AMSTERDAM: For starters
You’ve finally done it, joined that quarter of the American population that owns a valid U.S. passport. You’re finally going to step out of the familiar and start seeing the world. But where’s a first-time international traveler to go?
Not London, you ask?
Cosmopolitan, historic, high-octane London places high on any must-see list. But even though the British drive on the “wrong” side of the road and their version of English sounds odd to our American ears, it still feels just a little too familiar.
Not Paris? It certainly qualifies in the “foreign” respect, and is on that must-see list right along with London. So why not make the City of Light your first truly international destination?
Basically, for the same reason you don’t eat dessert first.
Rome? Madrid? Mexico City? Beijing? If you’re the type who plunges head-first into everything, any of these would do just fine. But if you’re looking to ease into international travel, these mega-cities can be just a little overwhelming.
Tokyo? Hong Kong? Bangkok? Don’t even think about it!
My own first international trip was a two-week jaunt to those three cities. It was an incredible experience that I still cherish, but I spent nearly all of those two weeks in a daze — disoriented, intimidated and on total sensory overload.
I returned home with a lot of pictures and a lot of memories, but without a true understanding of any place I had been.
The capital of the Netherlands is just big enough to keep you engaged, just different enough to leave you feeling adventurous, and visitor-friendly enough to put you at ease.
It starts on arrival at Schiphol International Airport, consistently judged by frequent travelers to be one of the world’s best. Take a train straight from the terminal into Amsterdam Centraal Station. Fast, easy and cheap.
An network of trams, buses and canal boats make getting around a cinch, and being perfectly flat makes Amsterdam ideal for walking.
So many residents speak English in this city that language is a non-issue.
The broad palate of international cuisine guarantees you won’t go hungry. And did I mention that they brew Heineken beer here? World-class art exhibits. Historic sites like the Anne Frank House. Plenty for the kids. And if you’ve only listening to American radio, Amsterdam’s diverse and energized music scene will open both your eyes and your ears.
Then, there’s Amsterdam’s unique adult entertainment, from its legal-marijuana “coffeshops” to its legalized prostitution.
Visitors flock here from around the world, including Africa and the Caribbean, so you’ll see no shortage of faces that look like yours. But even if they weren’t present, it wouldn’t matter, because Amsterdam is one of the friendliest of world capitals.
The Dutch show a live-and-let-live spirit to foreign visitors all but guaranteed to relieve any pre-trip anxieties. Maybe it’s the languid canals, or their love of bicycles, or those funny brownies in those coffeeshops.
The one exception to this rule seems to be in the city’s red-light district, where Amsterdam’s legal, unionized prostitutes display their lingerie-clad “wares” in display windows like so many living, moving mannequins.
These mannequins, however, don’t like being photographed, and they have burly, ill-tempered bouncers who will do their best to smash your camera — and possibly you with it — if you try.
This really does seem to be the exception, though. After a few days here, you might be forgiven for thinking there’s some sort of municipal law that requires folks to be nice to visitors.
Whatever it is, if you’re setting out to see the world, Amsterdam makes as good a starting point as any.