Amsterdam: the capital of 'anything goes'

Amsterdam, Netherlands, has more canals than Venice, Italy. Tour boats are popular with visitors and an easy way to get around the city.
Amsterdam, Netherlands, has more canals than Venice, Italy. Tour boats are popular with visitors and an easy way to get around the city. ASSOCIATED PRESS

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands — If you think of Europe as a musical map, you might see London as a stately minuet and Madrid as a spicy flamenco. Rome would be a glorious oratorio, and Paris would surely be a smoky jazz interlude.

But Amsterdam would be an entire symphony whose subtle tones blend with its more resonant ones to create a rich, melodic travel experience.

It has become a cliché for cities around the world with a substantial amount of water within their boundaries to refer to themselves as the "Venice of the (fill in the blank)" and Amsterdam is no exception. However, with more canals than Venice (165 to be exact), Amsterdam deserves its title, "Venice of the North."

If I were going to give Amsterdam a subtitle, however, it would more likely be "the capital of anything goes." Immigrants from 145 nations give the city its colorful lifestyle and sharp creative edge, and its extraordinary tolerance for virtue (although largely Protestant, the Dutch welcome Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and any other religion) and vice (marijuana is legal, and prostitution, although not legal, is tolerated, and in the case of the infamous Sailors' Quarter, it's a source of endless fascination to tourists).

It was this tolerance that was the basis for Amsterdam's emergence in the 17th century as the richest city in the world. The Dutch merchants who sailed the seven seas under the banner of the East India Trading Co. did not allow themselves to become insular, as did other countries that assumed great power. Instead, they welcomed Flemish, Walloon and French Protestant exiles, and Jewish refugees from Spain, Portugal and Central Europe. Together, they created the elegant enclave of beautiful buildings that, interlaced with a sparkling crescent of canals, today makes up the largest historical inner city in Europe.

A user-friendly city

Because of its compactness, Amsterdam is a user-friendly city. Bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation for locals ages 8 to 80. Visitors will find the Circle Tram 20, which links important sites throughout the city, the easiest way to explore (a single ticket allows unlimited use).

For the more mobile, there are other ways to get around. You can walk from the Central Station to the Rijksmuseum clear across town in less than an hour, or you can work your calf muscles on pedal boats, known as canal bikes, that navigate the city's network of aquatic highways. Whatever form of transportation you choose, you'll have a lot of ground (or water) to cover. Amsterdam has a wealth of attractions, great and small.

A variety of museums

In the great category are two of Europe's most renowned museums. The Rijksmuseum displays a collection of works by Dutch masters, with Rembrandt's Nightwatch as the centerpiece. Don't miss the outdoor sculpture garden, which has a curious collection of "ruins" spanning five centuries — including Gothic pillars and 17th-century city gates. The adjoining Van Gogh Museum showcases the world's largest collection of the artist's works — 200 paintings and 500 drawings.

On the opposite end of the city is a museum of another type. The Royal Palace, filled with Empire-style furniture and paintings commissioned by Louis Napoleon, whose brother had him installed as Holland's first king, illustrates the opulence of European courts during the Napoleonic era.

Panoply to pathos is a journey easily traveled in Amsterdam. Within walking distance of the palace, tucked behind the Westerkerk (Western Church), is an unprepossessing structure that was to become known the world over as a symbol of human valor.

In cramped quarters on the third floor, the teenaged Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis for two years. Anne perished in a concentration camp, but the diary she kept survived and has been published in more than 50 languages. Today, the Anne Frank House is open to the public, and flowers are often strewn on the steps in tribute to the young girl's courage.

In contrast to Amsterdam's attractions that have received such worldwide attention, some, when stumbled upon, evoke gasps of surprise and pleasure. One such spot is the Begijnhof, a medieval village square in the city's heart. It dates to the 14th century, when it was used as a refuge by devout women who did not want to enter a convent, and an aura of serenity still prevails in the circle of neat cottages and the small medieval church surrounded by trees and well-tended flower gardens.

Leaving the Begijnhof, visitors enter what is probably the only thoroughfare in the world where 17th-century paintings hang on display on both sides of the street. Protected by a glass arcade, the passageway, lined with portraits of the medieval civic guards, connects to the Historical Museum.

Another hidden treasure is the Willet-Holthuysen Museum, better known as the Canal House. Once across the threshold, visitors leave modern Amsterdam and step into the 19th century. Each room is filled with articles from the private collection of Abraham Willet, a wealthy merchant. There are prints, drawings, furniture and decorative arts fashioned from gold, silver and pewter. Behind the house is a small parterre garden modeled after the gardens at Versailles in France.

Bridges and brown cafés

A city with so many canals necessarily has many bridges spanning them. One of the most unusual is the Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), a picturesque white-painted drawbridge that has spanned the Amstel River for 340 years. Legend has it that the bridge got its name from the wealthy Magere sisters, who lived on opposite sides of the river and had it built so they could visit each other more easily.

The best way to see all of Amsterdam's bridges is to take a canal cruise; the glass-topped boats ply the Amstel and the canals day and night. For the best perspective on how the city's land and water maintain a tenuous but necessary truce, go during the day and at night. By day, you'll marvel at the gabled 17th-century canal houses; at night, the bridges make quite a sight, with necklaces of silver lights.

Speaking of nights, Amsterdam's night life is justly famous, and nearly every visitor makes at least one trek to the city's notorious Sailors' Quarter, where everything you've ever heard is true. It has been referred to as a "sexual amusement park," where the ladies — decked out in elaborate costumes and often portraying Cleopatra or Madame Pompadour — sit behind glass windows in tightly packed canal houses. There is a lot of good- natured ogling, but one rule is strictly observed: no photography.

The Sailors' Quarter draws the crowds, but locals will tell you that the real centers of the city's night life are the brown cafés. Dutch cousins to the British pub, these drinking establishments range from large taverns where a million beers disappear down the throats of thirsty customers every year to tiny bars that owe their existence to a handful of regulars who come to play the local version of whist.

Two of the most atmospheric brown cafés are Café Chris, near the Westerkerk, which has been a tap house since 1624, and Café Karpershoek, frequented by seamen as early as 1629. And if someone approaches and offers to sell you a little marijuana along with your Heineken, don't be shocked. Remember, this is Amsterdam, where anything goes.