Amsterdam is small, cute and beautiful
27 August 2006 – If you like to think
of Amsterdam as a metropolis, the city guides will shatter your
illusion. The city is mainly small, cute and beautiful. And tolerant
– notwithstanding a string of hard-line mayors and the murder
of Theo van Gogh. This tolerance of course has its limits: it is
verboten to walk on bicycle paths.
Recently, HP/De Tijd magazine asked a number of city guide writers
what they thought of Amsterdam. News from Amsterdam decided to find
out what they write about the city. We were especially interested
in three things: do they warn tourists not to walk on bicycle paths;
to what extend do they write about neighbourhoods outside the city
centre; and what do they think of Amsterdam after the murder of
Theo van Gogh.
We were especially interested in the Fodor’s guide, since
it appeared from the article in HP/De Tijd that author Nicole Chabot
had sort of had it with Amsterdam. The guide itself does not show
it though; it describes the city in a rather neutral manner (although
the authors cannot resist reminding that Albert Camus compared the
Canal Belt to the circles of hell). It makes sense not to be too
critical, one might think, for otherwise people will not buy your
But does Fodor’s really want to sell its Amsterdam guide?
The book is nowhere to be found: not at serious bookshops, not at
the Leidsestraat Bruna, not at tacky tourist shops. “I am
afraid this is about the only Amsterdam guide we do not carry”,
we are told at Waterstone’s, which does indeed have an impressive
collection of Amsterdam guides. Perhaps Fodor’s sells the
guide only abroad? An e-mail to the marketing department remained
unanswered as yet.
If you like to think of Amsterdam as a metropolis, the Rough Guide
will shatter your illusion. According to the guide, the city is
‘far from cosmopolitan’. There are large numbers of
immigrants from Surinam, Indonesia, Morocco and Turkey, but they
are sort of invisible, because they tend to live and work outside
“Indeed, there is an ethnic and social homogeneity in the
city centre that seems to run counter to everything you may have
heard of Dutch integration”, the Rough Guide writes. There
are more contradictions: “while Amsterdam is renowned for
its tolerance towards all styles of behaviour (its policy on prostitution
is also world renowned), a primmer, more correct-thinking big city
would be hard to find”.
Some of the blame would lie with a string of hard-line mayors who
had the unspoken policy of changing the city from a ‘counterculture
icon’ into a financial and business centre. This policy entailed
evicting the inner-city squats and bringing marihuana-selling coffeeshops
TimeOut basically shares this analysis, but also points out that
Amsterdam’s edgy creative image has its economic advantages,
which are being exploited in the I Amsterdam city marketing campaign.
“So worry not: the city isn’t ready to relinquish its
rebel status just yet”.
Fodor’s does not really depict Amsterdam as a metropolis
either. For instance, eating trends arrive here more slowly than
elsewhere. The guide further points out that Dutch fashion designers
may be ‘the hottest thing going’ internationally, but
they are less appreciated in their own country (“Van Gogh
had the same problem” – let us assume that they are
referring to Vincent here).
All this does not mean that city guide writers dislike Amsterdam,
of course. They find the city cute and beautiful. “Without
a single internationally known building, it has looks that make
Paris, London and even Venice jealous”, writes the Lonely
Fodor’s finds that size does not matter. “Though it’s
much smaller than Paris or Rome, Amsterdam manages to pack as many
pleasures and treasures within its borders as cities five times
its size”. TimeOut speaks of the city’s ‘dollhouse
Naturally, the guides are impressed with the number of bicycles
– 540,000 according to TimeOut, 600,000 according to the Lonely
Planet. Fodor’s: “don’t be surprised to see entire
families cycling, from toddlers to octogenarians, with special seats
for infants and bike baskets for dogs”.
