By Roy Heale
Although it’s not official, Amsterdam is considered by many to be the gay capital of Europe— if not the world. Steeped in gay history, homosexuality in Amsterdam was decriminalized in 1811 with the first gay bar opening in 1927. Since that time Amsterdam has fostered a vital gay community with bars, cafes, the famous coffeeshops and other meeting places. It’s a city which sprung out of marshes and grasslands, surrounded by water and ‘floating’ on a web of canals. Those early roots developed into one of the most beautiful and historic European cities in which the GLBT culture plays a vital role.
On April 1st 2001 it was no April fools joke when Amsterdam’s Mayor Job Cohen wed four gay couples—three male and one female—at the stroke of midnight heralding the world’s first gay marriages. From this historic ceremony many other countries have followed the Dutch lead and hopefully there will be more who follow suit. This has probably led the recent renaissance for Amsterdam to once again become a leading GLBT vacation destination.
The shimmering canals reflect the facades of classic centuries-old homes. The lively nightlife and liberal attitude toward sex and drugs, amuses every visitor to the city. Although a little confusing at first, Amsterdam is laid out in a series of concentric, horseshoe-shaped circles of canals skirted with narrow streets. The main train station Centraal is at the heart of it all and from which the trams can take you to every part of the city. It’s a compact city, and walking or biking is a favorite way to see the sights. All of Amsterdam is very gay-friendly rather than one concentrated gay-village cluster.
However, five neighborhoods do have a higher predominance of rainbow flags and pink triangles. To enjoy everything which Amsterdam has to offer for the gay tourist it is almost essential to purchase The Bent Guide published by Pink Point—available before you leave home on Amazon.com—which is a humorous but fact-filled book with 135 pages of GLBT information which will guarantee a wonderful gay time in this city. It’s a guide to everything that’s not straight in Amsterdam and will prove to be your best purchase of the entire holiday.
The Reguliersdwarsstraat, nicknamed The Vanilla Slice of town, is centrally located close to the famous canalside Flower Market—doesn’t every gay man love flowers?—and is home to trendy bars for the younger set and the renowned Otherside coffeeshop—where hash brownies or a rocket roach are a must! At the famous Flower Market you can buy your bulbs to plant for next year’s garden or you can purchase some amazingly realistic carved wooden tulips for the everlasting floral gift, a Dutch tradition, for that special someone back home.
The pedestrian ‘camping’ ritual along the Amstel River and the adjacent Halvemaansteeg is legendary. It is also the neighbourhood for traditional Dutch pubs, taverns and brown cafes. Centered around the Rembrandt monument, here you’ll find sidewalk cafes and an amiable mix of younger and older gay patrons plus anyone who enjoys downing a Heineken beer while listening—or singing along– to music.
Known as the Dark Side or the leather belt Warmoesstraat, in the heart of Amsterdam’s infamous red light district comprises late night fetish bars, dungeon like dark rooms and of course the legendary coffeeshops. There is also a multitude of porn vendors and novelty stores to satisfy every fetish imaginable or to find that unique gift to take back home. While you’re in the vicinity you might also want to attend a lecture at the Cannabis College or inspect their well maintained gardens to the rear of the school— a guaranteed highlight for many visitors to Amsterdam. And by the way you might also want to visit Oude Kerk the oldest church in Amsterdam believed to have been built at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries which is located in the very heart of this district in between the Red Light zone and the gay leather bars.
The Kerkstraat— also known as the Back Side— is a quieter street, with some pleasant gay cafés and neighborhood bars and is one of the oldest gay areas of Amsterdam. Over the years the gay bars have diminished in number but recently the area has been revived by some of the straight venues staging gay-themed nights. Here you will also find the Stadsschouwburg Theatre built from 1892 to 1894 and now the hub for a thriving performing arts community. This magnificent building is surrounded by sidewalk cafes, restaurants and shops serving the local residents and visiting actors. Just a short tram ride from here is the 19th century Museum Plein which is a culture lovers dream come true. The Rijksmuseum, The Van Gogh Museum, concert halls, diamond merchants, haute couture boutiques, parkland and other historic buildings make this a pinnacle of sophistication for hours of enjoyment.
