Arthur Frommer

For a change of pace, consider the countercultural allure of Amsterdam

In a long-ago time when Amsterdam was thought to be “quaint,” a place of tulips and wooden shoes, I wrote a travel guide called “Surprising Amsterdam,” whose point was that Amsterdam wasn’t quaint or super-annuated at all.

In it, and in associated lectures I delivered, I argued that far from being quaint, Amsterdam was a devilish, in-your-face, unexpected center of red-light districts, pot-smoking coffeehouses and outlandish but exciting social experimentation. As a city, I claimed, it had taken over the role once played by Stockholm, and was now a place of advanced social conventions, controversial economic policies and novel civic institutions. It was not the place you expected it to be, and it certainly didn’t make a point of wooden shoes and tulips.

Amsterdam was the first city I had ever encountered that openly tolerated socializing by gays. It – and the country of which it was the economic capital – also was the first I had ever seen that prohibited the firing of employees for anything other than the most egregious misdeeds. Its social security and unemployment benefits were among the highest in Europe, and its people constantly were marching and agitating for international social causes. It was one of the most progressive cities on earth.

Want another example? In my “Surprising Amsterdam” travel guide, I confessed to be shocked but yet intrigued by the decisions of the city and the church to each sponsor the operation of two teenager nightclubs (called Fantasio and Paradiso), in which the sale of drugs was openly permitted. The theory was that by eliminating the thrill and challenge of breaking the law, youngsters would find the atmosphere of these clubs to be utterly boring and subdued, without sexual tension, without exciting danger; and having had their fill of these prohibited practices, the youngsters would gladly return to the traditional dancehalls and enjoy themselves without drugs.

Is it still an outlandish and outrageous city? Well, yes. The ambitious effort to close the marijuana-dispensing coffee houses has failed (Amsterdam’s merchants were aghast at the thought), and the vast red-light district is as active as ever. And though the city has a checkered record in terms of its recent treatment of Muslim immigrants, even those questions seem on the brink of resolution – from a liberal standpoint.

So when you visit Amsterdam, you'll be viewing institutions both modern and ancient. You'll gaze, to your delight, at the 17th-century masterworks in the Rijksmuseum (Rembrandt and Vermeer the top highlights), you'll stroll a vast area of totally untouched 17th-century canal houses arrayed picturesquely along semicircular canals dug in those long-ago days, and yet you'll be aware of super-modern institutions and attitudes that continue to reflect the viewpoints of most of its citizens.

Arthur Frommer is the founder of the Frommer’s Travel Guide book series. Find more destinations and read his blog at