I heart Amsterdam
Published: Mar 02, 2012 08:40 PM Updated: Mar 04, 2012 03:42 PM
The Museum Plein Photo: Xu Liuliu and CFP

Red light districts, cannabis and casinos…if there's a rule out there, Amsterdam exists to break it. The Netherlands was a cornucopia of windmill, tulips, fine arts and many other interesting sites over my four days in the country. On the plane from Beijing to Amsterdam, I was musing over what my first impression about the capital city would be like. Though I was a little worried about this European trip, I arrived at the terminal of Schiphol Airport, where, luckily, I and other Chinese travelers were greeted in Chinese with a buoyant nihao on the way to claim luggage. Though it's only six in the afternoon, in this northern country, it is already dark outside. Boarding the train and heading to the Central Station in Amsterdam, I started my long-expected Holland trip.

Museums on the go

The Netherlands has never been wanting for artists, especially painters, with such names as Rembrandt and Vincent Van Gogh having become worldwide icons. There are various museums across the country to commemorate them, as well as their golden-era history. The capital city itself boasts over 51 museums, from the National Maritime Museum Amsterdam to The Rembrandt House Museum. Even half a month is hardly enough time for a real museum-goer to see them all. But for a short-term traveler like me, the Museum Plein, which houses three of the most well-known museums, including the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk Museum and the Van Gogh Museum, is a smart choice to take a glance through much of the country's art in a day.

The best way to travel through the city is via bike, but as I was hardly familiar with the meandering lanes, I chose to walk, which also allowed me to become acquainted with the layout and feel of this humble yet bustling metropolis. After about 15 minutes on foot, I came to the plein, whose giant red-and-white logo "I amsterdam" is impossible to miss. Pass the logo and you will see the Rijksmuseum (National Museum) in front of you. The main building of the museum is still under renovation and is expected to reopen next year. I regretted not being able to visit the complete collection of 8,000 masterpieces there, but still I had the chance to form an impressive picture of the Dutch Golden Age via my excursion past over 400 masterpieces, including the precious The Night Watch by Rembrandt, on display in the Philips Wing.

The space doesn't look very big at the entrance, but upon walking into it, you will marvel that the display area is arranged so well that your line of sight is constantly filled with art and paintings, from the model of a Dutch war ship during Anglo-Dutch Wars, to the delicately designed and constructed royal family utensils.

In a separate display room, you can find a large spread of objects that may remind you of China: blue and white porcelain. In fact, various kinds of blue and white pieces of pottery, called Delftware, are on display there. During the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th Century, the Dutch East India Company imported millions of pieces of Chinese porcelain. But only the royal families and other wealthy members of society could afford the imported luxuries, made of the finest Chinese craftsmanship and meticulous attention to detail. The Dutch didn't learn how to imitate Chinese porcelain until the death of the Wanli Emperor in 1620, when the supply to Europe was interrupted. At that point, Dutch craftsmen were inspired by Chinese originals and even developed their own European patterns.

In this space, you can also gain a good understanding of "Delftware," which ranges from simple household items to fancy artwork. The most popular pieces are pictorial plates, illustrated with religious motifs, native Dutch scenes with windmills and fishing boats, hunting scenes, landscapes and seascapes. In addition, Chinese scenes were a popular motif in Europe in the second half of the 17th Century. In Delft, potters imitated elaborate Chinese porcelain by covering clay pottery with white tin glaze. The scene on one remarkable plaque was not in fact borrowed from a Chinese original; instead, the painter used illustrations from the account of a journey by a Dutch East India Company delegation to China.

By and large, these Dutch potters developed the porcelain indigenously, incorporating their own designs, like flower holders and violins. One striking piece is a nine-layer Oriental-style Delft pagoda meant to hold tulips, the national flower. Next to it is a real Delft violin. It is unusual not only for its shape, but also for the distribution of the design over the surface and the virtuoso execution. On its front is a dance hall and on the back is a violinist in front of an inn, together with a merry group of dancers.

On the way to see the masterpiece The Night Watch, you won't want to miss the special Grandfather clock at the corner of the steep stairs. There is no hour, minute or second hand on the clock, but inside stands a man who wipes off the painted hands and paints new ones when the minute passes. It is so unusual that every passerby stops to see how the Dutch design captures time in this most unique fashion.

