I had a lovely time in Amsterdam and despite it being quite a short 3-night trip, I feel refreshed from having spent a good and relaxing time in a city I love. The Dutch are generally very laid-back, friendly people and it’s easy to slip into a relaxed pace. If you haven’t been, then I’d highly recommend you go; it’s like nowhere else. I’ve been thinking about why I like it so much so thought I’d do an ‘overall’ post, and include places to seek out and things to watch out for – especially the bikes!
Where to stay? I’ve spent a lot of time in Amsterdam but rarely stayed in a hotel. My very first visit was with my school friend Nina when we were about 19 and we stayed in a youth hostel – that turned out to be in the red light district! But the Dutch are easy about these things and it’s not such a big thing, and it wouldn’t worry me even now. Then about 20 years ago my ex husband was working in Amsterdam for a couple of years. He came back to London most weekends but half terms and holidays I’d take our kids out, driving from London, and we’d all be together in an apartment in Oudekerk aan de Amstel, a lovely village a few miles out of Amsterdam on the river Amstel. I got used to driving into central Amsterdam but often we cycled in along the Amstel. Two years ago I travelled to the city with my daughter and we stayed in a hotel she knew (she goes to the city for work reasons sometimes), the ‘t Hotel. This is just lovely and on a gorgeous canal in Jordaan. I guess this would be my first choice, but it’s quite expensive when travelling alone and the last two years I’ve booked a ‘deal’ with British Airways when booking my flight. Last year’s hotel wasn’t that great, but I was happy with my NH Hotel this year. It’s a chain but a good one. The only problem for me was that I’d booked into the branch in the Jordaan on Singel (canal) but was moved as it closed in January for refurbishment. The one in the Museum Quarter was friendly and I was given a nice room but it was a bit too far away from the Jordaan for me. Remember when booking, apart from choosing your area, that the canal house hotels rarely have lifts and the stairs are often narrow and steep. Ask if you’re in doubt about how many flights of stairs you can manage.
Which area to stay in? My favourite area is the Jordaan and so I like to stay there or within easy walking of it. This is where you will find pretty canals, lots of lovely cafes and restaurants, art galleries, markets and the Anne Frank House. If however you want to spend a lot of time at the big art galleries, then you might be better off staying in the Museum Quarter.
Why go? As just said above, it’s such a laid-back and relaxed place to spend time that you can easily wind down there. But of course it’s also very beautiful (the photo at the top of this post is typical of what you’ll see walking around) with the lovely leafy canals and attractive canal houses. I particularly like the Jordaan district, the old town which has risen from being a poor area to now being very chic and expensive. You can wander around the canals and find quiet in the midst of a big city, which for me combines all the benefits of enjoying what a great city has to offer with some peace for recharging on your holiday.
Cultural centre: Amsterdam is a great city of culture. There is of course the famous Rijksmuseum:
And just behind it you will find the Van Gogh and the Stedelijk (modern art). I’ve visited all of these but what I really like now is wandering through the canals and coming across lots of little galleries full of lovely artworks and ceramics and other crafts. These places aren’t tourist traps but working artists and you’re likely to be able to find some unique piece of artwork at an affordable price, whatever your budget.
Cafe Society: as someone who loves to hang out in cafes and prefers cafe-style restaurants to posh formal ones, Amsterdam is just the perfect place for me. Everywhere you will find gorgeous cafes – the traditional ones look more like bars, as my favourite in the heart of the Jordaan on Prinsengracht, Cafe ‘t Smalle. I also like Cafe de Jaren in the university area.
But really you don’t have to trust a guide book; just wander round and go into one that takes your fancy, and of course one that is busy and bustling, indicating it’s likely to be good. You’ll find some have live music at times and some are meeting places for the intellectuals of the city who want to talk and discuss.
Food: Well of course the Single Gourmet Traveller is never really interested in travelling to anywhere that doesn’t have good food. Having said this, my general impression of Dutch food has been influenced by all that time I spent here 20-odd years ago and feeling that Dutch food wasn’t that great. But, like London, now a culinary centre of the world, Amsterdam has moved on and there are some great places to eat. Most cafes will serve up good snacks for lunchtime. Restaurants are more cosmopolitan offering food from all over the world, but there’s a special emphasis on Indonesian. Once a Dutch colony, you’ll find wonderful Indonesian restaurants and eating in one definitely counts as ‘local’ food. Typical Dutch food will include a lot of fish, particularly herrings, smoked salmon and smoked eel. They are also famously good at pancakes and you’ll find lots of pancake houses or cafes specialising in pancakes, like Roem on Prinsengracht. Dutch pancakes tend to be large and come with either savoury or sweet toppings. A particular pancake speciality are Poffertjes, gorgeous little bite-sized pancakes smothered in butter and icing sugar. I like the ones at Cafe ‘t Smalle.
