The city of Amsterdam absorbs you, making you one of its own as soon as you arrive. Its positive vibes and welcoming residents force you to feel like a local and less like a tourist. This feeling can likely be described as gezellig, a Dutch state of mind so untranslatable there is no English equivalent, you just have to live it. Tucked in a corner of the City Center, Daran and I stayed in Oud West away from the crowds of tourists. Its position made the the city easy to navigate for daily outings, site seeing and people watching.
The Dutch ride effortlessly on their bicycles and are so très chic. I ride like I have vertigo with a bout of the shakes. I could not ride in a straight line for the life of me. Locking up my rigid and heavy cruiser amongst the throngs of other bikes took so much effort, I’d break out in a sweat. In the U.S. it’s common to pass others by saying “on the left”. In Amsterdam all bikes are equipped with bells. Needless to say, it sounded like the Carol of the Bells whenever I took to the streets.
Biking in Amsterdam embodies the old adage ‘the journey is the destination’. I would miss my turn 50% of the time and have to bike three more blocks to an intersection where I finally felt comfortable enough to cross and turn around at which point a picturesque canal would steal my attention. I would clumsily dismount my bicycle to take a few photos totally unaware I was infiltrating the personal space of a pedestrian or students catching a smoke break.
I have never been more of a hazard to myself than when biking in Amsterdam. Cars, pedestrians and bikes all share the road but for larger thoroughfares streets, sidewalks and bike lanes are all divided. It was not uncommon for me to get passed by mothers or fathers hauling multiples of children to school in what looked like a wheelbarrow attachment.
Vondel Park was only a few blocks away from our rental. It had wide paved paths, cafes, green lawns, even a Picasso sculpture and plenty of people watching from users and abusers to couples in love and families enjoying the first day of sunlight after weeks of overcast. I took a morning run here cautious of the congregation of addicts, but still felt totally safe mostly because I assumed I would be able to outrun any of them.
In recent years, the Anne Frank House has seen time an exponential increase in wait times sometimes 2-3 hours before even getting in so plan ahead. You can find some tips for minimizing your wait in the link below. If you can plan ahead, tickets are available online but they sell out about a month in advance, maybe more.
Anne Frank Museum Tickets
If you are into post-impressionism, the Van Gogh Museum is worth seeing. Go to the Rijksmuseum to get your fill of the Dutch Golden Age, including Rembrandt’s Night’s Watch. We made an attempt to go to the Rijksmuseum, but we arrived too close to the 5 pm closing time. Searching for a plan b we wandered the nearby gardens, taking the obligatory photo by the I AMsterdam sculpture. Like a bloodhound I sniffed out a beverage stall that was serving champagne. In no time, we were following the suit of 10 year old boys and playing in a fountain.
September is the complete opposite of tulip season in April, so the Flower Market felt a bit bare. But they made up for it by giving out amazing cheese samples, and cheese is always in season, just don’t ask for Daran’s opinion. (he doesn’t eat cheese!)
I had two days under my belt before Daran could join me biking the canals. I took him on the fast track tour through The Nines, a series of streets known for upscale boutiques and cafes. We touched on the Jordaan neighborhood but eventually ended up at the Red Light where we wandered the streets on foot. It was early in the evening so it wasn’t even close to its full potential though some of the girls were manning their posts and the pubs were packed for happy hour.
The highlight of our trip was our last night. Daran captained an electric motorized row boat and invited his clients from the conference he was attending. We packed 10 people in and took three hours to coast through the canals during sunset and into the night. By his steller skills at the helm, we didn’t capsize or collide with one of the enormous and encroaching cruise boats that take all but a few millimeters while passing.
After our boat cruise, four of us parted ways with the rest of the group and went on to have an outstanding dinner, barely making the last call for dinner service. They hated us until we ordered a spread. Afterward, we braved the coffee shops. To our shock and horror they stopped selling canabis at 1 am. Early right? I agree, we only just got through with dinner! One in our foursome had a backup plan. Pro tip: even if they don’t sell it to you, the coffee shops let you smoke your own goods, allegedly.
