So you’ve got a week open in the year, and you’re wondering what to do and where to go. That’s the position we were in 3 months ago, before spinning the globe and deciding on Amsterdam as our destination of choice for our 8 day European adventure.
The European summer, June through to August, is peak tourism season in Europe. It’s when the majority of the world’s tourists head to Europe to flood its beaches, museums and sidewalk cafes. Amsterdam receives a hefty 15million visitors each year, the majority of which will visit during the peak season. There are very good reasons for visiting Europe in the summer. For instance you can go sailing the Greek Islands, lay on the beach in the French Riviera or go wine tasting in the balmy Tuscan countryside. However, anyone who has stood in line at the Vatican or the Louvre for hours on end during the peak summer season, waiting to see the Sistine Chapel or the Mona Lisa, will agree that overcrowding is a real issue in some cities.
With this in mind, we decided to mix things up by heading to Amsterdam at the start of spring, in the hope of avoiding the crowds, and wow what a difference it made, but more on that a little later on. Usually when South Africa’s head up to Europe we tend to spend 2 or 3 days in a city before heading on to the next. The reason being is that Europe is such a long flight away, and we want to make the most of our visit and cram as much destinations in as we can. If you only have a week to travel, then why not decide to stick to one destination, use it as your base and explore the city extensively. This is exactly what we decided to do, and in the process we fell in love with Amsterdam. Below we’ll show you why Amsterdam is one of the best “one stop shop” destinations around by looking at the city’s most popular attractions.
Amsterdam has some of the most important and most popular museums in the world. These include the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk Museum, Anne Frank House and Rembrandt House. The Van Gogh Museum in the most visited museum in the Netherlands. The museum holds the largest collection of Van Gogh artworks in the world with over 400 drawings, 200 paintings and 700 letters by the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter.
The Anne Frank house is perhaps the most famous historical location in all of the Netherlands. The house on the Prinsengracht is where the Jewish teenage girl and her family hid from Nazi persecution for two years during World War 2. The Nazis found her family hiding behind a bookshelf in a secret annex in 1944, shipping them off to Auschwitz. Anne did not survive the war. Her father did survive and after returning to Amsterdam after the war in 1945, he found her diaries which was later published in 1947 under the title, “The Diary of a Young Girl”. You can tour the house’s secret annex where she lived for 2 years with her family to try and understand what she went through during those years in hiding.
The Rijksmuseum was our art and culture highlight during our visit to Amsterdam. The museum is dedicated predominantly to Dutch history, displaying 8000 works of art and historical importance from their total collection of over 1 million objects from years 1200 – 2000. The museum’s most famous work of art is the “Night Watch” by Rembrandt, followed closely by Vermeer’s “The Milkmaid”. Other highlights include Napoleon’s pistols that were captured at the Battle of Waterloo, one of Van Gogh’s self-portraits, Rembrandt’s “Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild” and the magnificent old library of Amsterdam. This is the one museum that you don’t want to miss.
Tips: The Anne Frank house is currently under renovation. The museum is currently only allowing entrance to visitors who have booked their tickets online. No tickets sales are done at the museum. We highly recommend booking your tickets for the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum online as this will save you a lot of time.
The Netherlands is not really know for its cuisine, we can’t figure out why this is. Traditional Dutch foods include Bitterballen, Stroopwafel, Dutch cheese, Friet, Poffertjes, Olieballen, Stamppot, Kibbeling, Dutch apple pie, Haring or ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’ and Kroket.
All of the abovementioned foods are delicious, but in our opinion the two most delicious traditional Dutch foods are Bitterballen and Stroopwafel. Bitterballen are meat snacks that consists of beef mince, broth and spices that are rolled into a ball of roughly 4cm in diameter. The ball is then dipped in egg wash and flower before being deep-fried and served with strong mustard. Stroopwafel are very thin waffles that are cut in half while still warm and then filled with syrup or any combination of sweet fillings, this might be the Netherland’s most famous culinary export.
