We’ve been a few times to Amsterdam, in fact it was the very first city we travelled abroad as a couple. Amsterdam is perfect for a weekend getaway especially for us Brits, as it’s so close. An attractive city which is laid back, with a long history of tolerant attitudes which means you can just be yourself and nobody cares.
Amsterdam is not a city of grand monuments and buildings instead it’s all about the canals with its tilting and crooked merchant houses. From red lights to world class art and museums, bikes and romantic old bridges, there’s so much to see and do. Our favourite thing was just strolling the streets along the canals, and stopping off when we fancied for a drink and a bit of people watching. We booked our trip in April to coincide with the King’s Day celebrations and to take a day trip to the Spring flowering tulips at Keukenhof Gardens.
On April 27th every year the whole of the Netherlands stops work to celebrate “Koningsdag” – a national holiday. Amsterdam’s population doubles when an extra 700,000 visitors arrive for one massive street party. The night before is also party time, whilst the day after is one big hangover.
Blend in with fellow Amsterdammers and wear something orange and join in the fun along the canals of Amsterdam which are packed with lively boats that turn the waterways into a sea of orange! It’s also the only day of the year when you’ll see all the Dutch flags out including an additional small orange one.
We couldn’t believe it when the following day whilst out exploring we walked past the back of the The Royal Palace and saw lots of commotion with people getting their iPhones out. Talk about being in the right place at the right time, suddenly the King and Queen of the Netherlands appeared on the steps of the Palace. Garth was like a paparazzi taking tons of shots!
Our first AirBnB
We usually go for hotels but because we were arriving for the popular King’s Day prices of hotels were sky high so we decided to try out first AirBnB and we were so glad we did! Our studio apartment was just lovely, much better than the pictures on the AirBnB website. We couldn’t have asked for more being located right on a quiet and picturesque canal.
History and Dutch Canal Houses
Amsterdam’s beginnings date back to the 15th century when they began trading grain with the Baltic. At its peak by the 17th century Amsterdam was the world’s busiest trading port, a rich city trading in spices, porcelain, silk, tea and coffee with its own colonies around the globe. The city’s position as a mighty trade port is symbolised by a statue of the Greek god Atlas holding up a globe, you’ll find it at the back of the Royal Palace off Dam Square.
Amsterdam’s wealth is also displayed in the mansion houses which line the canals, where rich merchants and shipowners once lived. They tried to outdo each other with imaginative use of brickwork and decoration of the house gables – the fancy ornamentation at the very top of the houses. Look up and you’ll discover there’s basically 3 types of design – Step, Neck and Bell. For the best examples of the wealthiest and most beautiful merchant houses head to “The Golden Bend” on the Herengracht canal.
Whilst some of the oldest houses are at Begijnhof, an oasis of peace and the only ancient remaining courtyard in the city, where it’s set at medieval street level – one metre below the current one. Here you can see how the gables at the top of 15th century wooden houses used to look – very simple just triangular.
If you are wondering why all the houses are are so tall and narrow? well it’s because they used to be taxed according to their width, so they built up. Amsterdam’s narrowest house is No.166 located on the Singel canal, it’s looks like it’s only as wide as it’s front door! Some of the houses are really crooked and even tilt over the street, whilst others have struts that hold in the facades from falling down.
There’s lots of canals and neighbourhoods to explore in Amsterdam, our favourite area was easily the Jordaan neighbourhood, where streets criss-cross beautiful tree lined canals, it’s a really pretty area. We stopped off at a local’s favourite – Cafe Sonneveld on the Egelantiersgracht canal, one of the prettiest canals in Jordaan. As we sat and people watched we realised just how important bicycles are to the local way of life. The city has an awesome infrastructure of cycle paths which makes cycling easy, if you fancy having a go yourself there’s plenty of tourist bikes available for hire.
Also in Jordaan you’ll find lots of enticing narrow streets to get lost, it’s bohemian with a mix of boutique shops, second hand book stores and antique shops. Hard to believe this part of the city once used to be a slum.
A similar area to try is The Nine Streets, just a few minutes walk from The Royal Palace. It’s another lovely neighbourhood with quirky vintage shops and nice eateries.
