Usually, I try to avoid being That Tourist.
It was nearly midnight and I was at a street corner, a few drinks in and on my way home from the red light district. I was using the streetlight to read my map while straddling my bright red tourist rental bike. And I was very much aware of the giant Tourist Target hovering over my head.
I gave up on the map pretty quickly though. Turns out, the only way to navigate Amsterdam is holistically. As in, “I’m pretty sure the Amstel river is to my left, Central Station is behind me, I haven’t passed the Rijksmuseum yet, and I’m far enough to the left that I’m not going to run into the Anne Frank house, so I’m just going to keep on going and eventually I’ll see something I recognize.” Maps were near useless.
The best decision I made during my three full days in Amsterdam was to rent a bike.
Amsterdam is a city obsessed with bikes. I saw more bikes than I did in Vietnam, and almost as many people doing crazy things on them. A man in a pinstripe suit and top hat carrying flowers. An elderly woman with a daschund in her front basket. A girl sitting on the back of a bike while her boyfriend(?) pedaled along. She was reading Shakespeare out loud to him.
Having a bike allowed me to zip across the city in between museums. It helped me get lost faster, but it was also less of a panic when I did get lost because I could get un-lost just as fast. This praise is coming from someone who, despite appreciating bikes as a way to get from point A to point B, hates biking. I used to deliberately take my break as a camp counselor whenever biking was scheduled. But in Amsterdam, I was absolutely tickled to have it (it helps that the whole city is pretty much flat).
So I spent my weekend biking around Amsterdam. In between biking, I went to the Van Gough Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank House, the Rembrandt House, the Heritage Museum (Ruben exhibit!), the Royal Palace, the Sex Museum, and of course, the Red Light District. (Actually, writing that all out, it turns out I squeezed quite a bit into three days, especially since that first day I did on no sleep, as I had been on a bus since 7pm the night before.)
On top of all that, I biked to Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, which is a little village/suburb of Amsterdam about 12 km down the Amstel river from the center of Amsterdam. The village was pretty shut down because it turns out 8:30 am on a Sunday is only popular with the rowers. The rowers made their way down to Ouderkerk aan de Amstel with a team of people on bikes following the whole way down, barking in Dutch through a megaphone.
I couldn’t understand a whit of what was being said, but Dutch is one of those languages that if someone barked at me in it, I would row faster even without the knowledge.
I really enjoyed the Anne Frank and Rembrandt Houses. They were well designed museums and probably my favorite. But the Rembrandt House loses points for saying that the beds were smaller because people were shorter back then. Repeating that myth made me call the rest of their audio tour into question, something that was mostly made up for by the artist who demonstrated how Rembrandt did his etching.
As much as I enjoyed seeing the Rembrandts in the Rijksmuseum, because the museum is under construction, I paid 14 euros for 14 galleries, only 3 of which I had any interest in seeing. Of all of them, it was the least worth the money spent on the experience, which was disappointing because I had the misconception it was on par with the Louvre and other such museums. The Sex Museum was also disappointing, because it very much had a Look At These Freak Shows attitude to it. It’s Amsterdam! Shouldn’t Amsterdam be a little more open minded and education oriented than that? I’ve now been the the sex art museum in Paris, the Sex Museum in New York City, and the sex museum in Amsterdam. The New York City one was by far the best. It was professionally curated and actually made an effort to offer you education. The Amsterdam one made me want to buy the museum and reorganize it into a museum worthy of the reputation it has.
The hostel experience in Amsterdam was one of my… well, I guess it wasn’t awful, but the people who stay in hostels in Amsterdam were not really ones I had a lot in common with. There was the guy who stared at me while I was trying to nap. Like, we were the only ones in the dorm room and he just stared at me for a good ten minutes until I moved as if to wake up. There was the French girl who smoked (tobacco) in the room. There was another French girl who was pretty typical of those I spoke with. She had been in Amsterdam for a week and had seen nothing but “coffee shops.”* We were two blocks from two wicked famous art museums and all she had done was waked and baked for a whole week.
I mean, really, you’re in Amsterdam. Take advantage of it for more than the legal weed. At least wake, bake, and enjoy a stroopwafel (or ten) before staring at a Van Gough for hours, counting out the individual brush strokes.
* In some neighborhoods, finding actual coffee was harder than finding “coffee” and stopping long enough to tie your shoe gets you a bit buzzed.