To my surprise, just before Christmas, my (very lovely) boyfriend informed me that we were going on holiday. Except, it wasn’t for me to know where we were headed until later on and, I confess, heading to Amsterdam never crossed my mind. As a foreigner, it is very easy to get wrapped up in misconceptions when considering the Netherlands (read: copious amounts of lad’s holidays, stag and hen do’s and that the majority of Brits travel to Holland to, ahem, “take liberties”, as one local would say to me). It is a shame then that much of the history, beauty and culture of Amsterdam is overshadowed by the above (though of course, what you look for is what you’ll find). Skimming through pocket guides and Google is the best way forward. It is probably best to hit some of the big tourist spots, especially if it is your first visit or if you are on a short break, as we were.
FLIGHTS We travelled from Birmingham to Schipol Airport (the biggest airport that I have been to thus far, it was enormous). Flights are surprisingly regular and the aeroplanes themselves were small, but being as the journey itself lasted a mere 45 minutes, it was barely an issue.
ACCOMMODATION We didn’t stay in the city centre – Dam – itself. Instead, our hotel was located in Overamstel, a 15-20 minute commute to the centre. You may think that that was a bit of a trek, but I digress. Our hotel itself was a 5 minute walk from Overamstel, a quiet suburb with a river running through, and it was grand! We stayed at a Mercure Hotel, and it was very swanky, very clean with good service and polite, friendly and helpful staff, all who were proficient in English! On our arrival, a friendly hostess helped us plan our stay and highlighted tourist hotspots as well as discounts and perks we were entitled to during our stay, which leads me onto…
TRAVEL I mentioned our commute to the centre being 15-20 minutes, this was thanks to the great metro system that Amsterdam has. Much like the London Underground (but overground) is is swift, regular, and on time, whilst the carriage sizes themselves are far closer in size to that of British trains. The metro system itself was easy to grasp and navigate once you understood the map and check in system, as Dutch travel passes require you to “check in” and “check out” when boarding and exiting transport, be it metro, trains or buses. If you forget to check out when leaving a carriage, then you’re in a bit of a pickle, as the next time you board a carriage your pass will say you are, in fact, checking out. Travel passes are much cheaper when purchased at a tourist office, the main one being opposite Amsterdam Centraal Station. Here you can purchase IAmsterdam 1,2 or 3 day passes for bus, train and metro for a very reasonable price (as I found compared to a standard day pass across all three coming into €40+). Our 72 hour pass cost €69, which equates to approximately €50, so it is well worth investing in one! Also, as you will notice whenboarding a train from Schipol to Centraal, Dutch trains are freakishly big! I’m not sure if it is simply British trains lagging behind their foreign counterparts, but these trains are double decker juggernauts!
SIGHTS The IAmsterdam card also has many perks, a great one being free or discounted entry into many popular tourist destinations including the Rijskmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, to name a few! Perhaps the most famous and noted museum in Amsterdam is Anne Frank’s House. As you may expect, it is an emotional visit. No matter how prepared you think you are upon entering, you will most definitely become emotional as the tale of the intelligent young girl that you all know from your own childhood is completely humanised, most effectively by her notebooks and possessions and her famous plaid diary. The museum itself is built – as far as I can tell – around the original house, making the house and the annex completely intact. As you progress, you literally will journey through the cramped staircases and nooks that their confidantes travelled through. What shines brightest though, is the potential of a bright and talented young girl whose time ended long before it ever should have.
There are a wealth of museums that are well worth a visit, the most renowned being the Rijksmuseum. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it. is. huge. We visited it in the late afternoon and totally underestimated its size. With two wings, multiple floors and nooks and crannies full of beautiful art situated on each, it is well worth the money (we’ll discuss that later) but, if you are a serious art buff, you could easily set aside an entire day in order to do it justice, and with multiple Rembrandt works littered about the place, it would be worth it.
