It’s not so much bright lights, big city in Amsterdam – but, of course, red lights. Though many visitors are still intent on ticking the tourist track highlights and ubiquitous sex industry scenes, I’ve visited on several occasions and have to say that – for me – Amsterdam stands out as a city with a powerful and palpable history.
The first time I visited I was lucky enough to follow in the footsteps of inspirited heroes John Lennon and Yoko Ono by staying in their honeymoon suite at the Hilton. It was here where they staged their famous week long bed-in for peace in 1969. And, with 360 aerial panoramas of the surrounding city – it’s easy to see why they chose an Amsterdam hotel room as their protest platform and “commercial for peace”.
The room is now a shrine to its former occupants with original artefacts in abundance throughout. Photos of the couple by Cor Jaring hang alongside an original framed copy of ‘The Plastic Ono Band Live Peace in Toronto’ LP that plays from the stereo in the room.
You will also find sketches by Lennon himself, with writing on the walls in the form of John and Yoko’s Ballad. Ceiling to floor glass windows provide the perfect backdrop of citywide views that are further extended by the private balcony. The Japanese inspired white décor boasts a sumptuous freestanding bed and a delicate wooden screen, while fresh, white roses further extend the clean, minimalist beauty and relaxed ambience.
Of course there’s a number of ‘to dos’ in Amsterdam, and exploring the cityscapes is a must. Go local and hire a bike – a surprisingly safe and easy, not to mention inexpensive, way to explore the flat metropolis. Alternatively, there’s a host of efficient public transport services including trams, trains and taxis.
For a more novel approach, you might want to take a cruise through the pretty maze of canals that interconnect and wind you slowly around until you decide to find your feet again. This option will prove to be particularly spectacular as a dusk or nighttime venture.
Dose up on culture at over forty museums that are sure to satisfy even the sturdiest of cultural appetites – a novel twist is during Museumnacht (staged annually on the first Saturday in November) where dozens of museums open their doors to the public until the early hours, presenting an eclectic and vibrant mix of unique performances and events.
One that we visited had morphed into a nightclub, replete with cocktails and decks; it offered a most fabulous and entertaining take on modern art. From the historical to the maritime, the museum list includes the internationally renowned Van Gogh, Kröller-Müller and Rijksmuseum. Head toward the Museum Plein and follow whatever vibe takes your creative fancy for an incredibly special evening out.
With the art fix over, Amsterdam’s back-story still beckoned for me, especially as one of its historical highlights begged to be seen. It was at 263 Prisengracht where one of the world’s most famous young writers penned her innermost thoughts, living literally behind the walls in a secret annexe that housed no fewer than eight people for just over two years in just 75 square metres of concealed and unbelievably cramped space.
The haunting Anne Frank House is now a museum that pays homage to Anne’s story while simultaneously telling the tragic tale of the plight of millions of Jews during the Second World War.
On paper and in pictures, the house stirs sympathy for what Anne painfully endured; but only by actually visiting the museum and exploring the annexe for yourself can you truly begin to feel the extraordinary extent of her horrifying Holocaust experience. Little has changed since the original inhabitants hid in the bare rooms, which betray a heartbreaking sense of humanity and spirit that today remain as imprisoned by the walls as Anne once was.
With various extracts of her celebrated diary inscribed on the interior, the dark, eerie spaces sit in stark contrast to the bright white walls of Lennon’s honeymoon suite, presenting a rare dichotomy of history and hope that is as unfathomable as it is soul-stirring.
In a city that never sleeps, neither does its history, which is poignantly available for visitors to gain a portal to the past in the most memorable of ways.
Amsterdam may well be a hedonist’s hotspot. But whenever I think of it, I see only the eternal struggle and search for something that is still largely beyond us, but that is expressed by a musician’s ideology and a writer’s simple desire that – decades apart – just happened to share the same city.
Written by and photos by Hannah May for EuropeUpClose.com