Depending on where (and when) you travel these days, always research to find out what restrictions are in place, since these can change daily. Since my husband and I were taking the Thalys high-speed train from Paris to Amsterdam, we had our health certification already. The inspection was done by French police at the Gare de Nord train station, and once onboard we were required to keep our face masks on.
But when we arrived in Amsterdam’s Centraal station, the sun was shining and everyone had their masks off outside. The fresh spring air and smiling faces reinvigorated us and reminded us why Amsterdam has such a special place in our collective hearts as a favorite destination.
Indeed, for many tourists, the very idea of Amsterdam is one of freedom. For decades people came to Amsterdam because of its reputation as the capital of tolerance with its coffeeshops (the Dutch euphemism for safe places to smoke pot/hashish), open sexuality (the Red Light district with its windows of sex workers trying to entice customers), and — for gay men — the promise of a vibrant night life of bars and clubs for whatever one’s personal predilection.
But in recent years, Amsterdam, like many cities, has suffered from its own success. Prior to COVID-19 and the “lost year” of 2020, this city of only 800,000 residents (within its city limits) welcomed nearly 20 million tourists per year. Like Venice, Barcelona, and even Prague, the city of Amsterdam has begun to rethink its approach in hosting so many tourists who flock annually via cheap airfare from budget airlines and booked apartments through Airbnb.
In February of this year, the city’s mayor came out in favor of banning tourists from using marijuana and other soft drugs that are currently legal with the hope that this might bring down the influx of foreign visitors who come to Amsterdam seeking to party and create havoc in the streets (and canals). A 2019 survey of visitors to the Red Light district showed that over half of them came expressly to smoke in the coffeeshops and a third of those said they probably would not have come to Amsterdam if there had been a ban on their consumption.
As of now, smoking in coffeeshops is still an option for tourists, but it is on the radar as a means of clamping down on the inundation the city has suffered in recent years from too many visitors.
Where the Gays Are
As for gay nightlife, the heart of the gay district has traditionally been a street between the Singel river canal and Herengracht canal called “Reguliersdwarsstraat.” If that seems like a mouthful, it is (and welcome to Holland). The origin of the name dates from the Middle Ages and refers to the monastery outside the city walls that used the “regular” vespers in their daily discipline. Now the street is synonymous with “the gay street” and is the home of several bars, restaurants, and gay-owned businesses.
Many locals fondly remember the street’s heyday, when it was filled with gay men at all hours of the day and night. It seemed like Reguliersdwarsstraat was the epicenter of gay Europe, if not the entire gay world. Many of the bars and clubs from this era, the 1980s to 2000s, were owned by a single entrepreneur, a troubled man named Sjoerd Kooistra. He built an empire of bars that dominated the street and eventually all the Netherlands, through a shady arrangement with holding companies and partnerships with major breweries. By the early 2000s, some of his bars were financially broke, but he continued to operate them using increasing credit from the beer distributors until finally, in 2010, his gay house of cards came crashing down and he committed suicide. As a result, most of Reguliersdwarsstraat became vacant and it has taken years for it to bounce back.
Today, this charming street just off the famed Flower Market is again welcoming gay tourists, and on the nearby Kerkstraat, additional clubs and bars have also opened as Amsterdam is experiencing a gay renaissance.
Where We Stayed
We stayed at the trendy but affordable Hoxton hotel on Herengracht in the center of the historic core of the city. Just a five-minute walk to the quaint “9 Straatjes” (literally, “nine streets”) shopping district of unique boutiques and eclectic cafés, we explored the rings of canals during our four-day stay. A great first stop for any gay tourist should be the “Gay Kiosk” next to the towering Westerkerk church on Prinzengracht canal. There you can ask the friendly volunteer what they recommend as to bars and places to visit based on your own interests.
Pink Point is Amsterdam’s official gay and lesbian information kiosk, next to the Homomonument on the Westermarkt. Pink Point provides information on the Homomonument, as well as general information on gay and lesbian Amsterdam. Staffed by friendly and knowledgeable volunteers, Pink Point has a wide range of information and flyers from local organizations, as well as one of the best selections of queer souvenirs and gifts in Holland. – iamsterdam.com
Adjacent to the Westerkerk are the Anne Frank House and Museum as well as the Monument to Homosexuals, which commemorates those who have been persecuted for their homosexuality, a sober reminder that while we live in liberty, many millions of others do not.
For a real Dutch experience, one should pedal around this amazing city as thousands do every day. The city is ideal for biking, since it is flat and has been configured in recent years to have bike-only paths on all the major streets. Tourists can rent bikes from any number of vendors throughout the city, but if bike riding isn’t your thing, you can always buy a day pass for the city’s trams which crisscross the center. Tickets can be bought directly inside any tram (enter in the middle section) for €8 per day. Just remember to validate the card upon purchase and whenever entering and leaving the tram.
If you just want to walk around and explore on your own terms, be prepared to put on some good walking shoes. Our first day we clocked more than 18,000 steps (almost seven miles) as we walked down to Amsterdam’s version of Central Park, Vondelpark, and looped back to the museum district, where the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum are found (sadly closed for the time being), then up to the De Wallen neighborhood, followed by a meandering stroll back toward our hotel. There, we enjoyed an amazing dinner at Café George (Leidsegracht 84). Few things are more romantic than a delicious meal canalside in late spring, and it was one of our favorite moments of the trip.
Whether your idea of great vacation is cultural immersion in museums, beautiful architecture, great shopping, delicious cuisine, friendly and sexy locals, or just relaxing and having fun in a gay mecca, Amsterdam has it all.