When people ask me why I am in Spain and I tell them that I am in the most basic terms, a “traveling student,” they then (naturally) inquire about my studies. And this is not difficult to answer either—as I study writing—but it is a bit interesting to explain how this is true despite not taking classes concentrated in my major and at no actual Spanish university. When I found myself arriving at Amsterdam’s Central Station with a fellow traveler from London in tow, the question as to why I am here seemed to escape from the tongues of everyone around—and this time I had Spain’s national Semana Santa to also explain.
It is Spring Break and I am faced with the delightfully daunting task of finding something to do with myself for eleven days, aka a free pass to roam around Europe until there is little left in my bank account. So why am I in Amsterdam? My answer is “Why not?” And it didn’t take long for the city to affirm that those of us in need of serious R&R have come to the right place. But in this space, I want to stress that Amsterdam has more to offer than what the average person might think (trust me, there is more).
Thinking about actually going?
If you’re on your way to settling in the capital of Holland having no idea about the city as a whole (i.e. history, culture, food, attractions, etc.) the first stop for you should be a general tour. In an effort to save euros I opted for SANDMANs NEW Europe free walking tour that gave me the chance to actually learn my way around the main streets surrounding Dam Square, the city center. If you prefer bike to foot or boat above all, these options are also available for getting a first hand feel of the areas you are most likely to frequent. But it is not just about knowing how to get to the Bulldog or the Red Light District, each avenue is equipped with a story all its own and your tour guide will give you information that not even your average Mokummer will know.
But for starters, understanding Amsterdam geographically can help explain why you are sure to be enchanted even before landing. Nestled between Germany in the East, Belgium in the South, the North Sea in the West, and at the merging of the Maas, Rhine, and Schelde rivers, from aerial heights you can see the city’s layout that is essentially catered to waterway functionality and practicality.
The low, flat terrain is distinctly marked by its 165 canals that form an extensive half-loop around the entire metropolis. And alongside the canals in a typical historical neighborhood are rows of very tall, narrow houses that sport hooks at their tops. You can imagine how this looks from a plane but it is something far more breathtaking in person. In fact, if you you are on ground you will notice that the houses seemingly tilt toward you—and I am here to tell you that they actually are at a slight slope forward as a measure to stabilize their foundations below sea level.
Neighborhoods and Attractions:
This list can get quite lengthy with the obvious Red Light District (aka De Wallen), plethora of coffee shops, and Anne Frank House along with a variety of museums, street markets, parks, and niche venues that are worth the extra attention.
With that said. . .
The best place to start your ventures would be Dam Square, its location within walking distance from everything you might need to get you to where your going (i.e. trams, canals, etc.). Warmoesstraat, located directly east of Dam Square is the place to go from here if you’re looking to explore this particular area. Keep following this street and you will eventually happen upon (you guessed it) the Red Light District, a series of avenues dedicated to the legal profession of prostitution, the neighborhood surprisingly orbiting Oude Kerk, better known as the Old Church; the area (between Warmoesstraat and Oudezijds Voorburgwal) known as Oudekerksplein.
Also fairly accessible from Dam Square (tram 24), as well as from Leidsplein (most do-able on the 1, 5, and/or 9 trams anywhere on Leidsestraat such as the Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht intersections) is Museumplein in the south of the city. This area is home to three of Amsterdam’s most heralded contemporary and historical art museums: The Stedelijk, Van Gogh, and Rijksmuseum.
-The Stedelijk Museum
Even if modern art and design are not your cup of tea it is hard to bypass the Stedelijk’s rotating 90,000 piece collection with the majority of its main attractions displayed within the largest showroom in all of Holland. Newly reopened after a decade of renovation, Stedelijk is also undergoing a major cyber re-scaping as it builds its digital database to match. Currently, only a tenth of the collection can be viewed on their official website. Just a few of the thousands of featured artists include Van Gogh, Ernst Ludwig, Piet Mondrian, and Marc Chagall.
You will also find it hard to miss the more than life-size I amsterdam iconic letters in the front of this museum, which can ultimately be equated to the best photo-op in the area. A quick tip would be to snap fast because trying to get through the volume of eager kids hopping inside the letters is quite the task. The great thing about this logo is that it appears in multiple places throughout the city, one of which is in Waterlooplein.
All three museums are great to consider before or after a stroll through Vondelpark, as it can be a minimum ten to fifteen minute walk depending on which part of Museumplein you are in and where you want to go within the park. Other museum options in the square include House of Bols Cocktail & Genever Experience and the Diamant (Diamond) Museum across the street from Van Gogh. Both places have a way of making you even more inclined to visit the Heineken Experience and one of two Gassan Diamonds Factories before you leave.
Can’t get enough of your favorite past artists? There is refuge in Waterlooplein. You can literally knock on the door of one of Holland’s finest, Rembrandt van Rijn. On the block of Jodenbreestraat just past Waterlooplein’s centuries old flea market you will find his once humble abode. Being within such close proximity to The Rembrandt House Museum, the Waterlooplein Flea Market gives you an opportunity to indulge in nifty thrift valuables at prices that won’t shake your pockets before stepping into an art time capsule.
One of my favorite streets in Amsterdam is Singel but I think that my love for flowers makes me a bit biased. Singel is a rather quiet street if you are coming from Dam Square on Spuistraat and Paleisstraat as I did. Once you find Singel keep walking along the canal until you arrive at Koningsplein and Muntplein. Although the walk is rather long, perhaps 15 minutes, it is well worth it because you will run into Bloemenmarkt (Flower Market) at this corner. Bloemenmarkt is unique in that all of the flower shops are actually on boats! And inside most of them you will not only find an assortment of rose and tulip bulbs but also souvenirs for your entire family (or at least the one garden lover you know).
Directly across from the stores are other buisnesses that specialize in niche interests such as Dutch cheese and the year-round Christmas shop, Christmas Palace. Keep walking along till the end of the market and you will be at Muntplein, another main street.
Some of my fondest memories in Amsterdam have been walking down Leidsestraat with one of my best friends looking for food. After a long day of being a tourist you start to realize just how important and desired food can really be. We took to the main and side streets of this square in search of inexpensive, convenient grub and found that our options were seemingly limitless. Here you can indulge in typical American fast food franchises such as Burger King, McDonald’s, and Wok to Walk but I decided not to go down this all too familiar road.
When we needed a quick snack we tried Chipsy King for an authentic pile of Dutch pat at frites. And when it was time to eat a full course meal we tried our luck with restaurants that ranged from the national cuisine (stamppot, anyone?) to Indonesian, Argentinian, Mexican, and Indian hotspots.
Amsterdam is a place that everyone should visit at least once. There is something here for every interest, every mood, and every walk of life. Needless to say, I’m excited to go back. With all of my directions and suggestions I hope this guide helps on your excursion to this magical place. Happy travels