Rembrandt and Van Gogh

If you were only given five minutes to visit the museum, then The Night Watch is the only painting you absolutely must see. The masterpiece by Dutch painter Rembrandt may be more properly titled The Company of Frans Banning Cocq and Willem van Ruytenburch. The painting, portraying the aforementioned-named group on an excursion led by Captain Frans Banning Cocq and his lieutenant, was completed in 1642, the very peak of the Dutch Golden Age.

As an exhibition goer in Beijing and having been invited to many big exhibitions featuring artistic masterpieces from across the world, I nevertheless felt a breathless, head-spinning sensation upon setting eyes upon this piece, uncovered by glass and just resting serenely in front of my eyes. It is so close that you can have a good look at the painting and observe the use of light and shadow, known as chiaroscuro. Take a few steps back for a full view of the different people scattered throughout the painting, and you'll soon come to figure out the answer to the question why the Dutch so admire the medium of painting. In this colossal work, the artist has captured the specific movement of each man in the company with amazing realism.

If you don't want to spend hours seeking out details in the painting or don't have much knowledge of its background, then take a look at the introduction sheet next to the painting, which mentions the various highlights in the painting.

The Van Gogh Museum, which boasts the world's greatest collection of works by Van Gogh, is on the west side of the plein. Following the hundreds of Van Gogh fans into the museum, it wasn't hard for me to believe that this gray inconspicuous museum welcomed over 1.6 million visitors last year, making it the most popular museum in the Netherlands. There, you can see almost everything about Van Gogh, his life, academic experience in France, his painting styles and, of course, his tumultuous romances. The collection of 200 paintings, 400 drawings and 700 letters by Van Gogh is displayed according to the various phases of his artistic life. There you will see world-famous Sunflowers, Bedroom in Arles, and The Zouave, as well as some little-known paintings.

These two museums are so big and you need to set aside a whole day in order to see both. The Rijiksmuseum opens at nine am and the Van Gogh opens at 10, so I recommend spending the morning in the Rijiks and then heading to the Van Gogh for the afternoon. And it is ok to take photos at the Rijiks, but not at the Van Gogh.

Café, not coffee shop

Finished with your museum trip and interested in lounging a bit with a cup of coffee in order to recover? If you do, remember to find a café, not a "coffee shop." The latter is not actually a place to go and sip on the coffee, as the name suggests, but a place where cannabis is openly sold and smoked. If you're interested in this kind of experience, you can have a try at the shop. Amsterdam is dotted with these shops, which draw a vibrant mix of locals and foreigners alike. All the cannabis cigarettes are made to order, though they can get quite pricey, depending on your preferred variety of marijuana.

Though I didn't have enough courage to try it, it tops the list of things many people are curious to try in this city.

Many of the most popular Amsterdam coffee shops will be found around the canal districts of the city. Not far from them is the popular and must-see red-light district. In spite of - or perhaps because of - its reputation, every visitor to the city must also put a visit to the red-light district at the top of the list.

Just like casinos and cannabis, the sex industry is legal in the country. In addition, it is quite easy to find the district. First find the Dam Square, then follow the crowds, who are all going to visit the district at night. The hordes of pretty girls, dressed in various revealing outfits and flirting through their windows, is clearly a major tourist draw, as there aren't many other places you can go to find such an in-your-face display. It is said that over 480 window brothels exist in the city.

There is perhaps no more free and tolerant city in the world than Amsterdam, especially regarding drugs and sex. Even travelers from the United States, whose Nevada has also legalized the sex industry, seem stunned when confronted with so many "window girls." One intrepid backpacker gained enough courage to knock at one of the glass doors and have a chat with one of the girls for a few minutes - perhaps haggling over price. Then she let him in and pulled on the curtain.

Scenes like this occurred along the canal area every night. In the eyes of locals, there is nothing untoward about this - it is merely a business involving two consenting adults. The prostitutes pay taxes just as others do, and undergo health checks as required by the law of the Netherlands.


On February 20th, the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Convention, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Schiphol Airport launched an alliance in Beijing to boost Dutch tourism among Chinese travelers. Jos Vranken, the managing director of the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions, said that the alliance aims to double the 200,000 Chinese visitors to the Netherlands. They will focus on boosting the number of Chinese individual travelers, especially backpackers. In light of the upcoming spring travel season, often considered the best time to visit, the alliance hopes more and more Chinese travelers will visit.