I wasn’t expecting much of Amsterdam, to be honest. Everyone to whom I mentioned the Netherlands’ capital beforehand immediately started babbling about hash brownies and prostitutes in windows, neither of which interested me. I began to wonder whether Amsterdam’s rebellious streak was all it was good for. To my relief, this couldn’t have been further from the truth.
History as pretty as a picture
Amsterdam is beautiful. Its criss-crossing canals are wider, straighter and altogether more uniform than those of Venice, but no less picturesque. When we were there in spring every canal shone in the sunlight, their sides draped in green willow fronds and spattered with tulips. Wrought-iron bridges cross the canals at regular intervals, plastered with bicycles of every shape and colour, conjuring a scene at once quaint and modern.
The city’s narrow houses, like the canals they run alongside, are both attractive and utilitarian. Many have hooked gables just underneath their roof peaks to allow for large and heavy objects to be winched to upper floors — a function especially important in the past where the buildings housed trade businesses. Homes were built tall and with narrow fronts in order to minimise tax, which was based on building width, but today this shape serves to emphasise the exciting variety of building colours and decoration on every street. Houses built for peasants and mansions built for aristocrats stand largely unchanged since their construction and history is etched into every rustic window frame or grandiose doorway.
Another pretty piece of history, though not architectural, is the Bloemenmarkt: the world’s only floating flower market. Locals have come here to buy flowers, bulbs, seeds and gardening tools, but it’s worth going as a tourist just to see its spectacular spread of flowers, from floor to ceiling and in every shape and colour. A number of gourmet cheese and gift shops run alongside, offering free samples of cheese and chutney.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about Amsterdam’s beauty without remarking upon its glorious outbursts of nature. The Rijksmuseum Garden is awash with tulips and features a large interactive water fountain, stone statues and shaped hedges. Vondelpark is a large grassy expanse shaped by picturesque lakes and bridges, filled with people enjoying themselves in the sunshine.
A good tip for enjoying the beauty of Amsterdam’s architecture on a grand scale is to visit the city’s public library, Openbare Bibliotheek, located to the left as you exit Amsterdam Centraal train station. This is the largest public library in Europe. Get the lift to the library’s top floor and you can sit enjoying lunch or a glass of artisan tea while gazing out over the city from a window or from the outside balcony.
For admiring the city at night I fully recommend taking an after-dark canal cruise. There are plenty of boat tours to choose from but we went with the Blue Boat Company because they did one of the latest and longest tours for one of the best prices, and docked near our hotel. On board we had window seats and a table all to ourselves, and were able to order drinks to enjoy on the cruise: we made it an occasion by sharing a small bottle of prosecco. From a canal boat’s window you get a stunning view of the city’s lights shimmering in the water’s surface, and can wave to stag parties and other revellers in the Red Light District from a safe distance! The guide commentary fed through our earphones took the form of a conversation between a husband and wife and came across as very cheesy, but in its defence it provided some very interesting insights into the city’s history.
Rich in culture
Further history and beauty can be found in Amsterdam’s many museums and galleries, which even viewed from the outside alone are magnificent. Despite really wanting to see them, in just two days we didn’t have time to visit Anne Frank House or the Van Gogh Museum (the queues were ridiculously long). We did however make a beeline for the Rijksmuseum, a tremendous art gallery holding the works of Van Gogh, Vermeer and Rembrandt to name just a few.
The artwork spans a good length of history, taking you from the impressive photo-realism of the old masters to the expressive daubs of impressionism. Being able to stand so close to massive masterpieces such as Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’, admiring each individual brushstroke, is a wondrous and humbling experience. In addition to artwork, the Rijksmusum has a stunning multi-level library, ornate with pillars, twisting staircases and books from floor to ceiling.
The Rijksmuseum is a huge gallery, with easily enough art and information to keep an art fan occupied for an entire day. Being short on time, we downloaded the free official app onto our phones to help us find and learn more about a number of selected highlights (though I couldn’t resist stopping to marvel at other works in between!). Make sure your buy your tickets for this museum (and others) online so that you can skip the long queues that form early every day and save time. If you need to queue, get to the museum well before it opens so that you can get inside faster.
Happy and free
Culture of a different kind can be found on Amsterdam’s streets and in the hearts of its people. To a visitor, at least, there seems to be an atmosphere of happy insouciance. I think much of this comes down to the quietness of its smaller streets, often devoid of traffic. Instead of getting hot and bothered behind the wheel of a car, locals cycle with the wind in their hair and a smile on their faces. Far from the stressful rush of London, people here stroll around in leisurely conversation. While I’m not a fan of marijuana — or the smell of it wafting out of coffee shops — I’m sure it contributes to the city’s laid-back air, which makes me glad of its legality here.
