Amsterdam is one of the happiest cities in Europe, or so they say. For sure, it is one of those cities that it’s easy to fall in love with. It’s Saturday afternoon and the sun shines over the canals. The air is warm, the streets are crowded. As we drive through the city, we start to notice that what they say is true: bicycles are definitely more than cars, and cyclists seem to own the road. Amsterdam is a city of water and refections, of boat houses and brick houses, of bridges and canals. The trees are dressed in red and gold; their leaves have formed a carpet on the streets.
Exploring the historical center
The silence amazes me. As I start to praise this city without traffic and smog, my sister, who lives in Amsterdam, saves me from a mad cyclist by dragging me away from the street. Our hotel is on Eerste Constantijn Huygensstraat, in the western suburbs. Taking advantage of the sunny day, we head for the historical center. It’s Saturday afternoon, and the whole Europe seems to be gathered in the narrow streets. I notice several shops selling cheese, which actually look like boutiques. The ancient heart of the city reflects the typical style of North European countries: sloping roofs, white/chocolate/red houses, steep and narrow stairs. And cats looking out of the windows, which have no curtains.
Crossing the canals, we get to the Red Light District (Rossebuurt), where prostitutes stand up behind a window. Amsterdam prides itself on its tolerant attitude. Prostitution is legal; prostitutes in the Netherlands are taxpayers and are able to access medical care. Policemen and private bodyguards employed by the girls are always on duty. Personally, I am not particularly interested in exploring the area, but I know this is one of the oldest parts of the city. So I concentrate on its cobbled streets, 14th century buildings and the fascinating old church, Oude Kerk.
Old and new: Damrak & the central station
We quickly leave the most crowded streets behind and stop on Damrak, in front of what looks like a postcard. The merchant houses reflected in the water, framed against the blue sky, are not different from those Flemish paintings we see in the museums. Amsterdam houses are crooked. They are leaning forward or tilt to one side. Because of the wet soil, all buildings are built on piles, and in the past those piles were made of wood. That’s why they tend to sink and look skewed.
In front of us stands the railway station. This imposing building with its neo-gothic facade and two clock towers reminds me of St Pancras in London. It was designed by Pierre Cuypers, the architect of the Rijksmuseum, in 1875, to give the city a monumental entrance. On the other side of the Noorzeecanal stand modern constructions, very different from those of the city center. Among them is the EYE Film Museum. One of the free ferries carrying passengers back and forth leaves in the golden sunset. I could stay here forever.
The Western Canals
As the sun goes down, we head back home. We walk through the area called Jordaan and stop by Anne Frank‘s house. The story of the young German girl who was forced to live in the attic of this tall and narrow building, hidden from the Nazi, has always struck me. Her diary was the book that changed my attitude towards life, at 13. Staring at the green window on Prinsengracht, before which there’s a long line of people waiting for getting in, some of Anne’s words echo in my mind. “I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.”
With a subtle sense of sadness I watch the canals and the imposing Protestant church that stands near the house, the Westerkerk. This city is growing on me. As we walk, we look through the ground floor windows, into the flats. There are no curtains and we can see the finely furnished rooms, some full of books, others littered with toys. A lady is cooking. Someone is watching tv. We come across a Thai restaurant and a nice coffee shop, but we decide to have dinner at De Struisvogel. This bizarre restaurant serving ostrich steak – as well as vegetarian options – attract us with its warm atmosphere, its wooden benches and organic products.
Sunday Morning in one of the happiest cities in Europe
The quality of life improves quickly when the city offers quiet and green suburbs in which one can walk on Sunday mornings. In the sleepy atmosphere of the weekend, we go downstairs in our pajamas and have a cup of tea and a slice of banana bread at Bakker Bertram. Nobody notices; nobody says anything. It’s perfectly normal to feel free and relaxed. Slowly we reach De Pijp, a bohémienne suburb where the red brick houses remind me of London. There are many cozy cafés for the Sunday brunch; this is also the right place to go if you’re looking for a market or a trendy restaurant.
The Museum District and the Flower Market
Not far from De Pijp, among elegant houses and squares, are the most famous museums in Amsterdam: the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum. One should stay for at least four days to enjoy all the collections and artworks. We are in a hurry, so we head towards the city center and stop by the Bloemenmarkt, the floating flower market. Along the canal are stalls selling tulip bulbs, as well as flowers, potted plants and souvenirs.
Everywhere I look, I see Nordic style coffee shops where people drink, eat or write on their laptop. I am also fascinated by the little restaurants by the canals, the names of which are difficult to remember. One of them is Spingaren: a cozy atmosphere, inviting main dishes and a list of starters to share, for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
Doors of Amsterdam
And then there are the doors of Amsterdam. Green, red, black, covered with ivy or vines, with a bicycled parked outside or a cat sleeping on the stairs. They convey a sense of warmth, of hygge – the Danish word that means something like cosiness and comfortable conviviality. I start to think this is a human-sized city, a place where it’s easy to feel at home.
By the way, renting a house in Amsterdam is not easier than in other European cities. Flats are beautiful, but expensive. The young professionals often decide to buy, because they have access to convenient mortgages. If they leave the city, they sell. Inside, most apartments are new and well furnished. The cost of living is more or less the same as in Milan or London, but here you can save on public transport – you just need to buy a bike. If you can put up with cold winters and much rain, you’ll be tempted to move soon to one of the happiest cities in Europe.