I love this city so much. It’s two totally different places mashed up into one; one side thoroughly respectable with all manner of high culture to be found, and the other a hotbed of hedonism and vice. What’s really cool is that the two sides manage to not only co-exist peacefully, but to compliment each other in making Amsterdam the captivating, baffling and beautiful city that it is.
There’s an awful lot to see and do here, so much that a short weekend break might not seem like enough – but if that’s all the time you’ve got, I have some tips for what to prioritise, so that you really get the most out of the city in your time there.
This is such a good investment if you plan on seeing the best of Amsterdam, and not only in terms of money but of time too.
A 48 hour Iamsterdam card costs €65 and with it you get free entry to the Zoo (worth €20.50), the Van Gogh Museum (worth €17) and pretty much every other museum in Amsterdam, as well as a free one hour canal cruise (worth €16).
More importantly, you don’t have to queue for tickets at any of them – and believe me, when you see the line of people waiting to enter the Van Gogh Museum you’ll be delighted to have one of these bad boys in your back pocket. If you have just two days in Amsterdam, you simply don’t have time to mess around in queues.
The card gives you free use of all public transport too (a 48 hour travel card usually costs €12.50), as well as various freebies and discounts in restaurants and attractions all over the city.
Amsterdam has some really incredible art museums and galleries, three of which reopened fairly recently after extensive renovations and are particularly worth seeing.
They’re all pretty close together too, in the Museum Quarter, so you can pack them into one day if you want – although due to their size I suggest splitting them over two mornings, to avoid fatigue or rushing to ‘get through’ them. They deserve your time and attention.
The Rijksmuseum was closed for a decade-long renovation and its new look is nothing short of spectacular. Spend your first morning here, and have your jaw dropped by Rembrandt’s colossal masterpiece The Night Watch.
Oh, and don’t forget to get your obligatory picture of the I Amsterdam sign jut outside. The Stedelijk Museum is also superb with a really impressive collection of modern art, so if you’re ready for more, head here afterwards.
Amsterdam, like Brussels, is renowned for its gorgeous chips (after all, the Bintje potato – considered the perfect spud for making chips – is cultivated in The Netherlands).
Good frites should be fat and crispy, and drenched in a huge dollop of Fritessaus, mayonnaise, curry sauce, or whatever toppings you can get your greasy little mitts on. I tried two of the better known places in the city.
Mannekin Pis is on Damrak, just 5 minutes’ walk from Stationsplein (you can walk in the direction of all the people with purple cones and you’ll find it). Their chips were really good but I needed a frame of reference, so in the interest of science I also went to Vlaams Friteshuis (Voetboogstraat 33).
Their chips are also gorgeous, and they have 28 different sauces you can choose from. I can’t decide which I prefer, so I’m going to say eat both.
I used the Iamsterdam card to hop aboard the Blue Boat Company’s lovely vessel and see Amsterdam the lazy way.
It’s not just that you can sit back and watch the city’s sights drift by as you float along the city’s famous canals, but you also get a really good vantage point for taking pictures, you escape the bustle on the streets, and you get to listen to a funny and really informative audio guide while you’re at it.
I mean, even if it’s just to have a coffee. They’re part of what makes Amsterdam famous, and it’s interesting to see how it all works. The trick is to choose the right place.
Some of Amsterdam’s coffee shops are a little bit dark and seedy and not exactly the most pleasant places to be, not least because of the big airport-style body scanners in the doorways. Go to one of the nice ones in some of the quieter and slightly less ‘neon’ areas.
I went to New Times (Spuistraat 260). It’s chilled and cosy with nice Moroccan decor, and the staff are lovely. Grey Area is another famous one, but you might have to queue to get in because it’s a popular spot.
Bitterballen are Holland’s ultimate savoury snack, and shame on you if you leave Amsterdam without trying them. I don’t really know how best to describe them.
They’re somewhere along the lines of a croquette, really crisped on the outside and with a squishy, mushy, creamy soft gravy and meat filling. You dip them in mustard, and they’re ridiculously more-ish.
You can find them in most of Amsterdam’s Brown Cafes; I had some lovely ones at Van Dobben.
It’s a sad place, the Anne Frank House. Its rooms were all emptied of their furniture after the annex’s inhabitants were betrayed and deported, and they have remained empty since then.
What’s left in them is a heavy feeling, and a palpable sense of claustrophobia in the spaces where she and seven other inhabitants were forced to hide for two long years, forced to live on tip-toes, in whispers. You really feel it in there… and then you remember that from here, everything only got infinitely worse for them.
This isn’t an enjoyable attraction as such, but it’s a really important one. Her writing, so energetic and precocious, does something more than just tell her story; it reminds you that this one little girl was one little girl out of millions, and that each of them had the thoughts and feelings and hopes and dreams that she did.
It’s just really sad. It’s a really popular attraction too, so try to book online well in advance if you want to avoid the queue.
This was a real highlight for me. It’s incredibly well put together, and you get a riveting insight not only into Vincent Van Gogh’s art, but into his life.
In addition to over 200 paintings and 500 drawings, the museum has more than 700 letters that help to tell the story of such the brilliant, intense and troubled man behind the canvas.
It’s fascinating to actually see the results of his frantic pace of work towards the end of his short life, when he churned out almost one painting per day (makes you wonder what you might get done if there were no cat videos and Netflix to distract you).
You can easily get lost in here for hours, and I strongly recommend that you do. There’s a lovely café inside, and if you stay there as long as I did it’s the perfect place to take a break midway through your visit.
There’s almost always a queue outside the museum, but your Iamsterdam card will allow you to bypass it, as will booking online before your visit. Stump up the €5 for an audio guide, it will make a huge difference to your experience.
From Van Gogh to Vice… Like the coffee shops, the Red Light District (De Wallen) is such a big, conspicuous part of the city that it’s impossible to ignore, and to be honest it’s pretty damn fascinating.
When I first wandered through during the day it was fairly deserted, with the odd woman in a window hoping to catch some afternoon trade. It’s the oldest part of the city, and there are some really nice restaurants, bars and shops in the area – it’s not all hell-in-a-handbasket.
That said, at night the place is just bananas – the streets crammed with throngs of people gawping at the women, waiting, in red-lit windows.
It’s definitely seedy and overpriced (the drinks, at least; I can’t comment on the women), but the streets are so full of utterly normal tourists taking in the spectacle that the whole place just seems a bit… ludicrous.
There are places you can go to see live sex shows if you’re into that sort of thing. I’d probably be more inclined to spend the money on a year’s supply of Stroopwafels, but they’re there if you want them.
Eat many of them if you want. Spend your sex show money on a year’s supply of the things; they’re gorgeous.
A stroopwafel is a thin waffle baked in a special waffle iron. When it’s cooked but still warm the stroopwafel maker (best job ever, by the way) uses a sharp knife and a steady hand to cut through the middle of the waffle and split it into two (literally) wafer-thin discs.
A generous dollop of sticky caramel and cinnamon syrup is spread over the insides of the slices, before they’re put back together to create what might just be the world’s greatest, gluey-est sandwich.
The stroopwafels at Lanskroon and the ones from the stall in Albert Cuypmarkt are both legendary, and in the name of research you should try both. Your teeth won’t thank you. Well, the sweet one might.
- Dee Murray