Amsterdam, low-key

Amsterdam might be the most talked about city amongst Americans in Brussels.

One reason is because it’s an easy voyage, so easy that everyone gets around to it. There’s the high-speed train that takes less than a couple of hours, or there are buses that clock in at four hours and, for students, cost 30 euro roundtrip. As far as major tourist destinations go, Amsterdam is easily the most affordable journey.

The other reason is more obvious: the red light district.

Students come back from their weekend trips and whisper to each other in class, “… and you can literally window shop for prostitutes!” or “… and you smell weed everywhere” or “…how can society function like that???”

Hearing all these comments, combined with my own preconceived notions of Amsterdam, set my expectations pretty high for insanity. But, having grown up in the quite liberal and somewhat pot-infested San Francisco Bay Area, and living in Belgium where it’s legal to possess marijuana, Amsterdam’s red light district was not all that scandalous.

Yeah, okay, there are girls in windows, tapping on the glass in hopes of reeling in business. But there are similar sights in Belgium, too, and you get used to it quickly after the initial shock.

And yeah, you smell weed all over the city. And, yeah, you can buy pre-rolled joints and space cakes just about anywhere so long as you are 18. And, yeah, the red light district is full of tourists smoking in coffee shops because they think that’s what locals do all the time.

It’s probably not what locals do all the time, but that’s beside the point. The point is that Amsterdam, and its red light district, doesn’t feel rowdy at all. After dark, the streets are busy, but it’s a calm, merry busy of freedom. And of course it is! Everyone’s stoned!

But what people don’t talk about enough is how beautiful Amsterdam is.

Tall, narrow brick houses line canal after canal after canal. Canals are lined with trees and bridges are lined with bikes. Small, discreet squares hold wide cafes with terraces and vital heat lamps. Main streets give way to hidden, cobblestoned alleyways with attractive cafes and cozy coffee shops. The city center is old, charming and surprisingly large. It’s meant to be walked around, or biked through, and simply admired.

Amsterdam also boasts over 50 museums, making for a culturally rich weekend getaway, if you so choose.

There are the tacky options, like the Sexmuseum, Vodka Museum or ever-popular Heineken Museum. But there’s also the beautifully modern Van Gogh Museum, which on a Friday night transforms to an art buff’s dream of a party with a DJ and bar. The Rijksmuseum holds a wide array of famous Dutch paintings from the Golden Age, and for more local culture, there’s the Amsterdam Museum, which shows the city’s history through both art and contemporary, gadget-infused exhibits. No trip to Amsterdam would be complete with visiting the Anne Frank House, the hiding place where Anne Frank’s famous diary was written. The walk through the tiny annex, layered with quotes from her diary and historical videos, makes for an eerie and potentially tear-inducing experience.

Amsterdam is so easy, so cheap to get to, and so pleasant, that I’m sure I’ll be back in the spring. There are famous tulips to be seen, and there’s always more relaxing to be had.

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