I have a little ritual every time I step off the train in big, bold Amsterdam. I look over my shoulder up to the lions of the city seal atop the Amsterdam Centraal Station. They seem to roar, "Just do it."
Outside the station, trams glide and tourists huddle with room hustlers. Street people wearing stocking hats over matted hair, black boots, and heavy coats in the sun, choose the most public places in town to snooze. Children pedal to school as if in a small town and pairs of police add no stress to the laid-back scene. Tourists pop out of the station, eager to explore.
From the train station, I look down Damrak, the main drag, which flushes visitors past cheers of commercial neon to the Dam Square, Amsterdam's main square. It's always been this way. After all, long before there was a train station, the Amstel River passed through the city here, following the route of today's bus- and bike-filled Damrak.
In the 16th century, the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam was a fortified marina of 30,000 people — mostly merchants — who welcomed ships loaded with material delights from every corner of the trading world. They'd enter the town from where the train station stands today, parading like pirates with plunder to the commercial altar of the town — the customs and weigh house next to the City Hall on Dam Square, where they docked and unloaded.
Today Holland's trade still comes, but to a different port: nearby Rotterdam, one of the biggest ports in the world. The Dutch claim that money is made in Rotterdam (where shirts are sold with sleeves already rolled up), divided in The Hague (a nearby city where the government resides), and spent in Amsterdam.
First-time sightseers leaving the station carry a predictable checklist of sights: the Anne Frank House is on the right, the Red Light District is on the left, and Damrak leads right through the middle toward two great museums. Filled with works by Rembrandt and van Gogh, the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum stand like cultural bulldogs on the opposite side of town.
But I find Amsterdam's unpredictable street scenes — crass one moment then charming the next — at least as rewarding as the city's fine museums. Follow the crowds down Damrak. Today Damrak is about as traditionally Dutch as dancing the hora. Wooden shoes are crucified on a wall between a change bureau and the Sex Museum. This "Venus Temple" (one of two sex museums in town) promises a look at "sex through the ages."
Just past a gimmicky torture museum and a thumping Hooters restaurant, the sound of an old-time barrel organ revives traditional Amsterdam. It's a two-man affair. While grandpa works the crowd, the boss is in the back spinning the wheel and feeding tunes punched into a scroll as if feeding bullets into a musical machine gun.
The street organ is a mini-carnival, painted in candy-colored pastels and peopled with busy figurines. Whittled ballerinas twitch to ring bells while Cracker Jack boys crash silver dollar–sized cymbals. Playing his coin-tin maracas and wearing a carved-on smile, the old man looks like an ornamental statue that has just leapt to life. While shoppers trudge by, two tourists break into a merry waltz. Another hugs a daybag between her knees and snaps a photo while her buddy takes a video and winks.
Nearby, the Vlaamse Frites kiosk is painted with take-offs on great art. This art has a purpose: to make you hungry for Flemish-style French fries. On one side of the kiosk God gives Adam the cone of fries (a variation on this decorates the Sistine Chapel). On the opposite side is van Gogh's famous "French Fried Potato Eaters." The peasants, for whom Vincent always had an affinity, are shown solemnly sitting down to a bountiful platter of bright yellow fries. All they need is the mayonnaise, the Flemish choice over ketchup.
I warm my hands around my cone of salty fries and continue to wander. In Amsterdam, cobbled roller-coaster roads connect a total of 1,300 bridges that cross 75 miles of peaceful green canals. Houses jostle for a canal view. As their foundations of pilings rot or settle, they lean on each other, looking as if someone has stolen their crutches.
The charm of Amsterdam, a fun mix of modern and faded elegance, is best enjoyed by those who get out and explore it on foot (ideally with French fries) or by bike. Take it all in, then pause to watch the sunset and see the Golden Age reflected in a quiet canal.