To bike or not to bike? Renting a bicycle was just one of the many decisions my wife and I faced on our whirlwind tour of Holland’s capital city last September. We had decided to treat ourselves to a two-day layover between Spain and Canada and because it was a spontaneous decision, we hit Amsterdam without consulting the guidebooks, travelling rough, you might say, and learning about the city on the fly. In a way, it was exhilarating jumping right in without much preparation but it was taxing too. If I only knew then what I know now. Which is the point of this article. Here, in no particular order, is our list of DOs and DON’Ts for travellers with a limited amount of time at their disposal.
Amsterdam’s social and cultural centre is Museumplein, a large park in the heart of the city. It’s the home of the iconic IAmsterdam sign, a clever play on words and Amsterdam’s première tourist draw. Sure enough, by the time we arrived, the structure was covered with people scrambling up and over the three-dimensional letters and posing for selfies. Do visit the Museumplein because, in addition to the sculpture, the park is also a starting point for Amsterdam’s three main galleries, the Rijkamuseum, which houses Rembrandt and Vermeer, the Stedelijk, home of Dutch contemporary art, and the Van Gogh Museum, home of you know who. They’re all within walking distance of each other.
Don’t worry about getting lost. We were approached twice by locals asking if we needed help. I guess we looked befuddled. So the lesson learned, do ask for directions. Amsterdamers are friendly and approachable.
Do seek out the boutique hotels as an alternative to the bigger places. Our hotel, Hotel Park View, was a pleasant little place opposite Vondelpark, the largest green space in Amsterdam. It was quieter than the chains downtown but still central enough to walk to the tram and Amsterdam’s famous sights.
Rembrandt or Anne Frank? They’re both Dutch icons. We chose to visit the Anne Frank Huis first and the art galleries second because we anticipated a line up and we were correct; it was a two-and-a-half-hour wait. We spelled each other off by going for coffee and walking around a bit, but the wait was worth it. Inching forward, we followed the silent procession up the steep staircase that led to the Frank’s living quarters. The rooms in which the family, and the Van Pels too, hid for several years were empty, stripped of period furniture or personal belongings. The absence of any human reference made the experience even more eerie. And chilling.
The “educational” part of the tour came at the end when videos, documents and excerpts from Anne’s diary put everything in context. Lesson learned, do plan ahead and book tickets online. You’ll still have to line up, but the pre-purchased ticket line is much shorter.
Pancakes and cheeses, that’s all we knew about Dutch cuisine. We really didn’t know what to expect, but I’m happy to say we were pleasantly surprised. Traditional dishes like smoked sausage served with mashed potatoes and carrots are familiar staples. And of course, the Dutch excel in making spectacular pastries such as speculaas, shortbread biscuits with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger and poffertjes, fluffy baby pancakes topped with powdered sugar, whipped cream or strawberries. We particularly liked krentenbollen, a small, soft breadroll filled with currents and raisins, softer and sweeter than its North American counterpart and the perfect way to start the day. But it’s the Indonesian influence that surprised us, spices and complexity imported from Holland’s former colonies. As a result, Indonesian food has become a mainstay of Dutch fusion, not to mention the many Indonesian restaurants that pepper the city. Do try lipsate met friet - chicken satay served with peanut sauce, fried onions, a prawn cracker and mayonnaise.
Don’t walk into an Amsterdam coffee shop and expect to get coffee. Coffee shops dispense small amounts of marijuana and in Amsterdam it’s all perfectly legal. Koffiehuises sell coffee, tea and other refreshments, while cafés serve light meals and alcohol. Confused? Green and white stickers on the window differentiate the marijuana coffee shops from, well, the other coffee houses.
And don’t assume that, as a pedestrian, you have the right of way on city streets. Most streets have a designated bicycle lane sandwiched between the sidewalk and the roadway and woe is the person who forgets. Those lanes can become bicycle expressways, especially at rush hour when a third of the working population ride to work. Amsterdam is supposed to be the most bike-friendly city in the world, but not is everyone a fan. “They think they’re entitled and they don’t stop when they crash into you,” said our embittered taxi driver in perfect English. Sound familiar, Vancouver? The bottom line? Do look both ways before crossing the street, especially at intersections.
Ah, the canals. What would Amsterdam be without its famous waterways? Originally constructed in the 17th century to carry goods from the harbour to the city’s warehouses, Amsterdam’s canals are now populated with over 200 tour boats, in addition to the working barges. Do take a canal cruise. It’s a terrific way to see central Amsterdam and get a feel for its nautical roots. There’s even a canal bus, a nautical version of the familiar landlubber hop-on, hop-off service. We chose to take the evening cruise and boarded our vessel at Stadhouderskade embarkation point on the outer ring of the canal complex. Squeezing under Amsterdam’s bridges in the dark was great fun, as was the added bonus of peering into the homes that line the canals. We couldn’t see much of the red light district from the water, though.
The red light district? We found it cheesy, in a Las Vegas kind of way, but it’s up to you. As for renting bicycles, we slept in big time, forcing us to forgo a spin around the block and grab a taxi for Schiphol Airport instead. Do ask the hotel for a wake-up call in addition to setting the travel alarm. We didn’t and almost missed our flight - but not without devouring a delicious morning krentenbollen first.
If You Go
Amsterdam is a major airline hub. We flew non-stop from Vancouver via KLM but there are plenty of other carriers connecting Canada to Holland. Hotels are pricey. The big hotels overlooking the canals in the heart of the city are in the $400 to $500 CAD/night range. Or hotel opposite Vondelpark cost $200 CAD/night. We paid in euros, which was roughly one and a half times the Canadian dollar, at the time.
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