Become an Amsterdamer
Wanna become an Amsterdamer (no, not the beer, I mean like a local) for the weekend, or better a long weekend? Read along!
Let’s start with the “why”. To see the tulips and windmills, for the love of coffee shops that don’t exist in most countries, to see the canal ring - a Unesco world heritage site, to visit treasure-packed museums, to get a glimpse of the infamous Red Light District, or to enjoy a thriving night life from a night-club to a dance festival. It’s your call 😉
Originating as a small fishing village in the late 12th century, Amsterdam owes its name to its expansion around a dam in the river Amstel. Just like the capital, Netherlands has a story behind its name too. It literally means "the ground below" as it refers to physical space reclaimed from the ocean.
Albert Camus describes Amsterdam in his philosophical novel entitled ”The Fall” as “a cold, wet place where a thick blanket of fog constantly hangs over the crowded, neon-light-lined streets” – And he goes further: “Have you noticed that Amsterdam's concentric canals resemble the circles of hell?” See what you think once you’re there!
Let’s start then. I can recommend you two main routes to visit around.
Starting from Dam Square and ending in Leidseplein, you can cover the historic center and the famous canal ring in one day. Here’s how:
Dam Square today is home to World War II Memorial, the New Church and Koninklijk (Royal) Palace whereas it was once the actual site of the dam that diverted the river to create canals. One of the most iconic sights, World War II Memorial, was built to honor the casualties of the war. De Nieuwe Kerk (The New Church) also hosts concerts, art exhibitions and royal events. Originally built as the city hall, the royal palace is open to the public when it’s not in use by the Dutch royal family. You end up in Magna Plaza when you walk around to the back of the palace. Today a department store, once the main post office is worth checking out.
On the right of Magna Plaza lies Torensluis Bridge spanning the Singel Canal. The statue belongs to Multatuli, a 19th century socialist writer who denounced the abuses of colonialism in the Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia). The dungeons under the tower were recently restored and are now open to the public. If you haven’t noticed from the pictures or magnets, Amsterdam is famous for its narrow houses (because taxes were then charged, based on the size of the building's facade) and the narrowest of all can be seen at Singel #166.
Crossing the bridge, we end up at the next canal, Herengracht. On left is Theatre Museum, composed of two buildings, the neoclassical house at #168 Herengracht and the Dutch-Renaissance house at #170. A block further is Raadhuisstraat where you can see the tallest church in Amsterdam, Westerkerk and enjoy arguably the greatest view of the city.
No Amsterdam tour is complete without a visit to Anne Frank’s House, and it is right next to the church. In this biographical museum, you can experience where and how Anne Frank lived in hiding with her family during World War II. The family had fled from Nazis in Germany to Netherlands, to this Secret Annex and managed to live more than two years until the betrayal. Of the 8 people who lived there, only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, managed to survive the extermination camp and had her daughter’s diary published on the basis of her dream of publishing a book after the war: “... with the aid of a paste pot and brush, I have transformed the walls into one gigantic picture. This makes it look much more cheerful” she had said. If you haven’t read the worldwide bestseller book, I’m sure you’ll want to, after this visit. It’s a very touchy experience, you should not miss.
The other side of the Prinsengracht Canal is known as the ‘Jordaan’, based on the French word for ‘garden’. The area was originally built for the working class living on the outskirts of the city, but is now a gentrified artist neighborhood with many cafes. If you happen to be visiting in mid September, remember the street festival celebrating the diversity of this former working class district with folk singers, drum bands, opera and cabaret and many more.
Back to Herengracht Canal, at #361 - #369, you can see the typical canal houses with different types of architecture in a row. You can sip coffee or grab something to eat along in the area named as The 9 Straats (streets) in between Keziersgracht & Herengracht.
Continuing two blocks from Huidenstraat, is the University of Amsterdam in Spui Square. The square is a favorite spot for artists and intellectuals as well as protests and demonstrations. The first alley on left after crossing the square is the entrance to hidden Begijnhof, a 14th century convent. It was established as a sactuary for the Begijntjes, a Catholic sisterhood who lived like nuns. Today houses are still occupied by single women in a sanctified atmosphere.
Down a block from Spui Square, you’ll find the the statue of the Netherlands' longest reigning queen, Wilhelmina who is most famous for her role as an inspiration to the Dutch resistance during German occupation in World War II.
Bloemenmarkt – flower market, is two blocks south towards Singel Canal. Notice some flower stalls stand on houseboats. You’ll find dozens of variety of plants, flowers, and bulbs. Make sure to have a customs cleared stamp on packet of bulbs if you decide to take some home. To my surprise, the market was smaller than what I had on mind.
