For me, the mention of Amsterdam has always conjured up images of winding canals, old boat houses, plumes of smoke curling out of mysterious coffee shops, and dim red lights cast on dark streets. When I first stepped off the tram in the heart of the city, that picture wasn’t too far from reality. But the sleepy haze that I expected to find over a city steeped in so much history was completely absent. In its place was a vibrant hum of energy. Energy carried by all manner of activities. People were riding bikes throughout the entire city, boats passed underfoot as we crossed over old bridges, people talked animatedly to their lunch companions. There was a tangible sense of vitality that I didn’t expect. As the first stop on our journey, it was exciting.
Another unexpected aspect of the city were the suburbs. We stayed with a group of young Spaniards via Airbnb right outside of the center in Diemen Zuid. It was a very suburban area with a completely different vibe. Most of the buildings were tiny, stand-alone houses completely identical with small, attached backyards. It was a sleepy neighborhood, was thin, bubbling canals and more walking paths than roads. It was quite enjoyable to stay in a mellower part of the city.
My favorite part about staying there was the walking path at the back of the neighborhood. Reid and I stumbled upon it as I insisted it was a shortcut (it wasn’t). It did however take us along a canal, a cemetery, and the back decks of many of the larger houses. I was extremely jealous of these idyllic little living spaces, with decks tumbling right down to the canal edge and little duck families sleeping in the shade of their plants. There was an amazing little walking bridge as well to get over to the street those houses were on (you can see it in the picture above).
Alright, now that I’ve blathered on about what the area looked and felt like, here are my favorite things that we did:
Strolling down random streets and taking photos
It’s the typical tourist activity but for a good reason! I couldn’t stop taking pictures of doors and bridges. I just loved how flower-obsessed everyone was, decorating their doorsteps in flower pots of all shapes and sizes. Flowers also lined the bridge railings and filled random, giant potters throughout the cities. Flowers even decorated old boats! Really, it makes sense that flower trading more or less took off in the Netherlands. I for one appreciated their dedication!
The Cannabis College
Not necessarily because it’s in the Red Light District or because they have a marijuana ‘garden’ but because the very toasted store manager was a great source of information for things to do in the city. He knew a lot about the history of the city and (more importantly) the history of beer in the city. He gave us some fantastic museum and brewery recommendations. Thank you, Cannabis College manager guy!
Reid and I managed to pop into a great tasting room in the Red Light district that had a fantastic IPA and hefewiesen. Usually they have a full bar open for trying their beers on tap, but as it was a Monday we could only go into the tasting room of the brewery itself. The bottled beer was just as delicious! The woman tending the shop also gave us a bunch of free posters of a woman in lederhosen advertising their beers with song lyrics. Very strange.
I have no idea how to say that word but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are delicious tiny pancakes covered in butter and powdered sugar and you order them by the half dozen. Best breakfast ever!
Everything a museum should be, I loved that each room had a different theme and an impressive collection. It certainly helped that I was reading a book about famous Flemish artists whose work appeared there (please read The Flanders Panel if you ever have a chance!). Reid and I got in just an hour or two before closing and in the last 20 minutes basically had the museum to ourselves. Highly recommended!
Tostis are wonderfully delicious. They are just as they sound – pieces of toast or sandwiches with various melted cheeses (and meats, but we obviously skipped those). My personal favorite was goat cheese with honey and walnuts. So delicious.
I loved strolling through Vondelpark because you could get in some fantastic people watching. It is a very bustling area with people enjoying barbecues, games, concerts, and exercise. There are also some fantastic, old buildings mixed in. It is a sort of oasis in the middle of the city where you can take in the fresh air and sunshine.
The Van Gogh Museum
I loved this museum, not only because Van Gogh had some amazing pieces, but because it is so interactive. I found his most famous pieces strangely unappealing (sunflowers, really?) but what blew me away was how much light affected the mood of his pieces. The ones of spring and the country (my favorites) were gorgeous and so emotive of happiness and growth, whereas the extremely dark ones reflected the moodiness of fall and rainstorms. They also had these great activity areas where you could touch recreations of his painting style and examine recreated cross pieces of his works under a microscope to see all of the different techniques he used. I actually recommend that if you only go to one museum, make it Van Gogh! You’re in for a real treat.
Skipping some of the major tourist attractions
This one is a bit strange, I know, but Reid and I made the awkward decision of not going to some of the most iconic tourist attractions. For example, waiting in the always-two-hour line for the Anne Frank house. Yes, it is an extremely important bit of history and Anne Frank is a remarkable person, but as the Cannabis College manager said ‘you can come see where my family hid Canadians in the attic, and I won’t even charge you for it’. In short, it seemed quite exploitative to pay over 20$ to see an attic and it also made me angry that the very old people in line had to wait and were not let in directly, considering they were probably alive during her lifetime. Take note, Anne Frank house!
I don’t want you to think it was all sunshine and rainbows on this trip (when is traveling ever like that?). There were definitely some things I would have done differently and a couple of things I’d like to forget. For example, how I ruined Reid’s day of bike-riding awesomeness by immediately falling off my bike and injuring myself. And by immediate, I mean I’m pretty sure I didn’t even get both feet off the ground. That ordeal is probably the closest Reid’s ever come to getting rid of me. The ‘incident’ required about 20 minutes of silence to mourn the death of Reid’s bike-riding dreams.
So, here is a list of things I would have done differently to hopefully spare other travelers from making the same mistakes I did:
Immediately buy an OV chip card
This proved to be a big frustration for us. Not only did we use the trams in Amsterdam over 20 times, but we could have used the same card in other parts of the Netherlands as well. I estimate we could have saved over 50 euro if we had the card. It gives you a pretty hefty discount every time you ride, so it’s definitely worth it. I don’t know where you get them, but find out right away if you’re headed to the Netherlands!
Visit Rotterdam or Haarlem
Though we only had four days to really see the area, I wish we had dedicated one of those days to seeing a smaller nearby city. They are supposed to have great breweries as well as some cool museums, and most importantly, less tourists. Just something I’ll have to see next time!
Though we got a fairly good deal on Airbnb, couch-surfing would have saved us a few hundred dollars. Staying outside the city (all we could afford) meant spending almost 10 euros a day just getting back and forth. Also, couch surfing proved to be extremely rewarding in other parts of the Netherlands and Belgium, as Europe seems to have some of the best hosts. I would encourage anyone to give it a try and save some precious cash!
I look forward to returning one day and taking my own advice…
One of my favorite photos of Amsterdam