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Sensory Amsterdam

By Rick Steves
If museum-going puts you in the mood for a stiff drink, House of Bols — across the street from the Van Gogh Museum — is an ideal way to engage your taste buds. (photo: Rick Steves)
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Pedal your way around town to take in copious canal views. (photo: Rick Steves)

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

Good travelers travel with all their senses, taking in a place's sights, sounds, and flavors to get the full experience. So, on one summertime visit to Amsterdam, I engaged all my senses to connect with the culture.

A key for really enjoying Amsterdam is to do it by bike. Most Amsterdammers get around their city that way for the sheer ease of it. I always rent a bike here for the same reason — and for the joy of feeling the city's bricks and pavement beneath two wheels. (My clerk at the bike-rental shop explained why they don't carry mountain bikes in this very flat country: "Mountain bikes in the Netherlands make no sense at all. When a dog takes a dump, we have a new mountain.")

The city's lack of hills makes biking a breeze. Much of my Amsterdam experiences are framed by my black bike's handlebars: shiny wet cobbles, reflections of brick facades wavering on canal surfaces, other bikes passing me by with their politely pinging bells. I wish I had a bigger periphery, as cars, trams, bikers, and pedestrians seem to float by from all directions in silence — their noise lost in the white noise of this dreamy city.

You can get a grand view of this flat city on a tour of the tower of Westerkerk, Amsterdam's landmark church. To me, the view's even better with a beverage at the 11th-floor SkyLounge (on the roof of the Doubletree by Hilton near Centraal Station).

Though the city itself is picturesque, there's plenty more visual stimulation in its world-famous art museums. Amsterdam's big three gather at Museumplein. Long lines plague the Dutch Master–filled Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum — both deservedly popular. But there's almost no wait at the Stedelijk Museum, which combines striking architecture (once you see it it's clear why some locals call it "the bathtub"), 20th-century favorites (Dalí, Picasso, Kandinsky), and crazy contemporary art. I'm not generally a big fan of the abstract style, but the artwork at the Stedelijk is really fun. (If you're into marijuana — available in the city's "coffeeshops" — I can't think of a better space than the Stedelijk in which to enjoy its effects.)

The Concertgebouw, the city's esteemed classical music hall, also on Museumplein, has excellent acoustics, as you'd expect — but for my money the acoustics are even better underneath the Rijksmuseum, in a public atrium where street musicians perform everything from chamber music to Mongolian throat singing.

Huge, lush Vondelpark is just a short pedal away, where I'm privy to snippets of Dutch conversation among citygoers — families with little kids, romantic couples, strolling seniors, and hippies sharing blankets and beers. A free summer concert is my aural dessert.

But I'm ready to actually taste something. The ritual dish for tourists in Holland is Indonesian rijsttafel (literally "rice table"). Though not a true Indonesian meal, it's a Dutch innovation designed to highlight the best food of its former colony, especially all the great spices that funded the city's Golden Age. For around $40 you get about 20 dishes and a rainbow of spices with white rice to mix and mingle on your palate.

Rijsttafel dinners are dependably delicious, but on this visit I opted for a cheap plate of herring with pickles and onions, which vies with fries as the classic Dutch street food. Later, I indulged my taste buds at a cheese-tasting class. After a short video that's somewhere between an ad for cheese and dairy soft porn, I guillotined six local cheeses and studied, smelled, and tasted them with a wine accompaniment.

While the 20-somethings line up for the Heineken Experience — a malty, yeasty, amusement ride of a brewery tour — I joined an older crowd at the slick House of Bols: Cocktail & Genever Experience. Here, I learned about the heritage of Dutch gin, and tested my olfactory skills at a line of 36 scents. I failed miserably, getting only butterscotch correct. But I was consoled by designing the cocktail of my dreams at a computer kiosk, and taking the recipe to the nearby barista to mix for me.

As lively and stimulating as ever, Amsterdam never fails to bring new joys to all five senses.