With its famed tolerance of soft drugs and prostitution, Amsterdam’s hedonistic aspects have often eclipsed its homely charms, cultural treasures and ‘normal’ nightlife. Richard Tulloch takes a look at the whole picture…
Lose yourself in a canal maze. Window-shop where live merchandise is lit with red neon, or duck into a smoky little ‘coffeeshop’ selling substances not available over the counter elsewhere. If you think you’re a bit above all that, visit great art museums… and of course take your chances with the traffic and trams on a bike.
Those who didn’t enjoy (or barely remember) a trip to Amsterdam tell of drug-hazed weekends in seedy red light district hotels shared with British rugby teams on post-season booze-ups. Those who loved it pedalled round quiet streets, ate on a café terrace by a leafy canal, picnicked in the park, heard great jazz and marvelled at the most beautiful paintings in the world.
First-timers are surprised to learn Amsterdam is so small. The world famous capital has less than 800,000 residents and a compact city centre you can cycle right around in a couple of hours.
Amsterdam looks casual, but it is very organised. If you haven’t yet mastered the Dutch language, don’t worry. Everyone you meet will speak English (and probably French, German and Italian) better than you do, and will remind you of this while casually organising you – ‘Plis moof to de middel off de trem!’, ‘Dat iss de bike path you are stending on!’
Best of the Beaten Track
The big three ‘must sees’ are the Rijksmuseum (Rembrandt, Vermeer) the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. Expect queues, particularly mid-morning and at holiday times. And just because they’re ‘must sees’ doesn’t mean you must see them; Amsterdam has plenty more on offer if time is too short to stand in line.
A one-hour rondvaart (round trip) in a glass-topped canal boat looks like a clichéd introduction to the city, and it is, but it’s also well done and good value at 9-10 euros.
The Waterlooplein flea-market is high on many people’s lists, but for me it’s now overrated, selling the same imported junk you can find anywhere in the world. The city has better markets in the Noordermarkt and Albert Cuyp Street.
The famous and beautiful Vondelpark is usually busy, with free concerts in the open air theatre in the summer, a good selection of al fresco cafés and always something going on.
Tip: An Amsterdam Card gives you up to three days of public transport and museum entry, but if you’re staying longer or plan on walking or cycling rather than using trams and buses, a 60 euros Museumkaart (Museum Card), valid for one year, may be better value. It gives unlimited entry to most museums in the country and saves you the queuing. Buy one at the first large museum you visit. Visit 4-5 museums during your stay and you’ll have your money’s worth.
For the best cheap lunch with a view, go to the public library (OBA), close to Centraal Station. The library? On holidays? Are you kidding?? But this is a state of the art facility with superb architecture, free internet access on their computers or your laptop, and up-to-date world newspapers. La Place cafe on the seventh floor has a decent smorgasbord lunch and a bird’s eye balcony view.
Then pop in next door to the Music Conservatorium. Classical and jazz are their specialties, lunchtime concerts are free and the students from around the world are prodigiously talented. At night, the Bimhuis in the nearby Muziekgebouw is the place to go for jazz.
The Jordaan area used to be a crowded slum but is now trendy, with excellent growers’ and bric-a-brac markets on the Noordermarkt and Lindengracht on Saturdays, and a clothing and textile market on the Westerstraat every Monday.
Café Winkel on the corner of the Noordermarkt and Westerstraat consistently wins the award for best Dutch ‘appeltaart’ (apple cake) in town. They queue around the corner for it on market days. It’s traditionally taken with ‘koffie’, a popular Dutch drink which IMHO bears little relation to ‘coffee’, and none to real Italian ‘caffee’.
Best alternative Amsterdam museum – the Tassenmuseum (Museum of Handbags). No, really. If you’re not into fashion accessories, there’s a pleasant cafe and garden. Take a book; your companion may be some time.
Experience & Events
Amsterdam’s trams are fast, frequent and efficient, but if you have functioning legs and any sense of balance, rent a bike. They’re cheap (8-10 euros a day) and safe (car-free cycle paths everywhere). Guided bike tours of the city are popular, but you can easily ride on your own. If you’ve got a free day to ride out into the countryside, it takes just 20 minutes to reach the green fields and picture postcard villages of Waterland, north of the city. Ask your bike hire place for a map.
De Parade travelling festival in August features weird, wonderful and short music, theatre and dance performances in an old-fashioned fairground tent setting.
For the best in world music, there’s the Amsterdam Roots Festival in June and the Caribbean-inspired Kwakoe Festival in July and August.
