Ah, Amsterdam. A charming metropolis that delivers sights straight out of a story book, this underrated gem is often overlooked as a superb city break. The Dutch capital truly couldn’t be easier to get to at just a 45-minute flight from London airports, or a direct high-speed Eurostar train into Amsterdam Centraal Station.
Amsterdam’s relaxed, cinematic scenes are enhanced by the intricate canal system, the narrow waterside houses and the fact that no one is in a rush – no, seriously. If you’re ever looking for a break from the pavement pounding and rush hours that dominate the big cities, Amsterdam is nothing short of a relaxing paradise where cars are few and far between, locals are so laid back they’re almost falling over, and slow-moving trams and bikes dominate the streets. The cultural scene is made up of some of the world’s most famous museums, its nightlife comprises of the bustling Red Light District and low-key coffee shops, and the general consensus of the city is “do what you want, just don’t be rude about it”. Sounds fair, right?
First things first – is it Holland or the Netherlands?
Well, to be honest, it can get a little confusing – but we’re not really ones to talk thanks to the United Kingdom/Great Britain/British Isles debacle. Officially, the country’s name is The Kingdom of the Netherlands, known in Dutch as Koninkrijk der Nederlanden, and even more confusingly, Amsterdam is in both Holland and the Netherlands. Geographically, the central part of the Netherlands is considered Holland, which comprises both Noord Holland and Zuid-Holland and is made up of the major cities such as Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Haarlem and The Hague. Get it? No? Well, if all else fails, just call it the Netherlands and you generally can’t go wrong.
Come on, it would be a crime to visit Amsterdam without a trip to at least one of the world-famous museums that reside here. With a fully dedicated area aptly named “Museumplein”, those interested in getting their art, history and culture fix most certainly won’t be disappointed. The Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank Huis are the three most-visited museums in Amsterdam among the 75 that reside here, so it goes without saying that these shouldn’t be missed.
Word of advice? Grab an I Amsterdam Card if you plan to visit at least three museums. With this trusty card, you’ll get free access to over 70 museums and attractions, free use of GVB public transport (trams, metro and buses), one free canal cruise, and a range of further discounts across the city including restaurants and concerts. You can choose a card that’s valid from 24 hours all the way up to five days, depending on the length of your stay. I Amsterdam cards basically pay for themselves and can be purchased online or at the I Amsterdam Visitor Centre, located directly opposite Centraal Station.
Paint The Town Red
It’s most likely that you’ve heard the about the Red Light District spoken in hushed, reverent tones – and yes, everything you’ve heard is probably true. But, contrary to popular belief, the Red Light District isn’t as dangerous as it once was, and actually has a friendly, outgoing atmosphere. Amsterdam as a whole prides itself on its liberal attitude, decriminalising certain things so that people can enjoy them in a safe and controlled environment, and the Red Light District is the city’s most well-known area to celebrate this. Traditionally known as De Wallen, here is where you’ll find most of Amsterdam’s notorious coffee shops (not the Starbucks kind) as well as an abundance of bars and clubs, not to mention the famous illuminated scarlet windows that radiate light onto the canals under the dark of night. Even if you’re not visiting Amsterdam to experience the nightlife, the Red Light District is worth a quick wander in the evening just to say that you have. Oh, and remember, taking pictures here and of the women in the windows is strictly prohibited so keep your smartphone in your pocket – bouncers are everywhere and it could lead to a very serious telling-off, or even possibly your camera being snatched and thrown in the canal. Yes, it happens.
Not quite the high you might think (although if ever there was a time and a place, it would certainly be Amsterdam), but the Dutch capital has some excellent vantage points to admire the landscape – and who doesn’t love a rooftop bar? Amsterdam is a very flat city, so don’t expect a New York-esque skyline, but seeing the canals shimmering under the moonlight certainly gives the Big Apple a run for its money when it comes to pinch-me panoramas.
The obvious choice for a landscape outlook would be A’Dam Tower because, well, it’s in the name – tower! Offering an unrivalled, 360-degree panoramic view, A’Dam has a spectacular observation deck that provides vistas across the unique Dutch complex while providing a state-of-the-art interactive exhibition about Amsterdam’s history and culture. Not only will you get to admire the UNESCO World Heritage canal belt and the city’s thriving historical centre from the observation deck, but you’ll also get to go ‘Over the Edge’ – quite literally too. A’Dam Tower is home to Europe’s highest swing whereby daredevils and adrenaline junkies will swing 100 metres above the ground, over the edge of the tower with the entire city of Amsterdam below their feet. Can you handle the thrill?
When it comes to cuisine, Amsterdam doesn’t necessarily have the stellar reputation as say, London does, but the restaurant scene has most certainly improved in recent years. The city isn’t short on Michelin-rated eateries, with 16 restaurants carrying one or two of the coveted stars with diverse choices and incredible menus. If you didn’t pack your glad rags for a fancy dining experience, there are plenty of options for a lower key affair that are still equally as delicious. Indonesian fare holds a special place in Dutch culture with dozens of restaurants scattered throughout Amsterdam, while French brasseries (the lobster bisque as well as the attentive service at Brasserie Ambassade doesn’t disappoint, trust us), American burger joints and Argentinian steakhouses also populate the city.
If there’s one thing the Dutch know how to do, it’s snacks and cheap eats – most notably, vlaamse frites (that’s Flemish fries to us and you). Hot, crispy and usually served in a huge paper cone with a generous dollop of mayonnaise, this popular street food is certainly the best way to fill you up until dinner time. If mayo isn’t quite your fix, the more upscale chip stands (sounds like an oxymoron, we know), offer more sauces like ketchup, peanut satay and pesto just to name a few.
Another popular in-between meal treat is the stroopwafel, a wafer cookie that originated in South Holland but is now eaten throughout the country and worldwide. Highly addictive and perfect for those with a sweet tooth, stroopwafels are made from two thin layers of baked dough with a caramel syrup filling in the middle. Local supermarkets sell the Dutch biscuits by the packet thus making a brilliant souvenir for friends and family back home. Oh, and don’t even think about leaving Amsterdam without indulging in poffertjes, traditional mini Dutch pancakes that are so fluffy you’ll be convinced that you’re tasting the clouds. Poffertjes typically have a light texture, are served hot with powdered sugar and butter and are not made for sharing.
A vibrant nightlife scene, endless cultural museums and storybook canal views – what more could you ask for from a European city break? We know what you’re thinking… get me to Amsterdam!