(Krysta, my travel partner in “99 Drams of Whiskey”, is planning a trip to Amsterdam later on this year, and had asked for my take on the city. This is what I sent her.)
My apologies for not getting this to you sooner. I’ve been searching for more than 15 minutes to sit down to write this, because there’s a bunch of information I want to pass along. Basically this is my half-assed way of apologizing for my tardiness. Hopefully the info contained here-in will more than make up for this.
It took me a while to understand Amsterdam, because it’s unlike any other major metropolis I’ve been to. I felt very odd after my two weeks there, and I couldn’t quite understand why. Now I do.
Amsterdam is a place where you hang out.
Hangout at the cafe, hang out at the coffeeshops, hang out at your hotel room, it doesn’t matter. The place was built for people to hang out.
Oh sure, there are places to go if you’re a tourist. They have a shopping district on Kalverstraat similar to the one we saw together in Glasgow, essentially block after block of retail shops you can find in a plethora of other similar streets in Major European cities. It’s packed with tourists, and if you go, you will eventually find yourself there even if you intend on never heading there. It connects to Dam Square, which is tourist center in Amsterdam, and so everyone who doesn’t know that Amsterdam is about hanging out, ends up here.
Dam Square does have two items of interest, the Royal Palace/Town Hall. It’s not the true Royal Palace of the Netherlands (that’s in The Hague), and it was under renovations when I was there, but it looks pretty and has loads of history (as it was built as a figurative ‘Fuck you, we’ve got money too” message to Spain). But it’s not as iconic as the Tower of London, Big Ben, or London’s Houses of Parliament.
Next to the Royal Palace there’s Nieuwe Kerk, the Westminster Abbey of the Netherlands. If you’re big into churches, it’s notable. But, as space is a premium in this city, there isn’t a graveyard per se, but certain folks are buried there. Oh, and it’s no longer used as a church. So you have a palace which isn’t a palace, and a church which isn’t a church comprising the biggest tourist area of Amsterdam.
This is why Amsterdam is so difficult to figure out.
Amsterdam does have a few decent museums. The Anne Frank House is (intentionally) sparse, but quite poignant. The Van Gogh Museum is four levels of all things Van Gogh, and the nearby Rijksmuseum is of the highest caliber. But my favorite was Amsterdam Hermitage Museum, which gives a great account of the history of the city. However, as there’s little to do from a tourist’s perspective, they all end up at these locations eventually. All but the Hermitage Museum were packed with people. If you plan on going to these places, get your tickets online to avoid the lengthy wait at the beginning, and arrive early to avoid the massive crowds. I showed up at these places at 10 AM, and was glad I was leaving one to two hours later.
So, after you head to the Dam, and then the museums, what do you do?
Hang out. The Dutch seem to have that talent worked out quite well.
Hang out in Cafes.The guide books tell you there’s two types – the bruinecafe’s and the eitcafe’s. Bruinecafe’s are bars, and eitcafe’s are gastropubs. The reality is that every place that I went into served both food and drink. Some focused more on one than the other, but the terms are, for all intents and purposes, interchangeable. Two of my favorite were Caffe Luxumbourg (which was great for people watching) and Engelbewaarder (which was two houses away from where I was staying). Bring a book, bring postcards to fill out, or just order a cup of coffee or beer, and watch the world go by.
Hang out in Coffeeshops. Most coffeeshops in the old town (where the tourists are) are simply silly, using bright neon signs and atrocious Jamaican stereotypes to sell their wares. You could go to these places, but then you’d end up talking to someone who is stoned, which is always a crapshoot. Additionally, most of the places cater to, and are frequented by, twenty-something males fresh from or escaping from college. Coffeehouses were novel on the first day I was there. By day 14, I felt most of them were tourist traps with a few notable exceptions. When you walk around Amsterdam, you’ll see what I mean.
Hang out in Amsterdam. The city is much smaller than you’d expect, and everyplace is walkable (or ride-able, if you do the bike thing). Shopping is top notch here, aside from
Kalverstraat, and exploring alleys and side streets will allow you to come across hidden jewels of shops, selling rare boots, or fetish ware, or antique toys, or classic LP’s. Amsterdam rewards those shoppers who explore.
And the city is picturesque as any I’ve been to. Sure, it’s the same damn scene (interesting urban building cropped next to a canal), but it’s the same damn scene in hundreds of different locations. A camera should be at your side for at least half the time you’re out and about. But by the end of your trip, you’ll realize there’s only a few ways to make a canal shot interesting.
The Red Light District is notable, but not much more than that. It is almost unavoidable. You will, at some point in your stay, walk through the area, because it’s in an area where foot traffic is thick. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had friends in the sex trade, but I didn’t give the Red District much thought. Every city has one, Amsterdam just taxes theirs, and allows them to have more public advertising. You will, however, see one or two sex workers that will make you wonder how they make a living. Also, no picture taking in this area. They will send someone out to confiscate flash cards and/or the camera itself. It may be legal, but there is still a stigma attached to the trade.
As far as crime is concerned, it’s your basic tourist crime that you have to worry about, and not much more. Be wary of pickpockets, especially on Kalverstraat, and the train to and from the airport, and don’t carry expensive items when/if you are stoned. Avoid the trams if you can, as they get quite crowded, and make for easy pickings. Common sense served me well, but arriving in Amsterdam at 7am likely helped too. The police make their presence known, as I saw at least one every day I was there.
As far as a place to stay, I cannot say enough about where I stayed. I rented an apartment just off of Nieuwmarkt, It was close to everything, but far enough away that there were only the occasional passerby. As Amsterdam is very much a party town, drunks and stoners will walk around at all hours, but this place avoids most of that traffic. It’s 5 minutes from the underground on foot, which made getting to and from the train station a breeze. If you can afford $200 a night give or take, I can highly recommend it. It’s web site is http://www.amsterdamcanalapartments.com/. Hugo is a breeze to work with, and everything is done through Paypal.
I took a train from Schipol into the city when I arrived, but I did call for a cab to take me to the airport when I left.
Oh, and as far as restaurants go – there is a reason no one recommends Amsterdam for their food. Most of it is unremarkable. There are a few places to go here and there, and most of them are ethnic places. I mostly ate at the cafes and found that sufficient. Breakfasts, for the most part, aren’t worth it. Dutch Pancakes are aimed at the tourists, and their version of English Breakfast will only let you down. By my second week, I was having a breakfast of toast and juice in the Apartment, as good breakfasts simply do not exist. I did have Belgian fries on occasion, and a decent Indonesian place is worth searching for.
I hope this helps! Let me know when you go!