Samuel L Jackson’s enthusiastic (expletive-filled) response to John Travolta’s explanation of some of Amsterdam’s unique policies in the film Pulp Fiction is typical of the conversations that inspire so many getaways. Once such visitors arrive, they usually find themselves endlessly looping back – just like the sailors did in the 17th century when the city was the richest port in the world – to Amsterdam’s near geographic centre, the Red Light District. The way the city radiates out from this ancient inner pit and its flesh-squeegeed windows once led a visiting Albert Camus to compare the circumscribing canals to the circles of Hell.
It is true that Amsterdam still has a certain reputation. But the recent ‘I amsterdam’ city-branding campaign has done much to distract the global imagination away from the naughty stuff and towards the ‘creative capital’, once home to Rembrandt, now abuzz with designers and advertising companies. Meanwhile, the city is gentrifying (locals call it ‘frumpifying’) quickly as the authorities are committed to making what is already the world’s safest Red Light District into an area more conducive to bars and sushi joints. Many coffee shops, where the sales of certain substances illegal everywhere else are condoned, are being closed under pressure from the EU and a Christian Democrat-led national government. Meanwhile, most of the major museums are undergoing extensive redevelopment and there’s a city-bisecting construction site where an underground metro will be built – naturally all of these projects are running years, and millions of euros, behind schedule.
Aside from these big-city problems, Amsterdam still has a loose and relaxed vibe, and this pocket-sized town can be crossed on bicycle in a mere 20 minutes. Leaving behind the chaos of the centre, there are the rarefied wandering opportunities of the Canal Ring, which in turn gives way to the more down-to-earth neighbourhoods of the Jordaan and the Pijp. Even Pulp Fiction vice-meister Vincent (Travolta) noted more civilised Amster-delights: ‘You can even walk into a movie theatre in Amsterdam and buy a brew. And I don’t mean no paper cup, I’m talking about a glass of ale.’ Yes, this is still one hell of a town, a place where going with the flow remains an essential part of the lifestyle.
Emirates flies direct to Amsterdam from Dhs4,665 (including taxes)
Where to stay
Hotel Roemer (+31 20 515 0455), www.hotelroemer.nl
1,160,000 (core city 729,000)
Where is it?
North Holland, on a former bog where the Amstel (now dammed) flows into the Het Ij bay.
Technically maritime, but on a day-to-day basis, highly changeable.
Germanic and Gallo-centric Dutch, Turkish, Moroccan, Antillean, Surinamese and Indonesian.
Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House, Bloemenmarkt (the flower market), Ajax football stadium, the canals.
The Jordaan, the Pijp, the art galleries of Bijlmermeer, the new venues gathering around the Waterfront.
Where’s the buzz?
The grachtengordel (girdle of canals), the Red Light District, Vondelpark.
Number of canals
Total length of canals
Number of bikes pulled from the canals each year
Number of bodies pulled from the canals each year
Number of coffee shops selling substances illegal elsewhere
4m below sea level.
Average height of the population
The Dutch are among the tallest people in the world, growing to an average of 1.8m (6ft) for men, 1.7m (5ft 7in) for women.
Arts & culture
Food & drink
Quality of life