The Pink Point district is on Westermarkt and includes the Homomonument and the world’s first gay and lesbian information kiosk. The Homomonument was declared open to the public on September 5th 1987. Each of the three pink triangles has its own significance in the history of persecution relating to gays and lesbians. The COC, gay and lesbian rights organisation also has their offices within two blocks of the monument. Coincidentally, just a block away is the Anne Frank House and museum, another tribute to individuals’ survival of persecution. And of course there are numerous bookstores, galleries, cafes, bars , fitness clubs and everything you would expect to find in a highly focused gay residential area.
For those who initially like some assistance to find their way around a new city there are two great gay and lesbian bicycle tours—historic and hysteric. On these Mac Bike guided cycle tours one can explore the GLBT side of Amsterdam by day or night and learn about the history or the entertainment offered throughout the city’s heart and soul. The tour lengths vary from nine to sixteen kilometers and last about two hours, but you are also free to leave the route at any point and head off to explore for yourself. The night tours are more popular as the canals light up, the bars and restaurants open their doors and Amsterdam sparkles.
Another magical way to see Amsterdam is on a boat tour of the canals. Several companies offer day or candlelight night tours of the city and some of the evening tours include dinner and drinks. Also, the canal buses cover a circular route of the old city and you are free to get on and off at the next stop whenever you see something that requires a little more detailed exploration. It is amazing how everything is seen from a different perspective when cruising the canals.
Although Amsterdam is world famous for its many attractions like the Red Light District—worthy of a visit whether you’re straight or gay– and liberal sexual entertainment laws, it is probably the brown cafes and coffeeshops that most people remember when they return home. Both of these names need a little explanation. A brown café is a local pub where the lighting is always dim and the walls have turned brown from age and tobacco smoke. They range in size from small and cozy to large tavern-like rooms. There is never any music and the only sounds come from Dutch conversation and the tinkling of glasses being filled with local beer. Uniquely a coffeeshop can be recognised by the distinct aroma in the air before you even reach the front door. You don’t have to graduate from Cannabis College to know what is available in these coffeeshops but the menu will be like nothing you’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world. By this point in your holiday you might have wondered why Amsterdamers always have a smile on their faces, but once inside a coffeeshop you’ll begin to understand what your holiday trip to Amsterdam is about—a happy face!
Be sure to enjoy everything that this liberal city has to offer but remember some moderation is in order as you will probably be in this unique environment for at least a few days and survival is a key holiday element.
In addition to this city’s wonderful urban offerings, you might be surprised to learn that during the summer you can take a short journey to one of the man-made beaches at Blijburg, Strand Beach Suid or Amsterdam Plage which will provide a pleasant escape from the high-energy city life. Each are accessible by public transport and have cafes and beautiful sandy beaches for relaxation during a hot summer day.
Or if you are in Amsterdam during their spring time– late March to late May–you might want to escape the city for a tour of the tulip fields and witness a colourful spectacle that distinctly heralds the upcoming summer season.
At any time of the year a tour of the Alkamaar cheese market and Schermerhorn windmills will be a journey back in time. At the market you can see the cheese carriers in their traditional costumes and on the windmill tour you will learn the importance of these national symbols in Dutch history. On the return to Amsterdam you will also visit the town of Edam which requires no explanation.
When choosing your accommodation Amsterdam offers everything you might expect from such a popular gay destination. You can choose a friendly gay bed and breakfast, a large gay hotel, a leather pensionne complete with slings in the rooms and private dungeon, a classic five storey historic small hotel overlooking a canal, a gay guesthouse or a gay-friendly modern hotel. The old dock land area has been recently renovated into a trendy inner city neighbourhood populated by many gays and lesbians and also is home to the recently renovated historic Lloyd Hotel which is highly recommended for the variety and style of rooms, excellent food and cozy bar. There are several online resources to help you choose your own favorite style of accommodation at a price to suit your budget.
This is a city where the only limits placed upon your vacation are the limits of your own imagination and willingness to explore the unusual offerings which Amsterdam has in abundance.
From the artworks of the old Dutch masters in the Rembrandt Museum through the euphoric highs in the coffeeshops to today’s Dutch masters in the dungeons of the Dark Side, Amsterdam earns its reputation as the gay capital of Europe. It is worthy of at least a once in a lifetime visit. You’ll probably end up returning for a second look and much more!