The capital of the Netherlands surprises and entertains in many ways.
If it’s your first time in Amsterdam, you will certainly be captured by its architecture of long and narrow brick houses peeking down on the many canals from white curtainless windows; you will be surprised by the amount of bicycles you’ll see, the number of bridges you’ll cross and the quantity of fried food you’ll eat. There’s this and more in the Top 5 reasons to visit the Dutch capital.
Art and history.
Museumsplein, or museums square, located in the southern part of the city, winks at tourists with its famous red and white “Iamsterdam” sign. Once you’re done climbing and posing all over the giant letters, ram around the square and you’ll find a few museums. The best-known are: the four-storey Rijksmuseum with its red brick facade exhibiting paintings from Rembrandt and Vermeer, the top-rated and most-visited Van Gogh dedicated to the Dutch artist and the vanguardist Stedelijk with works from renowned artists of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
A “hardcore” visitor would probably spend a day or two walking the rooms and halls, scanning the buildings inside and out; an “average” visitor, pressed for time, would probably aim at the collection’s highlights – with the aid of a fancy multimedia guide – and skip to the next museum after two hours.
No matter which category you fit into, make an effort to allow yourself enough time to breath in art and history.
Tip: Book the tickets online and only bring with you a small bag to avoid queues at the entrance and for the cloakroom.
Not that far from Museumsplein, close to a 17th-century Renaissance style church, Westerkerk, and facing a street that runs along the Prinsengracht canal, it’s the Anne Frank’s house (huis, in Dutch). The place is certainly worth a visit for its historical importance – not only for the city, which, during the centuries, has housed Jewish refugees fleeing persecution – but for all mankind, as it makes you empathize with the personal tragedy and everyday life in hiding of a young girl and her family during WWII.
Stroopwafels, bitterballen, raw haring and frites
It turns out Dutch people know a thing or two when it comes to frying stuff. They are not only Sausmasters, offering a vast range of tasty concoctions, (try the only-for-the-brave oorlong, which literally translates into “war”: an Indonesian sweet and sour peanut butter sauce joined by mayo and onions), but they have truly mastered the art of frying food with a crunchy but not oily nor overpowering pastry. When strolling around town it’s common to find take-away-only fry-shops where you can order a portion of frites (French fries) accompanied by fried snacks. The most famous ones being the bitterballen: smaller than a golf ball, they typically contain a beef-stew type of filling, but they can also be stuffed with cheese, truffle, spinach and so on.
There’s more. You might have heard of Stroopwafels, a traditional sweet of the Low Countries region, consisting in two pieces of chewy waffle with a gooey caramelly-like centre. You can easily find them in supermarkets or – and this is the best way to try them – you can have them freshly-pressed and spreaded with some hot stroop (a Dutch syrup with a color and texture similar to caramel). The stroop – or the caramel variant for the caramel lovers – will ooze out of the sweet waffle sandwich while you bite into it. It’s heart-warming and kinda sticky.
Worth mentioning here, as they don’t seem to receive enough credit, are the poffertjes, mini pancakes usually laid on top of a melting knob of butter and generously sprinkled with some icing sugar.
Keeping in mind that the Dutch were once a powerful bunch of merchants and explorers, dominating the seas around the globe, it’s no surprise if Indonesian and Surinamese food (Indonesia and Suriname were former Dutch colonies) officially ranks in the top-ten of the Dutch cuisine. Pay attention when wandering around and you will certainly spot quite a few “exotic” restaurants. If it’s uncharted territory for you, start off your culinary journey with a Surinamese Broodje Pom (Pom – a traditional mix of beef and pomtajer – a potato-like root – served on a bread-roll).
Last but not least, the national favourite and the simplest and most straightforward of dishes: an incredibly tasty and meaty raw haring (herring) served with onions and gherkins. Market stalls or fishmongers’ shops serve this delicatessen.
Tip: If you don’t mind a hipster vibe, try some of the above-mentioned foodies goodies at the FoodHallen (or simply DeHallen) or at the Albert Cuyp street market, in the newly-regenerated De Pijp (read “pipe”) neighbourhood.
Canals, bridges and bikes.
One of the first things that should spring to mind when thinking about Amsterdam, it’s the ingenious canals system linking the Zuiderzee (South Sea), the sea facing the harbour, to the Amstel river. The Netherlands (literally, the Low Lands) owe their name to their position: below sea level. The construction, in Medieval times, of a “dam on the river Amstel” (hence the name: Amsterdam) to prevent floodings, was later upgraded and expanded to a concentric semi-circular canals system whose south-eastern side is cut through by the Amstel river itself. The canals were dug during the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) to accommodate a thriving and ever-flourishing trade to and from the Amsterdam port and it gave the town its present, unique look.
Sometimes called “the Venice of the North” for its waterways, Amsterdam is indeed similar to the Italian gem when it comes to bridges. Inevitably the canals have called for the construction of picturesque bridges to link one bank to the other and facilitate the mobility of people and goods within the centre. And as for Venice, canals and bridges create quite the romantic scenery.
It is nonetheless peculiar to the Amsterdam “landscape” the multitude of bicycles – with unusually high seats and wide handlebars as they’re made to fit the tallest people in Europe! – secured to the bridges railings. Find the best spot and take out your camera: the combo bikes, bridges and canals always makes for a classic photo-op, probably better than the overcrowded “Iamsterdam” sign.
Hords of tourists stream up and down the heart of Amsterdam: the Die Wallen neighborhood, best known as the Red Light district, is the city’s oldest and well-preserved stretch of land surrounded by canals and linked by numerous bridges. It’s the city’s libertine side with its in-famous red-windowed brothels and the coffeeshops selling hashish and marijuana. It’s probably incorrect to use the term “loose morals” as it is mostly the Dutch pragmatism that called for the regulation of certain habits, rather than prohibiting them altogether. Prostitutes are legally paying taxes and can offer their services in a seemingly protected and monitored place. Coffeeshops have to abide by strict rules: they cannot serve alcoholic beverages, nor allow for the use of tobacco within their premises and can only sell five grams of soft drugs per person, per day (hard drugs are rigorously forbidden).
By legalizing prostitution and tolerating marijuana consumption, they are cleverly keeping the tourism sector – at least one type of tourism – alive and well.
And even though the right-wing administration has in the past few years reduced the number of coffeeshops and brothels, like it or not they remain the city’s steeple and an indeniable attraction more so for the tourists than for the locals.
It is maybe due to the placid stream of its canals that Amsterdam seems to enjoy such a chilled vibe. Some may joke that it’s the smell of weed that here and there assails the nostrils and calms the nerves. Either way, Amsterdam seems to provide a laid-back atmosphere to its inhabitants and, by extension, to its visitors.
Be it a busy Saturday night in the Red Light district or a quiet Sunday morning strolling in and around Vondelpark, the strong belief that Amsterdam offers a rather mellow approach to quotidianity does not quiver.
And if you want to blend in and do what the locals do, don’t mind the unpredictable weather and end your day (or your trip) in a brewery. Abandon the temptation of ordering a safe Amstel or a boring Heineken, and be instead adventurous experimenting with less famous craft beers. You may be pleasantly surprised.