When the Netherlands announced that they were re-opening for tourists at the end of April, many of us began looking into flights and trains to inaugurate our first post-COVID gaycation.
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 were required to provide negative PCR test results that were less than three days old before being allowed to board the train. The inspection was done by French Police at the Gare de Nord train station, and once on-board we were required to keep our face masks on.
But once 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.
Why Amsterdam –
Indeed for many tourists, the very idea of Amsterdam is one of freedom. For decades people would come 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.
In recent years, however, 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 with cheap airfare from budget airlines and booked apartments through airBnB on-line.
In February of this year, the city’s mayor came out in favor of banning from tourists 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 “Reguliersdwarstraat.” 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 located outside of 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 remember fondly the street’s hey-day when it was filled with gay men all hours of the day and night. It seemed like Reguliersdwarstraat was the epicenter of gay Europe, if not the entire world. Many of the bars and clubs from this era, the 1980s – 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 across all of 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 Reguliersdwarstraat was vacant, and it has taken years for it to bounce back.
Today this charming street just off of 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.
During our stay at the beginning of May, restaurants were only allowed to seat guests from noon until 6:00 pm outside (and nobody inside), all other times they could do take-out orders. Shops were open (with limited capacity), but museums sadly remained closed.
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 9 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 situated 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 knowledgable volunteers, Pink Point has a wide range of information and flyers from local organisations, 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.
Getting Around –
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 of 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 criss-cross 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 7 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 were (sadly closed for the time being), then up to the De Wallen neighborhood followed by a meandering stroll back towards our hotel where we enjoyed an amazing dinner at Café George (Leidsegracht 84). Few things are more romantic than a delicious meal canal-side 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.
“This post is solely the opinion of this contributing writer and may not reflect the opinion of other writers, staff, or owners of Instinct Magazine.”