The highlight of our cultural adventures however was easily the Van Gogh Museum. Even if you’ve only a fleeting interest in art, primary school education instilled a most basic knowledge of Van Gogh in all of us, and there is much to be satisfied with in this celebration of his life’s work. Inside there are some of his most famous pieces, ‘Sunflowers’, ‘Bedroom in Aries’, ‘Almond Blossoms’ and his incredible and diverse amount of self-portraits are breathtaking to behold in person, and the museum is curated in such an emotive manner that you leave feeling truly humbled to his tale. PS. Whilst you are in Museumplein, be sure to go and pose with the IAmsterdam piece! You’ll feel like one hell of a cheesy tourist, but the snaps are worthy of the scrapbook. Other places to visit:
- Koninkljik Paleis (Royal Palace of Amsterdam)
- Body World’s Exhibition
- Madame Tussaud’s
- Museum het Rembrandthuis (Rembrandt Museum)
FOOD The food! Where do I start? One thing you will notice – especially as a Brit – is the lack of fast food places or pub or cafe chains. They do exist, but they are scare, with the only ones we encountered being just off of Dam Square. We spotted 1 McDonalds, 1 KFC, 1 Subway and 1 Starbucks during our entire stay, and we commuted to the centre! Given the sheer amount of chain outlets that we have in the UK, it was very refreshing, and as such, you were more likely to step into an independent restaurant in search of food.
Many of the places we ate in were clearly family businesses (we sought refuge in two amazing Italian restaurants), and also restaurants that were part of hotels. These did not typically feel like hotel restaurants that I personally am used to; one was very relaxed, closer in atmosphere to a high end pub (pubs are called cafes in the Netherlands – don’t get them confused with “coffee shops”!), whilst the another was more formal. The latter we actually found via our IAmsterdam map, as it was one of the restaurants that offered discount. We had access to a full menu and were entitled to a 3 course meal (if I remember correctly) with our discount, as well as bread and dips. Again, the staff were very attentive and friendly, with one waitress commenting how we “had nice accents” (every inhabitant of the West Midlands would say otherwise!). What came across though, is that the Dutch have a very different attitude to food than we Brits do. Eating healthily is instinctual and is made convenient by food retailers like Albert Heijn stocking a majority of fresh fruit and veg, with junk food (biscuits etc) being confined to half an isle, meaning that even the convenience food is fresh. We’re talking yoghurt and fruit pots, freshly made smoothies and freshly flavoured water, and by that I don’t mean additives or flavourings, but sprigs of mint or slices of lemon in plastic bottles. You also are expected to bring your own bags, though you’ll be given a paper one if you ask. Evidently the Dutch are far more mindful in regards to food and their environment. Oh, and if you were hoping for food pics, sorry – we couldn’t wait that long!
VERDICT To date, it is easily the best holiday I’ve been on, even though it was short. We could have easily have stayed longer and still had much to explore! One thing that definitely encouraged this feeling is the Dutch themselves. Literally every single person we encountered – including the general public and not just those in retail or customer service – were very friendly and welcoming. When we first arrived and were searching for our hotel with suitcases in tow, we accidentally went along the wrong side of the riverbank, meaning that we wouldn’t be able to actually get to our hotel as the only bridge was next to the metro station. A resident in a black van pulled up beside us (quite scary!) and kindly informed us of our mistake and gave us directions. He definitely had no obligation to, and we would have been wondering around for a good while without his help (thanks, man)! Our whole stay just felt so… laid back. Even in rush hour, the commute was nowhere near like the congested hell of the London underground, and cars were a relative rarity, with most locals opting to use bicycles and/or public transport. It is such a beautiful city (we spent a fair amount of time just walking along the canals in various districts and simply absorbing the architecture); the majority of these houses are clearly very old – some leaning quite precariously – and no two of them look the same. There is so much character and culture all around, and I recommend everyone visit it at least once in their lives. Here’s to emigrating!