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Amsterdam boasts more than 60 miles of canals. (Photograph by Miquel Gonzalez)

Past Forward Amsterdam

My four-year-old son loves going to the park in our Amsterdam neighborhood. The trip takes a minute. We cross the street, walk to the corner, and there it is: the vast green sward called Museumplein.

Some of the world’s great cultural institutions (Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum) border the square, but Anthony heads straight for his “playground,” a brushed steel platform in the middle. Its circle of gleaming panels is perfect for hide-and-seek. Anthony remains properly unaware that this is in fact a memorial to women who died in Ravensbrück concentration camp during World War II. 

This way of juxtaposing life and death, renewal and remembrance, is exactly appropriate to the experience of urban living. Amsterdam is a city exquisitely built with human needs and concerns in mind, and blending the past into the present is one of the many things it does well.

Amsterdammers like to think of their city as a cosmopolitan village. It has only 811,000 inhabitants, far fewer than some other European capitals, and somehow it feels even smaller. The skyline is human-scaled: The three-story canal house is the standard structure.

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Cyclists rule along the Prinsengracht, one of Amsterdam’s three main canals. (Photograph by Miquel Gonzalez)

I give friends tours of the city by way of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in, starting in the center, within the 17th-century canal ring. The area is as quaint as you can get, yet it’s rescued from kitsch by Amsterdam’s permissive policies (you can be only so quaint with weed-selling coffee shops and prostitute windows around the corner).

I hadn’t resided in the center very long before I began skirting the tourist haunts in favor of places where I could live my life. Spui Square is rimmed with great bookshops (Athenaeum is classical and stately; the American Book Center a vigorous hodgepodge).

Not far away, on Noordermarkt square, chic Bordewijk, my favorite restaurant in the city, serves suckling pig, with views of a church where Vincent van Gogh sought solace during his time in Amsterdam.

Later I lived in Zeeburg, in the windy, watery east, which recalls the city’s connections to the sea. The best way to see it is by boat. A 17th-century windmill dominates the area; I once sailed up to it in a friend’s boat and stepped directly into a microbrewery, called Brouwerij ’t IJ, which is next to the mill.

A little further sailing brought me to my home on Borneo Island. Occasionally from my window I would see architecture students boating in on group tours; at the far end of the island is a little strip of water lined by rows of high-tech canal houses, ultramodern riffs on the canal house of the Dutch golden age.

Finally, I moved to Oud Zuid—“old south”—just outside the center. Museumplein, where Anthony and I play, is the centerpiece of the neighborhood, but behind the museums and designer shops are quiet streets and snug cafés (I make regular weekend lunch stops at Willems, a French-Dutch eatery).

Standing out amid the residential streets of the neighborhood, the modernist Hilton hotel gained fame as the place where John Lennon and Yoko Ono held a “bed-in for peace” in 1969. That event cemented Amsterdam’s reputation for flamboyance and liberalism. Yet few people know that the city’s infamous permissiveness comes out of the same commitment that keeps its buildings low and its monuments humble: a determination to give space to the individual.

This piece, written by Russell Shorto, appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine. Shorto is the author of Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City

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