Best of Amsterdam – Top 10 Things to Do
Rent a bike – Map out some sort of course so you get to all the site, but make sure to allot time to just wander up and down the canals. Check out the Nines for boutique shopping, the Joordan an upscale neighborhood, the Red Light District and Museumplein the collective grounds encompassing the I AMSTERDAM sculpture and the city’s best museums. We used Bike 4 U, their grey bikes blend in a little better than the competitors bright red bikes that scream tourists but more importantly, ‘‘steal me”.
Museums -Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk, and the Van Gogh Museum are all near one another making up the Museumplein. I would recommend the The Rijksmusem the Anne Frank Museum if you want to limit your time inside. There are other museums, but these were my notables. Don’t forget to check the closing times!
Coffee break – For actual coffee that is, not the shop kind, or tea if that’s your bag. You’ll need a breather from sightseeing and what better way than with a caffeine jolt in a Euro cafe? I was always so thrilled with the complimentary biscuits that came with every cup.
Grab a cocktail in a hotel courtyard – The Grand Hotel and the Dylan Hotel are the upscale hotels in Amsterdam. We popped into the gorgeous garden courtyard of the Dylan, an oasis from the bikes and pedestrians. They also had knockout cocktails and charming bartenders. We spotted a taste of home in Tito’s Vodka.
Flower market – Visiting in the spring is likely a stark contrast to any other season but walking through the stalls is still enjoyable. Grab a cheese sample and get inspired to plant tulip bulbs when you get home. If you plan ahead, April is tulip season when it’s even worth a ride into the country to catch the colorful tulip farms.
Canabis coffee shops – The coffee shops are synonymous with Amsterdam so even if you don’t indulge in their main product (even served as a brownie!) grab a beer and enjoy the people watching. It’s a one of a kind cultural experience…when in Rome.
Hit up a street market – Visiting a street market is another chance to glimpse into the lives of locals. The biggest one in Amsterdam is the Albert Cuypmarkt but some neighborhoods have their own smaller markets. I always like grabbing some produce and healthy snacks to have at our rental but if you want to feel even more immersed, try the raw herring.
Dinner cruise or boat rental – The canals in Amsterdam are unlike any other city and I love getting on the water when traveling. Amsterdam has several options including dinner cruises, sightseeing cruises, private boat rentals complete with a captain. For an even greater adventure, you can captain your boat like we did. Some experience behind a boat is helpful. Maneuvering around a barge is a bit nerve-wracking but don’t let it hold you back. This was an amazing experience, not to be missed. Don’t forget to bring a bottle of wine and snacks for your trip! We rented from Sloep Delen.
Vondel Park – If you like a morning run, or a nice walk on clear paved paths, this is your place. It’s centrally located and offers a peek into the daily lives of the Dutch. You can see families picnicking, couples canoodling, commuters taking a short cut. Plenty to observe in a green setting, at least when we were there in September.
Red Light District – Amsterdam’s most famous district known for legalized prostitution, high concentration of coffee shops and packed pubs is extremely popular with tourists. Outside of its smutty reputation there are lots of lively bars with groups celebrating Hen and Stag-Do parties (see bachelorette and bachelor parties). The coffee shops feel more like a dive bar but you might come across one reminiscent of a college dorm with felt and neon posters, lava lamps and deep sofas.
Things to Note:
- Don’t take photos of the working girls – it’s bad form.
- According to Frommers, buying weed on the street is illegal, that is a right designated just for the coffee shops.
- Try not to hog the bike path. It works like car traffic, slower traffic stays to the right, pass on the left. This concept can be difficult for Texan drivers, I know. Just follow the locals, you’ll catch on.
- Tipping is not expected and restaurants already include a service fee.
- Come prepared with the right credit card. Amsterdam as an entire city will only accept credit cards with implanted chips.
- Avoid choosing a person from a crowd that doesn’t know how to operate a camera in 2015. Your memory may end up a little fuzzy 🙁