Amsterdam 101: Famous and infamous highlights of the city
So, you think you've got this one down pat. Amsterdam is famous for the ladies in red-lit windows, the casual attitude towards drugs, the many canals where people moor their boathouses and the bicycles used by everyone to get everywhere, even when it's raining. And it rains a lot. In fact, that little Dutch boy is probably still standing there with his finger in the dike, keeping the entire city from drowning.
There's more to Amsterdam than all that
Yes, there's some truth to the claims-to-fame listed above (although exaggerated) – except that of the brave little boy. He was, in fact, invented by American novelist Mary Mapes Dodge, who included it as an anecdote in her 1865 bestseller "Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates." She didn't even place him in Amsterdam, but in Haarlem, a short distance away.
Amsterdam is famous first and foremost as a key city in European history and the resulting intersection of cultural and commercial institutions. There was, you'll remember, a little thing known as the Dutch Golden Age, which took up most of the 17th century and included the success and influence of the Dutch East-India Company, the expansion of Dutch exploration and territory, and the ascendance of Dutch art in the persons of such masters as Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Vermeer (though it is interesting to note that such a volume of art was produced during this period with resulting prices so low that even these masters found it hard to make a living).
The past lives on in Amsterdam
Amsterdam is now a heady mixture of past glories and modern mores. Its art museums are world-famous, bringing in streams of tourists every year. Visitors swarm to the Rijksmuseum to explore Dutch art and historical artifacts, but in order to get a real taste of what an artist's life in the 17th century might have been like, they also visit the Rembrandt House, where the master himself lived.
Why are all those houses lining Amsterdam's canals so very narrow? The answer goes back to the 17th century, when houses were taxed depending on the width of their frontage. Now tourists may grumble about their infamously narrow, steep stairs, but at least they can be aware that there is a somewhat reasonable explanation.
Among all those famous houseboats bobbing on Amsterdam's canal waters is one that's extra special. The Cat Boat, a floating sanctuary for abandoned kitties, has become quite a tourist attraction in recent years. And though cats supposedly despise water, the denizens of the Cat Boat seem quite content in their water-bound abode.
Amsterdam is justly famous for its part in the Dutch Resistance movement against Nazi occupation during World War II. The Verzetsmuseum commemorates the bravery of both the Dutch members of the Resistance and the 300,000 people for whom the Resistance provided safe-houses during the Nazi occupation. One of these was Anne Frank; her memory and that of her family is honored at the Anne Frank House.
Back to the beginning
A few of the so-called "facts" mentioned in the first paragraph above are not quite accurate. For example, Amsterdam doesn't have such a casual attitude towards drugs as you might think. Drugs are illegal, except for the very small amounts sold in "coffeehouses" especially intended for cannabis consumption (if you want coffee, by the way, head for a café, not a coffeehouse). Although bicycles are a favorite form of transportation by locals, visitors might consider taking a canal tour of the city instead – in part, to avoid all those bicycles. Ladies of the evening do pose in their red-rimmed windows, but there are also blue-lined windows especially for transgender folk. Although all these ladies are on display, this is for the purpose of their work, and they don't appreciate having tourists wander up and down the street snapping pictures of them. Be considerate to those who labor in the red-and-blue-light district.
Amsterdam is a profound study in contrasts. Perhaps its fame is really rooted in its ability to hold on to its past while at the same time being very much a city of the 21st century. It wears its age gracefully because it's still young at heart.