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We all know about Amsterdam, right?  Prostitutes and sex shows, overflowing with drugs, bikes and wasted tourists stumbling around trying not to fall into canals.  That was certainly my hazy recollection from the last time I went there several years ago.  This time around, however, it was a very different experience.  Something had dramatically changed. Maybe it was me.

One of my younger brothers is living there these days and given that I hadn’t seen him in around 18 months, a trip there was always on the cards during my time in Europe this year.  I found some cheap flights from Dublin and the decision was made.

I didn’t really know what to expect beyond having a bit of quality catch-up / getting drunk time with him.  Yup, that happened.  What I was completely unprepared for, however, was totally falling in love with a city that I thought I already knew.

On reflection, I think something that really helped was spending minimal time in the tourist zone around Centraal station and the red light districts.  It’s not an unattractive area by any stretch, but the crowds tend to make the experience a bit underwhelming.

If all you’ve got is a weekend in Amsterdam then sure, join the masses, check out the guidebook highlights, drink gallons of over-priced beer and lose a few hours to space cakes.  You’ll hardly be the only one doing so and will have fun, even if you don’t remember much of it.  The minute you got away from the hordes, however (and literally, we’re talking a five minute walk here), everything becomes infinitely more enjoyable.

The first secret (and it’s hardly a secret) was having access to a bike.  Amsterdam is quite possibly the most bicycle friendly city in the world, and that’s why you’ll see people from every walk of life trundling along on old-school single geared cycles.  There’s a real cachet to having the oldest, rattliest set of wheels around – one of the many things that thrilled me about the place was seeing immaculately dressed bankers on rusty old bikes worth a fraction of the shoes they were pedalling with.

amsterdam-cycles-and-cozy-bike-racks Despite the fact that there’s close to half a million bikes in Amsterdam (I’m not sure if that stat includes the ones pushed into the canals or not), I’d never ridden a bike on my previous trips to the city.  Hanging out with locals and expats this time, however, being wheel-less was not an option.  I had access to a brilliant old clunker for some of the time, and hired a remarkably upmarket model from HotelScooters for the rest.  It had gears and lights and everything!

Zipping along the miles of cycle lanes was so much fun, no matter whether it was in dazzling midday sunshine or sideways rain at 3am.  Given how compact Amsterdam is, nowhere is more than a fifteen minute cycle from anywhere else and biking was almost always the fastest way to get there.  Parking?  Don’t worry about it.  If it’s immobile, you can probably chain your bike to it.  A warning not to sit on a park bench too long, perhaps.

Speaking of park benches, that was another great discovery.  The city is very densely populated, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much green space there was.  My brother lives close to Vondelpark, the largest in the city, and the weather was usually good enough to be able to enjoy it.

Picking up a cold six pack, a blanket and some speakers and spending the afternoon basking in the autumn sunshine has to be one of life’s simple pleasures anywhere in the world.  In Amsterdam, it’s just a little slice of heaven.  Beautiful scenery, beautiful weather and beautiful girls?  I’ll take that, thanks.  Running, cycling, walking or just enjoying a twilight pizza beside the lake, the park became my second home.

The gorgeous views weren’t restricted to the park, mind you.  The cobbled streets, sunlit waterways and narrow old houses meant that I often found myself cycling along gazing anywhere except where I should have been, amazed at a city’s beauty that I had never noticed before.  I didn’t run into anybody else (or a canal) but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Like everything else, however, the locals seem to take gawping tourists in their stride.  A gentle ringing of a bicycle bell – rather than a torrent of abuse – was enough to bring me back to earth.  During the previous three months wandering around Southeast Asia, every second person I met seemed to be Dutch and almost without exception I’d found them to be easygoing, friendly and great fun to be around.  Apparently that trait isn’t just restricted to those with a backpack on their back.


Being such a culturally diverse city, Amsterdam attracts a vast array of expats and immigrants.  There have been a few tensions in recent decades but that certainly wasn’t apparent to me during the couple of weeks I spent there.  Instead the dizzying array of cultures, colours and languages whirled around me, the ebb and flow of a open and tolerant society was evident on every street and in every bar and cafe.  Leef en laat leven?  Absolutely, and I loved it.

One of many vivid memories is standing with a bunch of friends new and old outside a small liqueur distillery and bar near Dam square animatedly discussing the state of national and regional politics.  Everyone had an opinion, many in stark contrast with each other, yet nobody took offence or tried to convince the others that they were wrong.  It’s quite acceptable to have different ideas to other people, apparently.  How incredibly refreshing.

The diversity and openness seemed to also be reflected in an array of somewhat quirky and offbeat things to do and places to go – former squatters houses that now hold smoky bars and table tennis competitions, for instance, or a rather unusual cat photography exhibition (held in a cat museum, of course).  Eclectic?  Yes.  Awesome and uniquely Amsterdam?  Absolutely.

I could go on for ever about how much I loved Amsterdam this time around but I think the depth of feeling I found for the city can be best summed by one of the last things I said to my brother before leaving for London.  “If it was April instead of October” – that is, coming into summer rather than heading into winter – “I wouldn’t be getting on the bus tomorrow, mate.  I’d be looking for somewhere to live instead.”

Come next April, I very well may be.

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