Amsterdam! Ah, I return to this city like I might return to an old favourite pair of socks I can’t bear to get rid of.
This month I returned for my 8th visit. Emi and I had 3 days away from work and our usual hustles and bustles, and despite toying with the idea we might visit somewhere new we returned to one of our favourite cities, simply because there was so much we hadn’t yet seen or done and there were some old favourite things that we wanted to do all over again.
With only 3 days to explore we had to be selective. Taking into account travelling from airports and other travel stops, it’s probably more accurate to say we had two and a half days. Not long really. I could visit Amsterdam another hundred times and not get to do or see all that’s available.
Our early morning flight from London Stansted (which isn’t in London or really very near) was pleasantly uneventful. I might be in the very small minority that actually likes Stansted Airport. For all its flaws, it is an easy airport to fly from. Parking is simple. The layout is simple. The transfer from main building to departure gates relatively fuss free. One problem that is unavoidable is the stupid amount of people! No matter what time you fly in or out of Stansted, it is busy. Leave plenty of time for the unexpected and invest in the Fast Track security offering.
Our Easyjet flight was a brief and brilliant 35 minutes of no fuss, low cost airlining. The distance between Stansted and Amsterdam Schiphol, as the crow flies, is a mere 194 miles and one of the shortest aviation distances to continental Europe from the UK.
Schiphol Airport is a different beast than Stansted. It’s a big major international airport and it has that feel about it – at least, to some extent. It’s weirdly quiet on arrival. Departures are the usual throng of thousands of people but arriving there it is spooky the amount of wide open space filled with absolutely nothing but rows of uniform seating and empty, lonely baggage carousels.
Coming through passport control the busyness takes an upswing because after having your passport scrutinised you’re flung out into the open expanse of the train station and a dizzying amount of retail outlets. Stepping outside into fresh air is a worthwhile moment of respite, if only to smoke a cigarette or take a slug of water or just to watch the to-ing and fro-ing of airline personnel, travel-weary travellers and taxi drivers arguing over taxi rank positions.
A train ticket from Schiphol to Amsterdam Centraal is €6 per passenger, which is vastly cheaper than train fares from any of London’s airports to the city centre. The trains from Schiphol are on time and reasonably clean but boy are they packed full of people! You’d expect nothing less from an airport train station though, right?
The transfer from Schiphol to Amsterdam Centraal takes around 30 minutes. If you’re (un)lucky to get a seat by the window you can take in Dutch suburbia as the train rattles through the outer lying districts of Amsterdam. I’m in danger of sounding like a snob or even discourteous but, it’s not brilliant. While there are plenty of reminders of being in Europe and Holland, (trams, canals, bicycles and yes, windmills), the train goes through some of the less well-hooved suburbs of Amsterdam and these landscapes could be any housing projects anywhere in the civilised world.
Arrival at Amsterdam Centraal is easy enough. Alighting from the train you get a noticeable feel of how huge Amsterdam’s beautiful main station is. Designed by Albert Cuypers in 1889, the gothic, Renaissance Revivalist building is a dominant and elegant feature of Amsterdam’s impressive and varied architecture.
For our sins, we stayed in the Ibis Styles hotel on Maartelarsgracht, very close (a 3 minute walk) to Centraal station. It was what you’d expect of a chain hotel. Not the cheapest in Amsterdam and that is a good thing! Hotels at the lower end of the price scale in Central Amsterdam can often be grotty and unpleasant. With this Ibis Styles hotel, we were confident of a big hotel chain quality. The staff were helpful and friendly. The room was basic but suitable for our needs and it was comfortable and clean. Breakfast was included in the mid-range price and this was a standard buffet style arrangement that catered for a range of tastes. Food was okay and plentiful although the coffee was horrid.
After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we set off for some food before our official hotel check-in time. One of our very favourite places to eat in Amsterdam is also one of the most basic foodstuffs you can chow down on. We headed for Mannekin Pis – the famous potato chips (fries, if you’re not English) store on Amsterdam’s famous Damrak. Mannekin Pis sells thousands of paper cones of fried potato chips every day; the queue is often snaking for dozens of yards down the road. With the chips comes a choice of 24 different sauces, mostly mayonnaise based.
