Going Dutch in Amsterdam

By Billy Kolber

Originally published on Advocate.com July 06 2009 12:00 AM ET

If there were ever a city designed for the convenient mixing of work and play, Amsterdam would be it. Well known for its legal and regulated red-light district and "coffee shops," where hash brownies are sold as casually as corn muffins, it's also the business and financial capital of the Netherlands. This is a compact city, laid out along radiating canals that were built during the 17th century, when its merchant marine made it the richest city in the world.

Today's Amsterdam is progressive, tolerant, and particularly welcoming to gay people, who will find affirmation everywhere, from the pink granite triangles of the Homomonument (Homomonument.com) to the gay-affirming, sex-positive exhibits in the Teen Facts zone of Nemo (E-Nemo.nl), the city's science center. Amsterdam even has a gay-specific information booth: Pink Point (at the Homomonument, Westermarkt; PinkPoint.org) open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. With unusual shopping opportunities, vibrant cultural offerings, and exciting nightlife, this city has something for everyone. And finding it all is easy. You can't stand on a corner looking at a map for more than a few moments without a friendly native offering assistance…in your language: English is so widely spoken the only Dutch word you'll need to learn is bedankt (thanks!)

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Extended stay

If you're on an expense account, check into the Amstel (Professor Tulpplein 1; +31 20 622-6060; Intercontinental.com), the grand dame of Dutch hotels and the first choice of royalty, nobles, and rock stars since it opened in 1867. A two-year renovation in the 1990s restored the hotel to its original grandeur and added a luxurious spa and pool, with a glamorous view of the Amstel River. The daring and dramatic style of the Dylan (Keizersgracht 384; +31 20 530-2010; DylanAmsterdam.com), a boutique hotel built in a traditional canal house, will appeal to those in the style-and-design crowd, who also appreciate its location in the Nine Streets, a charming neighborhood of trendy boutiques, restaurants, and traditional canal architecture.

Even in a city where gay people are welcomed everywhere, it may come as a surprise that the local gay leather B&B has a sizable straight following. Seven of the nine rooms at the Black Tulip (Geldersekade 16; +31 20 427 0933; BlackTulip.nl) have slings, restraints, and other sex fantasy equipment, and the hotel's central location is extremely convenient to the train station, red-light district, gay bars, and shopping district. Equally convenient is the Amistad (Kerkstraat 42; +31 20 624 8074; Amistad.nl), a gay American-run B&B and apartment rental for those whose idea of "gay furniture" means Ikea, not the St. Andrew's cross. If your mainstream hotel rate does not include breakfast, don't add it. Hotel breakfasts here are generally dull and overpriced. Skip breakfast in the hotel and instead head out to one of the city's many pancake houses.

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Convention exit strategy

The "I Amsterdam" card (Iamster-dam.com) gives you 24, 48, or 72 hours of public transportation, admission to 26 museums, and benefits at dozens of attractions and restaurants. Having one in your pocket makes it easy and fun to duck out of that afternoon plenary session for a more rewarding hour at, say, the Museum of Bags and Purses (Herengracht 573; +31 20 524-6452; Tassenmuseum.nl), where purse collectors will find a justification for their obsession and a museum store to fuel it. Or be one of the first visitors to explore the Hermitage Amsterdam (Amstel 51; +31 20 530-7488; Hermitage.nl), an ambitious satellite of the Russian museum, which reopened this past June after a ¤39 million ($53 million) upgrade.

Amsterdam's many small, unusual stores make shopping fun again. Save an afternoon for strolling around the Nine Streets (TheNineStreets.com), with numerous boutiques and cafés. Be sure to check out the affordable homoerotic wood-block prints and pottery at Eddy Varekamp (Hartenstraat 30; +31 20 625-7766; GayArts.nl, open Monday-Friday and by phone request). They make perfect housewarming gifts for your friends in Palm Springs. Denham (Prinsengracht 495; +31 20 331-5039; DenhamTheJeanMaker.com) is the flagship store and studio of Jason Denham. There are lots of stylish and interesting things here, including the charming sales staff, who are happy to slip you into a pair of custom-made jeans from the Blue Salad Bar.

In the nearby Jordaan District (JordaanWeb.nl), the 17th-century buildings are now home to artists, students, and young entrepreneurs. Jordaan hosts the Lindenmarkt (Lindengracht), a general market, on Saturdays and a flea market at the Noordermarkt on Mondays. Check out Broer & Zus (Rozengracht 104; +31 20 422-9002; BroerenZus.nl ) for cool, fashionable kids' clothes. After all that strolling, rest your legs at Winkel (Noordermarkt 43; +31 20 623-0223), a bar and café open late and serving an impossibly light, not-too-sweet Dutch apple pie. It's the perfect antidote for whatever ails you.

Need to blow off some steam after a long day? Head right on over to Warmoesstraat, the city's "leather" street, home to many rainbow flag-waving businesses, including the Cockring (Warmoesstraat 96; ClubCockring.com), the city's most dependably busy gay club any night of the week. Find more gay nightlife ideas at NightTours.com/Amsterdam.

Meal Plan

Holland has never been known for its culinary prowess or native cuisine, but trendy, modern dining has arrived courtesy of restaurateur Bert van der Leden. His restaurants Envy (Prinsengracht 381; +31 20 344-6407; Envy.nl) and Nevy (Westerdoksdijk 40; +31 20 344-6409; Nevy.nl) and wine bar Vyne (Prinsengracht 411; +31 20 344-6408; Vyne.nl) are busy with a see-and-be-seen crowd. The menu items evoke a Top Chef competition challenge: creative and complex, though sometimes losing points for having one too many ingredients or flavors. Still, they make for enjoyable and memorable dining.

The Hotel Okura is home to two restaurants with three Michelin stars between them. Yamazato (Ferdinand Bolstraat 333; +31 20 678-8351; Yamazato.nl) serves traditional and seasonal Japanese cuisine. For more traditional French-inspired cuisine, head upstairs to Ciel Bleu (Ferdinand Bolstraat 333; +31 20 678-7450; CielBleu.nl), with spectacular views of the city or across town to La Rive (Professor Tulpplein 1; +31 20 520-3264; AmstelHotel.nl) with romantic views of the Amstel River and also Michelin-rated.

For tasty traditional Dutch snacks, make a trip to Brood (Zeedijk 66; Brood.nl). For great local beer, head to Cracked Kettle (Raamsteeg 3; +31 20 624-0745; CrackedKettle.nl).