Eat Dutch Pancakes
The most amazing pancakes are up a narrow staircase which leads to a tiny hidden gem – the small and cosy Upstairs Pannenkoekenhuis. It has to be best use of a small space! if you go in you’ll understand why. There’s only 4 tables so you have to call in first or phone ahead and make a reservation. They have a brilliant menu with a vast selection of pancakes – sweet and savoury, you decide, oh and it’s cash only.
For the best local snack try Bitterballen – deep fried balls of beef ragu covered in breadcrumbs and served with a mustard dip. It’s like a Spanish tapas portion, small but just enough and it tastes yummy! But be careful they are piping hot! We tried them at various places, but our favourite Bitterballen was at Blue Amsterdam. Grab a seat next to its floor to ceiling glass windows, the elevated location has amazing views of the city.
Another traditional snack to try is Stroopwafel with a coffee. They are filled with caramel and usually placed over a cup of tea or coffee to soften them, mmm.. lovely gooey Stroopwafel! Just make sure you don’t confuse Stroopwafels with Stroopkoeken, as they’re not the same – Stroopkoeken are syrup-cookies. We headed to Lanskroom on the Singel canal where they sell homemade giant sized Stroopwafels filled with either caramel or honey.
Where the locals eat
That ‘Gezellig’ Feeling
After a spot of shopping and lots of walking we took the weight off our feet and stopped at a Brown Cafe, which is actually like a pub. Named after their dark interiors, walls and ceilings are dark brown from old age and cigarette smoke. You’ll find big and small establishments that remain open till late. Inside you’ll discover what Amsterdammers call “Gezellig” similar to the Danish “hugge” – hard to translate but friends and coziness comes close. One thing all Brown Cafes have in common is the lack of music, just the sounds of people chatting. Also don’t feel hard done by when your beer is served – expect to see a big layer of froth on top! If you don’t fancy a beer then try a Jenever – the national Dutch spirit which is similar to gin (Gin is a Dutch invention) and get a plate of Dutch cheese to nibble on too.
For an authentic brown cafe try Cafe Papeneiland housed in an old building which dates back to 1642. If you’re really into beer then you may be interested in the history of the iconic Dutch lager, Heineken at its former brewery – The Heineken Experience.
De Wallen – Amsterdam’s Red Light District
Amsterdam’s famous Red Light district “De Wallen” is the neighbourhood where prostitution has been legal since 1811, however pimps and brothels were banned in 2000 and now the prostitutes or sex workers as they preferred to be called are freelance and pay rent for their rooms. It’s actually quite fascinating wandering around, yes it feels a little seedy at times, witnessing men gawping at the women in the windows and then going in, so sex tourism must be popular here? However it feels safe as there’s hundreds of tourists all packed down the side streets, just keep an eye on your valuables. To learn more you can take a night tour and there’s even an Erotic Museum next to lots porno and erotica shops which we found the displays somewhat entertaining!
Do what the signs say – respect the sex workers and most importantly don’t take photographs of them. You may notice some windows are lit in blue, this means a transgender sex worker is behind the glass.
The best time to wander around De Wallen is at night when the windows are illuminated and the area’s iconic red lights are reflected in the canal. We strolled the entire length of the Oudezijds Achterburgwal canal making the odd detour down some side streets.
If you fancy a unique selfie then you can even pose in a prostitute’s window for €25! Prostitution must be the oldest profession in the world, not sure if Amsterdam’s De Wallen is the world’s oldest red light area? but it’s easily the most famous.
You’ll see this XXX symbol everywhere, it’s actually nothing to do with the sex industry, instead it’s the historic symbol of Amsterdam used on flags, boats and their coat of arms.
Venice of the North
After walking the next best way to see Amsterdam is to take a cruise along the canals. There’s plenty of tourist boats to choose from which are based at the Damrak canal near Centraal Station.
Our Dutch friends suggested we do something a little different and hire our own small electric boat. Having done the tourist boats on previous visits, this experience was amazing because we were right out in the open. We took a picnic of beers wine and cheese and it was just lovely cruising along the water taking in the views of house boats and glimpsing inside the living rooms of elegant mansion houses and hip apartments, the Dutch are so stylish!
