They’re building a new bridge in Amsterdam, no ordinary bridge, one built by robots using 3D printing technology. It will be the first of its kind anywhere in the world, and when completed it will span one of the city’s many canals. In this city of water, it will take its place amongst nearly 1,300 other bridges that are still in use today, the oldest of which dates to the mid-17th Century. Cutting-edge modernity will merge seamlessly with centuries of history.
The 3D bridge is the perfect symbol of the nature of the Netherlands’ most iconic and vibrant city: defying convention, dodging stereotypes and constantly reinventing itself as a modern urban creative hub. It is this spirit of inventiveness that makes Amsterdam a magnet for people from all over the world, and the reason I’ve repeatedly explored its fascinating streets.
I came across the 3D bridge while reading a news article about how Amsterdam was ranked the 5th most innovative city in the world earlier this year. The only surprising thing about this is that there are four cities more innovative. What Amsterdam seems to do so well, is to merge this creative streak brilliantly with its long and glorious history, and its incredible cultural wealth.
Arrive at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station on a sunny Saturday afternoon though and this is unlikely to be the first impression you get of the city. Stag parties compete for attention with hen parties, bewildered tour groups vie for space with maniacal cyclists, and crowds of tourists from around the world do what crowds of tourists do everywhere, make the place look untidy. This city is a heady mix of serious culture seekers, hedonistic party goers and people eager to experience one of Europe’s truly great cities.
The city’s legendary drug and sex scene is high on many people’s agenda, and you don’t have to wander too far from Centraal Station to encounter windows illuminated with red light and graced by underwear wearing women, less than 5 percent of whom are actually Dutch. These streets are filled with curious tourists, almost like an open air museum for the prurient and voyeuristic. They should charge a fee to walk around here, and the proceeds should go to the women in the windows.
A stroll down these streets is almost obligatory and if offers an insight into a part of the city’s life that locals rarely engage with. Many people think that legalised prostitution is a result of the famed Dutch liberalism, an anything goes attitude that also takes a laid-back approach to soft drugs. In reality nothing could be further from the truth. The Dutch are a pretty conservative bunch – Calvinism runs through society like a giant kill-joy – but they’re also practical and pragmatic. Prostitution is going to happen, best to control and tax it, seems to be the general attitude.
This area is definitely the seedy side of Amsterdam, but if you can ignore the boat loads of drunks acting out cliché after cliché, it can be entertaining. There are some good bars and cafes (the non-coffee shop variety), and pulling up a window seat to watch the world go by is a lot of fun. Amsterdam is a small place, walk a few blocks away from the red light district and you could be in a different city altogether. Tranquil residential streets with historic houses and canals, no tourists hoards, no red lights and definitely no stag parties.
Despite the ever present bicycles, for me the best way to get to know the city is to head off on foot and explore the different neighbourhoods at leisure. From Zeeheldenbuurt and Westerpark in the north to De Pijp and Beatrixpark in the south, it’s amazing what Amsterdam has to offer.