Amsterdam is famous. Unfortunately, much to the chagrin of the tourist board, it's famous for all the wrong things - "legalised" cannabis, the sex industry, outrageous lifestyles flaunted on the street - and no amount of tulips and clogs have been able to turn things around. After two years, my best discovery has been the city's approach to its people. Amsterdam proves that it is possible to let people run their own lives, and that most decisions they make turn out to be pretty sensible. Amsterdammers love Amsterdam, and it's inspiring to live in a city that feels like it cares about where it's going.
I had imagined the red light district to be all blacked-out windows and "Do Not Enter If Easily Offended". But walking off the Damrak, which is Amsterdam's main drag, it was as if I'd crossed an invisible boundary. Porn converged from all sides. I could have strolled into any number of shops and bought a foot-long dildo or a copy of Dog Lover. I was actually looking for a little museum devoted to coffee-drinking, and found it next door to Chickita's Sex Paradise. Across another invisible boundary, though, and suddenly I was back among newsagents, shoe shops and ethnic jewellery, never so relieved to see yin-yang earrings.
Dutch cuisine is rooted in the meat, potato and cabbage school of cooking, and finding something a little lighter can take some doing. An is a family- run Japanese eethuis (eat-house) that serves fresh sushi and succulent gyaza dumplings from its open kitchen. At around pounds 13 a head, it's unmissable.
Best hotel room
"The newspaper said 'what're you doing in bed' I said, 'we're only trying to get some peace'." So wrote John Lennon during his week-long bed-in with Yoko Ono at the Amsterdam Hilton in 1969. Now called the John & Yoko Suite, the Spartan seventh- floor room has been refurbished, with a big white bed. There are bigger and more expensive rooms to be had and there are rooms with better views, but this is uniquely peaceful, and it's not often you get the chance to sleep in the same bed as John Lennon.
One of the last remaining community squats in a city once famous for such expressions of people power, the Silo is a symbol of the dying Amsterdam underground. An old warehouse in a prime location on the river, it's been used by squatters since 1989 by a group of 40 artists and alternative types, who have converted one part of the building into a gallery and an arena for music and dance and another into a waterside restaurant. A unique place, it was recently bought for conversion into luxury flats and eviction is imminent. So London went, now Amsterdam follows.
Doe maar gewoan, dan doe je al gek genoeg. A conformist plea from the old days, more poignant than ever in the face of the sea-change in attitude on the part of Amsterdammers towards their city's hippyish adventures. An indication of the stolidity of what can, despite everything, be a parochial place, it translates as: "Be normal; that's crazy enough."
Matthew Teller did research for The Rough Guide to Amsterdam. Keep up with the latest developments in travel by subscribing to the free newsletter Rough News, published three times yearly. Write to Rough Guides, IoS offer, 1 Mercer Street, London WC2H 9QJ. A free Rough Guide to the first three subscribers each week.
Flights to Amsterdam from 22 airports; pounds 82 return from Gatwick and pounds 112 from Manchester, STA (0171 361 6161). An is at Weteringschans 199, open Wed-Sun 6-10pm (tel: 627 0607). The Amsterdam Hilton is at Apollolaan 138; (tel: 0031-20 678 0780) The John & Yoko Package costs pounds 450 per night, and includes champagne, flowers and breakfast in bed. To get married in the John & Yoko Suite, call: 571 1285. The Silo is at Westerdoksdijk 51; the restaurant is open Sun & Tue-Fri from 6pm (tel: 411 1355). The Greenhouse, at Toolstraat 4, was voted Coffee Shop of the Year for the third year running in the High Times Cannabis Cup awards last November.Reuse content