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Seeing Amsterdam at Unusual Angles

By Rick Steves
Rick atop multistory bike garage, Amsterdam, Netherlands
The best way to see Amsterdam is on a bike. (photo: Ab Walet)

Until European travel becomes fully open to Americans, here's a reminder of the fun that awaits us in Europe.

Even after several decades of visits, I always need a day to adjust to the wonders of Amsterdam. So I spend my first day here checking out small changes in the city — on this visit it was a new handbag museum, a church turned into a mosque, and a free ferry ride to an industrial complex with a skateboarders' warehouse filled with teenyboppers.

There are always changes to note as cities carve and mold their future. Shortly before my visit, the city had recently bought out a major landlord in the Red Light District, and now all his tiny rooms with big windows display high fashion rather than teasing hookers.

Not that one of Amsterdam's most notorious tourist attractions is going away. I realize this as I stand at an outdoor urinal — pondering the canal as I often do when in Amsterdam. White puffy clouds blow past Golden Age gables above me while I hear the clatter of bikes giggling over the cobbles as they cross a toyland bridge at my side. Then my gaze settles appreciatively on the fine, heavy ironwork of this pre-WWII structure that is the urinal. Its heavy green paint job and the mesh pattern of tiny plus-signs let me enjoy an idyllic street scene. I just assume I am alone.

Then my focus changes and beyond that green iron wall of plus-signs — just across the lane — I see a jaunty woman wearing a cliché of lingerie. She is making eyes at me from a plush window draped in red. It's strange to be doing what I am doing while finding myself being forcibly flirted with. The whole episode seems to last longer than your typical trip to an Amsterdam WC.

Prostitutes like her are businesswomen…and I think she probably chose a very good window to rent. Location, location, location. As I walk away, I have to pass closer. I give her a friendly wave.

I happen to be here on Gay Pride Day, and the city is strewn with litter and feels like it has just enjoyed one big blow-out party. I see two ghostly boats hovering just below the canal surface. Still tied to their docks, they are lifeless…drowned. My friend explains that troublemaking party animals see how many people can stand on the deck of an unfortunate boat and eventually they submerge it — the canal equivalent of rolling over a car.

When I'm in Amsterdam, I always rent a bicycle for the duration of my stay. The mechanic isn't at the bike shop when I arrive, so they can't adjust it to my height. It leaves me working harder and with a sore back.

The next morning I get my bike properly adjusted and it makes a world of difference. I meet my guide, Ab (who, like most Amsterdammers, doesn't own a car) and we bike through newly vibrant neighborhoods. I ask about my guide's unusual name. He says it's Albert, but no one's named "Al" in Dutch. In the Netherlands, "Albert" is shortened to "Ab."

Much of my Amsterdam experience is framed by my black bike handlebars — shiny wet cobblestones, powering up a bridge to coast down it and halfway to the next bridge, hearing bells from passing bikes and pinging my bell to pass others. I wish I had better peripheral vision as cars, trams, bikes, and pedestrians seem to float by from all directions in silence — their sounds lost in the white noise of this uniquely lively city.

No one wears helmets here. The tires seem to grip wet cobbled corners well, but as I bike across a bigger street, I am paranoid about a wheel slipping into the trolley track and flipping me. Canalside streets are one lane and one-way. "Do Not Enter" signs attract my eye as I zip across a series of canals because, I figure, that's the direction where cars and bikes will approach.

After three days in Amsterdam I feel local, efficient, and even smug on my trusty and well-fitted bike. I get anywhere in my neighborhood faster than others could get their cars started and out of the garage. And I can get across town faster than a taxi or tram. Biking is the way to go here. And in Amsterdam, there's a solid piece of metal to lock it up (and a memorable urinal) just about wherever you need one.