On my way to Jordan in December of 2015 I had a six hour layover in Amsterdam, and I desperately wanted to see the city. But I landed in the wee hours of the morning and was pretty discouraged by the inky blackness cocooning the airport. Figuring I wouldn’t see much at 5am I hunkered down in an uncomfortable plastic chair and vowed to return for a longer visit.
When I returned home from my Middle East trip I immediately booked a round-trip ticket to Amsterdam for the Good Friday weekend. So, in March of 2016 I wandered off on another long weekend adventure!
After a direct overnight flight from New York I landed in the early morning in Amsterdam. Public transportation in Amsterdam is incredibly efficient, so I was able to quickly hop on a bus into the city. I would recommend researching your route in advance and adding it into the notes or calendar app on your phone – this way you do not have to worry about finding maps or accessing wifi upon arrival.
After walking about two blocks and getting my first glimpse of the world famous canals I arrived at Hotel La Boheme. I had a wonderful experience here – the staff was always welcoming and informative, the rooms are simple but very comfortable, and the location is perfect. Prices are a bit more reasonable here because you are just outside of the immediate city center, and the hotel is a block away from Leidseplein square. This is a busy tourist area but the most important thing to note is that it is a major transportation hub, giving you quick and easy access to the various tram lines. You can purchase tram passes at the front desk of the hotel and be whisked straight to the city center in under 10 minutes.
After dropping off my bag I immediately headed out into the city. I’m not a huge fan of museums unless it’s something quirky or interactive, so my first stop in Amsterdam was the Houseboat Museum. It is literally just a houseboat the is open to the public, and I spent more time in here than I imagined. The walk between my hotel and the museum also gave me an opportunity to get a better view of the canals and take photos. The highlight for me was the multimedia extravaganza titled “Living on Water,” featuring a slideshow of houseboat photos backed by the haunting vocals of Enya crooning “Orinoco Flow.” There was even a short video of a man struggling to manually mow the lawn on top of his houseboat. It’s ironically brilliant. Don’t miss this gem.
Following lunch at a local tavern right next to my hotel I made my way to the Central Station area for a canal tour. A canal tour is the perfect activity for your first day in Amsterdam, allowing you to get oriented and take in some of the most famous sites. Try to time it just before sunset for some gorgeous lighting.
My third and final activity for the day was a Red Light District walking tour. The area is definitely interesting, but it was crowded and overrun with the frat boy crowd popping in and out of coffee shops and leering at the women. I was glad to be with a group because I would have felt vaguely uncomfortable wandering around by myself. The feminist in me had this ridiculous misconception that watching these women take ownership of their bodies would have an air of empowerment, but at the end of the day it was sad. You don’t realize how seeing other people on display in shop windows like prime cuts of meat will hit you until it happens. My tour included entry into the Museum of Prostitution which is a dizzying combination of discomforting kitsch and heartfelt stories from the women of the RLD. This was probably my least favorite part of my Amsterdam visit, but I’m still glad I went to learn about the history of the district and see it for myself.
The RLD is completely different during the day and home to some very interesting museums, lovely cafes and pubs, and even a farmer’s market. You can tell that the city is trying to gentrify the area, which results in an interesting dynamic between day and night. I started my day off by visiting Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Lord in the Attic). This unique museum is housed in a 17th century canal house bordering the infamous Red Light District and holds a secret in the attic, where you will find a fully-appointed Catholic church. The attic was converted to a church in 1663 to offer a sanctuary for worshipers during a period where Catholicism was persecuted throughout Holland. This museum is much more than just the church, as you’ll have a chance to explore the rooms and corridors of the flawlessly preserved canal home as you climb toward the attic. Anyone who is a fan of history and heritage sites should make sure to check out this museum.
Following my visit I went in a desperate search for food. Despite the wind gusts the locals were determined to soak up the weak March sunlight, so all of the outdoor tables every direction was packed along the canal. I decided to put together a meal from the local farmer’s market set up in the district. This is always a great way to save a bit of money on food, plus it lets you get a taste of some local specialties!
