Travels: Amster-damn right I’m on holiday

I landed back yesterday from my first European city weekend escape, Amsterdam! Netherlands has been hovering around the top of my to do list, due to affordability, friendliness and a outrageously healthy amount of liberalism. I booked 48 hours away with my pal Craig, us leaving on the Friday night and returning on the Sunday. As you do, when one lives in London.

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Summary

Canals. Gabled facades. High art. Weed. It’s irresistible taking a weekend away from the big smoke, and I came to fully understand the charm of the capital of the Netherlands. The World-heritage canals along with spurious foliage make for a truly beautiful city. It’s surrounded by smiles, good times and many, many bikes. There are a wealth of ways to get around all nooks of the place. And it’s an easy transition from the UK, with much of the population English speaking and polite enough.

Flights

Unfortunately the worst part of the trip was the first. Our flight from Luton Airport was delayed some two hours, with the airport utterly inadequate. Think people sprawled out over floors. Patchy air conditioning. Hour-long dinner queues… for Frankie & Benny’s. From the moment the bus driver opened the door before arriving at Luton so “we could walk, because it’s faster” we knew we were in for a treat. Kinder surprises and eating our feelings saw us through and then we finally made our way via Vueling. The flight back was more fuss-free, other than the 1.5 hour delay on the train. Uber to the rescue.

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Accommodation

Finding a room in the city over this particular weekend came with a hefty price tag. This was due to being a combination of term holiday periods. We booked an Airbnb near Vondelpark which was an easy railcar 2 into the city. As we were arriving in the late evening, we did have some issues with some of the hosts not wanting a late check in. The apartment we stayed in was magnificent. It was a two-storey apartment fitted out with adorable Dutch design and two friendly hosts. We didn’t spend much time there though. I’m all about the city.

Public Transport

As we had arrived much later than we had anticipated, we found ourselves getting into Amsterdam city via taxi. Wow. I’ve never seen a meter move so fast. It cost us €35 for a 13 minute drive and the driver was woeful. Even with Google Maps in his face, he had difficulty finding the destination. Renting a bicycle is a good recommendation, I’ve never seen such a bike-friendly city. It’s by design, flat, and with most people opting for two wheels it’s well serviced in all parts of the city.

We purchased the 48 hour GVB pass at €12.50 which covered off all travel for us, other than the train to Schiphol airport (€5.20 by card). Railcar stops took some time getting used to, most of the time the stops seemed obvious enough. Google Maps and Citymapper came in handy of course, though Day 1 we had a knack of missing services by mere seconds to our frustration.

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Bikes, Boats and Beaches

Being on two wheels is a huge part of the culture here. Each household has 1.91 bicycles, and curiously, twelve to fifteen thousand bikes end up being thrown in the canals every year (it’s a thing here). And if you’re not careful when crossing the streets, a bike will end up in you. It’s a case of where a triple check when being a pedestrian is completely necessary.

The ferry services to IJplein and NDSM are completely free. We visited the former, for the A’dam lookout. At only twenty stories, it’s not an especially tall tower, but it is sufficient once you see how flat and short Amsterdam is. The open top floor had some unfortunate chain walls that blocked a good selfie but the swing and bean bags made for a cool, chill vibe. Speaking of which, Amsterdam has a number of urban beaches, and we checked out Blijburg aan Zee via streetcar. It ended up being a bit too cold and a bit too loud (some festival-type thing was on) but it’d be perfect for any other summer’s day.

Food

As with any big city, the best spots need a bit of pre-planning and queueing to get in. As such we didn’t make it in to try top picks Gartine or Omelegg. We did have better luck with an early session at the non-bookable, verbal menu of van Kerkwijk. Broodje Bert made for a satisfactory cheap (and gigantic) eat and the saucy (mayo and satay) Vleminckx frites were off the charts.

I was too full for Pannenkoekenhuis Upstairs and if there was one place I was gutted missing it was de Silveren Spiegel. Check out those pics. Drool. Our final meal was at Helmse Modder which is a tad out of the way, but was totally worth every step for it’s inventive, modern Dutch cuisine.

Bars

It’s a wise decision avoiding the tourist trap stylings of the Heineken experience, the locals don’t drink it and you shouldn’t either. Door 74 is your quintessential speakeasy. Of course there’s a secret entrance (we almost missed it) and an Amsterdam-themed cocktail offering. There’s bonus olives and snacking mix which is always a good shout. We sipped some fruit brandy at the centrally-located Wynand Fockink. With a bit more time we would have checked out Brouwerij ‘t IJ, a bit more east of the city centre – but it’s a brewey in a windmill!

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Art and culture of the city

There are a treasure trove of museums here in Amsterdam, though we limited ourselves to checking out the Van Gogh Museum. As our Airbnb host had recommend, it’s important to book online as the queues to get in are hideous. To be frank, the whole museum is badly run with queues for the cloakroom and general crowding. The work, of course, is wonderful, diverse and inspiring (unlike the unfortunate life of Van Gogh, poor thing). We did an atelier session with some sketch printing which was terribly fun.

Next door is another major museum, the Rijksmuseum. And if you more motivated to do quite a few of these, the iamsterdam card represents good value. Though one popular attraction that isn’t included is the Anne Frank. I had heard mixed feedback on this one so gave it a pass for now.

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Green Times & Red Lights

Amsterdam’s chilled attitude comes through in it’s many cannabis coffee shops. That wasn’t quite our thing, so no comment there. It’s hard not to be absorbed into the curiosity of the Red Light District, but it ended up being much too seedy and gross-feeling for us. Three-quarter nude prostitutes in windows with in-your-face lighting felt like a part of human culture I couldn’t buy in. The girls never seemed that happy but according to our tour guide they get €50 for each “act thing” so I guess it’s profitable at least. Umm. For the “tamer” there’s both a sex museum and an erotic museum and plenty of shops in that vein. Eww, why did I have to say vein.

Going to Market

I love checking out the local markets. It feels so becoming absorbing all the sights, smells and sensations. Both of the local wares, and well, the locals. Along the way we could also pick up lots of Dutch treats. This included the tasty poffertjes (pancakes), Gouda cheese (and cheese in general) and the Stroopwafel (syrup sandwiched waffle). The first market we hit was the rain-soaked Albert Cuyp Market (lots of variety). Later in the day was Waterlooplein Market (souvenir and crap) and the Noordermarkt (free samples). My favourite was the latter, which had plenty to check out. The floating flower market (or Bloemenmarkt) was nice to see, but felt a bit repetitive.

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Other Attractions

On our second day we enjoyed a free walking tour which left from Dam Square/ National Monument (a sight you might get used to crossing in the city). The company we went with was literally named what it was.  We had a good and funny (often racially-charged) guide in Sem and the other companies looked just as good.

On the more wacky side of things, we checked out the world’s only floating cat sanctuary Poezenboot. It was as charming as it was weird. Lots of cute meows though. Vondelpark is huge and is perfect for some sunning, we didn’t quite navigate it’s full diameter but plenty of green and spaces for a lie down. I liked the disposable picnic rugs-cum-rubbish bins that were on offer.

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Upon reflection

Amsterdam is an easy place to fall in love with. In the space of 48 hours we saw the sky, the beach, the canals, the streets, the food and had we taken in more of the local greenery, possibly even more fantastical things. It’s a gorgeous scene from every corner and would make for a perfect little escape and one I’d happily return to do. Whether you’re looking for high culture, low culture or just something cultured, Amsterdam is going to tick the boxes for you. Watch out for the cyclists though, they’re relentless.

 

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