It’s been 18 years since the last time I was in Amsterdam. In 2001 I was 20 years old, backpacking through Europe with my buddy Nick, overjoyed to be in a city where weed was legal, and ecstatic to be on a continent where I was old enough to drink. To me, Amsterdam was heavenly: I smoked my way through the coffeeshops, and drank lots of fine beers I’d never heard of.
It. Was. Glorious.
Nearly two decades later, it’s exciting to be back, albeit on a very different trip. This time instead of being on what amounted to an international pub crawl with my buddy, I’m traveling more leisurely with my fiancé (we just got engaged in Belgium!!). The focus is less on booze and drugs, and more on culture and exploration. Rather than sleeping in a hostel dorm with 16 other snoring dudes, we’re staying with friends and in hotels. While I was obviously a very different person than the one who visited in 2001, I was curious to see how much of this old city has remained the same.
Walking through the center of Amsterdam today feels like little has changed in the past few decades. Beautiful 400- year-old buildings still line the canals as cute boats float by. Bleary-eyed international cannabis pilgrims shuffle between the coffeeshops and the gazillion vendors selling a cornucopia of stoner foods. Sex tourists from around the world crawl the Red Light District patronizing the attractive women standing behind the glass doors. If I were to stay only in the city center, then it would seem like nothing had changed at all. But that’s not remotely true.
To be fair, there was a whole lot of Amsterdam I didn’t see last time around, but the evidence that this city has changed, and is continuing to do so rapidly, is incontrovertible.
Sitting in my hotel room at the Double Tree Amsterdam NDSM Wharf I’ve got a panoramic view of a city that is quite literally on the rise. I can count at least 12 building cranes from my window, and while there has always been stuff to see, do, and consume outside the city center, it feels like things are really popping off right now.
Just take the neighborhood I’m staying in. The NDSM, which is northwest across the Ij River from the Central Station, is an abandoned shipyard that’s exploding with underground arts and culture. The actual old Nederlandsche Dok en Scheepsbouw Maatschappij (NDSM) building is filled with over 200 different artists and artisans, and considers itself a breeding ground for creativity. Around this has sprung up hip restaurants, performance spaces, and outdoor bars and cafés.
Other neighborhoods are going through similar transformations. Noord, which is just north of the Central Station across the river, has until recently been more neighborhoody, but now is seeing a surge of eateries and performance spaces. It’s also got the major tourist of the A’dam Toren, which has a swing at the very top, allowing you to swing over the side of one of Amsterdam’s tallest buildings. I nearly pooped my pants!
As we know in the Bay Area though, all this exciting change comes at a cost. Amsterdam is experiencing a housing affordability problem too. Because of things like AirBnb, a booming economy, and foreign investors buying up property, it was recently ranked the least affordable city to buy a home in Europe. A bartender I met at Café Hegeraad, an incredible bar that is more than 100 years old, told me that if her 25- year- old daughter moves out, the daughter will most likely have to leave Amsterdam completely.
Similarly, some artists I talked to at the NDSM building told me they worried that all the cool art spaces in the area might eventually be turned into condos and offices. As one guy put it “First the artists move in, then they make things cool. Then businesses start popping up and soon the artists can no longer be there.” Doesn’t that sound familiar?
By the time you read this, I’ll no longer be in Amsterdam. We’re off to Berlin for a few days before heading home, but I’m so glad I got to visit this city again and see it through grownup eyes. Amsterdam is beautiful and charming and has got so much figured out that we can’t seem to nail yet (hello bike friendliness and mass transit easiness). Obviously it’s going through the same struggle as most major cities right now, but I can’t wait to come back here again.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com and join his mailing list at http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList. He is a guest columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.