The relaxed liberality of Amsterdam is clearer nowhere than in the Red Light District, that renowned area of sex shops and the aforementioned prostitutes in windows. But I found it not nearly as seedy as expected, and worth a visit whether those elements interest you or not. Architectural delights come in the form of narrower canals, charming street lamps and the grand 800-year-old church (Oude Kerk); while small independent breweries, chocolatiers, delis and boutiques make for enjoyable browsing.
Having visited Morocco just a month previously, the personal freedom of Amsterdam was a breath of fresh air. In Marrakech, I was anxious about keeping my shoulders and legs covered, and my hands and lips off my boyfriend, in keeping with the conservative Islamic culture. Here, I walked entwined with my boyfriend, giggling at the outrageous sex shops, neon-lit gay bars and lurid strip clubs, not to mention the underwear-clad and bizarrely orange-hued women beckoning from a few full-length windows. Two completely opposite cities, one sexually constrained and the other free; both questionable from a feminist point of view. That said, I was harassed by men continually in Morocco and not once in Amsterdam, where I felt completely happy and at ease. I know which city I’d rather be in.
Traditional Dutch main courses struck me as similar to German dishes, due to their penchant for mash potato, sausages and dumplings: comfort food at its stodgiest. However, there are some things that really stood out.
Bitterballen are breadcrumbed and deep-fried balls containing a meaty, cheesy mush, usually served with a pot of mustard in which to dip them. They are the perfect snack to accompany beer, and I wish I could get them in the UK!
Chips and mayonnaise, though simple and by no means original, is another very Dutch snack. There are places all over Amsterdam where you can buy a paper cone of perfectly golden fries, topped with a giant blob of the best mayonnaise you’ll ever taste, for just a few euros. Greedily sharing such a cone between us, sat on a bench in a sunny square where musicians were playing, is up there with my best food experiences.
Apple pie here is more than just apple pie. Jazzed up with raisins, warming spices and sugary latticed pastry, to me it came across like German apple strudel but in deep-filled pie form. Just gorgeous!
Finally, we come to the pancakes. These come in two main sizes: tiny and puffed up poffertjes; or large and delicate. Both are served with melted butter and a generous dusting of icing sugar, making them an absolute delight and quite unlike any other pancakes I’ve had. Every breakfast at Hotel Fita we were served large, freshly cooked, feather-light pancakes with lumps of butter folded inside — a simple slice of heaven on a plate.
…and Indonesian food
It’s one of my top priorities when visiting a foreign country to eat as much traditional, national cuisine as I can. So I feel a little bit guilty that my favourite meal in Amsterdam was not Dutch, but Indonesian! There are many Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam, largely due to Indonesia being a Dutch colony for 300 years — but I think we found the best.
We found Kartika by looking at nearby restaurants on our TripAdvisor app while inside Vondelpark. We weren’t planning on having an Indonesian meal but one look at the menu and we couldn’t go anywhere else. It was laid out as set menus, each comprising about 10-15 individual dishes to try: we chose the Ramayana menu priced at 18.50 euro per person, which we thought was a bargain for so much food.
It didn’t disappoint! Before our main dishes even arrived, we were brought two baskets of crisp-like things and two sauces to dip them in. We didn’t want to spoil our appetite, but they were so delicious we couldn’t help at least finishing off the sweet chilli and satay sauces! Wanting to get the full Indonesian experience, I ordered some of the house Indonesian wine (lovely!) and Steve had an Indonesian beer.
Then came the full, spectacular spread: 15 small dishes spread across (and barely fitting on) two heated stands. It included chicken, beef, egg and vegetable dishes, all of them in different and delicious sauces, some like I’d never tasted before. Highlights included chicken in the best satay sauce we’d ever tasted; beef in a spicy coriander sauce; mixed vegetables in coconut sauce; and our dessert of deep-fried banana. We both agreed it was one of our best meals ever, due to it being not only delicious but also exciting in its presentation and really fun to share.
So much more
Two days in Amsterdam wasn’t nearly enough, but it’s only after experiencing it that I realise how much more there is to Amsterdam than its reputation. Of all the cities I’ve visited, it is one of the most beautiful: both outside, in its stunning buildings, art and nature; and inside, in its rich history and liberal culture. I hope that it’s not too long before I’m back there again.
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, 2014. All rights reserved.