Amsterdam was one of the cities I was most looking forward to visiting in my European segment of my travels. When I studied for a semester in London in Spring 2011, I missed out on visiting this iconic city, travelling to Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, Paris, Dublin, etc instead. Many of my classmates did choose to visit this city during that time and they had great things to say about the city (in addition to partaking in recreational cannabis use)
Luckily, I had a good friend to stay with and show me around the city. Julian, originally from France, now has lived in Amsterdam for the past couple years. Julian and I had met in Agra two months before, in March, and went to Mathura and Vrindavan together to celebrate the Holi festival. It was great to reunite with him and see the city from the perspective of a local. It was also great to not have to worry about accommodation, as Amsterdam is notoriously expensive-the cheapest dorm beds in the worst-kept hostels average about $45/night during the weekend!
Amsterdam is built on a system of canals. The city center itself is shaped like a half circle with the canals running out in an arc-like formation. People also liken the shape of the city to a spiderweb, with its threads stretching out from the center. While there are a variety of public transportation options like trams, the metro, and buses, many locals choose to get around via bicycle. The city is well-designed to support the many cyclists, with set bike lanes (and even bike signals!). Many residents also own multiple bikes. Along with the high frequency of bicycles in the city, come a great many bicycle thieves as well. Never had I ever seen such complex bike locks, as many cyclists would affix their bike with multiple locks to better secure their valued possession.
There are a wide variety of attractions in Amsterdam-museums, art galleries, breweries, “coffee shops”, and many more. Each of these attractions comes with its own price tag. Amsterdam does offer several options to reduce these costs by buying discount cards. The right card for you depends on which activities and interests are most important to you. The 3 main cards are as follows: IAmsterdam card, Amsterdam Holland Card, and the Museumkaart. This website provides a good background on the pros and cons, and I also provided a summary below:
Pros: Within a certain time limit (24, 48 hours etc), you have access to MOST of the museums in Amsterdam (the famous Rijksmuseum is not included)
Cons: The Rijksmuseum isn’t included, and starting at 55 Euros for a 24 hour pass, it’s not very appealing to those travelling on a budget.
Pros: Can be used for a wide variety of attractions (not just the museums), offers discounts at several restaurants and gift shops, and starting at 40 Euro, is cheaper than the I Amsterdam card.
Cons: It limits you on the number of attractions (you buy a set number of tickets), still kind of
Pros: Can be used at ANY public museum in all of the Netherlands (unfortunately not for some of the small private museums such as the houseboat one that had caught my eye),
Cons: Can only be used on museums, no discounts available.
My pick? For me it was a no brainer. Due to the expensive prices of the museums in Amsterdam, and the fact that I would be travelling to a few other cities in the Netherlands, I knew the Museumkaart was the right choice for me. Costing 55 Euros, it would be valid for a month (Note for Dutch residents, it’s valid for a whole year!). Since I wasn’t interested in some of the other attractions such as the Wax Museum, Heineken Brewery, Canal Tour, etc, I wasn’t too upset that they weren’t included with this card.
During the 5 days I was there I did an awful lot-from hitting up the famous tourist sights such as the Anne Frank House, Rijksmuseum, and the Van Gogh museum, to visiting the cultural sights of Keukenhof Gardens and Zaanse Schans, to simply biking around the city with Julian and hanging out in Vondelpark and checking out a hip underground club.
Anne Frank House
This was one of the places I was most interested in seeing. I was very familiar with her story, having read her book in Junior High and seen numerous movies and TV specials chronicling the life of Anne and the other resident of the Annex. To see firsthand their living quarters for 2 years, as well as imagining the constant fear they had to live with on a daily basis was very sobering. You are able to walk through the factory and annex at your own pace, but it doesn’t take more than 1-2 hours to see the whole thing. There are numerous mementos and text blurbs that help to provide insight into life for the Jewish people during the 1930s and 40s. There were also short video clips of interviews with Otto Frank, the only Annex resident who survived the War. There were also clips with Miep Gies, Johannes Kleiman, Victor Kulger, and Bep Voskujil, the Opekta employees who provided the Annex residents with supplies. Miep also rescued Anne’s diary after the Annex residents were taken to concentration camps. While she had hoped to return it to her after the war, she gave it to Otto, upon news that Anne did not survive. It was Otto’s decision to then have it published.
Walking up the hidden staircase behind a bookshelf was one of the eeriest feelings ever. I was surprised just how small the rooms were. Eight people lived in the confined area for 2 years, never once daring to venture outside. Some of Anne’s old pictures of movie stars were hung up in the room she shared with the dentist, Fritz Pfeffer. I imagined what it would be like to spend your days in the same few rooms, only seeing the same few people.
At the end of the exhibit was a short video with clips of various people giving their input and their praise of Anne Frank, for her honest and heartfelt words. She truly is an inspirational person, despite her tragic, short, life.
