Why visiting Amsterdam now reveals a city at a crossroads
A more cautious attitude to tourism meets a progressive rethink of the canal city’s complex past.
It’s pre-dawn on a flight to Amsterdam, and a group of men on a bachelor party are pounding beers, dressed in costumes as Bavarian barmaids and talking loudly about visiting the red-light district without their partners knowing. This isn’t the vision of Amsterdam that city officials want.
During the pandemic, Amsterdam was able to see what the city looked like without tourists of this ilk, and it doesn’t want to go back. Some city officials have proposed a “discouragement” ad campaign for international visitors with plans to “go wild” in the city.
Other ideas: earlier closing times for bars and clubs; an extended ban on group tours; further Airbnb restrictions as well as a tightening of river cruises, sea cruise ships and budget flights; and marijuana smoke-free zones, linked to an existing alcohol ban in the city centre.
They still want tourists, but for the culture, not just the cannabis coffee shops.
“What we do not welcome is people who come here on a vacation from morals. They express a form of behaviour they would not express at home,” Mayor Femke Halsema told Bloomberg CityLab last July.
“It’s a place where you should go if you’re looking for beautiful museums, or to see the underground culture, or if you want to attend our [gay] Pride.”
According to Onderzoek en Statistiek (the city’s research and statistics department), more than 18 million tourists will arrive in 2023, a limit at which the city council is required to intervene under a June 2021 ordinance called Amsterdam Tourism in Balance.
In 2019, 22 million visitors came to Amsterdam, the population of which is less than 900,000. Of course, people have always come to this cool capital for many reasons, even if a bit of fun is one of them.
When I first visited in 2014, I toured the Anne Frank house, a dream since reading her diary as a young Jewish girl hoping to be a writer; I hustled around the Van Gogh Museum, then split a THC-laced space cake and got extremely lost. I don’t think I wandered outside the city centre. If I did, I can’t remember.
Revisiting today, armed with the advice of my Bloomberg colleagues in the Amsterdam bureau, I find the city as I recalled: buzzy and vibrant even on a cold weekend in January. There is thick bike traffic ring-a-ling-ing everywhere and heavy footfall along the De 9 Straatjes (Nine Streets) district canals, though “no public drinking” signs now threaten €100 ($109) fines. Ads for museums and cultural attractions are ubiquitous.
I wanted to be the kind of visitor Amsterdam was hoping for now and to see firsthand the efforts to spread tourism over the whole of the city.
I hit the Zuidas district to find the restaurant Nela, which opened in August. It’s one of the hottest tables in the city, located up several marbled flights of an outdoor staircase. (As I caught my breath, a kind hostess informed me that there was indeed an elevator.)
Inside the elegant, airy space, chefs Hari Shetty and Ori Geller, formerly of Nobu London and Yaffo-Tel Aviv, respectively, offer such dishes as sea bream in a green herbal rub, prepared from an open kitchen with a “live-fire cooking” concept.
Shetty says people from all over the Netherlands are coming on weekends, and some Americans and Brits, too. The two chefs used to work in the city centre, but wanted something off the beaten tourist track—and a haven that could become a destination.
“We want to be like the living room in this neighbourhood to make people feel at home,” he says. The baby leeks with mustard dressing are reason enough to return.
Back toward the centre, eclectic Dutch design store Moooi opened the doors of its Utrechtsestraat shop in December. Inside I was immediately charmed by quirky bedding with patterns featuring extinct animals and lighting fixtures that looked like large marshmallows on chopsticks. How much space did I have in my carry-on?
Utrechtsestraat is one of the nicer independent shopping streets in Amsterdam, with the Zwart op Wit (Black on White) bookstore, Dutch women’s clothing store Vanilia, and the Zielinski & Rozen perfumery. Not a stag party in sight, just chic boutiques in which to spend an afternoon and a paycheck.
Alongside its changing relationship to tourism, Amsterdam is reckoning with a more intractable past. Over in trendy Oost, the Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics) collection dates back to 1864 as a display of colonial might featuring artefacts from places such as Indonesia and Suriname.
In June, a powerful permanent exhibition opened with a more reflective narrative.
“Our Colonial Inheritance” starts with a video display featuring interviews about what colonialism means to people in the modern world. There are also news clips of Halsema apologizing in 2021 for the city’s role in the slave trade, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte doing the same on behalf of the Netherlands for his country’s violence against Indonesia.