Meanwhile if you have a perverse curiosity about the Red Light District and want to find out more, then this needn’t (necessarily) involve dropping your trousers. The Prostitute Information Centre or ‘PIC’ (a nice allusion as pik means ‘dick’ in Dutch) is run by ex-sex workers and they offer a weekly tour of the Red Light zone on Saturdays at 5pm (click the link to find out what happened when Urban Travel Blog went!). Otherwise Randy Roy offers an enjoyable jaunt full of urban legends.
When in Amsterdam why not try the houseboat experience? Stay at water level and see the world slosh past your bedroom window. Some Dammers actually live this way! If you prefer canalside to actual canal, then the ‘t Hotel comes highly recommended at around 139 euros for a double, whilst for something chic and basic, why not opt for the trendy and affordable, not to mention appropriately-named, Chic and Basic Hotel. Backpackers need look no further than the stylish Cocomama. Some 80s Playboy pics in one of the dorms allude to the house’s former occupation as Amsterdam’s number one brothel, but these days the naughtiest thing that might happen in this well-renovated digs is smoking a joint with fellow travellers in the spacious garden.
Traditional Dutch cuisine is stodgy; heavy soups and ‘stampot’, mashed carrot and potatoes with chunks of fatty sausage; perfect comfort food on a drizzly day when you’ve been out in your clogs, shovelling cowpats onto the tulips, but it’s not five star restaurant fare. For that you might want to try Lastage, on the Geldersekade near Centraal Station. Amsterdam food guru (and very hard marker) Johannes van Dam gave it 9.5/10.
Indonesian food used to be popular, but it’s been passed in quality by the Suriname, Turkish and Moroccan establishments. Bazar is a big brassy Moroccan in the middle of the multicultural Albert Cuyp market and as good a place as any to sample the multicultural tastes of the Dutch capital.
Amsterdam’s ‘eetcafes’ (eating cafes) are often better value than restaurants and have an authentic local atmosphere and clientele. Usually there’s a limited but classy menu, with vegetarian options. Try Gent aan de Schinkel, Café Amsterdam or De Eetkamer van de Jordaan.
Most first time visitors to Amsterdam are inevitably drawn to the plethora of bars and coffeeshops around the Red Light District, which is of course a mistake as you’re more likely to find yourself hanging out with a British stag party or wide-eyed American backpackers than any locals. Areas like De Pijp and Jordaan offer a much more authentic vibe and you can always pick up tips from the drinkers at the likes of Kingfisher bar (in De Pijp) or Struik (in Jordaan) on where to continue your pub crawl. For dancing head to Leidseplein (Leidse square) where a clutter of big clubs like Sugar Factory (their Sunday parties aka ‘Wicked Jazz’ are legendary), Melkweg, Paradiso and Jimmy Woo can be found. The latter is the posh hang out of Ajax players and other poseurs and pouters.
Getting There & Around
Easyjet flies to Amsterdam from London (Gatwick and Luton), Edinburgh, Rome, Barcelona and Geneva. Book early for the best deals. Whilst for flights to Amsterdam from the US the comparison sites can serve up some good options. The train from Schiphol Airport to Centraal Station takes about 20 minutes, or if you prefer a private pick up then get in touch with Book Taxi Amsterdam. The Thalys train from Paris Nord is now 3hrs 18min, faster (door to door) than a plane. Arriving from elsewhere in Holland is extremely easy, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a city that’s more than 1.5 hour train ride away from the capital.
For a general summary of attractions, see www.amsterdam.info. For ‘real people’s’ restaurant recommendations, see the Facebook page Great Little Place Amsterdam. For some fun food and fashion tips check out funky lifestyle blog, Your Little Black Book.
City Pick Amsterdam (Oxygen Books Ltd. 2010) has entertaining snippets of writing (mostly translations from Dutch writers) and gives a good feel of the place in all its aspects. Amsterdam: The Brief Life of a City by Geert Mak – the definitive work by the city’s best-known historian.
Oceans 12 is hardly the thinking man’s choice of cinema, so how about checking out Amsterdamned, The Girl With The Pearl Earring or the excellent Black Book, directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Carice Van Houten (aka the crazy “Red Woman” priestess from Game of Thrones!).
Soundtrack to the City
Jacques Brel – Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Coldplay – Amsterdam
Peter, Bjorn and John – Amsterdam
Joni Mitchell – Carey
Tante Leen & Johnny Jordaan – Potpourri
Wim Sonneveld – Aan de Amsterdamse Grachten (On the Amsterdam canals)
View Amsterdam City Guide in a larger map
…and finally a tough message from the Amsterdam police if you intend on overdoing it.