Breathtakingly charming, the city of Amsterdam is a perfect destination for travelers looking to get high on life. The Netherlands’ capital city is best known for its serine 17th-century canals, artistic heritage, and tall, gorgeous tulips. Of course, the locals are quite stunning as well.
Amsterdam resident and historical LGBTQ+ walking tour guide Henk B. de Vries gives GayCities a rundown on what makes Pride season in “the Venice of the North” a vacation must-see.
GayCities: Henk, tell us a little about yourself and the tour.
Henk: In 2017, I started the LGBTQ+ History Tour, as a self-made historian I felt that something was missing in Amsterdam. A coherent story about the LGBTQ+ emancipation struggle that led us to be the first country in the world to have a monument in 1987 and gay marriage in 2001. That made us the front-runner in the world. It’s a complicated and fascinating story and that is what I wanted to tell.
Everybody knows where to find the bars and the parties, I wanted to provide something else in Amsterdam. I have lived here most my life so the story is being told first-hand as well. I walk with the participants of the tour through historic Amsterdam and tell them about Dutch history and how it intertwines with LGBTQ+ history and emancipation. We see canals, the palace, and the red light district; it’s a fantastic walk.
Describe Amsterdam during the Pride festival.
Amsterdam is already a gay-friendly city, but at Pride, it really turns pink. Amsterdam Pride is the most beautiful I have ever seen. It has to do with the fact that the boats go through the Prinsen canal and that the Pride is therefore set in a 400-year-old decor. This, in combination with the most gorgeously decorated boats carrying people that need to duck every time they pass a bridge and the cheers of the audience when they come up again, is unbelievable. And then there is a whole week of parties and events. Prior to Pride, there is now the straight-friendly festival Milkshake, making it a full week of parties and events.
Tell us about Homomonument, the first monument in the world for LGBTQ+ victims.
The tour starts at the Homomonument, which represents LGBTQ+ victims in the past, present, and future. It shows the constant struggle the community has had to go through. The direct reason for the monument was that LGBTQ+ victims were not represented at the national war monument. Knowing that Willem Arondeus, an openly gay resistance fighter, gave his life in World War II made it even more poignant.
The monument is now 40 years old and has become a place for the community to come together and celebrate. Events and music are organized on days such as King’s Day and Pride. It was a great joy to hear the tram conductors announcing, on its 40-year anniversary, “Next stop Homomonument.”
Amsterdam was a queer capital of the world in the 80s and 90s. How has the gay scene changed?
Amsterdam had the reputation of being a Gay Capital in the 80s and 90s. People ask me if that has changed. My answer to that is that of course it has changed; the world has changed. The world has caught up with Amsterdam and gladly so. We can travel to more and more countries in the world and not be worried about the danger of it. The question often implies that there is nothing to do anymore for LGBTQ+ visitors. I never agree with that. Yes, the party scene has changed, but then the internet has changed it everywhere. Amsterdam itself is a diamond with so many facets that it’s worthwhile to visit. Our museums, our architecture, our people. And the LGBTQ+ community has as many facets, you just have to look for them. You can go to dance parties such as Bear Necessity and Funhouse, where you spend your money, or go on Wednesdays to old squatter Centre Vranckrijk and have a vegan meal for Euro 5,– on Queer Night. During the year there are countless events and parties being organized and it is very diverse. It is probably all on a smaller scale, as Amsterdam is a much smaller city than Madrid or Berlin. But quality-wise it is a gem.
Tell us about “het Mandje,” the oldest gay bar in the world.
We end the tour at Cafe ‘t Mandje the oldest gay bar in Amsterdam and probably in Europe. Its dates back to 1927. The bar is the story of Bet van Beeren, a brave and openly gay woman in the years when Holland was still a very conservative country. She provided a place to come together for gay men and women. The bar closed in 1967, but as it remained in the family, it opened again a few years ago. The bar is still in the same state as when it closed, so besides being a great bar, with Bert as a bartender, it’s also a gem from a historical point of view.
What can visitors expect from the tour and around Amsterdam during the World Aids Conference 2018?
I am very proud that I have been asked to be a partner with the WAC 2018 with my business Special Amsterdam Tours. During that week we provide the LGBTQ+ History Tour daily. As it’s the World Aids Conference, we also tell that story and how it affected the community. What always moves me is when I see fresh flowers lying on the monument. That is a little tradition that started with the AIDS epidemic. I think it’s those little things that bring the story I tell during the tour alive. I do the same whenever there is an LGBTQ+ event in Amsterdam, (i.e. in June when we host the Bingham Cup, a gay rugby tournament with players from around the world). I host a daily tour for those interested. And I most certainly will attend the welcoming party held for them at the Bear Necessity party. In August we have a special LGBTQ+ introduction for all new students that will attend the universities and colleges in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is definitely worth a visit.