Tips: Haring or ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’ is one of those snacks that you have to try when visiting Amsterdam. ‘Hollandse Nieuwe’ is fresh herring served on a roll with onions and pickled gherkins. It won’t be to everybody’s taste, but if you can get it fresh it is very tasty. The most delicious apple pie in Amsterdam is found at Café Winkel 43 in the Jordaan district. Two slices of pie and two cappuccinos will only set you back €13. The café is very popular and you might have to stand in line to be seated before getting your hands on a slice of one of the over 100 pies they sell daily.
The city of Amsterdam’s story starts in the 12th century when it is said the local fishermen built a dam on the River Amstel, spawning the first settlement of Amstelredamme. Over the following 300 years the city grew into one of the most important trading ports in the world.
During the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam was the world’s leading centre for diamond trading and finance. The city is also home to the world’s oldest stock exchange. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company (VOC) issued shares which allowed the public to buy stock and bonds in the company. The Dutch were one of the first European empire builders. The two most famous colonies that they owned were New Amsterdam and New Holland, now known as New York and Australia. Because of the city’s strong trade relations, the city has always been very multicultural as trade has been done with most of the world for over 600 years. The city’s illustrious history can be seen and learnt in the Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Museum, Hermitage Amsterdam and its ancient canals, parks and streets.
Tips: There are museums for just about everything in Amsterdam. There is a Houseboat Museum, Cheese Museum, Tulip Museum and even a Prostitution Museum, and entrance can be expensive. We would recommend that you make a list of the historical sites that you would like to visit, book tickets for them online and stick to the list. There are loads of museums that aren’t very good and seem to have just been opened up to make money, like the prostitution museum.
Red light district and coffee shops
Amsterdam is perhaps best known around the world for two things, its Red Light District, and Coffee Shops. More specifically for its legalization of Marijuana, which you can buy and smoke in the city’s coffee shops, and prostitution, which is on full display in the Red Light District.
Very few people go to Amsterdam’s coffee shops for coffee. The Dutch authorities legalised the use and sale of Marijuana in small quantities for recreational use in the early 1970s. The coffee shops are the only establishments allowed to sell Marijuana to the public. You won’t find it difficult to locate the coffee shops in Amsterdam as you can smell them from a mile away. De Wallen is Amsterdam’s largest and best known red light district. From sex shops, brothels to museum, De Wallen has it all. Every sordid story that you’ve hear about the red light district is probably true. But contrary to what most might think, the Red Light District in Amsterdam has a very friendly atmosphere and it is not dangerous at all. If you are curious about what the area looks like and how it all works then take a stroll through De Wallen, it’s not as unusual as you might think.
Tips: Taking pictures in the red light district is a big no-no. If you want to take a stroll through the area then try and do so early in the evening before it gets crowded. On the edge of De Wallen just a block to the east of the main red light district is the Nieuwmarkt. There are some great restaurants and cafés on the Nieuwmarkt which we recommend you check out while in the area.
Canals and Parks
One of the things that makes Amsterdam so unique is that it has been built around man made grachts or canals which has given the city the nickname of ‘The Venice of the North’.
The grachts were built to reclaim land from the IJmeer which the city is built on, and as a natural defence against the rising level of seawater that used to flood the city every year. The three main grachts are Single, Herengracht, Keizergracht and Prinsengracht. The canals are the hubs around which the social scene in Amsterdam revolves. The canals are lined with street side bars, cafes and restaurants which overflow with locals and tourists come rain or shine. One of the highlights of any trip to Amsterdam is a canal cruise. There are various cruises that you can join, from a pizza and wine sundowner cruise to an hour long 100 Highlights tour. All cruises have audio guides which teaches you the history of both the grachts and the houses and houseboats along them.
The locals stream to the many parks across Amsterdam when the sun comes out in the summer months. The most popular and largest park in Amsterdam is Vondelpark. The 47 hectare park’s 10 million annual visitors come to enjoy the park’s landscaped gardens, 8 hectares of lakes, 4 restaurants and paved track circuit of 3.3km, which is used by joggers, skaters and cyclists. The park also allows braais (barbeques) in summer, which as a South African almost makes you feel at home.
