Amsterdam is the same size as Columbus, Ohio. It has less than a million people. It is at the same latitude as Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. If one wants to spend a weekend in Europe, there are larger, older, richer, and southern mild-climate cities to see in October.
But it’s not the size or location that makes Amsterdam famous. This small city, located on the remote north latitude, has influenced the world in a way that few other cities, much much larger than Amsterdam, have done. And is by far my preferred city in Europe to spend a weekend. It flourished in one of the most unlikely places, beating all odds, and in the process became a cosmopolitan, thriving, sophisticated capital of the world.
So, of all great places, why Amsterdam for a weekend in Europe?
Two things popup when we think of Amsterdam – canal boat tours, and museums. I have my own reasons, outside of canal boat tours, so read on.
Amsterdam is the how-was-your-weekend-big-grin known, and roll-your-eyes-in-disbelief-how-free-this-town-is known. My main reasons to spend the weekend here?
- It’s easily accessible, courtesy of Schiphol Airport. Schiphol is the fourth busiest airport, after London Heathrow, Paris Charles De Gaulle and Frankfurt Airport. Schiphol has 91 airlines flying to it, and it’s “one terminal only” makes it easier to navigate than CDG or Heathrow.
- The airport is connected to downtown’s Amsterdam Central Station by a 15 minute ride, departing every ten minutes. Even if you have a short six or eight hour layover, you can still make it downtown, for a 4 euro ticket each way. Amsterdam has great public transportation, and I would strongly discourage you from renting a car. One year we had a car only because we were travelling to other destinations in Europe, and I regretted not renting the car after we visited Amsterdam. The parking fees are similar to Boston and New York, and the parking spots are hard to find.
- You stand a chance to see a good part of it in a weekend. Visit the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank Museum, or take a Canal cruise and see Europe’s largest historic city center in about 90 minutes. Good restaurants are plentiful.
Even if you have a six to eight hour layover, and a choice to stay on the business class lounge, I would still choose to go into Amsterdam. I would not recommend this for other airports, but this is one of the few where the airport check in, and the connection to the city are great.
Now, the best reason to see Amsterdam is not necessarily it’s museums, or eat in its restaurants. Both are great, and you’ll feel fulfilled.
The best reason to visit Amsterdam is to pass through Amsterdam streets, talk to the locals, take in and be inspired by it’s history and spirit.
Amsterdam is located in a very odd place. It’s no coincidence that Amsterdam is one of the youngest European capital. Rome is 3,000 years old. Athens, older than that.
When Europeans called this area “The Low Countries”, it really meant that the land was not created here for human beings, but more for drainage purposes. The Rheine, the Meuse and the Maas, three of the largest continent’s rivers, arrive here after sweeping down the Swiss Alps, and meet the sea. This was meant to be a huge river delta, not the place for a large city.
Somewhere around 11th century, the early inhabitants of Amsterdam started draining the peat, and creating farm land. The only problem with peat being drained, and getting dry, is that it starts to sink. And here starts the human millennium long battle with water, and struggle against nature. And in the process, the spirit of Amsterdam was born – the perils, the water, the communal organizations created to cope with the constant struggle. Amsterdam is the quintessential culture of cooperation that is also best known for a commitment to the individual, and the diversity that everyone brings.
The Herring Buss, Serendipity at work, or How Amsterdam cornered the herring market
The Dutch fishermen competed with all the other folks (Norwegians, Swedes and the likes of Northern fierce nations) in these waters for herring – a rich, oily, strongly flavored fish.
It was a small discovery, for sure an accident, that changed the history, and made the Dutch so much more successful than their neighbors in the trade. The Dutch discovered that, if you leave the little poaches that you find in the herring’s stomach inside the brine mixture, the result is fish that keeps for much longer, and also improves the flavor.
A few weeks more on the fish keeping fresh made a huge difference in the – don’t forget – non-refrigerated ships. The Dutch could now adventure much further away than their neighbors, onto the Northern Sea. And further away the fish was bigger, richer, and easier to catch.
While the first innovation happen by chance, the next one was very much owned by the Dutch – the herring buss, a new kind of vessel. With a cave like interior, the herring buss was indeed a fish factory. The Dutch could now stay at sea a month at a time: catch the fish, clean it and put it in brine to cure. And then fish some more. When these ships arrived in port, the herring was bigger, and tastier than anything the merchants saw before. The Dutch cornered the market with this combination of recipe and supply chain.
But that success can be ephemeral. It’s here where the Amsterdam spirit comes to life again – the blending of individual enterprise and community support. The centuries of protecting the Amsterdam land from the sea thought the folks that, when facing such a large risk, only by coming together they will succeed.
With such valuable technology to protect, the herring merchants needed the help of the community – the government. The new recipe required protection, or an early form of IP – Intellectual Property. These larger boats required also a defense system, otherwise the other fierce neighbors will quickly change their specialty from fishing herring to getting the fish ready from the herring busses.
The government got involved, and created regulations on how the fish needs to be processes – creating and regulating the trades of sailors, gutters, or packers – and the sale of herring. They also sent warships to protect their tax base.
New wealth came to Amsterdam riding the herring industry, and it stayed there.
How the ships, shipyards and sailors changed Amsterdam
With the bustling industry of herring, another opportunity was cornered by the Amsterdam merchants. While the cities of Antwerp, Ghent and Bruges were much focused on the trade of spices and fabrics – and cornered that trade in their own way – Amsterdam took any opportunity to trade that came their way. With the herring commerce, any opportunity to trade and play the cost arbitrage for entire Europe was played by the Dutch. The busses starting carrying rye and wheat, timber, or potash. With each, Amsterdam grew a technology advance. For example, with the timber trade came a small innovation – a saw mill that took the circular motion of a windmill into the horizontal one of a sawing blade.
With just that one innovation, Amsterdam became the most efficient producer of planks for shipbuilding. Now, the timber logs from Germany were processed into planks, and exported to England, to satisfy the thirst of their burgeoning naval industry.
And with the timber, windmills, herrings, ships and merchants, and wealth, came the richest ingredients for Amsterdam long term success: faraway sailors and traders, that were adapted in the new city.
Amsterdam became a city of mixed languages and backgrounds. These new players came here in the hope of a better life, and be part of the most dynamic economic environment on the Continent. What Detroit was for the millions of factory workers that moved there at the beginning of the 20th century, or Silicon Valley is for the IT industry in the 21st century, Amsterdam was for opportunistic trade and entrepreneurship in the 15th century. The rest of the continent was still meddling in the Middle Ages, in a transition from lord estates into one of rented farms controlled by gentry. Amsterdam was already ahead, into the next age, a beacon of hope and wealth for the rest.
If there is another city that you can compare Amsterdam, a perfect one comes to mind when comparing the diversity, as cosmopolitan, vibrant and sophisticated, what world City would you pick?
It’s such a great coincidence that Henry Hudson, who was employed by the Dutch East India Company, the Company established in Amsterdam, was the one to establish New Amsterdam. New Amsterdam will later become another beacon of diversity, economic opportunity and hope for another generation of sailors, merchants and traders.
The current name of New Amsterdam? New York City.