Amsterdam is a city of curiosities quenched. It has long been a traveller’s favourite, but don’t be fooled by her reputation – there is far more to this city than coffee shops filled with smoke and tourists taking truffles. The city has many faces and façades and indeed any visitor, regardless of age or interest, will find something endearing and appealing in this timeless capital.
Amsterdam is saturated with history yet remains unquestionably urban, the Scandinavians and Dutch have always been a few steps ahead of us and nowhere is this more apparent than in this city. Amsterdam’s idiosyncrasies, quirky bars and winding canals lure the weary traveller in. Head hazy and forever slightly disorientated, the soft glow of meting candles fills you with ‘gezellig’, a Dutch word that best translates to cosy. And cosy is exactly what this city is, imbued with that fuzzy feeling, like warm pudding in your stomach, you can lose yourself to time and place.
But just where do you start with a city as vast and shifting as Amsterdam?
What to do:
For the cultured, there are many museums, ranging from the world renowned Van Gogh Museum to the infamous Sex Museum. The Anne Frank House is also worth a visit, even for those who haven’t read her diaries. This museum sp
eaks better for itself than I ever could, but it does offer a sad glimpse into our collective past and acts as a solemn reminder that we must never, ever let this happen again.
The juxtaposition of classical museums such as the Rembrandt House or the Rijksmuseum with the likes of the Torture Museum, gives the impression that this isn’t a city that takes itself too seriously – and neither should we. So much of the city is best seen with aching sides and cheeks sore from smiling and while the Dutch have always been known for their unflinching aptitude for having fun, the feeling is surely contagious. Amsterdam looks into the darker parts of ourselves with a harmless curiosity and lets out a giggle. It is impossible not to be infected with this atmospheric adolescence and light-heartedness.
While it may be nose stingingly cold during the winter, Amsterdam is just as wonderful outdoors. Hit the ice-skating rink in Vondelpark, go on an open roofed canal boat ride around the Singel or explore the city by bike. Hiring bikes is the easiestand best way to see the city. Amsterdam has over 400km of bike paths and unlike other European countries, the cyclist is not just tolerated but respected, meaning you can cycle ease and without having to worry about being knocked off by an idiot driver. The cyclist is supreme here, just be sure to stay off the bike paths while on foot or you may be greeted with a not so courteous cuss word.
Next up: the Red Light District, infamous in name and supposedly debauch in nature. I’ve walked through it on two occasions, neither time it has been easy. It is uncomfortable, especially as a female, to be reminded of this reality. Armed with some liquid confidence though and you enter into an unreal world of vice and hedonism. 2EUR will buy you a minute in the peep show – 60 seconds more than you need – and a glimpse into a world you may not want to rush back to. While it may not be as obvious as Bangkok’s chorus of tuk tuk drivers calling out ‘ping pong show’ over and over, the shows are here if you have the desire to look. It’s strange, surreal and definitely memorable, but like so much of the city it is an experience and if nothing else, it makes a good story.
Don’t try to take any pictures of the workers (unless you want your iphone thrown in the canal) and try to be as respectful as you can – they are human beings too after all. It’s also worth keeping in mind, without getting too political (impossible), that these women do not want to be pitied or gawked at. Prostitution is not synonymous with violence, nor is it inherently detrimental to the people who work within the industry. It is the environment we as a culture provide (i.e. misogynistic, imbalance of power/economics) and attitudes we project (‘no one cares about prostitutes) that are dangerous for sex workers and perpetuates violence against them. (To save on the rant, if you are interested in these issues I recommend reading: ‘Sexuality, Pornography, and Method: “Pleasure under Patriarchy”’ by Catherine A. MacKinnon or ‘What’s Wrong with Prostitution? Evaluating Sex Work’ by Christine Overall.)
Amsterdam is famous for its nightlife and rightly so – the city is home to some of the best clubs this side of Ibiza and its pleasure-seeking philosophy is all about the experience. You know, living in th
e moment, man. For those of you who are looking to exploit Amsterdam’s liberal drug laws, while it is not advisable, keep this in mind:
- Be safe, read up on anything you maybe thinking of taking and be prepared or aware of what side effects may be induced
- Do not ask for drugs off of strangers in the street, this can and has caused fatalities in the past
- You cannot smoke tobacco inside, not even in coffee shops
- You can’t drink alcohol in coffee shops
- While small amounts of marijuana is tolerated, it is not completely legal. So be polite, be respectful and don’t, in lack of a better word, take the piss.
Where to stay:
Amsterdam, like everywhere else in Europe, can be a little pricey but by booking in advance you can save some pennies. My first time in Amsterdam we camped; while a way out of the city, the campsite itself was lovely – very green, very open and clean. The only downside was the distance, coupled with Amsterdam’s canals it can end up being quite tricky and confusing to navigate your way home (side note: no matter how hard you try, you will get lost in Amsterdam).
The second time we stayed in a hostel called StayOkay. I’d definitely recommend staying here as location and facilities wise it was great, plus breakfast was included! The hostel overlooks a canal and is right in the centre of the city, making it stumbling distance from most of the bars and coffee shops. It is very traveller friendly and the hostel staff were more than happy to help answer any questions/give advice on where to go and what to do.
Amsterdam also offers a range of strange or unexpected hotels, such as the Hemp Hotel which serves hemp beer and teas while you sit on hemp sofas, or sleep in beds with made up with hemp fabric and sheets. Far from being solely a stoner’s paradise, the hotel – along with the Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum – advocates and draws attention to the numerable uses the marijuana plant provides other than simply recreational drug use. Hemp, while a strand of cannabis, is not a drug and cannot get you high. It has however been used by cultures across the globe for anything from making clothes to ropes and interestingly, it is actually very environmentally friendly and can be used as a sustainable insulator for homes.
Amsterdam has accommodation for all budgets, whether you want a cheap hostel or a beautiful boutique hotel – or something different all together – the city can provide whatever your interests and wallet size may be.
What to eat:
The Dutch have perfected the sweet snack. From stroopwafels to proffetjes, Holland offers a vast array of tasty treats for the hungry traveller and anything from street stalls to high-end restaurants to enjoy them in. One of our favourite little eateries for breakfast was the Happy Pig, which specialises in waffles and rolled Dutch pancakes. For later in the evening, try bitterballen or haring (though don’t dangle it by the tail into your mouth… that exists only in tourism guidebooks). Of course no trip to Holland could be complete without consuming at least half of your body weight in cheese and there is no end to the innumerable cheese shops along the canals, selling everything from rare speciality cheeses to good old Gouda.
Amsterdam encompasses both snack-bars and Michelin star restaurants, so whether you’re keeping it cheap or splashing your cash Amsterdam has somewhere suit your budget and your appetite. (But to be honest, any country that comes up with having chocolate sprinkles (hagelslag) on bread for breakfast each morning, has my heart.)
Amsterdam is an excursion into the parts of ourselves the rest of Europe likes to ignore. Travellers can learn and explore, satisfy their curiosity or come up with new questions. It is a city of indulgence, but it is also a city that thousands of normal people call home. While our hedonistic binges may make for amusing anecdotes, it is important, as always, to be respectful and stay safe.
Amsterdam provides unrivalled museums and galleries, vibrant clubbing scenes and some of the best fashion in Europe. It is young, it is trendy and it is impossible to forget. There’s a feeling that anything goes in this city (so long as you’re two consenting adults) and on your journey home you’re left thinking that maybe they’re onto something here, and maybe, the rest of Europe should lighten up.