Everyone has an image of Amsterdam lurking in their brains like a troll under a bridge. From scuzzy windows humming with red and purple, to reggae and smoke-filled rooms full of hippies, via canals, bicycles and tall thin houses. I think most people have all these elements in place before they arrive.
The truth is that yes – Amsterdam is all these things but it’s a lot more besides. If you arrive at Centraal Station you may well get metaphorically punched in the face by the immediate attentions of touts and general do-badders. They stalked me all the way down the Damrak when I arrived fresh-faced, aged 19. I could see the reflection of one following me as I shed furtive glances to the shop windows on the right. It was mid-morning, what did he want with me? Beginning to get slightly afraid I darted off when I reached Dam Square and power-walked to find my Hostelling International place, ‘Stadsdoelen’. Settling in there I readied myself to discover the city. Spending the next few days exploring all the canals and alleys was wonderful. It was also one of the only things I could afford do with my time as I had precious few Euros left. I met a few nice folk in the hostel and generally relaxed, soaking up the atmosphere of the place – pretty by day, raucous and sometimes threatening by night.
Watch out, you never know if there are weirdos about…
Returning in 2003, ’05, ’06 and ’09 it was a very different city every time. With more disposable income the city opened up incrementally. It also coincides with what seems to be a zero tolerance approach by the police to the more threatening parts of the city centre. By 2006 the groups of dealers on the bridges had thinned massively and the con artists seemed fewer. True you do still hear stories of robberies and assaults but really the city is remarkably safe now.
The odd situation of a smoking ban that dies not include cannabis provides a nicotine-free coffee shop experience, which I’m grateful for, but which has certainly taken some of the old atmosphere from the pokey brown cafes and bars. As in the rest of Europe with bans people seem more disposed to stay at home and smoke if going out means they have to duck outside every half hour for a ciggie. But returning back to the original statement, there’s much more to this city than places to party and substances to dabble in.
Walking in Amsterdam is rewarding and interesting. Centuries old houses lean precariously over canals and you can discover minuscule cafes and restaurants in secretive basement windows, often with few signs there’s anything there. The parks, especially Vondel Park are lovely even in winter – hire a bicycle or wander on foot to take it all in and recover if partying is the main reason for your visit to The Netherlands. Cycling is a valid method for traversing the city even if it isn’t the cheapest. Renting a bike is straight-forward and worthwhile because you can reach more distant sights like De Bloem windmill in the northwest of the city, the zoo or other parks. My personal preference will always be walking though because you see so much more when you don’t have to keep an eye out for traffic or street signs.
So, my top five non-drug or booze sights would be:
5) The Jordaan – filled with loads of markets, including an interesting bric-a-brac one, as well as quiet cafes and shops. It’s like a small village when you’re only a 10 minute walk from the red light district.
4) Vondel Park – A lovely hangover cure or place to stroll amongst residents enjoying their leisure time.
3) The Sex Museum – Tacky in places, interesting in others, almost universally hilarious, this place on the central Damrak is well worth the entry fee.
2) The canals in general – Whatever you do in Amsterdam do not restrict yourself to the canals in the red light district. They are beautiful by day or by night and as you walk or boat around them you will notice that they have different auras. If you do take a boat tour, which I would recommend, listen out for interesting factoids about the townhouses.
1) The Van Gogh Museum – Because it’s truly beautiful. I have spent many hours in here and have visited every time I’ve been to Amsterdam. Once slightly addled, but every other time perfectly sober. Different experiences for sure but all sprinkled with a large pinch of awesome. It’s by no means cheap to get in but I think it’s one of the must-sees in Europe, nevermind Amsterdam.
What any visitor will need when exploring Amsterdam is fuel.
For breakfast there are two favourites of mine. First is the brilliant Sara’s Pancake House under the Hotel Nadia (which I’ll get to later) on the south side of Westermarkt. Pretty much any topping you could desire, served with a smile. Second is Barney’s Breakfast Bar on Haarlemmerstraat. It’s not quite as good as it used to be now it’s been refurbished. They seem to be focusing more on selling Barney’s branded hoodies than on their food business but it’s still very nice to pop in there for waffles, pancakes or burgers later on.
For lunch I would always say grab some rolls and salami from the Albert Heijn supermarket by Dam Square, Nieuwezjids Voorburgwal to be exact, and find a canal-side bench to scoff.
In the evening head to Nyonya Malaysia Express on the west side of Kloveniersburgwal (it’s on Google Maps). They are cheap, plentiful, friendly, often packed with people and serve some delicious malaysian grub. The sweet tea is very good if you’re in the mood for condensed milk and sugar – it’s incredible sweet – not always my cup of tea, so to say, but when the mood hits it is perfect.
When you’ve finished the sightseeing and need a nightcap I would push any visitor to try two slightly out of the way places. Cafe Belgique on Gravenstraat is no cafe, it sells a wide range of delicious Belgian beers in a lively, crowded atmosphere. It seems equally popular with locals and tourists. Proeflokaal “De Ooievaar” on Zeedijk is what is known as a brown cafe, apparently from the tobacco stained ceilings. The clientel is older and more relaxed, the beer is not cheap but it is is tasty. Come here for a quiet drink amongst almost exclusively local people, and often a dog and a cat.
Accommodation is a tricky subject in Amsterdam. Hostels often cost almost the same as a hotel room but in some cases hotel rooms can be miles dirtier. I have stayed at what is now the Stayokay Stadsdoelen (back in 2002 and 2003) and found it to be clean and perfectly acceptable. I have also stayed at the Flying Pig Downtown many times. This is a strange one because sometimes it’s grimy, vomit-flecked and piss-streaked, with strangers sleeping in your bunk because they couldn’t find their own, but other times it’s lovely and clean. I think this largely comes down to the staffing because it regularly changes. You get good staff and it follows that you have a good hostel. By and large I’ve usually found the Pig to be acceptable. It’s excellent bar and lounge area do count for a hell of a lot though and can help you forget the abominations that are the showers. Hotel-wise I would say the Hotel Nadia without pausing for thought because it is excellent. Lovely staff who offer you complimentary drinks whenever you pass through reception, regardless of the time of night because it’s manned 24-hours. Comfortable rooms that are quiet even though they face Westermarkt. You will be able to hear the bells of Westerkirk in the morning but I found that quite charming.
Visit Amsterdam. Don’t believe the hype of that stag party you heard about or those backpackers you met, or even this blog! If anything the message is that Amsterdam is a city with many sides to its character beyond that of party central (centraal?), it’s a place that you can discover on your own terms. Go and experience this unique city yourself, make your own mind up and forge your own image. You won’t regret it.