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Amsterdam, where cyclists rule

Amsterdam is a compact, quaint city built around a system of canals offering endless entertainment. If there is one symbol that stands out in modern-day Amsterdam, it’s the bicycle.Getting Around“Ding, ding, ding,” is a sound I heard often my first morning in Amsterdam. “Get out of their way, you’re in their lane,” my husband shouted. Okay, so who would have guessed there is always a bike lane? If there’s not enough room on the street to accommodate it, the sidewalk is divided in half, and pedestrians, you better stay on your own side.While there are certainly enough automobiles, the major means of transportation is the bike. Amsterdam’s citizens are always outside, no matter the weather. Within an hour of the city you’ll see more forms of bicycles than you would ever imagine possible. Young and old alike get around the city on two wheels. This healthy form of transportation is also reflected in a far leaner population than in the USA.Men in suits pedal to work, and women with passenger carts added to the front of their bikes drive small children to day care. Most of the bikes are black and have a large seat to accommodate constant use. Some riders express themselves through decorations, and nearly all of the bikes have saddlebags or baskets to bring home groceries or carry parcels. There are even canal bikes to pedal through the city’s waterways.The average tourist doesn’t need to rent a car to get around Amsterdam. When you arrive at Schiphol Airport, take a taxi to your hotel or the train that takes you directly from the airport to Central Station in the heart of the city. Amsterdam is compact enough to walk, and a car is more trouble than it’s worth. Adventurous tourists will rent a bike, complete with a bell, and join the throngs of natives. First, take some time to study the traffic patterns or you may collide with folks who know how to talk on cell phones while pedaling through busy intersections. Bike traffic moves in the same direction as the cars, and people may get upset if you don’t follow the rules of the road.Before beginning your tour of the city, get a map and mark the location of your hotel. Amsterdam was built on a grid of canals. Streets are not straight, but form more of a semi-circle progressing outward from the old center of the city. Amsterdam is divided into several districts, which are surprisingly close together. It is still easy to get lost in the city, so a map is highly recommended.What to SeeAmericans often choose to fly to Amsterdam because flights are less expensive than flights to most other major European cities, and it has good rail and air connections to the rest of Europe. If you only have a day in the city, skip the museums. There are many interesting sites to see in the city, so spend a day wandering around or take a canal boat to get a good view of the city’s great architecture. Tourists can purchase boat tickets good for 24 hours allowing you to get on and off the boat in different sections of town.Many of Amsterdam’s buildings were constructed during or before the 17th century, about the same time the first European settlers were reaching America. Because space is at a premium, the magnificent brick buildings, complete with gables, are tall and thin; something visitors don’t truly grasp unless their hotel is located in one of these old buildings, and they have to carry their suitcase up three floors on a narrow, winding staircase.Dam Square, near the center of the old city district, is where Amsterdam got its name. After the Amstel River was dammed, a fishing village developed, expanding into a city as more canals were added. A royal palace, the Koninklijk Paleis, is the major feature in the square. It was built during the 17th century when Amsterdam was a powerful city with Dutch ships bringing goods in from all over the globe.The Nieuwe Kerk, “new church” in English, is an early 15th century Gothic building with numerous pinnacles and high slender gables. Go inside to see the highly decorated 17th century tomb of Dutch Admiral Michiel de Ruyter.Amsterdam has a “laissez-faire” atmosphere, and both prostitution and marijuana use are legal. A few streets to the east of Dam Square is the Red Light District. This district is very seedy, but easy to wander into without a map. Yes, visitors will see prostitutes advertising their wares in small storefront windows, even during the daytime. While there are pickpockets in most big cities, the Red Light District has more than its share. So hold onto your wallet, and remember, taking pictures of the working girls may result in a smashed camera.What is most shocking about this district is the number of tourists walking past the windows with their entire family in tow. From the looks on their faces, I expect to hear them exclaim, “We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto.”The Museum District contains some of the greatest art in the world. The Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum are located only a few steps away from each other. Vincent van Gogh’s fabulous impressionistic paintings draw more than a million visitors a year from around the world. Dutch artists from the 17th century, known as the Golden Age of art, are featured at the Rijksmuseum, including the most famous works of Rembrandt. Large crowds flock to both of these museums, so visit them early in the morning to avoid long lines.The Jordaan District, west of the old city center, is a great place to relax, eat and shop for antiques or books. If you want one good souvenir to take home, there is a huge selection of antique wall tiles.This district also is a photographer’s paradise, with many picturesque homes, bridges and canal shots. Numerous sidewalk cafes, as well as restaurants representing all the countries once part of the Netherlands Empire, also are found here. Many Americans like their food spicier than traditional Dutch food, so try a Thai or Indonesian meal for some real flavor. The most popular tourist attraction in this district is the Anne Frank House.All of Amsterdam’s attractions are too numerous to list in this article. Truly, the most enjoyable part of a visit is sitting and watching the people. The city has a heartbeat, the Dutch are friendly and English is understood and spoken by most people in the Netherlands. Excellent train connections also provide day trips to other parts of Holland.After your first trip to Amsterdam, you will go home and plan another visit. If you stay longer on your next visit, you may even learn how to travel with the citizens – via bike.

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