My love affair with Amsterdam started more than two decades ago. My first trip to the Dutch capital was around 1994 when I accompanied my father on a business trip.
Ever since then I have been to Amsterdam numerous times and have grown to appreciate it more and more with each passing year.
The fact that our preferred airline is KLM, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport has become the most visited airport by my entire family. Not surprisingly, it is also my favourite.
The Netherlands is a small enough country with charming people who prefer to ride bicycles over cars. If news articles are to be believed, they are working towards removing all diesel and petrol cars over the next decade. How revolutionary is that!
Simply put, the Dutch mind their own business and go about their lives in a friendly non-intrusive manner. They enjoy their work and never forget to appreciate the good things in life.
Amsterdam is one of the most visited cities in the world. Any backpacker, enthusiastic traveller, tourist, or a first timer to Europe is more than likely to have Amsterdam on their itinerary. Whether it is about discovering Amsterdam in a day, a weekend, or a week, no trip to Europe is complete unless you have been to Amsterdam.
The city has been through tremendous change over the years, but some factors have remained the same; Coffee Shops that serve hash cookies, the openness of the infamous Red Light District, is a cultural centre with great excursions including museums, canals, bike rides, food, drink, and shopping. What makes Amsterdam and its people special is that they are liberal in their thinking and believe in human goodness and that is why it has become such a melting pot of cultures from around the world.
What can you expect when in Amsterdam?
There’s so much to see and do in Amsterdam that you need at least a few days to admire it in its totality. It’s small, and you can walk it through, but to really appreciate whatever it has to offer, you have to explore Amsterdam at a slow pace.
I plan to skip the obvious; the butterflies in the stomach when one enters a coffee-shop for the first time and the giggles after that, or the numerous artists who at some point of time have made the Netherlands their home and now their works are displayed in museums spread across the city.
Instead, I present a little Beginner’s Guide for the first timer, to ease you into the city that can be a culture shock if you aren’t prepared for the crowds and the sudden implosion of architecture, food, smells, and just madness of the right kind.
Location! Location! Location!
The primary reason for my business in Amsterdam has been its location. The city is well connected not to the rest of the Netherlands but is 2-4 hours away (by train) from Belgium, Germany, and France. This makes it an even more popular destination, and you can expect huge crowds no matter the time of the year. Amsterdam Schiphol is equally central to Europe with flight connections across the world. KLM being a significant player in the airline industry, Amsterdam has become quite a travellers hub.
Chu Chu! – Said the Train
The train system in Holland (although this is just one province, the Netherlands, on the whole, is often called Holland) is extremely convenient with regular connections and is recommended over any other form of transportation. Although, as a traveller, it should be noted that the trip from Schiphol Airport to Amsterdam Central is a hotbed for luggage thieves. My parents had the misfortune of getting their briefcase stolen while they boarded the TGV to France and I have come across numerous other travellers facing similar problems. The local police are of great help, but general precautions – that you would take in any country – should be practised to avoid discomfort.
One of the ways to travel, in case you have luggage that cannot be easily managed on the train, is to take the Connexxions Hotel Shuttle that runs from the Airport to almost all hotels in the city. For €15 you get a one-way ticket to your hotel. You may book the return through the hotel reception a day before your departure.
Get a Room!
Amsterdam caters to everyone. It is backpacker’s haven with cheap hostels and hotels around every corner. There are apartments you can rent in the vicinity of the city and are a great way to save money especially if there is a group of people travelling together.
I have had the pleasure (in some cases not) of staying in all sorts of abodes; There has been a Hotel de Paris where I had to carry my bags up two flights of steep steps. Prince Hendrix where I stayed in a room with no windows. Golden Tulip, a five-star property, was luxury all the way. Amstel Botel was always fun and cramped because it was a boat/ferry that was converted into a hotel and was right next to the central train station – it has since moved to another location. Crowne Plaza, another one of my regular abodes, is conveniently situated near the Central Station and is a perfect place to stay when on a business or short (long weekend) trip. On my last trip, I stayed at the very funky and modern-day business hotel – Ibis Styles – which was again close to the train station and perfect for a quick turnaround trip of the city.
Point A to Point B – Traveling within the City
The canals of Amsterdam are as famous as the ones in Venice. In place of Gondolas, you get canal boats that run throughout the city, and there are cruises that one can take at any time of the day.
Unlike the Hop-On Hop-Off bus tours that can be found in most major international cities, in Amsterdam, you get the Hop-On Hop-Off Canal Boat tours. With lesser chances of getting stuck in traffic, this is an excellent way to visit some of the most famous sites in Amsterdam.
Bike tours – and now Segway – are another popular form of exploring Amsterdam. There are many excellent bike tours – The Yellow Bike tour is iconic to the city – that one can take and besides you get to experience the city with the fresh wind blowing in your face and simultaneously get some exercise to burn off those extra calories acquired from all the beer and lovely Dutch cheese.
Within the city, besides biking or taking canal boat rides, the tram system is quite extensive, quick, and comfortable. The drivers are helpful, so if you know your destination, they are more than willing to assist. Since we always prefer to stay near the Central Station, taking a tram to go anywhere in the city is very simple.
Personally, I have always enjoyed walking in Amsterdam. It is small enough that you can cover most of it quickly with the occasional stopover at the many tiny cafes that dot the alleys and by-lanes of the city. And, let’s not forget that there is an abundance of retail therapy available in Amsterdam as well and some of the more quirky shops are often found away from the main streets.
Say Cheese! – the Flashy Kind
Nope, I am not going to talk about the famous Dutch cheese in this segment, because there really is nothing to say about it… you’ve got to get yourself some Gouda!
