I was recently commissioned to write a short ‘alternative’ guide to the town where I’ve spent a substantial proportion of the past decade.
It wasn’t easy choosing what to include, but I did my best to be hip and ever so slightly hippie.
Here are the attractions that made the cut…
Write yourself off in a brown cafe and lose your hotel in a maze of canals. Window-shop where live merchandise is lit with red neon, or duck into a smoky little ‘coffeeshop’ selling substances not available over the counter elsewhere.
If you think you’re a bit above all that, visit great art museums…and of course take your chances on a bike.Those who didn’t enjoy (or barely remember) a trip to Amsterdam tell of drug-hazed weekends in seedy red light district hotels shared with British rugby teams on post-season booze-ups.
Those who loved it pedalled round quiet streets, ate on a café terrace by a leafy canal, picnicked in the park, heard great jazz and marvelled at the most beautiful paintings in the world.
First timers are surprised to learn that Amsterdam is so small. The Dutch capital has less than 800,000 residents and a compact city centre you can cycle right around in a couple of hours.
Amsterdam looks casual, but it is very organised. If you haven’t yet mastered the Dutch language, don’t worry. Everyone you meet will speak English (and probably French, German and Italian) better than you do, and will remind you of this while casually organising you – ‘Plis moof to de middel off de trem!’ ‘Dat iss de bike path you are stending on!’
Best of the Beaten Track
The big three ‘must sees’ are the Rijksmuseum (Rembrandt, Vermeer) the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. Expect queues, particularly mid-morning and at holiday times. And just because they’re ‘must sees’ doesn’t mean you must see them; Amsterdam has plenty more on offer if time is too short to stand in line.A one-hour rondvaart (round trip) in a glass-topped canal boat looks like a clichéd introduction to the city, and it is, but it’s also well done and good value at EUR9-10.
The Waterlooplein flea-market is high on many people’s lists, but for mine it’s now overrated, selling the same imported junk you can find anywhere in the world. The city has better markets in the Noordermarkt and Albert Cuyp Street.
The famous and beautiful Vondelpark is usually busy, with free concerts in the open air theatre in the summer, a good selection of al fresco cafés and always something going on.
Tip: An Amsterdam Card gives you up to three days of public transport and museum entry, but if you’re staying longer or plan on walking or cycling rather than using trams and buses, a EUR40 Museumkaart (Museum Card) may be better value. It gives unlimited entry to most museums in the country for a year and saves you the queuing. Buy one at the first large museum you visit. Visit 4-5 museums during your stay and you’ll have your money’s worth.
For the best cheap lunch with a view, go to the public library (OBA), close to Centraal Station. The library? On holidays? Are you kidding?? But this is a state of the art facility with superb architecture, free internet access on their computers or your laptop, and up-to-date world newspapers. La Place cafe on the seventh floor has a decent smorgasbord lunch and a bird’s eye balcony view.
Then pop in next door to the Music Conservatorium. Classical and jazz are their specialties, lunchtime concerts are free and the students from around the world are prodigiously talented. At night, the Bimhuis in the nearby Muziekgebouw is the place to go for jazz.
The Jordaan area used to be a crowded slum but is now trendy, with excellent growers’ and bric-a-brac markets on the Noordermarkt and Lindengracht on Saturdays, and a clothing and textile market on the Westerstraat every Monday.
Café Winkel on the corner of the Noordermarkt and Westerstraat consistently wins the award for best Dutch ‘appeltaart’ (apple cake) in town. They queue around the corner for it on market days. It’s traditionally taken with ‘koffie’, a popular Dutch drink which IMHO bears little relation to ‘coffee’, and none to real Italian ‘caffe’.