The first thing we noticed looking at our map is that the the canal network looks like a spiders web, but we were not allowed to boat along any old canal. So we left it our friends to captain our boat, as they knew the route to take and how to steer around the large numbers of tourist boats. Our route would take us to the Amstel canal which is where the city gets it’s name from – built on a dam along the river Amstel. Did you know Amsterdam’s canals were added to the UNESCO list in 2010?
Water buses and water taxis are another way to experience the canals, but a canal boat tour is the essential ride to take. It’s also incredibly romantic at night, as the lights twinkle back at you in the waters of the canal.
Along the Prisengracht canal you will get a great view of lots of bridges all in a row. If you want another good photo spot in the city then it’s the corner where the bridges of the Leidsegracht & Keizersgracht canals meet – it’s the view you’ll see on all the postcards.
Magere Brug is another of Amsterdam’s most famous bridges, the original bridge was built in 1691, however the bridge you see today is from 1934. To be honest the Skinny Bridge looks best at night lit up with hundreds of bulbs. Some trivia for you – there’s over 1,200 bridges in Amsterdam crossing 165 canals.
We then headed out into the city harbour, to take in some more sights like the NEMO before heading back.
For some visitors, Amsterdam is all about getting stoned – 35% of tourists will visit a coffeeshop. Smoking marijuana is tolerated within one of Amsterdam’s 150 licensed coffeeshops where they are allowed to sell small amounts of weed. They don’t sell alcohol and some have food on the menu, likely to be hash cakes. Weirdly you’re not allowed to light up a cigarette in these shops, due to the smoking ban in Europe. You will notice the smell of weed on the streets or just outside coffeeshops so don’t be surprised. If you want a coffeeshop without the weed then head for a café or a koffiehuis.
“Legalising” the use of marijuana is an interesting argument, maybe it doesn’t become as tempting? What’s curious is that the Netherlands doesn’t top the charts of stoners in Europe, instead it’s Italy followed by Spain. (You’ll see loads of Spanish people in Amsterdam) So who tops the world charts of stoners? the answer is the USA.
Arty Amsterdam & Museums
Garth is into his art and Amsterdam is home to world famous collections. We’ve previously visited the main ‘Big 3″ which are conveniently located together. The Rijksmuseum houses a huge collection of Old Dutch Masters including Rembrandt’s famous ‘The Night Watch’. It’s also Holland’s biggest museum and now looks great after been closed for a decade and is now completely refurbished. Don’t forget to take a selfie just outside with the Instagram favourite – I Amsterdam sign.
Next door is The Van Gogh Museum dedicated to the Impressionist painter. There’s over 200 pieces including his most famous paintings – ‘Sunflowers’, ‘Self portrait as a painter’ and “Corn field with crows’ plus over 500 drawings. What a shame Vincent Van Gogh didn’t live to see his art become world famous.
If you’re into modern art then it’s the Stedelijk Museum, just like The Met in New York this place is packed with some of the origins of abstract art with Mondriaan’s compositions being the highlight.
To see some street art we found a small collection on buildings around Wijdesteeg near Dam Square.
Other cultural attractions:
- Rembrandt’s House – where he lived from 1639 – 1658, it’s now a museum and holds a collection of his etchings.
- Anne Frank House – make sure you book tickets online to avoid long 3 hour queues.
- Homomonument – a memorial for those persecuted for their sexuality, near the Anne Frank House.
Tulips from Amsterdam
We visited during Spring in April, so it was the peak of the tulip season, Bloemenmarkt The floating flower market on the Singel Canal sells and displays many types of freshly cut flowers and bulbs. The barges are now permanently moored, but to be honest it’s a bit of tourist trap selling things like wooden tulips and kitsch souvenirs. If you’re wanting to buy tulip bulbs ask if they are Dutch, as many of them are imported. For a more authentic experience take a day trip from Amsterdam to Keukenhof gardens which open for 8 weeks in the Spring.
Phil and Garth’s Top 5 Amsterdam Tips
- Tip #1: If you’re visiting Amsterdam for Kings Day April 27th book your accommodation well in advance.
- Tip #2: Even if you’re not into art The Van Gogh Museum is really worth seeing.
- Tip #3: Watch out for tourists on yellow or orange bikes, as they will be looking up, not ahead!
- Tip #4: Don’t take photos of the sex workers in the windows.
- Tip #5: There’s not much fencing on the edges of canals, so take care not to fall in!