My afternoon was taken up by a bicycle tour of the city. Bike riding in Amsterdam is no joke – yes, there are designated bicycle lanes, and in theory there are rules of the road. In practice, it’s more Mad Max Fury Road. My nerves set in when the New Zealand couple riding behind me started shrieking, at which point I noticed that my head had almost been taken off by the side view mirror of a delivery truck squeezing past our small group on the narrow, congested lane alongside a canal. You’re dodging cars, trams, pedestrians, scooters, and other (more “seasoned” and therefore embittered) cyclists. While it was very fun it was backed by my own internal soundtrack of wordless screaming. Fair warning: if you’re going to bike in Amsterdam, make sure you understand all of the rules and traffic signals and then expect everyone else around you to cheerfully ignore them.
In the early evening I took the free ferry over to NDSM, a hip enclave on the north side of the city where old shipping containers have been converted into artist studios. Unfortunately, when I was there everything had closed down for the day but it was still an interesting area to walk around for a bit. The evening was capped off with a stroll through the city for some night photography and a snack of french fries covered in mayonnaise. I had been waiting for this moment and they were everything I hoped they would be. This is a must when you visit the Netherlands – they do their fries right!
I woke up bright and early for my countryside tour on the final full day of my trip. I had booked the Dutch Windmills and Countryside Day Trip through Viator, and it was a very relaxing way to spend the day and see a bit more of The Netherlands outside of Amsterdam. The tour included stops in local villages, a visit to a wooden shoemaker’s workshop, a cheese tasting at an admittedly staged tourist trap (but the cheese and complimentary wine makes up for it!), and lunch along the picturesque harbor of a quaint fishing village. The highlight of the tour was the visit to the preserved windmills of Zaandam. The area feels like Old Sturbridge Village or Colonial Williamsburg, but it’s certainly worth it to climb up the inside of one of the mills, and the photo-ops can’t be beat!
Once I returned to the city I was determined to make it to Brouwerij ‘t IJ – a brewery attached to on of Amsterdam’s last remaining windmills that everyone I spoke to kept raving about. Apparently the rest of the city had the same idea, because the place was packed to the gills thanks to the rain. I had made it all the way there though and I wasn’t about to leave empty handed, so when I finally made it to the bar I decided to get my time’s worth and double fist two local brews. I then braved the outdoors and drank my beer in the drizzle, because it was significantly better than trying to pack into the sardine can that was now the brewery. I went to a small cafe next door for dinner, which turned out to be an incredibly confusing veggie burger that tasted vaguely of seafood.
I probably should have just stuck with the tried and true mayo fries.
After a nap I went to Paradiso, an amazing music venue in an old church. The place is gorgeous, and when I got there the downstairs was completely packed. I’m talking, open-the-doors-to-a-wall-of-bodies-and-promptly-nope-the-heck-out-of-there packed. Or at least, that’s what I tried to do. I was in the process of closing the door when I was spotted by some cheerful (and likely intoxicated) concert goers who reached out to me with shouts of “COME, FUN!” and determinedly made room for me. At this point you just let it go and allow to crowd to carry you into the fray. The performers were amazing though, and if you’re visiting Amsterdam I definitely recommend trying to catch a show here. I had a blast, and who knew Caribbean-inspired brass bands would lead to mosh pits?
I always try to make the most of my trips, so scheduling early morning arrivals and late afternoon or evening departures is key. Since I didn’t have to leave for the airport until well after noon I decided to pack in a couple of more stops on my last morning. First was the Royal Palace, and I lucked out because it is normally closed on Mondays. I happened to be there on one of only three special Monday openings for the entire Spring season, and I managed to get through the entire palace in about an hour or an hour and a half. It is really beautiful, and being one of the first people in meant that I had entire spaces entirely to myself. Definitely plan to arrive a little before opening so you can really take in the grandeur of the space.
My last activity was Kattenkabinet, a small museum in one of the canal row houses dedicated entirely to cat art. It’s exactly what it says on the box, and if you’re looking for a quirky way to spend an hour or so this is a great option.
After a well-deserved Nutella and strawberry waffle I hopped on the bus back to the airport and said a fond farewell to Amsterdam. I managed to pack quite a few of the highlights into my short time here, but there were many things I did not get to (such as Anne Frank’s house and the more popular art museums). In order to hit all of the main sites you would probably need about four or five full days, but a long weekend is a perfect introduction to the city.
Where will you wander?