They say you don’t get second chances at first impressions – perhaps the saying is as true for places as it is for people. Exploring Amsterdam, there were a few curiosities about the city stood out to me.
1. Bikes. Are. Everywhere.
In Amsterdam, I’m pretty sure that bicycles pose more of a threat than cars when it comes to navigating the streets on foot. Strolling along the canals, it’s difficult to look around and not see cyclists. There are men and women riding bikes to work, teenagers giving each other a lift on the back of bikes, older folks riding bikes, and even tiny children riding tiny bikes. The Dutch use their bikes to transport a whole range of cargo, from groceries to babies to large couch cushions (who needs moving trucks when you can bike, right?) and everything in between. There are (sometimes unheeded) signs asking people not to text and bike, and I even saw a few multitaskers walking their dogs from the seat of a bicycle. Cyclists will run you over if you’re not paying attention when crossing the streets!
When not in use, the parked bicycles compete with pedestrians for sidewalk space. They’re found everywhere, from locked to bridges, jammed into a bike rack, or stuffed into a sea of bikes on a street corner. I even saw a bike hanging from its lock on a street lamp! Needless to say, bikes are clearly a fact of life in Amsterdam.
2. The locals are exceedingly nice.
The Dutch locals I interacted with, apart from all being very fluent in English, also struck me as some of the nicest and warmest people I’ve ever met. If I approached someone to ask a question, I was almost always greeted with a smile. Sometimes, I’d be standing on the street with my nose in my map, and a local would actually come up to me to ask if I needed help. One such local, upon instructing me to take a particular bus, even gave me his bus card, since he no longer needed it!
Upon reporting this finding to my host, Itamar, he speculated that it was probably because everyone was cheerful to finally have a sunny weekend – supposedly a rarity in the normally rainy Amsterdam.
3. The people are tall, the buildings are short, and both are beautiful.
At a whopping five foot three (about 160 cm for my European readers), rounding up, I’m no stranger to tilting my head back when talking to anyone other than my mom. However, even for someone used to looking up, the Dutch struck me as notably taller. In fact, Itamar, an uncited claim on Wikipedia, and the guide on a free walking tour, Paul, all made the same assertion – Dutch people are among the tallest people in the world. Paul’s theory differed slightly from that of a study he referenced, which explained Holland’s height with lifestyles full of dairy and light exercise. According to him, throughout the country’s history, its low elevation meant floods, and floods mean natural selection against shorter folks. My lack of explanations and convincing evidence notwithstanding, I know I wasn’t the only tourist that noticed how tall the locals were.
On the other hand, you’d be hard pressed to see a building in the center of Amsterdam more than four or five stories tall. The cumulative effect is that the daylight falls nicely on the streets, and combined with the canals, the bright openness in Amsterdam makes the city friendly to claustrophobics. Besides that, there’s barely a hill to be found. Amsterdam not only sits below sea level, but it also is extremely flat – which makes it well suited to be full of bikes!
I arrived in Amsterdam with few expectations, and I left with some positive impressions. If my weekend visit to the city were a first date, there’d easily be a second date in store for us!