In December he became the first European head of state to apologize for the slave trade, period. The exhibition then artfully addresses the sins of the tiny country as it stretched out to colonise vast tracts of the world, such as the 1621 massacre of the Bandanese after the islanders refused to accept a monopoly on the nutmeg trade. (Survivors were sent into slavery on Java.)
“Colonialism was global, but we wanted to focus on Dutch colonialism and the inheritance of that here in the Netherlands, because if we wouldn’t do that, who else would?” says Wendeline Flores, lead curator of the exhibition. Her country’s history in that regard isn’t taught in-depth at school, she says, and she wants to create a dialogue around it.
And as Amsterdam’s crown jewel of an art museum, the Rijksmuseum, opens its blockbuster Johannes Vermeer exhibition, that dialogue is especially timely.
The wealth from colonialism is part of what made the region such a leader in art, trade and commerce in the 17th century, when artists like Vermeer and Rembrandt were creating the masterpieces that are such a big draw for tourists and a point of pride for the city.
Where to Stay
Pulitzer Amsterdam: This five-star heritage hotel is a glorious maze of 25 connected 17th and 18th century canal houses with a destination bar that bustles on weekends. Rooms come stocked with bike repair kits, and cute design touches include little gold windows in the bathrooms that look as if they belong on houseboats.
The history of these quintessential Dutch buildings is an attraction in itself—my room was a former silk merchant’s shop—and concierges give walking tours of the canals. A partnership with the Rijksmuseum allows hotel guests to skip the lines on their way to see Girl With a Pearl Earring. From €399 (AUD$617).
Conservatorium: Located in an impressive 19th century building that used to be a bank, the 129-room luxury hotel could easily be confused for one of the neighbouring cultural institutions, like the Van Gogh Museum.
Label hounds will love the nearby P.C. Hooftstraat shopping street, lined with stores such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton, while tulip lovers can swoon to the property’s own orangey-red, double-flowered varietal and book helicopter sightseeing tours when everything is in bloom. From €795 (AUD$1,230).
Pillows Maurits at the Park: A new addition to the city’s hotel scene, Pillows opened in November next to the Oosterpark, where fit Amsterdammers work out with personal trainers and young families push strollers around while sipping coffee on sunny mornings.
The soft, earthy colour palette of the hotel’s lobby and stairwells gives it a spa-like atmosphere, away from some of the hustle and bustle of the canal areas. From €320 (AUD$495).
Where to Eat
Nela: In a striking plant-covered tower reminiscent of Jenga blocks, the smart, modern design of the dining room, with its light, airy atmosphere and open kitchen, is as memorable as its seasonal, fire-kissed cuisine. Sit at the chef’s counter to watch as peppers are roasted or pizzas are thrown in the wood-burning oven, and make sure to save room for the tiramisu with coffee “caviar” as a dessert.
Rijks: Art lovers can pair world-class exhibitions at the Rijksmuseum with Michelin-starred Dutch fine dining. A €105 (ADU$162) six-course menu focuses on local ingredients, with dishes such as venison with red cabbage, sloe gin sauce, chestnuts and crispy black pudding.
Amoi: This local-recommended option for Indonesian food is cheap, cheerful and under the radar. The chicken satay with a mild peanut sauce for €11 (AUD$17) was a highlight, alongside plenty of vegetarian options like the gado-gado with crunchy vegetables and jammy egg. It’s on the Kinkerstraat, a five-minute bike ride from the Pulitzer.
Where to Drink
Super Lyan: This buzzy bar comes from spirits maestro Ryan Chetiyawardana, named world’s best bartender by Tales of the Cocktail. Near Centraal Station, it has a glam and moody atmosphere, with pink neon lights surrounding the bar and service and drinks that lean more playful than precious. Try the Pine Pole 75 for €14 ($21), made with Woodford rye, Lillet Blanc and pine “champagne.” It tastes like a smokier version of a French 75.
La Dilettante: A cosy little boîte that serves natural wine (mostly French) in the bohemian De Pijp district, alongside bar snacks like cheesy gougères. It’s walk-in only, with friendly servers who are passionate about good pours at reasonable prices: A glass of fruity Beaujolais is €6 (AUD$9).