Speaking of flowers, you can add Keukenhof Gardens to your list if you happen to be around from March to May with extra time to enjoy the flower fields. Some history lesson, while we are at the matter. Did you know Netherlands owes its tulip heritage to the Ottoman Empire? The tulip was originally a wild flower, growing in Central Asia and was first cultivated by the Turks as early as 1000 AD.Around 1550 the first tulip bulbs reached Netherlands on ships arriving from Istanbul and it became a highly sought-after import among the local wealthy residents. The economic boom in the first half of the 17th century, boosted competition among sellers & buyers and some rare bulbs even had a higher price than a house. Stock exchanges were established to trade in tulip bulbs but the price speculation created Europe’s first economic bubble, known as "tulip mania". The Ottomans had their own tulip craze with an era named after it. During “Tulip Era”, 100 years after the Dutch mania, the Ottoman Empire went through a relatively peaceful period and began to orient itself towards Europe by experiencing a flowering of arts, culture and architecture. One last history fact is from a recent past of tulips actually saving lives. During World War II, the authorities decided to distribute the tulip bulbs as food when the Germans blocked the supply roots.
At the end of the market Munt Tower, part of one of the three main medieval city gates that existed once, will greet you.Going back to Herengracht from Vijzelstraat, you will find Golden Bend, once (perhaps still) home to Amsterdam’s wealthiest citizens. By the canal, you can tell the house with the prettiest facade from the eagle on its top at # 476. The photography admirers can find FOAM, museum of photography in the area. Antique stores are on the next street Nieuwe Spiegelstraat.
Walking down on to the bridge Museumbrug, you’ll reach Museumplein, the cultural hub of Amsterdam. Concertgebouw, a beautiful neo Renaissance concert hall (opt for a free lunch concert, at noon on Wednesdays), famous Rijksmuseum (housing Rembrandt's Nightwatch), Van Gogh Museum (housing Sunflowers & the Potato Eaters) and Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art can be found here. I imagine you would like to and I would most definitely recommend the first two museums to visit and leave the rest of the afternoon for your culture feed 🙂
Another brief history, this time on Van Gogh. Did you know there are 7 different versions of Van Gogh’s "Sunflowers"; one, in the private collection of an unknown millionaire, unseen in public since 1948; one, in a collection of a wealthy Japanese, destroyed during World War II and the rest exhibited in London, Amsterdam, Munich, Philadelphia and Tokyo? The version (in the photo above) in Neue Pinakothek in Munich differs from the one in Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam with its turquoise background (as photography wasn't allowed in any art place in Amsterdam, you'll have to do with the German version). Here are some more interesting things I've learnt:
- The reason Vincent decided drawing sunflowers was in fact his models not showing up, then him opting to work indoors on that hot day and coming up with the arrangement of sunflowers. He ends up painting all in about a week and the changes in flowers with time can be seen in each.
- There are also many different versions of the real story behind their origin. From his fear of losing it, to his friend Paul Gauguin's admiration or Vincent actually gifting it to him, it's hard to decide which is right, as the exhibitor museums have different history about them.
- What communicated "gratitude" to Vincent, later almost caused a duel with artists refusing to show their paintings alongside Vincent's "the laughable pot of sunflowers".
- Latest research shows that Vincent cut off his ear (and handed it to a prostitute) after learning his brother was to marry, worrying losing his brother’s support, both emotional and financial.
- Do go see the movie "Your Loving Vincent" if you haven't already and be amazed at 125 artists' work and learn more about Dutch painter's life.
If you have some energy left, you can end your day with a walk through Vondelpark. With skatepark and wading pool (ice rink in winter), the area is also an open space for those who want to escape the city buzz.
Don’t forget that Heieneken Experience, former brewery of the internationally distributed Dutch pilsner, currently an interactive museum, is within walking distance. If you’re looking for a nightlife spot, Leidseplein on the other side of Singelgracht is perfect for you. Famous music venues like Melkweg and Paradiso can be found here, while Irish pubs and nightclubs also line the square.
In the second route, we will try to cover what else is left in the picture. Starting off with the Central Station and ending in the famous Red Light District, it's gonna be another long day, don't say I didn't warn ya 😉
Central Station is the connection point by tram, bus, metro, suburban train and ferry boat to every point in the city. It features a Gothic/Renaissance Revival station building, situated on three man-made islands.
Following the signs for ‘Route Oosterdok’, a 15-minute walk from the station will take you to Oosterdok (Eastern Dock). Several attractions located on the dock are the NEMO Science Center shaped like a big green ship, and the Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum) with its replica of a Golden Age sail ship.
