Modern Traveller paid a flying visit to the canals and coffee shops (no, not those ones) of the Dutch capital.
There are several ways to arrive in Amsterdam: by rail, into the imposing 19th-century Centraal station; by air, into the frenetically busy Schipol airport; by water, into the nearby IJmuiden ferry port.
One method that we can definitely recommend you do not try, though, is on a bike without brakes, that’s much too large and really rather rickety.
You see, for all the serenely smooth cycle paths that weave throughout the centre and the suburbs of this invitingly flat capital, Amsterdam is not the place to first learn how to ride a ‘fixie’.
Wobbling and weaving, though, we somehow survived the otherwise picturesque journey from our AirBnb north of the IJ, through Noorderpark, alongside one of the many waterways which transect this reclaimed conurbation, to take a free ferry that delivered us right into the heart of Amsterdam.
Bewildered but alive, we dodged tourists and trams alike – for there are many of both, here – to reach Dam square, home to the National Monument and a range of over-priced, underwhelming cafés and restaurants, whereupon we chained up our two-wheeled steeds and set off in far safer pedestrian fashion.
With just one full day in which to make the most of this capital famous for its canals, museums and marijuana (the last of which was not on our itinerary), we made for the famed Rijksmuseum.
Of course, we couldn’t start the day with empty stomachs – which made De Drie Graefjes American Bakery the perfect place to stop for a mid-morning treat of coffee and cake. Perched on metal chairs made for street-side people-watching, we lost ourselves in the thrum of traffic and the delight of a divine slice of homemade heaven.
Delicious detour over, we found ourselves at the Rijksmuseum. Entry to this multi-floored menagerie of treats and treasures might seem steep at €17.50, but, with more than 8,000 objects of art and history safely held and smartly displayed within its walls, there are few better ways to enjoy your Euros.
For some, the architecture alone will be enough to amaze, whilst others will be in thrall to the astounding array of artefacts – including everything from a Dutch-designed WWI fighter plane that never saw action to world-famous paintings from the likes of Van Gogh and Rembrandt.
Hunger struck us here before boredom ever could, at which point a delicious (if pricey) spot of soup in the museum café was very well-received: much like the rest of the Rijksmuseum, the throng of visitors waits here not without good reason.
Feeling sated and satisfied, we shortly made our way past the giant “iamsterdam” sign which sits outside the museum building, for a scenic stroll along the canal-side streets of this city that began as a 12th-century fishing village.
Doing our best to avoid the suspiciously heady wafts of hazy aromas emanating from many a street corner, we ambled towards the Jordaan, to the west of Amsterdam’s heaving centre.
Once a working-class neighbourhood, the Jordaan has since enjoyed – or suffered, depending upon whom you talk to – the effects of gentrification, a controversial topic which frequently arises in this hub of liberal tradition and wealthy foreign interest.
Coffee shops of the non-intoxicating kind neighbour wine bars, ice cream parlours (like the magnificent Monte Pelmo and its mouth-watering wares) and restaurants, down streets of beautiful brick and narrow passage. Quirky concept stores proliferate, jostling for space with antique shops and inviting galleries. It’s a place in which to find yourself lost – and found.
Then, it was back to Dam square, to meet our guide for an alternative walking tour of Amsterdam’s back streets and secrets. Sadly, despite some promising moments of historical insight, with tales of Napoleon’s visits to the Netherlands and city riots in the 60s, it seemed we had misread the memo: our guide soon proceeded to take us on an extended tour of his favourite spots in the city for sourcing, preparing and smoking the green stuff.
Eventually, we reached the end of this misunderstanding to find ourselves somewhere deep in the red light district. For better or worse, our pot-themed parade had shown us the other side of Amsterdam, where police turn a blind-eye to recreational enjoyment and paraphernalia pervades every other shop window.
For many, this is the defining ideal of this famously liberal city. Judging by the reactions of several in our tour group, though, some feel otherwise. All the same, it’s possible to avoid the majority of the sex, drugs and coffeeshops – but for a suspicious scent here and there – should you so wish.
In search of something more historic, we made our way to Begijnhof, a sanctuary of secluded calm found through small archways which give very little away as to what lies under their guard.
A roughly circular court of buildings, this surprising space was formerly home to a community of religious women – and, to this day, many who still reside here take vows of silence and devotion. It’s an unexpectedly striking example of how many a city holds more within its walls than bedrooms and bars.
From one significant location to another, we wandered towards the former home of Anne Frank – now a museum. Though, undoubtedly, a tale which for many must be told, the popularity of this centre of remembrance makes sombre reflection and quiet understanding a challenging task, as the blocks-long queue outside indicated.
Instead, we opted to spend a few moments in front of the building with our own thoughts, silently thinking on the fates of the some 100,000 Jews estimated to have perished at the hands of the Nazi regime which afflicted the Netherlands during WWII.
Feeling reflective, we then ambled in the direction of Athenaeum Boekhandel in order to peruse some page-turners and pick up some locally-themed reading material, before dipping into one of the many cafés that litter the surrounding streets. Feeling a little under the weather, a peaceful glass of wine was the perfect accompaniment to an early-evening atmosphere to make the heart grow fond, as trams trundled by and the sun headed towards the horizon.
Finally, it was time for dinner, which meant a trip back to the Jordaan. Here, a table in the street was the perfect podium for pintxos y vinos at La Oliva, a trendy eatery away tucked away from the tourist throngs, that oozes charm and sophistication. Wine flowed freely, food was enjoyed deliciously and contentment inevitably ensued.
On reflection, then, our visit to Amsterdam was not the one of prolonged partying and excess consumption – though our performance on the bikes might have had onlookers believing otherwise – that many come for; instead, it was one during which we saw a side to this city little talked about: a quieter side, where good food meets relaxed ambience along streets alive with the chatter of locals.
WORDS & IMAGES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS
Content correct at time of publication. A changing world is one of the joys of travelling!