Tips: The Anne Frank House is notorious for long lines. To avoid standing in the lines, you can buy an online ticket (with only 50 Euro cent surcharge) in advance for a specific time frame, available from 9am-3:30pm daily. All you have to do is show up during the allotted time frame and walk right in. Trust me, it’s worth the 50 Euro cents!
Van Gogh Museum
Another museum with notorious long lines (it seems like all the popular places in Amsterdam are). I like to think of myself as a casual art fan, with Van Gogh one of my more favorite artists. I remember learning about him back in elementary school, and painting our own versions of “Starry Night”. I really enjoyed this museum since it was solely focused on Van Gogh and his life. There were paintings from a few other artists as well, but all of them were either inspired by or inspirations of Vincent, or were acquaintances during his short lifespan.
The museum also provided more insight on his life, something that most art museums neglect, focusing only on the pieces themselves. Knowing more of his backstory helped me to appreciate his art all the much more. Famous paintings here include “The Potato Eaters”, “The Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers”, and his famous self-portrait.
Tickets for this are also pricey, clocking in at 17 Euro for an adult. I proudly whipped out my new Museumkaart to gain entrance.
This is THE most famous attraction in Amsterdam, receiving over 2 million visitors annually! The structure itself is magnificent to look at from afar. Incidentally, in front of the museum entrance is also the iconic “I AMSTERDAM” letters. The main portion of the building was closed for renovation from 2003-2013, but to a great benefit, as it now receives more than double the annual visitors pre-renovation. This museum is huge-one could spend all day and not see nearly half of the collections here. I adopted to do an abbreviated 2 hour audio tour, taking me to the more famous pieces.
Undoubtedly the most famous painting (and my favorite as well), is “The Night Watch” by Rembrandt. Painted on a magnificently sized canvas, the painting takes up a whole wall in the museum, with the figures in the painting, life sized. I was impressed with the great detail that was put into the painting, with many things going on at once. Other famous paintings include “The Milkmaid” by Johannes Vermeer, “The Threatened Swan” by Jan Asselijn, and “Girl in a Blue Dress” by Johannes Cornelisz.
I opted not to take a boat ride through the canals since I found it pricey and not appealing. I much preferred exploring the streets and canals via bicycle or on foot, and preferred the freedom of not being confined to a boat. It is a popular activity for tourists though, if you find yourself so inclined.
Red Light District
No trip to Amsterdam is complete without at least a quick peek through the Red Light District. Julian and I went there twice, once to see it during the daylight hours, and once at night after it comes “alive”. I was a bit surprised just how nonchalant some people walked by, as scantily clad women tried to garner attention from their windows. In our short foray through the district, I saw a wide variety of women. As prostitution is legal in Amsterdam, these women definitely have it better than some of their counterparts in various other cities.
Note: Pictures are forbidden here, for obvious reasons.
This is the best park in Amsterdam, and the crowds certainly reflect it. Covering a sizable area, people flock to the park for exercise, sports, or simply to hang out. Some choose to partake in a joint or two, many of them tourists. Julian and I spent an afternoon relaxing and enjoying the nice weather after a stop at one of the local coffee shops to pick up some supplies.
I had read about this quaint well-preserved town, complete with buildings and structures from the 18th and 19th centuries. Only 13km away from Amsterdam, Julian and I decided to make a day trip, riding our bikes and packing a lunch. Now this was the Holland I had envisioned! Set along a river like any proper Dutch settlement, large windmills dotted the riverbank, their spokes turning as the wind blew.
For a small fee, it was possible to go in the windmills and see these magnificent structures first hand. Julian and I elected to go into one that ground pigment used to dye material to make clothing-very useful. There were also a cheese shop with plenty of samples, a chocolate shop, and a clog shop, with hundreds of pairs of clogs!
Another good thing about the town is that with the exception of the windmills and museum, it is free to walk around! Of course you’ll also have to pay for any food items or souvenirs that catch your eye. Myself, I couldn’t rationalize buying a pair of clogs. Other than the novelty of the item, I wouldn’t wear them and didn’t relish the idea of lugging them around in my almost full backpack. This is another definite must-visit sight of Amsterdam, and it offers an opportunity to get away from the crowded city.
Coming from the spicy and varied cuisines of Thailand and India, and then eating all of the schnitzel, pretzels and bratwurst I could get my hands on in Germany, I was a bit disappointed in the cuisine of the Netherlands. There aren’t many exciting Dutch foods, other than being famous for their cheese production. There were numerous french fry stands however, where the servers would load up the fries with heaping gobs of mayonnaise. I don’t think I’ll ever adopt that trend.
All in all, I greatly enjoyed Amsterdam. Despite the cold and dreary weather in May, there was a lot to do and see. I was also glad that I had the time and opportunity to check out a few other cities in the Netherlands. Many of the Dutch people whom I met during my previous travels were always quick to point out that Amsterdam isn’t the “real” Netherlands. Well, I guess I will have to see myself!