Best alternative Amsterdam museum – the Tassenmuseum (Museum of Handbags). No, really. If you’re not into fashion accessories, there’s a pleasant cafe and garden. Take a book; your companion may be some time. http://www.tassenmuseum.nl
Experience & EventsAmsterdam’s trams are fast, frequent and efficient, but if you have functioning legs and any sense of balance, rent a bike. They’re cheap (8-10 euros a day) and safe (car-free cycle paths everywhere). Guided bike tours of the city are popular, but you can easily ride on your own. If you’ve got a free day to ride out into the countryside, it takes just 20 minutes to reach the green fields and picture postcard villages of Waterland, north of the city. Ask your bike hire place for a map.
De Parade travelling festival in August features weird, wonderful and short music, theatre and dance performances in an old-fashioned fairground tent setting.
For the best in world music, there’s the Amsterdam Roots Festival in June and the Caribbean-inspired Kwakoe Festival in July and August.
Cheap and cheerful: Hotel van Onna http://www.hotelvanonna.nl/english.html 45 euro pppn
On a lovely canal: ‘t Hotel http://www.thotel.nl from 139 euro double
The houseboat experience: Stay at water level and see the world slosh past your bedroom window. http://www.houseboathotel.nl/
Best weird hotel design (if you don’t mind a 12-minute train trip into town) Inntel Zaandam. http://www.inntelhotelsamsterdamzaandam.nl/
Traditional Dutch cuisine is stodgy; heavy soups and ‘stampot’, mashed carrot and potatoes with chunks of fatty sausage; perfect comfort food on a drizzly day when you’ve been out in your clogs, shovelling cowpats onto the tulips, but it’s not five star restaurant fare.
Indonesian food used to be popular, but it’s been passed in quality by the Suriname, Turkish and Moroccan establishments. Bazar is a big brassy Moroccan in the middle of the multicultural Albert Cuyp market.
Amsterdam’s ‘eetcafes’ (eating cafes) are often better value than restaurants and have an authentic local atmosphere and clientele. Usually there’s a limited but classy menu, with vegetarian options. Try Gent aan de Schinkel, Café Amsterdam or De Eetkamer van de Jordaan.
If you want to go up-market at a middle-market price, Amsterdam food guru (and very hard marker) Johannes van Dam gives 9.5/10 to French/Dutch Lastage, on the Geldersekade near Centraal Station. http://www.restaurantlastage.nl
Best known of the night clubs are the Melkweg and the Paradiso. I can’t express an expert opinion on either, because although I’ve performed in both in my muso days, I barely remembered the gigs the morning after, let alone thirty years later. I’m sure I was great, but as to the venues…
Easyjet flies to Amsterdam from London (Gatwick and Luton), Edinburgh, Rome, Barcelona and Geneva. Book early for the best deals. The train from Schiphol Airport to Centraal Station takes about 20 minutes and is much cheaper than a taxi.
The Thalys train from Paris Nord is now 3hrs18min, faster (door to door) than a plane.
For a general summary of attractions, see www.amsterdam.info
For ‘real people’s’ restaurant recommendations, see
City Pick Amsterdam (Oxygen Books Ltd. 2010) has entertaining snippets of writing (mostly translations from Dutch writers) and gives a good feel of the place in all its aspects.
Amsterdam: The brief life of a city by Geert Mak – the definitive work by the city’s best-known historian.
Soundtrack to the City
Jacques Brel’s classic Dans le port d’Amsterdam still resonates and there’s the David Bowie cover if you need it in English.
Coldplay’s Amsterdam is ‘stuck here in this hole’.
Peter, Bjorn and John Amsterdam
Joni Mitchell in Carrie thinks, ‘Maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam’, but she never does.
The Jordaan area regards itself as the heart of old Amsterdam, and has its own oompah-oompah singalong style music – fun if you like accordions. Anything by Johnny Jordaan or Willy Alberti is typical of this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMHpBHhePIM&feature=related
And for more sophisticated cabaret – the late, great Wim Sonneveld. Witty lyrics (if you understand Dutch) but also catchy melodies. Aan de Amsterdamse Grachten (On the Amsterdam canals)
I welcome suggestions for great things in Amsterdam I should have included. Let me know what I missed, and I’ll do it all again in a subsequent post.
The original article was published with a few amendments on www.urbantravelblog.com