A Weekend In Amsterdam – Is It Worth It?
Europe is a melting pot of cultures, a mishmash of cities with a thousand different stories behind them, and ultimately just a place where men can feel comfortable wearing culottes and have floppy hair. Amsterdam is no exception, although how they don’t get their flowing pantaloons caught in their bicycle spokes is a skill I can’t fathom. But why would you go? It isn’t the home of Dutch royalty so there’s no palace residence, no one thought to build a big clock and name it after their family Labrador, and there aren’t any world famous giant sculptures resembling electricity pylons. However, someone in their infinite wisdom decided to relax the laws in the sex and drugs industries and almost as a direct result Amsterdam receives 14,000,000 visitors each year.
Only a 45 minute flight from the UK, half the time it takes my 14 year old to apply her makeup, I quite like the notion of nipping over to The Netherlands for a quick clog and tulip fix whilst India gets ready to go out. But, I ask again, if you’re not interested in space cakes or red lights, why would you come?
Well I’m certainly not an expert on the Dutch capital city but I will endeavour to share our highlights and lowlights so that if you ever book a weekend in Amsterdam, or even if you love a good travel story, you will leave here with a few more thoughts on the topic.
A Bit Of Amsterdam History…
Amsterdam has had a strong trading status from the 1600’s and sent large ships to all four corners of the earth. It has always been a wealthy city as a result of it’s buying and selling with other nations and was quite picky about which immigrants were allowed in. Eventually though, the immigrants formed the majority of Amsterdam’s residents and had a strong Germanic influence which you get a sense of even now from their food and the amount of German surnames.
Across the River IJ is an even older part of the city with cute little fisherman’s cottages that was once a thriving industry too – we stayed here in a gorgeous little Airbnb apartment and rented bikes from the owners and cycled into the city every day. There’s a free ferry every 10 minutes across the river to the city. Along the river front on this side is a collection of trendy bars and restaurants, cinemas and museums, all set to a back drop of shipping containers and usual port regalia – it should look pretty industrial, in theory, but those stylish Dutch seem to have pulled it off.
A Walking Tour Of Amsterdam
From above, the network of canals look like a rainbow on its back and on the ground it’s easy to cut from one to another via the interlinking canals and alleyways. When we arrived on our first morning the light was ethereal, a regular haze hangs around until the sun burns it away. Until 11am the streets were quiet and it was easy to find a good coffee and Dutch waffle inside or out. Folk in the Netherlands take their coffee seriously; it’s creamy and smooth and is a delicacy to be enjoyed so the cafe culture is prominent and beautiful, there is no shortage to the amount of lovely places to have breakfast, each with their own individual style.
Speaking of style, as you wander the prettiest neighbourhoods of Jordan and Grachtengordel and peek into the homestead on the lower floors you get a sense of the Dutch aesthetics – unusual items in bell jars line window sills and walls are littered with art and bookcases. It just seems that every single house you pass is owned by someone with an interior design degree or the very least an artist of some sort. I loved it. I’m nosey to the hilt when it comes to other people’s living quarters so it made me immensely happy that the people of Amsterdam seem to have a phobia against curtains and don’t mind the whole world looking in. This was one of the great things about just wandering the streets and canals but it’s just fab how on the outside they’re all so picturesque too. Different heights and widths tightly knit together, all with an overhang that defies geometry. Look up and you’ll see the big hooks on the roof tops – a mechanism used for lifting cargo from canal boats down below, the lean on the house front was to stop the cargo crates damaging the facades of their homes. Now there’s a nation that takes pride in its appearance.
A Couple of Amsterdams Hidden Gems
It’s great to wander in any city, get off the beaten track a bit and look out for some hidden gems and Amsterdam is no exception. Look up and around and see if you can spot some of these things;
Notice the little plaques above the doorposts on some of the homes which show the trade of the original homeowners, from a time when not everyone could read – there are over 650 of them preserved across the the city.
There are only 2 original timber houses left in all of Amsterdam, the rest were destroyed in fires, so if you’re in the area look out for Zeedijk 1 and Begijnhof 34. The latter also being the oldest house too, dating from 1425.
Taxed for their frontage people kept their homes narrow but the house at Singel 7 is of anorexic proportions standing at just 1 meter wide.
And finally, at Keizersgracht 123, check out the house with the heads.
And, if you’re looking for a bridge photo snapping opportunity then head up to the corner of Reguliersgracht and Herengracht and you can see up to 15 of the cities bridges in one spot!
On Your Bike – Beyond The Canals
Once you’re beyond the Singelgracht Canal the city begins to look more like your average European metropolis, albeit old and pretty still – with just the occasional canal. On reflection, we should have booked accommodation somewhere around here to get the best of all worlds – as much as our apartment across the river in Amsterdam-noord was amazing and we could sit and have breakfast on our river patio each morning, we were nowhere near a good restaurant or bar. De Pijp and Oud-West are definitely areas I would consider for next time.
Hiring a bike is easy and riding one even easier – cars and locals are bike-conscious and there are cycle tracks on 99% of the roads, just look out for the unsuspecting tourists who occasionally step out into the road in-front of you! The city starts to spread out a little bit now so this is a great area to explore on two wheels.
On our second day we started off with tickets to the Van Gogh Museum. Never before have I ever discovered more about an artist as quick and painlessly – the book I read about Michelangelo took me 3 months and a whole missed series of Greys Anatomy (not that it mattered, half of them died in a plane crash anyway!). But a 2 hour stint in this fantastic museum had me feeling like a old friend of Vincents by the end of it! I implore you to pay for the audio guide – starting on the ground floor and working upwards you travel through his life and emerge with a deeper appreciation for one of Hollands national treasures whilst wrapping your corneas around some of the worlds best preserved art. Along with the National Museum of Denmark and Oxford’s Pitt Rivers I think this museum has now made it into my top 3!
No trip to Amsterdam is complete without the obligatory trip to the I-Amsterdam sign, and while you’re there you might want to consider the Rijksmuseum and the Moco (Modern Contemporary) Museum too. I wish we’d had time for the latter as there was an exhibition on Dali and Banksy, both favourites of mine.
Not far from here is the famous Vondelpark and it appears that on a Sunday the whole Amsterdamian contingency comes out to play. Men in lycra and tourists with cameras litter the grassy knolls, neither of whom seem to understand the meaning behind a ringing bicycle bell.
Back in the central area of the canals you’re more likely to find yourself rubbing shoulders with hen and stag weekenders but here in the outer rings of Amsterdam you’ll find it a little more cultured and when you step into the De Pijp district you really are with the locals. It seems we arrived on the first day of proper sunshine for 2017 and the youth of Amsterdam were intent on making the most of their northern rays : bars spill out into the streets and you had to employ ninja stealth to nab yourself a pew, but it was worth it to order a Heineken and watch the in-crowd noisily discuss their weekend before a new work-week began. This is also the area for independent little boutiques and concept stores, stuff you just don’t see in shops in the UK, so great for finding an authentic gift or holiday keepsake.
Practical Information and Tips
Getting into Amsterdam : The train runs from the Airport every 10 minutes and costs just under €10 return. Having cash handy for the machines in the exit hall of the airport might be wise as we found that not all of the machines were working properly and took credit cards.
Hiring a bike will cost you about €10 a day but our Airbnb rented them for €7.50, as did a little place called Mike’s Bikes on 123 Kerkstraat.
If you’re travelling with kids or just don’t fancy seeing the Red Light District then it’s the De Wallen area to avoid, primarily the canal that runs up the middle of the rainbow. It’s a relatively small portion of the city and is easily avoided if you so wish.
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