Dutch food is quite hearty: thick soups; stamp-pot – a mashed pot of potatoes and veg; sausages and fried croquettes, like bitterballen which they like to dip in mustard. The Dutch like dairy a lot too and eat a lot of cheese – mostly their famous Gouda, which comes in a large variety of ages for different tastes. Go to Tromp on Elandsgracht for tastings and to buy some to take home:
And of course you mustn’t come away from Amsterdam without tasting some of their famous apple pie (visit Winkel or Cafe Papeneiland – both at the top end of Prinsengracht by Noordemarket).
For evening meals my favourite places are Cafe Reiger, Balthazar’s Keuken and a recent find, Cafe het Molenpad. Dinner seems to start early and I found over the weekend that restaurants were filling up from about 6.00pm.
Drink: The Dutch are great at coffee so you’ll have no problem getting a good coffee anywhere, and it nearly always comes with a little treat of a biscuit or small slice of cake. With the Heineken brewery in the city and local Amstel beer, they’re also big beer drinkers. A visit to the Brouwerij ‘t IJ microbrewery, which I did with my daughter a couple of years ago, is a good outing. My favourite drink – at night after a meal as a digestif – is Oude Genever, old gin. Served cold in a small liqueur glass, it’s topped right to the brim and the local way to drink it is not to try to pick it up, but bend down and sip it. My favourite cafe for it is Cafe Chris, dating from 1624 and the oldest cafe in the Jordaan. It’s a really fun place to end a day.
Alternative life: There’s a strong ‘alternative’ culture in Amsterdam so you’ll see juicing bars and vegetarian and vegan restaurants; organic clothing and lots of yoga places, chiropractic, etc. It seems to me another aspect of their down-t0-earth pragmatic nature, and living a simple life. They are very open in their living and you’ll notice windows rarely have closed curtains – you walk along narrow roads and see straight into people’s lives. I was told this stems from the strong Calvinist heritage when there were strict rules about talking or being seen with a Catholic or Jew. Thus an open-view window is saying, ‘I’ve nothing to hide.’
Coffeeshops: Never mistake a ‘coffeeshop’ as somewhere to have your morning coffee! Most people know this, of course, but the famous coffeeshops selling cannabis are still much in evidence, despite new laws tightening control on them. I regularly passed several over the weekend with people sitting outside smoking joints. And these weren’t hidden away; they were on the main streets.
Hazards: Well, this is what you need to watch out for! Number One, of course, are the bikes. In Amsterdam the bike rules … The problem with bikes is you don’t necessarily hear them and they don’t seem to ring a bell of warning. Bikes are everywhere – just look around and you’ll see people cycling and bikes chained up to railings and lampposts. Outside Central Station you’ll even see a multi-storey bike park! Another hazard unsurprisingly are the canals. They’re very pretty but you don’t want to end up in one of them. I was told it was mainly men – presumably after a few beers too many- who fell in; their bodies found with their trousers undone. Men – just look for a proper toilet! Another hazard in the canal area are holes in the pavements. These are actually deep gaps with steps down to basements but they are rarely protected by any kind of railing or wall. As you can see in the photos below, they often stretch across half the pavement so at night can be quite dangerous. So, you’ve been warned – always look carefully where you’re walking
Another pedestrian hazard is that the cycle lanes (and for the cyclist there are wonderful broad lanes just for bikes), are often indistinguishable from the pavement for pedestrians – see photo below: three lanes, left to right: cars, bikes, pedestrians.
I’d often cross a road and find myself walking in the cycle lane by mistake, then nearly getting run down by a fast-moving bike.
Money: on short trips I prefer to take cash to see me through my 3-4 days. In some places this is the best thing as credit cards can at times be hard to use. In Amsterdam however the move is in the other direction. I found a number of places took only cards – no cash. So be prepared.
Travel: there’s an excellent frequent train service from Schiphol airport into Central Station Amsterdam which takes just 20 minutes and costs €5 each way. Once in the city, taxis can be quite expensive but there’s a great tram system (you often need to buy tickets in advance, available in a strip). And, of course, walk! It’s just the most perfect city to walk round. And don’t forget canal trips: it’s a great way to see the city and some allow you to get on and off at various sites.
Well, that’s my mini-guide to Amsterdam. I hope if you’re planning to go there you’ll find some of it useful. And please let me know of any good places you find!
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