If ordering chips be careful! Know which sauce you want in advance because if you dither at the counter, the staff will bark at you or plainly ignore you in preference for the customer behind, who does know which sauce he wants! Another warning is to be prepared for the chips to be absolutely smothered in sauce. The counter staff of Mannekin Pis don’t hold back and the chips can be drenched in a pool of mayonnaise! I’ve learnt to ask for only a little bit of sauce, which is still more than I would normally use!
I went for the mild, yet flavoursome pesto mayo. Emi went for the less obvious peanut sauce, which didn’t seem to work with chips but Emi assured me was delicious.
Full of Mannekin Pis chips, we strolled along the Damrak and made for another tasty treat the Dutch are famous for – beer. At the Europa pub on Dam Square we enjoyed a pint of Oranjeboom. It was a pleasant way to wind down from the hubbub of travelling. As the we supped our beers we watched as the constant ebb and flow of traffic, bicycles, trams and tourists created that type of certain city scene only found in European cities.
We checked into the hotel, cleaned ourselves up, drank a free coffee and headed out again.
One of the wonderful things I love about Amsterdam is the ease with which a tourist can navigate the city centre. I like walking and no matter what city I visit, this is my preferred mode of transport. It’s too easy to take the expensive tour buses and miss some of the finer and more interesting details. The beauty of Amsterdam is that nearly all of the must-do’s are within a 30 minute walk from Centraal Station or Dam Square. With no hurrying, it’s a thoroughly pleasant way to take in this unique city.
Amsterdam’s architecture is an often-mentioned feature of its beauty. The thin, elegant, yet wonky houses built on soggy foundations seem to defy logic. Each house seems to support the one next to it. Somehow.
I imagine the houses as tall, thin and old aristocratic ladies from a time long past, drunk from sipping absinthe or schnapps. Some more sozzled than others, but each with a yen for their past glory. With long, severe black dresses they fight to stay graceful and upright but they’re really just propping one another up.
While it’s easy to be whimsical – poetic even – about the old and distinguished buildings of Amsterdam, the newer, modernistic buildings inspire a different reaction. They are amazing. The docklands immediately north of Centraal Station became the seedbeds for fantastic, explosions of architectural creativity. Buildings like the impressive EYE Film Museum show Amsterdam for its continentality and its uniqueness within Dutch culture. The buildings seem fresh and youthful with an amalgam of styles, innovative design and brave thinking. I wonder if the city authorities when commissioning these buildings were trying to give future generations the opportunity to laud and be proud of this new, vibrant architectural landscape in the same way as, ancestrally, the wonky houses and old-fashioned fitments are adored?
The dichotomy between the medieval heart of the city and the new renaissance offers, I think, an insight into the municipal thinking of this great city. While the buildings along the famous canal-side avenues will retain their oblique charm and be bolstered, underpinned and repaired, new buildings will be commissioned with an eye on tomorrow.
It seems very much like Amsterdam wants to embrace the new and refine the old. Buildings are one example, but I think it’s the draw to this city that it’s residents and authorities wish to change, or at least, adjust. Where Amsterdam was synonymous with the (in)famous Red Light District and stinky coffeeshops selling all manner of cannabinols, there is evidence that there’s been a sea change in thinking. The ‘red lights’ have greatly reduced and the coffeeshops are far more regulated.
It’s fair to say that many people continue to visit Amsterdam simply to experience the Red Light Districts and enjoy the decriminalised aspects of smoking cannabis. Amsterdam governors want the city to mature beyond the label of a city that promotes sex and drug tourism. Rightly so, too. But to deny that much of Amsterdam’s success is because of these illicit temptations, is to rose-tint the truth. Even though Amsterdam has cleaned up considerably it is still a mecca for tourists seeking the illicit.
The main Red Light District of Amsterdam is De Wallen, an expansive area of side streets and alleyways that sprawls through the oldest part of Central Amsterdam, with De Oude Kerk (the Old Church) at its centre. For those unfamiliar with the legalised, semi-regulated nature of prostitution in Amsterdam, it’s sufficient to say that it’s a complicated issue. The streets of the Red Light District in the hours of darkness are teeming with people eyeing up the prostitutes displaying their wares in shop windows. Sex shops, live sex theatres and peep shows are commonplace. Bars are packed full of revellers, coffeeshops are smoky, pungent nests for stoners to get toasted on super-strong Dutch skunk and other potent variants. It’s an intimidating place.