What I want to warn you about is that do not make the mistake of ever visiting Amsterdam without a camera. There is so much culture, architecture, and quirkiness in Amsterdam that travelling without a camera is a sin, especially around dusk, when the sun’s rays pierce through the tiny side-streets and bounce off the canal water. It is, by far, in all my travels, one of the most photogenic cities in the world.
While Amsterdam is famous for its “modern” way of thinking, there is a lot of history that is responsible for making it what it is today. What started as a small fishing village near the Amstel river went through many-a-colourful events throughout centuries to become “the world’s most liberal city” – if you are even minutely a history buff, then do read Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City.
I am Hungry!
You can be Hungarian, Indian, Japanese, American, or pretty much from any part of the world, you are likely to find a restaurant serving your local cuisine here. Head over to Lediespain where you can find a wide variety of eating and drinking options. During the summer months, drinks are served by the local bars on the plaza, and it is the best place to sit out in the open, drink some beer or wine and watch the world go by.
Aside from the world cuisine on offer in Amsterdam, the Dutch have a number of their own specialities that are a must try for any visitor to the country. These tasty Dutch treats range from deep-fried balls to soups and of course cheese and chocolate.
If you happen to be around when the Netherlands is playing in a major sporting event, football especially, there is a carnival-like atmosphere everywhere and if the team wins, then expect all-night celebrations.
But, when it comes to food, my favourite is drinking French Onion Soup on cold winter evenings, sitting out, just before the snow starts falling, and enjoying a beautiful sunset or a street performance in one of the squares.
Sprechen You Italiano!
Besides people being at least bilingual nowadays, you can hear so many different languages in Amsterdam that it is just mind-boggling. If you don’t speak Dutch or English, you need not worry about whatever be your native language, someone who speaks it is just a couple of steps away… Seriously, I’m not joking.
Watch Out for that Bike!
I’m sure everyone who knows a little bit about Amsterdam, or The Netherlands, is aware that they love to go green. No not that Green! They like to save the environment and their money by riding bicycles.
So, always look on both sides when you cross the roads/bike lanes because there probably is a bicycle heading your way.
In Amsterdam, you are likely to find more bikes on the roadsides than trash. In fact, I have been informed that most locals keep two bicycles with them; A somewhat old one is for work, which is usually parked out for most of the day and might get stolen. The other, the good one, is taken out during weekends for local work and also serves as a backup.
With the rising oil prices and pollution, this is something that other nations should learn from the Dutch.
Clean Your Own Mess!
Another noticeable aspect of the city of Amsterdam is that despite having thousands of people walk its streets every day, it is spectacularly clean. I discovered the magic behind it one day when I left my hotel early morning to catch the train. It was as if a small army of garbage handlers had decided to raid Amsterdam. Roads were being cleaned using water jets, trash that had been bagged and laid out was being picked up and/or gathered. What really needs to be acknowledged is that this is done day in and day out without fail.
You Call That Art?
One of the best and worst things I have seen travelling in the Netherlands is the Graffiti that is easily seen everywhere, but especially on trains and along the train tracks – although over the years this has been controlled.
Personally, I love what is now being termed “Street Art”. Unfortunately, most of the art along the train tracks is not exactly that. Mostly words painted on walls, it has very little to do with art. I am unaware of the local laws, but I have been seeing graffiti for years now and either the government doesn’t do anything about it, or stuff gets repainted on often.
Nevertheless, it would be nice if these areas were given to local artists as canvases. Then again, art too lies in the eye of the beholder, so maybe I just need to look at it from a different perspective.
This, That, & Everything In-between!
Amsterdam also houses some of the world’s best art in the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum. So if art is your cup of tea, then these two are not to be missed.
Anne Frank’s house is essential from a historical point of view, not just for Amsterdam or Europe, but it highlights that one phase that impacted humanity and the way we are today across the globe.
The canal houses, spread all across the city, have such unique characteristics and architecture and can be explored for free (from the outside) by just walking along the canals. Something I want to do in the future is to try and find the canal houses that have been the inspiration for the KLM Delft Blue Houses – given to their Business Class travellers. KLM has an excellent little iPhone application that provides a short history of the house with its location, and following the trail can be a fun day out in the city.
Madame Tussauds, The Heineken Experience, Dam Square, The Flower Market, and Liedespain, are all places of interest that are easily accessible within the city centre.
There literally is a whole lot you can do while in Amsterdam and because everything is nearby each other, caters to different interests, and packed nicely into this unique space, it’s fun exploring it on your own. Moreover, there is a very different hidden Amsterdam with old movie theatres and tiny bars that one has to research to find because they often get overlooked by most tourist guidebooks.
But, if you need more, then numerous day trips are available to different parts of Holland – Keukenhof, Madarodam, Alkmaar, Zandvoort. The Netherlands, just like its capital, demands a few days to be adequately explored.
I have been visiting Amsterdam for so long, yet there is so much I haven’t seen. I only
visited walked pass the infamous Red Light District a couple of years back for the very first time while on my way back from two iconic Comic Book shops – Henk and GoJoker – in the city.
Then, I have taken the smaller canal boat tours, but it would be great to be on a cruise that runs for a few days around the Netherlands. I yet have to stay in a canal boat which should be quite an experience on its own.
In addition to that, considering how passionate the Dutch are about football, someday I hope to catch a match at the famous Ajax stadium.
And so it goes on…
If you still haven’t been to Amsterdam, then it should be at the top of your travel cities visit list. But, if you have been there already, then it is time to visit again, for I can guarantee you that there will be sites and places and events that will be new to you.
While Amsterdam is ever-changing, with new construction, upcoming districts, and with a melange of characters from around the world, it always will remain the same old wonderfully liberal and exciting city at its heart.