Bar Basquiat: The crowd runs young and trendy in the hipster Oost district—especially at this all-day spot named for the famed American artist. Fuel up with a coffee and a warm cinnamon roll before a morning visit to the Tropenmuseum. Or afterward grab a tall glass of the local Basquiat Session White beer, offered along with the usual Heinekens, Amstels and simple cocktails for under €11 (AUD$17).
This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here
Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Why visiting Amsterdam now reveals a city at a crossroads
24 Aug 2011
Total posts 1189
Amsterdam is a great city to visit and, yes, the soccer end-of-season trips were a bit of a blight on the landscape so I can see why they may want to not get that back. Its liberal attitudes are part of its fabric though. Many visitors who would never consider trying cannabis at home will indulge in buying a cannabis cookie or ice-cream albeit the incredibly low dosage make them pretty harmless. I admit to walking through the red-light district which was both voyeuristic and depressing. I can't say I'd rush back to do it again.
It is such a great blend of history and culture. From art, to war history to architecture to being a staging point for European river cruises, it offers a great blend.
The population figure of 900,000 is a bit misleading. Greater Amsterdam has a population of 2.4M and even people from places like Utrecht commute into Amsterdam daily
11 Jul 2014
Total posts 894
I prefer to stay at Anantara Grand Krasnapolsky Amsterdam, which is on the Dam, and also has a great breakfast menu. In August last year, we had to move rooms, and they were very accommodating after the people in the room next to us fought after the husband got caught inside one of those strange red windows????
Pre and post covid I don't think things changed, it did have a different atmosphere and it appeared they had the same problem as everywhere else in the world, no workers or people willing to work.
Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards
24 Jan 2018
Total posts 605
Don't suppose you overheard what was the husband wearing, whilst in the red window, that was so offensive to his spouse?
11 Jul 2014
Total posts 894
Travelling for the last 45 years I’m immune to the going on around, it’s my 4th wife who is 2 years older than me, that drags me into those seedy places, but never a red window.
Etihad - Etihad Guest
21 Jul 2019
Total posts 149
I've wanted to visit Amsterdam for years, but was always put off by the prospect of loud brawling drunks, clouds of marijuana smoke and you know....the other notorious stuff, which have overshadowed what the city has to offer and gained it the ambivalent reputation it 'enjoys'.
But frankly, it's a bit rich for city officials to blame the hoards of seedy tourists who frequent these seedy joints. They patronize them precisely because the city authority permitsthese seedy joints to operate! (while raking massive tourist $$$$$$ in revenue). It's like a drug dealer blaming his customers for paying him AND getting addicted on his wares! Talk about hypocrisy! For that reason, the hand-wringing and pearl-clutching by Dutch politicians and officials all seems a bit.......confected.
22 Sep 2022
Total posts 2
I have just returned from Amsterdam 2 weeks ago and I love it . The buzz of the city is one of my favourites and there is more to Amsterdam than the red light district which is getting smaller and smaller . The bar mentioned above is inside the Kimpton Hotel which is our choice every time we visit . I will be back to Amsterdam without doubt in the next 2 years
Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer
22 May 2018
Total posts 56
I have been to Amsterdam a number of times.. first in 2008 last in 2022. Things have evolved over the years and it's a lot better now. More emphasis on the culture rather than the drugs. The locals are friendly, for the most part the tourists are as well. The food is great (various cultures), particularly away from the main tourist areas. All being well I will be back there this year.. I went to the Rijks museum last year (8 parts .. did 2 and want to do the rest)..and whilst they say it's on line bookings only.. just walk down to the museum shop (about 100 meters) and they sell the tickets. One thing to remember .. it's credit cards only to the attractions etc + transport.. so debit cards are useless.
27 Mar 2019
Total posts 36
Same, although between 2006-2022; first time I was a lot younger and partook in the stereotypical “English tourist” stuff, but over the years my interest in the actual history and culture has overtaken my desire to get mashed (be it alcohol or other wares). Last year I stayed at the InterContinental Amstel and had a lovely time eating cheese and enjoying sitting by the canal, much more civilised than magic mushrooms and space cakes, although I’m sure they still have their place (although mushrooms were banned in 2008, alternatives are still around, I believe).
18 Sep 2018
Total posts 8
I went to Amsterdam in January and was a bit disappointed. The tourist tax (not included in quoted hotel rates) is distastefully high and the post-Brexit immigration queue (after my very delayed KLM flight from the UK) did not encourage future stopovers. Even the Metro shut down for half an hour in peak hour while I was there.