The city that hides behind the Red Lights

Coldplay named a song after it, Ian McEwan set his Booker Prize winning novel there and Angelina Jolie keeled over in one of its tattoo parlours. Yes I’m talking about Amsterdam; the city where anything goes.

Famed for its fusion of vice and high brow culture, Amsterdam is a place of contradictions. It resists classification, combining world-renowned, laissez faire liberalism with a typical European homage to rules and regulations. This is a place where soliciting is legal, provided that you have the right paperwork. Wander down a street in Amsterdam and you will find baby clothing stores happily residing next to rastafarian coffeeshops. Galleries dedicated to sixteenth century art are only a tram ride away from museums plotting the history of porn. And shoe shops display ‘Hush Puppies’ alongside neon, plastic platforms that would provoke a raised eyebrow from Marillyn Manson.

For Amsterdam has something to offer everyone, from the shockingly perverted to the über-conservative. This is why it consistently ranks as one of Europe’s most popular city break destinations. Yet, like kebabs and Che Guervera T-shirts, the “crazy” weekend away in Amsterdam, is one of those student clichés that you might feel you are simply too unshakably cool to indulge in – this would be a shame.

If ever a place was created for the young, the beautiful and the open minded, it is Amsterdam. This city simply oozes style and soul – but at half the cost of New York prices. With the ascent of low cost airlines such as Easy Jet and Ryanair, flights to Amsterdam Schiphol from regional airports can cost less than a train fair to London (www.cheapflights.co.uk/flights/Amsterdam).

Accommodation doesn’t have to break the bank either; you can pick up good offers at www.amsterdam-hotels-guide.com and www.hotels.nl, to name but a few. Indeed, booking over the internet reduces costs significantly, especially if you go off-peak, in term time. But if you are prepared to embrace Amsterdam’s hippie-child ethos in full and stay in a youth hostel, prices are even lower (see www.hosteleurope.com). Amsterdam is a Mecca for travellers and there are numerous backpacking lodges, so provided that you do your research, you could end up staying somewhere quite decent.

Furthermore, contrary to contemporary myth you do not have to spend your entire visit inebriated in an opium-fuelled rhapsody, or paying a fortune to be serviced by an exiled Russian courtesan (unless you want to). No, Amsterdam might be famous for all things continental and controversial, but it is too chilled out to care if you’re not. And although the red light district is well worth a visit, if only to point and laugh at the bizarre notion of consumerised copulation, there are plenty of other things to see and do in this historical and deliciously cosmopolitan Venice of the North.

Instead, you could visit Anne Frank’s house, or cruise along the pretty cat’s cradle of canals on a boat tour, or stroll around Dam Square to see the Royal Palace. If art is your thing, then spend the morning with the Dutch masters in the famous Van Gogh gallery or Rijksmuseum, which houses works by Vermeer and Rembrandt, particularly his impressive masterpiece The Night Watch.

If you are feeling decadent, you could always visit one of the city’s numerous diamond factories and try on Elizabeth Taylor-esque jewellery that you have absolutely no intention of buying. In addition, there are countless museums, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. And although the museums of sex, beer and marijuana tend to stand out in people’s minds for obvious reasons (the sex museum comes complete with its own mechanised, plastic flasher), it is also possible to receive a comprehensive education in Jewish history, anthropology, modern art or film. However, even traditional museums embody an unconventional Dutch twist, the Maritime museum features the arm of a Dutch naval hero thoughtfully preserved in alcohol.

Getting around is easy too. Although there is no metro service, inexpensive trams and buses run regularly. Indeed, Holland has a unique public transport system, whereby you purchase tram and bus ‘strippen’ cards in advance of your journey. This works out to be a lot cheaper than in the UK. But if you would prefer to go native, you could always hire a bike, or tag on the end of a bike tour (be warned this entails sporting an obligatory plastic, orange cagool).

However one of the best ways to capture local colour is simply on foot, loosing yourself in the city’s web of narrow streets, whilst picking up kitsch, bohemian bargains that would make Sienna Miller proud. For although Amsterdam could never market itself as a fashion capital, the city does have some lovely shops, albeit in a quirky, ‘incense-burning-overkill’ kind of way. A trip to a local market is also a must see, especially a cheese market or the charming ‘bloemenmarkt’, Amsterdam’s famous, floating flower emporium.

Failing that, if you just want to go to Amsterdam to get hammered in celebration of an immortal right of passage – such as a friend’s twenty-first, you could always take the notorious tasting tour around the Heineken Brewery. Once you have sampled the goods and survived the ‘beer bottle ride’ (to allow you to successfully imagine life as a beer bottle of course), toss a dice in your stupor to see where you end up. Amsterdam is probably the best place to do this, as you will be hard pressed to drift into the ‘wrong side of town’.

But if you are strictly an after hours kind of drinker, there are plenty of establishments to delight and entertain. If you are still in tourist mode, visit Amsterdam’s first gay bar dating back to the 1920s, or try your luck at the Holland Casino. The lure of the banana bar will inevitably appeal to certain individuals, probably of the alpha male variety. However, if you fancy something a little less seedy, there are numerous pubs, clubs and cafés, where you can seduce people who aren’t enduring your lustful lechery for cash. The Leidseplein strip is a particularly vibrant centre for nightlife, but Amsterdam’s restaurant scene is also buzzing. The city offers an eclectic range of local cuisine to choose from, ranging from pancake houses to authentic Thai and Indonesian.

However anyone staying in Amsterdam for more than a few days really would be a philistine not to venture out of the capital, to see what the rest of Holland has to offer. Although the provinces lack something of Amsterdam’s carnival-esque aura, after a while this can be a tonic, providing a richer and more relaxed insight into Dutch culture. The Netherlands has a reliable and inexpensive rail network, which can allow you to visit some of its other historic cities, whilst also providing a glimpse of the country’s picturesque rural scenery. Cities such as Leiden, with its famous windmill, the pottery town of Delft and The Hague, which houses the country’s parliament, can all be reached cheaply and conveniently.

In addition, if your visit happens to coincide with a heat wave (admittedly this is rare in Northern Europe), you could follow the exodus and flock to the coast. Holland’s beaches border the North Sea, with many offering surfing, sailing and other watersports. Although such places can be more reminiscent of Scarborough than St Tropez, if you are prepared to do the walking to find a suitably quiet beach, they can be remarkably pleasant. However depending on your views on exhibitionism, you might want to beware of the nudist colonies which you will invariably stumble across if you wander too far into the wilderness.

The summer is also festival time in Amsterdam, with Dance Valley, Lowlands and the Gay Pride Parade all taking place. Such events feature live music and entertainment, attracting a whole host of revellers (and drug addicts) from all over the world.
Furthermore Holland can be a fantastic base for a more extensive exploration of the rest of Europe. Old favourites like Berlin and

Paris can be easily reached by international rail in a matter of hours. However there is also scope to go to less mainstream destinations in Belgium, such as Antwerp, Brugge and Ghent. For this you can either purchase an all inclusive rail ticket in advance (www.inter-rail.co.uk), which will allow you to travel through certain zones in Europe for a specific length of time, or you could buy tickets for individual trips direct from Holland itself. The Dutch rail authorities frequently run special student offers, which include discounted fares and accommodation (www.ns.nl).

Whatever you are looking for in a city break, Amsterdam’s dynamic blend of the crazy and the cultural cannot fail to satisfy partisans of hedonism and sensible shoes alike. Just like people always forget how good cornflakes taste, don’t dismiss Amsterdam, because sometimes the old classics truly are the most satisfying.

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