Tourists can be quite a nuisance when walking or cycling at bicycle
paths without paying attention to other traffic – especially
when they travel in groups. Fortunately, most travel guides discuss
this problem, even though they might have done so at a more prominent
OVERALL TOURIST PRODUCT
Fodor’s is most straightforward: “If you’re likely
to meander or stop your bike to take photos, take care to stay out
of the way of locals who use these paths to get to work and appointments
on time. It’s also verboten to use the bike paths as pedestrian
walkways”. We have nothing to add to that.
Two years ago, the Amsterdam Tourist and Convention Board decided
that the districts must be developed for tourism. This was deemed
necessary in order to relieve the inner city and to ‘further
differentiate the overall tourist product Amsterdam’.
Of course, it would be nice if tourists got to see more of the
city than just canals, tulips and Sunflowers. On the other hand,
Amsterdammers might not be exactly thrilled to see the entire city
flooded with tourists. This is not very likely to happen, though:
chances that tourists will discover the Javastraat or the Mercatorplein
When city guides write about Amsterdam, they mainly have the Canal
Belt, the Jordaan and the area around the Museumplein (photo) in
mind. Often the Pijp is mentioned to add a flavour of multiculturalism,
and the Eastern Docklands for their architecture. The rest of the
city tends to be considered ‘outer districts’ that tourists
might as well ignore.
East ‘despite its general lack of appeal’ at least has
the Tropenmuseum, but West has little to offer, according to the
Rough Guide. The Lonely Planet agrees. If you insist on going to
Zuidoost, TimeOut suggests the multicultural Kwakoe festival.
Nothing of all this in Fodor’s: this guide focuses on hotels,
restaurants, shops and sights. Reading this guide, one might almost
overlook that Amsterdam is not just a tourist attraction but a city
as well. This may explain why the guide, published three months
ago, fails to mention the murder by an Islamic extremist of movie
director Theo van Gogh, on 2 November 2004.
The other guides do discuss recent developments in multicultural
Amsterdam. TimeOut offers a concise overview of the incidents of
the past years: riots in Amsterdam West; Moroccan brandishing a
knife shot dead by a policeman at the Mercatorplein; harassment
in the Diamantbuurt; and of course the murder of Van Gogh.
“However”, it adds, “despite the current troubles,
the 170-plus nationalities that make up the city’s population
of 740,000 do spend most of their time living happily side by side”.
The Rough Guide (published in July 2005) predicts that the prime
minister will have a hard time keeping ‘the lid on the inter-communal
pot’. The Lonely Planet is somewhat concerned as well, but
remains optimistic: “we’re betting that in the long
run tolerance, Amsterdam’s greatest gift to the world, will
triumph over adversity”.
To conclude, some pieces of information:
• Amsterdammers tend to be a bit self-absorbed, the Rough
Guide observes. “Talk to Amsterdammers about visiting other
parts of their country and you may well be met with looks of amazement.
• City guide writers love our police. The Rough Guide calls
them a ‘laid back bunch’, Fodor’s finds them ‘cute
• Amsterdammers like to complain (TimeOut), for instance about
the railways. No need: “The carriages are modern and clean,
and although many Dutch people complain about delays, the trains
usually run exactly on time” (Fodor’s).
• TimeOut has put most effort in its list of useful phrases.
Among other things, readers are taught the expression ‘I think
I ate too much spacecake’. Under the heading insults, the
expression ‘shit-filled eel-skin’ is offered –
apparently used to refer to skinny people.
Fodor’s Amsterdam (second edition). Written by Nicole Chabot,
Steve Korver, Margaret Kelly and Kim Renfrew. Published May 2006.
Lonely Planet Amsterdam City Guide (fifth edition). Written by Andrew
Bender. Published in March 2006.
The Rough Guide to Amsterdam (eighth edition). Written by Martin
Dunford and Phil Lee. Published in July 2005.
TimeOut Amsterdam (ninth edition). Written by Steve Korver a.o.
Published in July 2005.
See also: City
guide writers love Amsterdam
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