The Great European Adventure

Amsterdam: First Impressions

I love cities where the water feels like a necessary part of life, where it can’t be avoided. In New York City, for example, it’s easy to forget that you’re anywhere near the ocean, but in Amsterdam, the canals are hard to miss.

You all remember my friend Grace from my week in Iceland, yes? Well, I spent my first two days in Amsterdam with her cousin, Miles, who, when I set out to explore the first day, told me that the city gets better the farther you get from the center. He was absolutely right because the farther away you get, the more likely you are to see sights like this:


Houseboats beside canal houses–two idyllic styles of living in Amsterdam

Another sort of idyllic aspect of life in Amsterdam is riding one’s bike everywhere. Everyone tells you that there are bikes everywhere in Amsterdam and that it’s the main mode of transportation for locals, but, even after hearing this from multiple people, I didn’t really understand until I saw it for myself. It seems like a piece of information you’d be able to hold in your head and fully comprehend, but when you see it in real life, you will still exclaim, “look at all the bikes!” despite your desperate attempts to play it cool and act like this is normal.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos of the massive amounts of bicycles parked around Amsterdam, but it seemed like every time I tried to take a photo of something a bicyclist would ride into my shot.


I don’t remember why I wanted a photo of that phallic obelisk, but I ended up with a shot of a bicyclist.

So, I found the canals and the bicycles charming, but my first impressions of Amsterdam didn’t end there. Miles told me to get out of the city center, which is the most touristy and least pretty part of the city, but I didn’t completely heed his warning. Instead, I walked through the Red Light District and witnessing a very satisfied, very high couple making out in the front window of a coffee shop. 11 am seemed a bit early in the morning for that kind of behavior, but I’m a nonsmoker, so what do I know?

Earlier this year, pot smoking was actually made illegal for nonresidents of the Netherlands, however, drug tourism is alive and well, and the majority of coffee shops don’t ask for ID nor do they refuse service to tourists. I guess that while I knew the ability to legally smoke weed was a major tourist draw, I was still surprised by how prevalent it was.

And, let’s see, what else is Amsterdam known for besides canals, bicycles, and weed? Oh yeah…


A quick anecdote: I was walking down the street my first day in Amsterdam when I stopped to look at some postcards. There were photos of the canals and the architecture, and they were lovely, but not quite what I was looking for, so I turned to another row of postcards… and saw pussies staring back at me. There was a postcard that literally had 20 small photographs of vaginas in an appealing grid formation with the caption, “pussies of Amsterdam.” The postcard below it was a photo of a woman’s ass which had been painted to look like a map of the world… but it was still an ass. My puritanical American heart couldn’t take it and my immediate thought was, “there are children walking around! What if they saw these postcards?!”

I quickly swept these fears aside remembering that Europeans are generally less concerned with the decency and morality of sex and sexuality than Americans, which is actually a perspective I much prefer. These postcards were still exploiting women by turning them into faceless beings defined by their sexuality, however, there is nothing inherently wrong or immoral about the depiction of female genitalia. Talk about unsubtle though.

So it appeared Amsterdam had more sex, more weed, more bicycles, and more beautiful canals than I had imagined. Despite having heard a lot about Amsterdam before visiting, the city still managed to surprise me.

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.

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