boats on canal
Babcia and Yia Yia!, Travel With Alex: Europe 101

Amsterdam 101

Iconic Amsterdam sits smartly at the convergence of the Zuiderzee and the Rhine River. Its storied history, amazingly vibrant attitude, and progressive stance on social issues make it a top tourist draw for many. And for very good reason! It seems that Amsterdam has cracked the secret code of balancing the honor of the past with the energy of the future. So, what makes this city a traveler’s paradise? Read on, dear traveler.

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Amsterdam Central Train Station

Whether you arrive by plane or train, your first glimpse of Amsterdam might happen as you pull into one of Europe’s great train stations. The scene that’s set seems to be a choreographed dance. Backpackers searching to stow their bags for the day at the left luggage counter. Commuters of every age hopping off the north side ferries. Travelers, like you, figuring out how to roll big bags over the bumpy tiles. Plenty of languages for all over the world seems to hang in the air as people dash in and out of the cafes, pharmacy, and market. Then, it seems, that 95% of the people that just whizzed by hop on a bike. You have arrived at the heart of Amsterdam.

amsterdam central station under color stained glass roof
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Bikes and Canals

Those bikes, just like the Colosseum or the Eiffel Tower, have become the default symbol for this town as the number of wheels far out paces the number of residents that power them. Thousands of bikes use the designated lanes knitting the city together from the main stretch, Damrak, over each of the five canals that ring the half a dozen neighborhoods.

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Renting a bike

By far, the cheapest transportation in town is also the easiest to find. More than twenty storefronts offer hourly, daily, and long term rentals that come with locks. Plenty of these bikes can also be fitted with simple baskets that make carting your bags easy peasy. Using a bike to ride around the Jordaan District and then down to the big museums is a breeze in this super flat city. Pedal power is, by far, the way to go. check out Black Bikes in the 9 Little Streets Area for great service and easy pick up and return. Expect to pay about $10.00 for 3 hours. If you don’t feel confident to ride with the locals, get out there early in the morning when the streets are not as busy.

bicycles parked on a bridge above a canal in amsterdam netherlands
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Canals and Boat Rides

If bikes rank as the number one mode of transport, then boats certainly try hard to oust them. The biggest part of Amsterdam’s charm comes from its tree lined canals that helped put the city on the map. A canal ride, though, can seem a little cheesy if not thought through well enough. And, there are so very many to choose from! From rentals that allow you to control the power to barges that herd a couple of hundred visitors around town, there seems to be no lack of choice. Two faves include a dinner cruise which keeps the ride moving along in the evening or a self propelled option that allows you to hop on and hop off as you cruise round and round. A great place to start figuring out what kind of cruise works for you is the Amsterdam Boat Center. For private charters, Those Dam Boat Guys do a great job for the adults in your party.

Look Around

Amsterdam’s unique architecture stems from the days of the Hanseatic League. Societies were just figuring out how to keep governing without a royal figurehead while adjusting to new religious views and plenty of new trade opportunities. All of this, believe it or not, is evident in the architecture that is all around. Narrow houses that tend to be three stories high were historically a shop, a home, and attic storage that took up as little taxable street width as possible. Today, the city is full of such buildings: the oldest, narrowest, widest, fanciest, crookedest, and even the secretest all make Amsterdam the perfect place to wander and wonder.

brown and white concrete building near body of water Amsterdam
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The most distinct feature in all of this architecture has to be the gables: Simple flat rooflines sit next to step gables, point gables, and the fancier neck and bell examples. Put together, the mix and match rooflines create their own kind of urban artwork. Use those bikes and boats to take it all in.

Plan Ahead

If there is one drawback to this city, it’s that you are not the only one who wants to be there. In fact, Amsterdam often finds itself ranked among the most visited in all of Europe. As a result, a few sites on your list may need a little pre-planning. At the front of the pack is the Anne Frank House. Be ready the month before your trip to get online and work through the ticket process as this museum sells out quickly and does not have any “day of” sales. In short, you snooze, you lose! Be sure to also arrange for the Van Gogh Museum as well as the famed Rijksmuseum which are both very busy as well.

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Anne Frank House

Anne’s story is a sad one. And visiting the place where it all happened allows you to better understand how the events of WWII and how Amsterdam was affected by the actions of the Third Reich. Anne’s father, Otto, unselfishly shares his daughter’s thoughts with visitors and the entire one way experience tells what happened before, during, and after the stairs behind the bookshelf hid a group of eight brave souls. In addition to this museum, check out the Dutch Resistance Museum on the south east side of the city.

The Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum

The Netherlands lays claim to quite a few major artists. Among them, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Eyck, and, of course, Van Gogh. All of these artists brought something spectacular and unique to the evolution of art and all of them can be seen here.

Van Gogh tumultuous life is on full display thanks to his brother, Theo. This modern museum profiles not only the timeline of Van Gogh’s life as well as SOME of his greatest works. Look to see such greats as The Potato Eaters, Almond Blossoms, and more self portraits than you can count. Beware that there are certain famous works like Starry Night and Irises are at other museums.

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Meanwhile, over at the Rijksmuseum, everyone else is waiting. Art for the middle classes was the mantra for many of these heavy hitters. Check in to see Vermeer (sans Girl With The Pearl Earring, that’s down at The Hague), Rembrandt and his Night Watch, as well as Jan Steen’s merrymaking. This national treasure has room after room of iconic “I’ve seen this before” art that makes strolling the galleries anything but boring. From Ice skaters on the canals to Napoleon and all his glory, the Rijks is a can’t miss.

Look for these fantastic museums to be connected by a pedestrian friendly plaza known as Museumplein. Here, you will find plenty of shops and restaurants to enjoy and people watch.

city water street building Amsterdam
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Amstelkring or Our Lord In The Attic

During the Dutch Golden Age, there were a lot of factors at play. The Protestant Reformation was in full swing but Amsterdam was a tolerant city. While the official party line was christianity without a pope, leaders understood that allowing people to worship as they choose was just fine as long as it was not advertised. Enter Jan Hartman. He was a prominent businessman during the 15th century who decided that his quiet catholic community needed a proper place to worship. He reworked three floors in his grand home to create a church where all who chose could privately worship. From the outside, the home looked like any other but inside, this amazing space provided comfort and prayer. There were several such churches throughout the city but this one located ironically in the Red Light District is the most famous.

person crossing the bridge Amsterdam
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Speaking of which…

The Red Light District is infamous for its trade and adult themes. Amsterdam’s progressive policies have allowed this for centuries and, for them, it works. It’s time to move on from thinking that the Red Light District is for tourists. Sex workers in Amsterdam are taxed and unionized. They treat their choices as a business and they expect to be treated with respect in return. The time has passed for touristy gawking. There is simply no shock and awe to be had. Let people live their lives and move on to other interests. Besides, there is so much more to Amsterdam than this story.

Jordaan District

The other side of the pendulum is the leafy Jordaan Neighborhood. Here, you will find plenty of locally owned shops, cafes, sleepy canal bridges and the best dose of atmosphere that this bustling city has on offer. It’s here that you will find the Anne Frank House and the local flower market close to Spui Square. Jordaan’s laid back feel (especially compared to the RLD’s hype) makes for a great home base. For a splurge, reserve a room at the fabulous Hotel Estherea on the Singel Canal. A room at this locally owned, well curated, hotel makes this entire town accessible by foot or bike.

bicycles parked on the street near the apartment buildings Amsterdam
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A few last thoughts…

  • Take care of laundry at Eland Laundry in Jordaan (Hazenstraat 65, 1016 SN). It’s a quick bike ride there and if you chat with them, they might just deliver it back to your hotel for a small fee.
  • The flower market on the Singel Canal is very close to Spui Square. Be sure to get there sometime in the morning for the best blooms.
  • Another interesting stop just off of Spui Square is the Begijnhof. This quiet community is accessible through a gate. Inside, you will find the church that claims to be the one used by the pilgrims on the Mayflower as well as another hidden Catholic church.
  • Dig into The South Seas connection and try to put away all 27 dishes on a Rijkstaffel. These Indonesian classics with a Dutch twist are quintessentially Amsterdam. Eater beware! It can get a little spicy!
  • While no windmills are in Amsterdam itself, there are plenty of opportunities to see these wind warriors. The best places to see windmills include Edam to the north and Kinderdijk to the south.
  • Take advantage of The Netherlands’ small size and get over to Delft to see a small sized town close up. Pair this with a quick stop at the Hague to see Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring at the Mauritshuis Royal Picture Gallery: a worthwhile stop.

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