The windows displaying prostitutes are instantly noticeable. Above the door is a red strip light, easily spotted from a way away. A UV black light inside the window/glass door shows off the eyes, teeth, fake tan and, usually, white sex outfit of the women who sell sex. The women look beautiful and hard; vicious yet alluring. It’s easy to understand why men are tempted by the false, augmented breasts, wanton looks and skimpy lingerie. I wonder how many realise or even care that they’re engaging with a person.
A tip: Don’t take photo’s of the the women in the red light windows. They do not like it and they react badly. There’s many stories of unsuspected tourists taking snaps, only to have their cameras or phones snatched away and thrown in the canal or having to fend off a scantily clad she-demon distinctly unimpressed with having her picture taken.
Prostitution is a magnet for criminality and much of Amsterdam’s historic thinking was to exercise some control over what they perceived to be the inevitable application of prostitution. After all, ports and prostitution go together like bread and butter. But with today’s prostitution comes newer evils. Sex trafficking is one obvious issue. Sex slavery, another. Violence against sex workers, another. The list goes on. Exploitation comes in many forms and I couldn’t shake off the feeling that prostitutes and would-be users alike were victims of each other.
Rightly or wrongly, Amsterdam governors have permanently closed a significant amount of red lights. Critics argue that this pushes prostitution back to the streets and away from the relative ‘safety’ of compulsory health checks, red light windows and designated areas. Others insist that it cripples the vile sex trafficking trade and affords Amsterdam the opportunity to thrive under new, cleaner auspices. They are both right to some extent. Emi and I noticed a telling sign in one red light window. It simply read: Don’t Save Us. Save Our Windows.
The coffeeshop culture in Amsterdam has also taken a drubbing from the authorities. A coffeeshop in Amsterdam predominantly means a place where the use of cannabis is permitted under guidance. Soft drinks can be sold in these premises but no alcohol and no other types of narcotic can be consumed or sold. This includes tobacco. The tobacco rule is often flouted and coffeeshop owners pay a regular fine for allowing customers to smoke tobacco alongside weed. Cannabis isn’t legal, rather it is decriminalised. Owning anything over 30 grams is not allowed and smoking it on the streets is a big no-no. That said, walking through De Wallen, it is impossible to escape the acrid stench of weed, no matter the hour. Personally, I find the stuff highly dangerous and quite disgusting, but each to their own.
Possibly the most well known and most visited ‘attraction’ in Amsterdam is the Anne Frank House on Prinsengracht. I use the emphasis of punctuation marks around the word attraction for good reason. Anne Frank House is not a bundle of fun. There’s no fun to be had here, unless you’re one of the endless streams of vain and young continental tourists gurning smiles while they’re having their photo taken by the old street door to this most revered of houses. Maybe these tourists are ignorant or insensitive to such monuments, but for every one I saw grinning while some bozo took their picture, a little bit of me despaired. I can’t imagine people grinning or taking gurning selfies at Auschwitz or in front London’s Cenotaph. Imagine the levels of idiocy required to think that would be a good idea or worthwhile. Take a grinning, goonish, self-congratulatory photo at Arlington War Cemetery or amid the war memorials of Ypres and you’d likely wind up with a slap about the head.
Emi and I pre-booked our tickets to Anne Frank House. In fact, tickets are only available online and only 20% are available on the day. By pre-booking it mitigates the monstrous queues that can exist. We were given a 15 minute time slot for our entry. On arrival inside there’s a cloakroom where coats and bags can be stored. Large bags are a big no-no at Anne Frank House, so a useful tip for would-be visitors is to travel extra light.
What followed was a self-regulated tour though the house following a pre-designated route. An audio guide is available in the usual array of languages. Listening to the audio commentary is a painful experience. The story of Anne Frank needs no retelling here, not in this light-hearted missive, but it is sufficient to say it is a story of desperate tragedy and also one of hope; the strength of human character and the evils that men do.
The audio commentary burns into you like a hot coal might. I suspect anyone not affected by the story told is bereft of any feeling whatsoever. By the end, Emi was fighting the urge to sob and I could only speak in whispers. There really isn’t any fun to be had here.
