To say that there are a lot of bikes in Amsterdam is sort of an understatement, in fact, to say that there are more bikes in Amsterdam than I have ever seen in my life is also an understatement. There are more bikes in Amsterdam than there are people. I’m not sure who’s riding all of these bikes, but I’m pretty sure they’re riding them at terrifying speeds directly towards me, regardless of whether or not I’m in the bike lane, and regardless of how many times I checked and double-checked before putting so much as a toe off the pavement.
There are a lot of bikes. But there’s also a ton of culture, stunningly beautiful canal belts and an open, come-as-you-are atmosphere that I’ve not felt in any other European city. Safe to say I was in love with Amsterdam approximately twenty two seconds after I stepped off the tram in the centre of the city. Okay, I’m kinda a sucker for this kind of thing, but there’s definitely something about this city.
Rob and I are in Amsterdam for just three days and are trying to fit in as much as possible. Our first stop was the Anne Frank House, which is just outside the centre of Amsterdam, surrounded by a gorgeous area of canals and boutiques. We pre booked our tickets, which was definitely a good plan because the queues often reach right around the block, and you can end up waiting for an hour or more if you don’t have a reservation. Inside, photographs, voice recordings and extracts from Anne’s diary guide you around the office building which Otto Frank partially converted into a secret annexe in an attempt to hide and protect his family. While the secret annexe remains unfurnished, at Otto’s insistence, the postcards and magazine pages which Anne stuck to the walls of her bedroom remain, along with the pencil marks which tracked the height of Anne and her sister Margot during the two years they spent tiptoeing through the tiny hidden space. These small details, preserved in the museum that was once Anne’s home, brings her story to us in a personal, human way. I won’t say I enjoyed the museum, but I was so glad that I went. I am so sorry that Otto had to return to this place alone after the war, but I am so thankful that he found the pages and pages of memoirs that Anne wrote, and that he was dedicated to preserving this incredible record of his daughter’s life. It’s a must-visit. If you do nothing else in Amsterdam, do this.
After leaving the Anne Frank House, we walked back along the canal belt, into the central ‘Dam’ square, and along the main streets and down all the side streets, shopping, browsing and generally exploring until we found the central station, the Rijksmuseum and Vondelpark. We stopped for Hot dogs in front of the Royal Palace, posed in front of the iconic ‘I AMsterdam’ sculpture and generally wore ourselves out trekking up and down the streets and getting our bearings in the small, leisurely city.
For dinner I insisted we go to Wagamamas (nothing like trying out the local cuisine, right?) and then as soon as it was dark we headed over to the Red Light District to get a taste of Amsterdam’s famous nightlife. Turns out that it gets dark at about six o’ clock and nothing really gets going until at least nine (we were just excessively keen), so we settled into one of the more friendly looking bars (where there weren’t any neon signs promising nudity and/or privacy) and drank pints of Amstel right over the source of the Amstel river (which now runs deep beneath Dam square and across the city), and waited for the red lights to switch on. The Red Light District, due to recent government crackdowns on the (legal but ‘damaging’) sex trade, is now condensed to a small strip on either side of a canal. There’s a museum of Erotica, a museum of Prostitution, plenty of sex shops and lots of bars promising live shows, lots of neon lights, loud music, and of course the famous red lights indicating windows where women advertise themselves and their services. It’s honestly a bit surreal but in a way it encapsulates what Amsterdam is all about – exciting, risqué, inviting – and always a step away from the wrong side of the law.
Rob fell asleep for about thirteen seconds that night and while he was sleeping I booked us on to a three hour walking tour. He was thrilled. So it was that at eleven am the next day we headed to the monument in Dam square and found ourselves congregating with a huge gaggle of tourists around a tour guide brandishing a red umbrella. The tour we chose was a New Europe free walking tour, and although we booked online beforehand, I’m pretty sure you can just turn up at the meeting point and join in. Our tour guide was fantastic – enthusiastic, friendly and so so knowledgable, we spent almost three hours trotting around Amsterdam in the pouring rain and learnt about everything from the origins of the shipping industry to the laws on smoking weed (not technically legal, but the police turn a blind eye as long as the businesses are a) at least making an effort to pretend to be a coffeehouse and b) not hurting anybody – which makes so much sense).
We stopped for a (very quick) bite to eat halfway through, and were given the opportunity to buy discounted tickets to other attractions like the Van Gogh museum, which was really helpful. I had barely regained the feeling in my toes before we headed back out and our tour guide carried on educating us about everything from classic Dutch snacks (Stroopwaffel, anyone?), to his favourite cheese shop (along with free samples). The tours are free, but the tour guides rely on tips for their income, so we gave generously – and it was worth every penny! It was the kind of tour that I know my Mum would absolutely love (if that gives you any idea of what it was like!) I know this company operates tours in loads of cities across Europe, I’m definitely going to be keeping an eye out for them from now on!
We treated ourselves to huge sandwiches in a small café while we tried to warm ourselves up and then headed back out to explore, stopping for chips along the way. We’ve only got one day left in Amsterdam and tomorrow we’re planning to head to the Van Gogh museum and then ditch the guidebook, grab a picnic, and hang out in Vondelpark (as long as it’s sunny!)
So different from its European peers, Amsterdam is the perfect place to get away from it all for a week (or a weekend), and if I didn’t love London as much as I do, Amsterdam would maybe, just maybe, be in the running for my favourite city of all time. (Although I will admit that nobody in London has ever tried to run me over with their bike, so that’s definitely a consideration…)