My desire to go to Amsterdam began when my good friend Carlos, proudly stated that it was the ultimate place for men. I immediately understood, of course, smoke shops, oh, and the Red Light District. By then I wasn’t that ignorant, though only 24, and not entirely an “inspired traveler". I knew of the Dutch masters, Rembrandt and Van Gogh. I was aware of the diversity, the wonderful canals, and that Heineken came from there. It was the dare, though, "only for men", that drew me. And so Amsterdam took its rightful place in places I had to visit, this as a single woman, traveling solo.
I had to plan right for I was only going to be there for two days. But hey, those two days proved two things – two days were not enough, two days were enough.
Amsterdam is a place that exceeds expectations. You know when you’ve read or heard so much about a place that when you finally go there, you think “so this is it". No exclamations. Well, Amsterdam is free of that, just like the city is, free. You’ll feel it and notice it as soon as you board the trolley that takes you into the city.
Amsterdam, the largest city and the capital of the Netherlands, is not to be driven, like many famous cities of Europe. You can walk anywhere, or bike; most of the locals do. Exploring it will come naturally. Don't be afraid to ask for directions; people are extremely friendly. I got there on a Saturday, the wait for my luggage was long, but transportation was swift. The train was only 3.50 euros and it took 15 minutes to the Amsterdam Central Station. From there I was surprised it cost 1.50 euros for the five-minute “stretch” to the Van Cleve, where I was staying, and where Heineken brewed its first beer in 1592. The small bar was there, with ancient barrels sticking out.
I hit the museums; I had three hours before they closed. It was fortunate the Museum Quarter neighborhood, also known as Oud Zuid (Old South), was less than five minutes away by tram from where I was staying. First, I saw the Rembrandt museum where his biggest and most famous painting, the Night Watch, hangs like a trophy. It is a huge painting with so much detail that it would take the average art aficionado days to decipher. I didn’t have that time. So I walked, perhaps a block, to see the Van Gogh museum – modern, different and amazing. Did you know that Van Gogh cut off his ear due to an argument he had with fellow painter, Gauguin? I was exhausted by all the paintings, not to mention the heavy rain falling outside and the day darkening – time to freshen up and take part in Amsterdam's nightlife.
When I entered Louis Bar cafe de Dam, acclaimed as the "smallest pub in the world", I wondered who would argue that point; it was the smallest space I’d ever been in, definitely not for the claustrophobic. As a matter of fact, getting to the bathroom up the winding staircase is not for the weak-hearted, afraid-of-heights-person, but if you take comfort in local neighborhood pubs, this is the place. With Amstel light ads guiding my way down the treacherous staircase from the bathroom (including one with Ronald Regan), and two drafts of the same beer waiting for me at the bar, I knew I was in Holland. The giddy bartender who kept filling my glass warned me beforehand that it would be an adventure. He was right. In fact, the whole night turned out to be an adventure.
There I met Luke, a married 40ish man with a cool demeanor. We bought each other drinks; within an hour I had my guide. He would take me to the Red Light District. No strings attached. For the first time, I felt like a girl who needed guidance. The bartender had told me I shouldn’t be there by myself, but my desire to go where no lone woman had gone had me with a ticket in my hand. Without even an introduction, we set off.
The streets were crowded with men, of all ethnicities. I felt like a queen in a chariot, guided by a knight. Luke knew his way. First we went to a bar, the type you would find on a desert road – leather jackets, bald heads, billiards, and a television showing some sport only they would find amusing. But the beer was cheap and Luke knew everyone. Then we began our stroll. You must experience this on your own: windows and windows of women – tall, short, slim, heavy, beautiful, cute, so-so, straight-up ugly, hard bodies, obese, Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, young (? to 21), older (45-65). There’s a section for men too.
As we passed the windows, I felt it wasn’t my market. Carlos was right. I wasn't there to buy, though, just to see. Amsterdam literally gives a new meaning to "window shopping" – a market for everyone looking for something. I proved I could go there and view it. Yes, I’ve been to Amsterdam and the Red Light District. I’ve seen the awe of legal prostitution, the masses it attracts, and I know its allure, one of many aspects of Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is a city with blocks and blocks of culture from all over the world. It's embracing. Within two days, I felt like a local. It's so diverse. Best of all, it’s a city without restrictions. You pick. As a woman, even at night, you choose your way.