one of the most popular cities for American tourists, but it’s a bit different from the others. For one, the Netherlands is otherwise not very well represented in American culture. Amsterdam tourism is rarely about exploring the history of the city, for example, except for visits to the Anne Frank House. The quickest shorthand for Dutch culture in the United States is wooden clogs, which aren’t exactly in fashion over there anymore.
Amsterdam is a major destination for art lovers, frat bros and really anyone who enjoys beautiful cities. But if you tell an American you’re visiting the city, their first reaction will likely be a joke either about marijuana or sex workers. While these things do figure prominently in Amsterdam, especially near the city’s center, it’s a tad reductive. The city has so much to offer, so here we’ll dive into why exactly Americans love Amsterdam so much.
The Winding Waterways And Bike Paths
The heart of many cities lies at the river that runs through it. People tend to settle near water because that’s where the ships can bring people and goods, so towns usually start there and spread outward. But because the money and people stay concentrated around the water, it remains the part most welcome to tourists. And frankly, rivers are just aesthetically pleasing. Fortunately, the Dutch found a way to spread the love: canals.
If you look at a map of Amsterdam, you’ll see it’s not actually one solid landmass. Because of canals built starting in the 17th century, the whole city is cut into about 90 islands, with bridges connecting them all. There’s no exact reason why it’s so fun to be in cities filled with canal cruises and waterside restaurants, but it’s definitely a human truth that they’re the prettiest.
The many islands and small streets created by the canals also make Amsterdam a prime place for bicycles. People have been biking in the city for a long time, but it really took hold in the 1970s when the city invested in its bicycle infrastructure. After 3,300 bicycle deaths in 1971, there was really no choice but to make Amsterdam safer for cyclists. Today, it’s the bicycle capital of the world, and tourists can rent bikes from many different places to quickly traverse the city. The fight between car traffic and bike traffic, however, continues.
Art, But Mainly Vincent Van Gogh
For a pretty small country, the Netherlands has been home to a huge number of fantastic artists. The Dutch masters represented the art Golden Age in the Netherlands (they literally call it “the Golden Age”). World-famous artists including Rembrandt and Vermeer were painting some of the most beautiful works in the world during the 17th century. You can see a selection of their works, along with dozens of other artists, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Yet you’ll have to go to a different museum to see the one artist who brings the most people to Amsterdam: Vincent Van Gogh.
The Van Gogh Museum draws people from all over the world to look at a huge collection of just one man’s art. It’s hard to say exactly what makes one artist stand out among the rest. It could be that the art, from “Sunflowers” to the many self-portraits, just speaks to our humanity more than any other works. Or maybe, Van Gogh’s life story is just appealing, selling only one painting in his lifetime and cutting off his ear later in life in a fit of insanity.
It’s worth noting that Van Gogh actually only spent one year living in Amsterdam. Still, thanks to the museum, his legacy is tied to the city forever.
Weed And Gedogen
Amsterdam is, to American tourists at least, most famous for being a place where marijuana is readily available. The culture of coffee shops selling weed permeates the center of Amsterdam, which explains why there are so many frat bros and bachelorette parties that hang around there.
While the culture of smoking weed is relaxed in the Netherlands, Dutch people don’t really smoke all that much. One report found that only 22.6 percent of Dutch people have smoked weed, which is much smaller than the 40.3 percent of Americans who have. It’s especially an interesting difference considering weed is not nearly as socially acceptable in the United States. This study doesn’t focus on Amsterdam, which may have more pot-smokers overall, but it still shows that weed is certainly not central to Dutch culture.
Weed does point to something that is pretty Dutch, however: gedogen. To explain what that means, you first need to know that weed is illegal in the Netherlands. But if coffee shops follow certain guidelines, they can sell weed. This is where gedogen comes in, which vaguely translates to “tolerance.” The Dutch just kind of look the other way on a number of things, making them in effect legal, even if they’re not legally legal.
Windmills And Tulips
The American idea of Holland is incomplete without some windmills and tulips. There are over 1,000 windmills throughout the Netherlands, most of which were used for draining wetlands in the past, though they’re not usually associated with the cities. You can still find a few in Amsterdam, however. The most famous is De Gooyer because it’s conveniently located right next to Brouwerij ‘t IJ, which happens to be a brewery. You can go drink reasonably priced beer beneath a massive windmill, which is an essential part of the Dutch experience.
Then there are tulips. There’s the popular story of tulipmania, which is that in the 1630s tulips arrived in the Netherlands and people lost their minds over them. Companies sprung up overnight to import and sell tulip bulbs. But after a few years, the bottom fell out of the market and the sudden loss of money crashed the Dutch economy. Historians have proven, however, that this story is kind of overblown, and it essentially invented by religious people to ridicule society for their excesses (yes, tulips were considered excesses). While tulipmania may have been hyperbolized, the myth stuck and you can find the flowers all over Amsterdam. At the Bloemenmarkt along one of the city’s many canals, you can purchase tulips — both real and fake — from dozens of vendors.
Liberalism, Real And Imagined
In his book Amsterdam, author Russell Shorto explores how the history of the city is permeated with liberalism. This isn’t the current American idea of liberalism, mind you, but the idea of political, social and economic freedom. Amsterdam has been extraordinarily liberal throughout its history, especially compared to the social and moral constraints of, say, Victorian England. Many people go to Amsterdam just to be in a place where you can be who you are more freely.
The liberality of Amsterdam is not a simple thing, however, and the legality of sex work provides an example as to why. The brothel industry was legalized back in 2000 in an attempt to make sex work a safer industry, because if it’s legal it should be less shady. De Wallen, better known as the red light district, is to an outsider the height of liberalism. Women stand in windows wearing little-to-no clothing offering brothel services, which would seem extraordinary in any other city. But almost two decades after the legalization of sex work, major flaws are being found. For one thing, people flood the area to gawk at the sex workers, leading the Dutch government to pass a law banning tour groups from staring at the women. This is only one part of the problem, though, as recent reports have shown that the red light district has led to an increase in human trafficking in eastern Europe. Brothels are increasingly closing their doors, and it’s possible it may be made illegal once again.
This isn’t to say that liberalism is any kind of failure in Amsterdam; it’s just not as simple as tourists may think. In fact, you may notice that all of the items on this list that Americans love about Amsterdam are based in misconceptions. The Netherlands is a beautiful country, and there are plenty of reasons to visit it. Learning about the real history and culture of Amsterdam makes a vacation there all the more rewarding.