The tour culminated in a small, well stocked store front. Even a building so sure of its future as this one felt the need to sustain itself with overpriced bookmarks and postcard collections. Of course, editions of Anne Frank’s diary were for sale and these seemed, rightly so, to be the most popular of the merch on sale.
Would I recommend a visit to Anne Frank House? You would rightly expect me to say yes, and I do. It’s not for everyone. If your trip is to be fun-filled and relaxing then you might wish to give it a wide berth. But promise yourself that one day you’ll take the tour and step into Anne Frank’s world for a mercifully brief but important while.
One of the lesser known gems of Amsterdam is the flea market at Waterlooplein.
Waterloopleinmarkt is a place of contrasts. It’s a long and wide, grotty strip of market stalls in an otherwise lovely part of the city. To first time visitors it looks unloved and unkempt. Uninspiring graffiti stains walls and metal lock-up units; architecture is a depressing reflection of 70’s trends toward boxy eyesores with little glass and too much concrete. Yet, what’s contained within the market – the stuff for sale – is what makes this flea market worth the visit.
Some excellent Africana can be found here. Masks, decorative heads, shields and cookware are plentiful. On the antique stalls it’s easy to find remnants of the Dutch colonial past with figures, paintings, books, more masks and other collectable artefacts from the East Indies in regular supply. There are bargains to be had for collectors of L.P vinyl records, brassware and rocks and minerals. And there are lots of vintage clothing stalls where all manner of oddities appear. When mentioning Dutch antiques and collectables it’s obvious to include Delftware and there are lots of stalls that have genuine vintage examples in a variety of conditions.
Stepping away from the main aisles of stalls, and back to the canal-side of Zwanenburgwal, there are yet more antique stalls with kitsch and retro treasures in abundance. If you love quirky and unique adornments and ornaments for your home (Emi and I do – our home is packed full of kitschy oddities) then Waterloopleinmarkt and the surrounding stalls is a must-do for Amsterdam. Once finished in the market, excellent beer, coffee and toasted sandwiches and other lunch delights can be found in the nearby Amstelhoek bar.
As markets go Waterloopleinmarkt is excellent. The same can be said for Bloemenmarkt – Amsterdam’s famous floating flower market. The stalls begin at the junction where two of Central Amsterdam’s most famous thoroughfares meet – Rokin and Singel – and follows the Singel canal for a good walk.
The flower market dates back to 1862 and stalls are fixed on permanent canal-side moorings. Bloemenmarkt is an on-going reflection of Amsterdam’s qualities. It is bright, colourful, busy and welcoming. Sadly though, it’s not just about flowers and bulbs anymore. Perhaps it never was. Lots and lots of touristy tat is available, cheapening the uniqueness of this famous market. Nonetheless, it is worth a visit to take in the atmosphere and marvel at the array of flowers, bulbs and seeds on display.
Emi and I enjoyed a few beers on our trip. I don’t drink alcohol as a general rule. I like beer but It makes me lazy and unless it’s really good beer, I prefer to give it a miss. Amsterdam, like many European cities, has a thriving sidewalk cafe/bar culture and there are some spots where to take a beer and take in the view is a touch of luxury.
Such a place was in the small square of Leidseplein, where a number of pubs served a large pavement seating area. Emi and I took on beer and some lunch from the very un-Dutch sounding Hoopman Irish Pub. The views down the canal and the wider vista of busy Amsterdam in this locale were wonderful. We had a real sense of being in Europe. The trams scuttling to and fro, the tinkling of bicycle bells and the music of the glottically challenging Dutch language were fine accompaniments to delicious, cold Swinckels beer and hot, crispy chicken and fries. On top of all that, friendly serving staff and great weather made our beer and pub lunch something very satisfying.
Another fine place to enjoy a pavement lunch is the pleasant vista of Rembrandtplein. Just a short walk from Waterloopleinmarkt, the square named after one of Holland’s famous Old Masters is one for the tourist tick-box. There is a grand statue of Rembrandt himself and a relatively recent addition of bronze castings of his famous painting The Nightwatch. It’s a nice place just to sit and watch people come and go or to indulge in the welcoming pubs and eateries close by. Of course, a photo opportunity is de rigeur and getting a good shot of The Nightwatch bronzes and Rembrandt’s statue is as much about timing than anything else. There’s always someone walking in front of you or hanging off one (or more) of the bronze Kloveniers! Be patient and you’ll get a great shot for the photo album.
