Amsterdam is a giant collection of clichés. Grachten, bikes, flowers, cheese – in their capital, you’ll find everything that the Netherlands are famous for. Nevertheless, Amsterdam is a lovely little city. Even its guilty pleasures are attractive. The Red Light District and numerous Coffee shops lure tourists and locals alike. French fries, croquettes and frikandel make the mouths of visitors and residents water. Chip fat is the secret weapon of the Dutch cuisine (and sinful, too). I have taken a stroll around Amsterdam to look behind its facade and see if bikes, flowers and canal romanticism are actually overstressed.
Fietsen: Get Your Ass on a Bike!
Supposedly, there are more bikes in Amsterdam than people – namely an estimated number of 881.000. The number of inhabitants ranks at 800.000. More than half of the population use a fiets – which is dutch for bike – daily. This is a good idea as the city is – aside from a few spots where biking lanes overlap with Metro tracks – perfectly suited for cycling. There are nearly no slopes, except for those at bridges spanning the canals, and the biking lane network is excellent: It compasses 767 kilometers – or 476 miles. Bikes do not only always have the right of way, they also get roofed parking lots. Sounds great, doesn’t it? If you think so, you’re in line with King Willem Alexander of the Netherlands. He and his family have been spotted cycling around Amsterdam quite a few times – if that isn’t downstairs, then what is?
Most of the bikes you’ll see around Amsterdam are typical Dutch bikes. They have at most three gears and back pedaling brakes, and a lot of them do not have a front brake at all. You do need to get used to the latter (lacking) feature, especially when stopping at red lights. The average fiets is pretty old, has a creaking handlebar, and the paint comes off here and there. In return, many bikes have some extra cool gimmicks such as handmade wooden front carriages that transport, depending on needs, either children, groceries, or furniture. I hired a bike for a day and made up my mind: Cycling definitely is the best way to explore the city.
Bloemen: Color for the City
The Dutch are have been renowned for their flowers – and especially for their tulip production – for centuries. Tulips have been cultivated in the Netherlands from the beginning of the 16th century. There was a time when their bulbs were an object of speculation at the stock market. Ten percent of the acreage fit for agricultural use is today used for the cultivation of cut flowers. These are not only exported but can of course also be found in the streets of Amsterdam. The city’s most famous flower market on the Singel Gracht opens daily. Originally, the flowers were brought to the swimming market in the oldest and innermost Gracht by boat. By now, trucks have replaced them. And the market has stretched from the water onto the surrounding streets and squares. It is a tourist attraction and a meeting point at the same time. Also, it is hard not to buy anything on the market. But for a visitor, it isn’t the easiest task to get a bunch of flowers home safely. So instead of buying anything, I just enjoyed the colors and the smell on a walk across the market.
Grachten: Into the Heart of Amsterdam
The Grachten and the typical narrow buildings on both sides of them form the heart of Old Amsterdam. Here, the borders between private life and the public become blurred. Due to the changing weather of the Netherlands, city life in Amsterdam is mostly lived indoors. Yet, the houses in the Grachtengürtel are open to the public – figuratively speaking, that is. Huge, mostly uncovered windows allow for discreet peeking into the privacy of living rooms and give an insight into the innermost life of Amsterdam with its light-flooded and high-ceilinged flats, lovingly, fashionably and often minimalistically furnished. Back in the 18th century, the area was populated by merchants who liked to show off what they had and constructed their houses accordingly. Nowadays, when the weather is good, street windows and doors are ajar and the residents of the Grachtengürtel come out to sit in front of their houses on their stairs or on the sidewalk to enjoy the sun.
Four main Grachten form a belt around Amsterdam’s inner city. Except for the older Singel, they were all planned and built at the beginning of the 17th century as a part of a plan to expand the rapidly growing settlement. They did not only serve as defensive ditches and transport routes but also as an open, mostly unsavory sewer. The tides and a few watergates brought fresh water. Until at some point, the administration opted for the installment of a genuine sewage system. Today, tourist boats are the most frequent sight on Herren-, Keizers-, and Prinsengracht as well as Singel, and house boats anchor at a few places. The main Grachten are connected with each other by around 160 smaller canals over which there are 1300 bridges. Elm trees exclusively grow on their banks – their roots only grow deeper and do not prove any danger to the canal walls. It is quite a challenge to park a car on these walls. But maybe this is just another reason why cycling is so popular in Amsterdam.