If you are looking for a brilliant city – filled with lovely people and great things to do – Amsterdam is a good choice. Forget the rumours, Amsterdam is much more than what you had heard when you were sixteen.
For years, Amsterdam did not sound like an attractive destination. The “obvious” reasons definitely do not rock my boat. However, the s.o. and I hadn’t been away in forever and we needed a destination interesting enough and close enough for the 3.5 days we had at our disposal. We both hadn’t been to Amsterdam so in a kind of “meh” moment, we decided to go.
Well, were we wrong or were we wrong? We had an *absolutely* brilliant time in Amsterdam. This is a city that respects its history and exhibits it in great and inclusive ways. Absolutely everyone speaks English (and they look like a million bucks). If you want culture, great food, amazing design, picturesque roads and a vibrant night life, Amsterdam will not disappoint. On top of that it’s a really small city (don’t know how they pack everything in but they do) which makes it perfect for a shorter break as you can walk absolutely everywhere.
Here’s some of the things we did – hope you’ll find em useful.
We checked out the iAmsterdam website *before* our trip. It’s the official page and packed with useful info. We got the iAmsterdam visitor’s card which is incredibly good value – especially since we wanted to go to a number of the museums you get free entrance to and we also wanted to do a canal tour (you get one for free). Check the list though – the card will not give you free entry to the Rijksmuseum, only a discount.
In the photo you can see me proudly displaying the second card I got since like an idiot I lost the first. Might be a good idea for them to implement some sort of replacement system.
I also pre-booked tickets for the Rijksmuseum. *DO THIS* unless you are prepared to wait over an hour to get in. And you have to get in – if only to see the Night Watch (more on that later).
The card gives you a free canal tour. They say it’s better to do them at night as the canal lights make for quite a treat. We actually did our tour quite late – so half of it was in daylight and the other half not. I know tours like that sound horribly touristy but I swear by doing things like that on the first day. They give you a great overview of *where* things are and a general sense of the city.
In Amsterdam you will get lost. Accept this. Even after you read this:
- Check the map
- Amsterdam’s canals are U-shaped.
- Roads next to the canals are U-shaped.
- Roads crossing the canals open like rays from the old port, spreading outwards.
Even if you know this, your brain still works under the assumption that if you keep going West you will end up in the West – which is simply not true in Amsterdam.
We got horribly lost at least two or three times, until our sense of direction re-arranged itself to fit the Amsterdam reality. At the end we loved getting lost – since we saw a lot of Amsterdam real life and neighbourhoods – a bit of the silver lining you might say – but not very good if you need to be somewhere quickly and would prefer to get there on time.
We had heard that Dutch pancakes are a treat and it’s true. We found The Happy Pig – a small little pancake shop with organic pancakes and lovely smiling people. It’s tiny but everything they have is very yummy. My pancake is obviously the chocolate one.
Amsterdam is full of amazing bookshops and second hand bookshops. You know, the ones where you walk in and the smell of old paper and dust makes it smell like heaven. I did not subject the s.o. to hours of book browsing (what can I say, I care about him) but I’m definitely going back for the books.
The open curtains phenomenon
The English are all about privacy and closed curtains. Even if the heavy curtains are open, they are all about the dreaded net curtain. Not so with the Dutch. Their curtains are wide open, their windows huge, making houses a curious tourist display. We tried to not look but to no avail.
We were very impressed by how well-designed everything is and how many old canal houses are completely refurbished. There is something about Dutch aesthetics that makes interiors look modern and clean, yet somehow homely.
We didn’t take photos. Even though we were sorely tempted.
Museums and brilliant places
Yes yes and yes. This is De Nieuwe Kerk i.e. the New Church. Even though it was built in 1400 (or thereabouts) there is also the Oude Kerk i.e. the Old Church which is – you guessed it – even older. At De Nieuwe Kerk we saw Bill Viola’s installations Tristan’s Ascension and Fire Woman. Don’t ask.
De Nieuwe Kerk website
At the Oude Kerk we saw the exhibition I/O underflow of Tony Oursler. It was slightly disturbing and funny (in a good way).
Oude Kerk website
I was dying to see the Night Watch. Not just because Rembrandt is a genius (he is) but for a slightly more geeky reason. Because of the amazing book by the late Mr. Pratchett. Do you research, you’ll see I’m right.
Here I am messing about with the 3D Night Watch at Rembrandtplein. Kids LOVE this place.
I loved Rembrandt’s House. I could have spend hours in the tiny rooms, touching the furniture (OK didn’t do that) and looking out of the tiny windows. I love original spaces like that, it’s really worth a visit.
Rembrandt House website
For such a small city it’s amazing how Amsterdam knows to do sophistication and hip lovely spaces so well. We would highly recommend Brix for food and drinks. Even when their kitchen is closed drop in for some bar food. You’ll be amazed.
Learn from our fail and book Moeders two weeks before. It’s highly recommended by actual Amsterdam residents and we didn’t manage to go.
You also found an amazingly chic and well designed Italian restaurant thanks to a recommendation. Cinema Paradiso had just great food and a really great space.
Also, try to visit the local shops. They do wonders with bread, cheese and ham. Avoid the touristy food shops (yes the ones with the “cheeses” stacked outside) and just walk around the Jordaan in search of little neighbourhood shops.
The whole world and his missus want to have their photo taken climbing the Iamsterdam signs dotted around the place. You will find one outside the airport and another at the museum square. Both are constantly overrun with people – no chance of a photo with the sign and you alone. If you really must have one, we discovered an Iamsterdam sign which nobody else seems to be showing a bit of love for. When you go to the Hermitage museum (make it before closing) just exit from the door directly across from the one you entered. You are now at the back of the Hermitage. Voila, there is an Iamsterdam 3D sign there just for you.
- Just walk around the city
- Read Russel Shorto’s “Amsterdam – A history of the world’s most liberal city“
- Go to the Hermitage to see the *massive* portraits of the city’s groups, guilds, teams and other do gooders
By doing these three things, Amsterdam has come to life for me as a city to be admired deeply. If you manage to go, enjoy.
We went to Amsterdam in early March 2015. All expenses paid by us, no deals with any of the organisations/ shops/ venues mentioned in this post.