Cheese and beer aside, the Dutch are not overly known for their cuisine. They make a great pile of chips, as I’ve mentioned earlier, and Amsterdam has no shortage of pizzerias, Argentine steak houses, Chinese and Indonesian restaurants and all the big name junk food establishments you might expect. If you want to dine out on traditional Dutch cuisine in Amsterdam, it’s not so straight forward.
Moeder’s is one such restaurant. Situated on the corner of Rozengracht and Groenmarktkade, this kitsch, quaint Dutch restaurant serves up the very best of traditional Dutch food. It’s often busy and reservations are advisable but the food is plentiful and delicious and the service is top class.
If you’re a fan of wholesome, straight-forward food then there are a number of Dutch dishes that might tickle the tastebuds. Snert (I love that name) is a thick pea potage that the Dutch go for. It’s often joked that Snert needs to be thick enough so the spoon can stand up in it! Often served with pork as an ingredient and thick slabs of buttered rye bread, good Snert can be delicious and filling.
Boerenkoolstamppot is one of the oldest Dutch dishes and still popular today. It is a carb-heavy mix of curly kale and potatoes, served with gravy, mustard, and Rookworst sausage. The dish dates back to the late 1600’s where Boerenkool was mentioned in cookbooks and when potatoes were used as an alternative to corn.
Another delicious Dutch nibble is Bitterballen, often found as a snack to accompany a jug of beer. Bitterballen is a peculiar cross between a dumpling and a meatball, breadcrumbed and deep fried. It regularly comes served with a ramekin of mustard for dipping. Get ‘em while they’re hot and they can be delicious!
For those with a sweet tooth, nothing accompanies a mug of hot coffee better than a Stroopwafel. These thin caramel wafers can come in a variety of flavours but just plain ol’ original caramel is best. They are round, crisp circles of sweet indulgence that sit over your steaming hot cup of coffee. The steam softens the Stroopwafel and you eat. A word of caution – they’re very sweet and moreish. Your dentist or waistband won’t thank you.
Eight times I’ve been to Amsterdam and every time I’ve visited I’ve taken the Rederij Plas 1-hour canal boat tour. I love it. It’s a running joke for my friends. “Off to Amsterdam again? Gonna do the boat tour again?”
The two sentences go hand in hand. It’s laughable, but I love experience of being a tourist and what more touristy thing can an Amsterdam tourist do but to take a canal boat tour?
The Rederij Plas canal boat dock is a 2 minute walk from Centraal Station, situated in a prime position on the north end of Damrak. They’re not the only canal boat tour operator; there are lots and they’re dotted all over the canal district. From what I’ve seen they all seem to offer the same or similar experience.
The canal boat tours take in the famous old harbour and the principal canals of Central Amsterdam. The cheesy audio commentary offers some brief history and interesting facts, and for first timers this is worth listening to and getting a feel for the geography of Amsterdam. It’s surprising just how much geography and history is crammed into a such a small area. Different tour operators take different routes so no two tours are exactly the same and depending on their gregariousness, the boat captain can often be the most entertaining aspect with stories of bizarre happenings on the canals or their direct, cutting sense of humour.
What I especially love is the relaxing way the boat tour meanders through the old canals. It offers a chance to see Amsterdam from a unique perspective. From the canal boats that serve as des-res housing to the incredible number of bicycles that line every street, the canal boat tour allows for a study of these qualities that might otherwise be missed. Although you could never miss bicycles in Amsterdam! You see this great city at work and at play and in an unhurried manner. I thoroughly recommend it as a pleasant way to spend an hour and a few Euros.
Our final excursion was to visit the much-hyped Heineken Experience. Basically, a fancy brewery tour – I really wanted to love this experience but sadly I struggled with it all. Located about a 30 minute pleasant walk from Centraal Station, the Heineken Experience is an ‘attraction’ located in the impressive old Heineken brewery building on Stadhouderskade. For those who don’t fancy the walk, there is a Metro station close by.