Tip: Lovers Canal Cruises is the company that we would recommend for canal cruises in Amsterdam. The company charges €16 for an hour long cruise, €79 for a dinner cruise and €34 for a burger and wine cruise. The cruises start from across the road from Amsterdam Central Station and tickets can be bought either online or at the jetty. Keep an eye out for the cyclists in Vondelpark, they don’t stop for anything.
The public transport network in the Netherlands makes it easy for visitors to base themselves in a central location which you can then head out from for day trips out to the country or to other cities.
Using Amsterdam as your base, you can then head out to Haarlem, Utrecht, Rotterdam, Leiden, The Hague, Alkmaar, Keukenhof and Muiderslot among others. We decided that Alkmaar, Keukenhof and Muiderslot would be our day trip destinations. Our first day trip was to the huge Tulip farm and flower garden Keukenhof. Keukenhof is only open from the end of March until the middle of May each year as that is when the tulips are in bloom. The flower gardens inside the park and the massive tulip fields outside are simply breath-taking to behold.
Alkmaar is home to a 425 year old Cheese Guild Market which was our second daytrip destination. The Alkmaar Cheese market runs from the end of March until the end of September each year. The market is held on Fridays only. Buyers and sellers from the cheese guild buy and sell cheese in front of the medieval church in Alkmaar. The runners pick the cheese up from the square, run it into the trade centre to be sold and then run it back to the carts for transportation. There is great entertainment around the market and the square is lined with little restaurants and coffee shops. There are also numerous cheese stalls around where you can taste and buy all sorts of cheeses. We would highly recommend a trip to the Alkmaar Cheese Market. The little backstreets of the village is filled with antique stores and bakeries, it’s a perfect day trip from Amsterdam.
The Muiderslot Castle outside of Muiden was our final daytrip destination. Muiderslot is a real fairy-tale castle from the 14th Century. It is used as a filming location in many movies and TV series. The castle is really beautiful and the tour is informative. For a nice and relaxing day away from the city, we would recommend a trip to the Muiderslot castle and a lunch in one of the two old restaurants in Muiden old town.
Tips: To get to Keukenhof from Amsterdam Central you need to take a train to the airport, where a special bus service runs to Keukenhof. You can buy tickets for Keukenhof, which includes the bus ride, at the airport for €25. The train to Alkmaar from Amsterdam Central costs €22 per person for a round trip. The Muiderslot castle is open weekdays from 10h00 – 17h00 and weekends from 12h00 – 17h00. Tickets cost €15.50 for Adults and €9 for children under 12. To get there you need to take the train from Amsterdam Central to Weesp, and a bus to Muiden, all in all the travel time is around an hour.
Amsterdam has it all!
We’ve talked about Amsterdam’s museums, history, canals, parks, day trips, red light district, coffee shops and the food, and as you can see the city has so much to offer.
Spring is the perfect time to visit if you want to avoid the crowds, without missing seeing major attractions because of it still being closed for the winter months. Keukenhof, Muiderslot and the Alkmaar Cheese Market all open for the year at the end of March, the start of spring in the Netherlands. Some of the museums like the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House only allows online tickets holders to enter during the spring months, so make sure that you buy your tickets online if you want to visit either of them. The flowers aren’t in full bloom yet at Keukenhof in the beginning of spring, the best time to visit would be in May.
Amsterdam is the “Swiss army knife” of destinations. Whether you are a foodie, history geek, nature lover, beer enthusiast or just someone who likes to soak up the classic European lifestyle of sipping coffee and beer in sidewalk cafes while peering over ancient canals, churches and homes, then Amsterdam is for you. Our top tip would be to visit in the spring before the crowds arrive. After having dinner in one of the many trendy restaurants in Amsterdam, while walking back to your hotel, you’ll almost feel like you’ve got the whole city to yourself.