Amsterdam: A city of edgy charm and history
If you’re like me, when you think of Holland, you envision windmills and wooden shoes. What you may not realize is how crucial windmills have been in the development of the Netherlands. The country sits on the coast of the North Sea in a precariously low-lying delta. The word “Netherlands” means “lowlands.” In order to inhabit this watery landscape, the Dutch discovered a way to reclaim land from the sea, rivers and lakes — windmills.
Large tracts of land were dammed below sea level, and wind energy harnessed from windmills lifted the water up out of the enclosed area, diverted it into canals and drained the land. Wooden shoes were the footwear of choice for walking and farming in marshy wetlands because they would float to the surface if they fell off.
Although the Hague is the Netherlands’ seat of government, Amsterdam acts as the country’s nominal capital, attracting nearly 10 million visitors per year. Packed with edgy charm and history, Amsterdam is a must-see European city.
Amsterdam is divided in a series of six concentric canal rings, somewhat resembling an onion, plus a section called Museum Quarter. To get your bearings, see the city first from its canals. A number of companies offer canal boat tours. We had a great experience with the Blue Boat Company, located in the Leidesplein area next to the Guinness pub.
Tours are 75 minutes, and you’ll be treated to stunning views and a history lesson. You need to reserve tickets by going to the Blue Boat ticket kiosk or buying online. We arrived at 5:45 p.m. for an evening tour and were able to book a 7 p.m. cruise. The Guinness pub next door, a three-minute walk, is also a convenient stop for a beverage and snack while you wait for your tour.
Amsterdam has a large number of parks, museums, galleries and attractions, so it’s a good idea to plan an itinerary beforehand. Top attractions are the Anne Frank House and the Rijksmuseum. We skipped touring the interiors of both for a few reasons.
From the canal cruise, you see the Anne Frank House and hear a brief history. If you want to tour the house, book your tickets well in advance; there was a line of at least 100 people when we cruised by. The Rijksmuseum has an extensive collection of art, including works by Dutch masters, such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. But you’ll also need several hours to get through the museum. My husband and I found that we didn’t want to spend so much time indoors, preferring to explore the city instead.
Here are three great itineraries:
Interesting juxtaposition: De Oude Kerk & The Red Light District. Dating back to 1306, De Oude Kerk is the city’s oldest building still in use and oldest church. The church features stunning stained-glass windows, a gilded wooden ceiling resembling the hull of an ancient ship, intricately carved brocaded pillars and a floor consisting of approximately 2,500 tombstones. Several “coffeeshops,” (establishments that serve all manner of cannabis) and the Red Light District are within a stone’s throw of the church. Afternoons and evenings are the best time to stroll this neighborhood. Mornings are dead, and after 10 p.m. it is a bit sketchy. TIP: Don’t take pictures of the ladies in the windows — privacy here is tantamount.
Natural and man-made beauty: Vondelpark & the Museumplein. Vondelpark is a gorgeous 110-acre public park supporting 100 plant species and 127 types of trees. Winding tree-lined pathways make for a beautiful walk outside. While you can spend a few hours in the museums of the nearby Museumplein, you can also stroll the quarter and admire the Gothic, mansard-gables of the Rijksmuseum and modern façade of the Van Gogh museum. This area has gardens and a large pond, so grab a seat at an outdoor café, or enjoy a picnic.
People watching, music and flowers: Rembrandtplein & the Bloemenmarkt. The Dutch discovered the region’s harsh conditions were actually the perfect environment for tulips, and you’ll find thousands of tulip bulbs, other flowers, souvenirs and more at the Flower Market. There are numerous cafés in the Flower Market, but you’ll find larger patios and street music just around the corner at Rembrandtplein, plus a towering statue of Rembrandt in the center of the square.
Eat & Drink
Don’t leave without trying a delightful Indonesian dish, called Rijsttafle. This is a series of 14 to 17 small dishes packed with a blend of aromatic and succulent spices, served with rice. It is plenty of food for two people to share. Get a reservation at the restaurant Kartika, (Overtoom 68, 1054 HL) and prepare to be amazed.
Craft beer lovers will be enchanted by the quaint Biercafé Gollem serving the elusive and rare in a dark and cozy atmosphere. Located down a tiny alley, this hidden gem serves up Trappist Westvleteren’s VIII and X, and Kwak to name just a few of its 200 brews in stock. Be sure to use the following address to avoid ending up at another similarly named café: Raamsteeg 4, 1012 VZ.
There is also a specialty beer store with more than 1,500 brews in stock, De Bierkoning (Paleisstraat 125, 1012 RK Amsterdam). The store is definitely worth a stop to secure some hard to find and tasty souvenirs.
Hotels tend to be pricey in Amsterdam. Save money by booking as far in adavance as you can and continuing to check prices for rate changes. Don’t forget to research government rates. We used the government rate at the Amsterdam Marriott near Museum Quarter and saved a almost $200 in the process. Across the street is De Vier Pilaren (Stadhouderskade 11, 1054ES Amsterdam), a phenomenal breakfast restaurant featuring savory and sweet crepes and Dutch pancakes (poffertjes), and delicious espresso.
A note of caution – driving, walking and biking
Plan to park outside the city and take the train to the main station or a fly into Amsterdam and take public transport to your hotel. There are several Park + Ride locations outside the city costing 1 to 8 euros per day.
Dedicated bike lanes, rail tracks for frequent streetcar trams, buses and cars share narrow, constantly curving streets and confusing intersections. Do not walk in the dedicated bike lanes, and look left and right multiple times before stepping off a sidewalk. Amsterdam is a fun and relatively safe city, but it’s prudent to exercise a bit of extra caution while walking about.
With its gently lilting architecture, canals and edgy quirkiness, Amsterdam is a wonderful European city to explore. Take the stress out of your trip by planning an itinerary ahead of your travel, booking your hotel early and avoiding driving into the city — and you’re guaranteed to have an unforgettable experience.