On approach to the Heineken brewery the first thing to notice is the huge queue of people waiting to get in. Wow! It was equivalent to some of the horror queues you’d expect at Disney or Universal. There was around a 2 hour wait time if you were unfortunate enough to be at the back of the queue. Suffice to say that pre-booked tickets shortened the wait time but not by much. Happily, I was in receipt of two complimentary tickets and that meant Emi and I buzzed to the front and through the VIP door.
On entering the building, it was clear that a lot of money had been thrown at converting the brewery into a visitor attraction. Mood lighting emphasized the old original brickwork and newer, commissioned murals added to the ambience. First stop was to receive two beer tokens attached to a rubber wristband. The tour guides made a lot of this point. Don’t lose the tokens or no beer. A brief introduction was sped through and then onto the first stop and the first look into the old antiquated brewing methods of Heineken. For those who are fascinated by the process of turning water, barley, hops and yeast into beer – enjoy – this’ll whet your whistle. For those of us not so bothered by the process, rather than enamoured with the end product, it was interesting but only just.
A little bit of history followed about the Heineken family and their management of this huge company. Again, interesting but I couldn’t help the ‘meh’ feeling. The ‘brewing’ rooms, full of old large copper vats was interesting, and a visit past the dray horses was pleasant.
There were some interactive experiences along the way. There were large fancy projections that turned rooms into immersive cinemascapes but to my tastes it felt a little bit tired and quite boring. Even the guides, dotted along the route couldn’t quite summon enough zest to deliver their scripts in anything other than a forced, repetitive fashion.
A few more interactive experiences came and went and had I been dazzled previously I might have been more interested. Sadly, I descended into the thought processes akin to that of Homer Simpson. I just wanted the free beer at the end.
And so, it came. We were herded into a large open plan room that had a long bar and the feel of a dingy basement club. I received my two ‘small’ beers – basically two regular sized bottles poured into a glass. Emi and I spent 30 minutes taking in the seedy underground club vibe and supping the cold beers before entering out through the Heineken shop (of course) and then onto street level again and the wider joys of Amsterdam.
Unless you’re a real fan of Heineken beer (which I’m definitely NOT) or you are a beer aficionado and love a brewery tour, then the Heineken Experience might fall short as a worthwhile way to spend your time. That said, it’s not a total waste of time and money.
Amsterdam is a city that I truly love. In this piece, I’ve only mentioned a few of the wonderful things to see and do. Amsterdam is a city full of museums – there are dozens! The Rijksmuseum is world famous and home to some of the world’s most treasured works including Rembrandt’s famous masterpiece The Night Watch and significant works by a who’s who of Dutch Old Masters.
Fine Art lovers can lose themselves in the galleries of the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum; for cinema the visually stunning EYE Film Museum is worth a visit. For museums a little less highbrow, the Sex Museum offers an eye-opening array of knowledge, as does the Cannabis Museum, the Cheese Museum, Amsterdam’s Museum of Prostitution and the Tulip Museum, to name but a few. Love cats? The Kattenkabinet is a canal boat home to works of art that depict cats, including works by Picasso, Rembrandt and Toulouse-Lautrec among others. Or maybe visit De Poezenboot, a floating cat sanctuary pleasantly situated on Singel canal.
Love a bizarre experience? Dr. Gunther von Hagens’ world-famous Body World’s has a permanent home on Damrak, where you can get up close to real human bodies perfectly preserved after death, revealing in explicit detail our anatomical structure. Amsterdam’s Torture Museum has an impressive collection of horrible methods of torture. Museum Vrolik displays a fascinating and curious collection of real human and animal anatomical deformities – not for the faint hearted. Micropia is an absorbing, unique zoo that contains collections of bacteria and microbes!
Amsterdam is a place of contradictions and I like that. It’s compact and busy, typical of a capital city, yet you can find space to take in a scene or just breathe. It’s dirty, yet it is beautiful and elegant. The new clashes with the old and it seems to work, as you might imagine dancers from opposing schools of ballet would find a way to intertwine their art. The Dutch are famously direct in personality, yet Amsterdam is full of subtleties that adds a counterbalance to any brusqueness. Amsterdam is Dutch, yet not so.
I can’t wait to be back.
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🐵 Terence 🐵