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  • Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe.

  • This time, I'm trying to find my hotel

  • somewhere in the back canals of Amsterdam.

  • Thanks for joining us.

  • Amsterdam is perhaps

  • Europe's best-preserved 17th-century city.

  • Yet at the same time, it's got a fun, contemporary edge.

  • It's a progressive place invigorated by

  • a time-honored spirit of live and let live.

  • We'll cruise the canals and bike the back lanes.

  • We'll sample the Dutch masters from Rembrandt to van Gogh.

  • We'll drop into a coffee shop

  • that doesn't sell coffee,

  • And we'll ponder the red light district.

  • We'll remember Anne Frank,

  • we'll enjoy a feast of Indonesian food, Dutch style,

  • and we'll relax in Amsterdam's Vondelpark.

  • The historic core of Amsterdam remains much the same today

  • as when it was first laid out back in the 1600s.

  • That was Holland's Golden Age,

  • when Dutch merchant ships made this the world's richest city.

  • Amsterdam's touristy main drag,

  • Damrak, was once the main canal.

  • Today, it connects the train station

  • with the city's main square and the Royal Palace.

  • From this spine, the city opens like a fan,

  • with hundreds of bridges

  • and a series of concentric canals.

  • Wealthy merchants built this city

  • upon millions of wooden pilings,

  • creating a wonderland of canals lined with trees

  • and townhouses crowned with fancy gables.

  • Traditional bridges -- like this one,

  • which crosses the Amstel River -- were built

  • with a clever counterbalance.

  • They were fine-tuned

  • and bridge keepers bragged

  • they could raise and lower one

  • with a single finger.

  • The city's founders built a dam on the Amstel

  • back in the 13th century.

  • The community that gathered here was named

  • for that Amstel dam, eventually, Amsterdam.

  • This is where the river hit the sea.

  • From here, boats could sail into the interior of Europe

  • and out to the rest of the world.

  • Dutch merchant ships would sail right up the main canal

  • loaded down with material delights --

  • silks, spices, and porcelain from faraway lands.

  • Amsterdam's port is still huge.

  • But it's being transformed from a gritty industrial area

  • into a vibrant, modern, and very livable district.

  • A striking film museum and art cinema

  • is bringing new life to this now-revitalized neighborhood.

  • You can hop on a free shuttle ferry

  • to see this evolving district,

  • or you can cruise a different way,

  • by joining the hedonists and tourists

  • on Amsterdam's many canals.

  • Surprising to me, anyone can hire

  • one of these electric boats for a little independent exploring.

  • For some help with the navigation,

  • I'm joined by my friend

  • and fellow tour guide, Rolinka Bloeming.

  • Tell me about the difficulty of building here.

  • Well, the soil is very swampy,

  • so everything you see, Rick,

  • all the houses, all the bridges,

  • and the walls of the canals are built on wooden pilings.

  • It's actually oak wood,

  • and it comes from the Black Forest in Germany.

  • -We have about 100 canals. -Uh-huh.

  • And they were all dug out

  • in the 17th century entirely by hand.

  • It took them about 30 years.

  • The most important one

  • was the Gentlemen's Canal, Herengracht.

  • And then there is the Emperor's Canal,

  • Keizersgracht.

  • And then there's the Prince's Canal.

  • This has got to be the most beautiful canal in town.

  • It's my favorite canal, Rick.

  • So what is this neighborhood called?

  • It's called Jordaan, this area.

  • It's got to be the most characteristic

  • part of Amsterdam.

  • Oh, today it's one of the most popular places to live.

  • Beautiful.

  • The characteristic Jordaan district

  • offers a quiet slice of Dutch urban life.

  • Built in the 1600s

  • for warehouses and to house workers,

  • it's now home to artists

  • and inviting little restaurants and cafes.

  • While just a few blocks from the busy center,

  • the Jordaan feels like another world.

  • Everything's in its place, and life seems very good.

  • [Bicycle bell rings]

  • Amsterdam has about a million people

  • and as many bikes.

  • This multistoried bike garage

  • is for commuters who ride the train

  • and then pedal to work.

  • This is one of Europe's most bike friendly cities.

  • Bike lanes run next to the sidewalks,

  • and bikers whiz by silently.

  • Walk carefully.

  • [Bicycle bell rings]

  • One of the joys of visiting Amsterdam

  • is simply being in this swirl of healthy, busy, biking Dutch.

  • Bikers everywhere, doing chores,

  • flirting, delivering,

  • texting, you name it.

  • Around here it happens on two wheels.

  • The city is decorated with ornate gables.

  • The frugal Dutch made their simple buildings look fancy

  • by adding ornate facades.

  • Amsterdam's famous gables include the point gable

  • bell gable, step gable,

  • and neck gable.

  • 17th-century land was expensive

  • and taxes were based on the width of the house,

  • so the Dutch built skinny and straight up.

  • In a merchant's house, the shop was on the ground floor,

  • the family lived in the middle,

  • and the attic served as a kind of warehouse.

  • With their cramped interiors and steep stairs,

  • houses came with a pulley

  • so goods could be hoisted up and down

  • on the outside with a rope.

  • That original design still works today.

  • Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum

  • is one of the artistic highlights of Europe.

  • It was built to showcase

  • the art of the Dutch Golden Age.

  • Here we can gain insight into the industrious people

  • who made tiny Holland

  • so prosperous and powerful back in the 17th century.

  • This art is really all about money.

  • The Dutch worked hard, they were brilliant traders,

  • and the wealthy had plenty of money to match their egos.

  • Now, painters earned their living

  • working not for the church or the king,

  • but by painting portraits for local big shots.

  • The great Dutch painter Rembrandt --

  • this is a self-portrait at age 22 --

  • earned his money painting portraits.

  • These Dutch masters -- actually the drapers' guild --

  • all paid equally and expected to be portrayed equally.

  • Wearing the standard power suit of the day,

  • it's as if someone walks in and grabs their attention,

  • natural as a snapshot.

  • In Rembrandt's Night Watch, we see another group portrait.

  • But rather than the standard stiff pose,

  • this one bursts with energy.

  • It's the local militia,

  • which was also a fraternity of business bigwigs,

  • a kind of rotary club of the 17th century.

  • They tumble out of their hall, weapons drawn,

  • ready to defend their city.

  • While creative and groundbreaking

  • in its composition, some of those who paid the artist,

  • like this guy, were probably none too pleased.

  • This self-portrait of Rembrandt at age 55

  • shows a man who's seen it all

  • and woven those experiences into his art.

  • Rembrandt did more than paint for big egos.

  • In this painting,

  • the prophet Jeremiah laments the destruction of Jerusalem.

  • He slumps in defeat, confused and despondent.

  • Rembrandt's use of light to highlight certain details

  • set him apart from other artists of his age.

  • The Rijksmuseum has four rare

  • and precious paintings by Johannes Vermeer.

  • Here, the master of tranquility and stillness

  • shows an intimate street from his hometown of Delft.

  • In this quiet painting of an ordinary milkmaid, Vermeer,

  • who brings out the beauty of everyday things,

  • creates a scene where we can almost hear the trickle

  • of the pouring milk.

  • Perhaps for the first time, art catered to the tastes

  • and budgets of middle-class people, too.

  • Smaller canvasses by no-name artists

  • that a regular merchant could afford

  • and hang in his living room.

  • The work of Jan Steen offers a delightful slice

  • of 17th century Dutch life.

  • No preachy religious or political themes,

  • just light entertainment with a dose of folk wisdom.

  • Here, children teach a cat to dance,

  • mischief on their delighted faces.

  • But their father's upset that they're wasting time.

  • And in Steen's Merry Family, the parents party

  • while their kids copy their irresponsible behavior.

  • The girls learn to drink,

  • and the little boy picks up smoking.

  • The note warns -- "Parents beware,

  • your children are learning from your bad behavior."

  • This light-handed approach to morality

  • lives on in the Netherlands.

  • Amsterdam has plenty of examples

  • of their progressive approach

  • to subjects many people consider unsavory.

  • And, with the local passion for tolerance,

  • it's occasionally shocking.

  • Prepare for some differences --

  • curbside urinals,

  • prostitutes who are unionized, taxed, and regulated,

  • and coffee shops that sell marijuana.

  • Throughout the Netherlands,

  • places selling marijuana are called "coffee shops."

  • For decades now, the Dutch, like many Europeans,

  • view marijuana as a soft drug,

  • like tobacco and alcohol.

  • Marijuana is tolerated,

  • but hard drugs are strictly forbidden.

  • A lot of people think marijuana is a gateway drug.

  • They think if you smoke marijuana,

  • you'll be smoking harder drugs.

  • Marijuana here is soft drugs, like alcohol and cigarettes,

  • and hard drugs are still strictly forbidden.

  • What's the age limit for people buying marijuana?

  • -18. -18.

  • And how much can you buy in one visit?

  • Five grams.

  • How much is five grams of marijuana?

  • This is five grams of marijuana.

  • Okay, so that's five grams.

  • And if you wanted to buy a smaller quantity,

  • what is one gram of marijuana looking like?

  • It's about like a bud of this size.

  • Okay, so this is one gram.

  • And how much would this cost probably?

  • -11. -11 euros.

  • This particular strain, yeah.

  • Now, you have a menu with a lot of variety.

  • Yeah, we got all of the different ones.

  • Make you happy, giggly.

  • We've got the indicas, that's more of a sleepy.

  • Mm-hmm.

  • Got the organic ones, outdoor,

  • and I got a whole bunch of pre-rolled ones.

  • Okay, so you can get the loose leafs,

  • or you can get pre-rolled joints.

  • -Yes. -In the United States,

  • we still have so many people in prison because of marijuana.

  • Yeah, but here, we believe that it's better to tolerate

  • than to put more people in prison.

  • Another example of Amsterdam's creative approach

  • to social challenges is its red light district.

  • Practitioners of the world's oldest profession

  • flirt and tease in windows as they have here for centuries.

  • When it comes to prostitution,

  • the Dutch figure, if it's going to happen anyway,