Taking a right onto Schippersgracht, just opposite the Maritime Museum, you will be walking on to an area called Plantage. Known for its gardens (including a botanic one), zoo and quiet streets, you can take a breath and enjoy the green here. If you’re up for seeing a windmill when you’ve traveled all the way to Holland, De Gooyer Windmill is two blocks away from the east end of the area. Enjoy a glass of beer as it’s now a brewery 🙂
Crossing under busy Muiderstraat via the underpass on the left side of the canal, you will end up in the old Jewish District where the huge brown Portugese Synagogue is visible to your right. The district also houses the flee market Waterlooplein, Muziektheater (nicknamed as “Stopera” by the locals because they hated the design so much they tried to stop construction) and Rembrandt’s House.
Continuing down the bridge Blauwbrug over Amstel River, you will notice the most famous of the 1281 bridges in Amsterdam, the Magere Brug (also known as the Skinny Bridge).The road will lead you to Rembrandtplein, a square named after Rembrandt with his statue in the middle. An art deco masterpiece, Tuschinski Music Theatre, awaits you on the street Amstelstraat, right down. Partying begins in the square with some of the best dance clubs in Europe and continues on to the gay district on Regulierdwarsstraat.
Passing through the bridge Halvemaansbrug towards the center until Raamgracht, will take you to Rusland Street where the first coffeeshop in Amsterdam, famous Rusland Coffeeshop lies.
Nieuwmarkt (New Market) square is only a couple of minutes away. The lively nightspot and market square has been a center for commerce and socialising in Amsterdam since the 17th century. You can find the most impressive of Amsterdam’s remaining city gates, St. Anthony’s Gate here. Dominating the square is the picturesque restaurant “De Waag“, used once as a weigh station for merchants.
Walking north along Zeedijk Street, you’ll be passing through Chinatown surrounding the northern edge of the square. It is home to bars, stores, restaurants, one of the two remaining wooden houses in Amsterdam (Zeedijk #1) and even a Buddhist temple, Fo Guang Shan.
Continuing along the street until the first waterway, will take you to Little Venice, the only place where the water goes right up to the houses, just like Venice. St. Nicholas Church can be seen from this point. The small tower just beyond is the Schreierstoren (Tower of Tears), part of the old wall defenses.
Taking a left after the bridge and walking down Oudezijds Voorburgwal Canal, will reveal a hidden gem at #40; Amstelkring Museum. The attic of this 17th-century canal house conceals a secret Catholic church, known as Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Dear Lord in the Attic). From outside, it is impossible to see that this remarkable house contains a secret church. The attic church was built at a time when the Catholic religion was officially banned.
On the other side of the canal, dominating over the district, you will find the oldest church in Amsterdam; Oude Kerk. Inside, check out the stunning Vater-Müller organ, the 15th-century carvings on the choir stalls, and famous Amsterdamers’ tombstones in the floor.
Proudly standing in front of the church doors, a bronze statue entitled “Belle” was erected in 2007 as a monument to the prostitutes of the world. The narrow alley of Trompettersteeg leads to the greatest concentration of brothels in the city. The canal Oudezijds Achterburgwal nearby, has a similar identity housing the famous Amsterdam institution: “The Casa Rosso”. Who would have thought the oldest canal was once home to different convents and monasteries...
Finally, walk northwest to Damrak, avenue and partially filled in canal to see the dancing houses. 7 famous leaning houses in a row are called so because their foundations are built on trees that are now sinking.
What else to know or do?
Coffeeshops can be identified by the green and white licence sticker in the window and You must be 18 or older to get in, carrying an id with you. Abraxas, near Dam Square, is one with a laid back atmosphere, that can be recommended. Dampking has become famous because a scene of Ocean’s 12 has been filmed here. Smart shops, on the other hand, sell magic mushrooms, vitamins, weed seeds and pipes.
Indispensable is a cruise along the canals, whether day time, or night, you’ll enjoy the Venice of the North by soaking up the atmosphere of the historic ring of canals. Having several alternative route options, the hop on hop off tours are an ideal alternative to walking. I leave it up to you to spread it in the itinerary.
What is left to truly become an Amsterdamer? No other than biking, right? Just beware of Amsterdam's frenzied flow of traffic and confusing streets. I even caught the pope riding a bike, so imagine how it's gotten into the daily life of an Amsterdamer!
For those of you, who have time and interest, the largest and most popular outdoor market in Netherlands, Albert Cuypmarkt, is situated in the De Pijp district.
- Licensed coffee shops are allowed to sell soft drugs, and it’s legal to grow cannabis at home for personal use. What is funnier is that since this law, the amount of people addicted to drugs has gone down from 10.000 to 200, and the amount of locals who smoke weed on a regular basis went down to 5%!
- Amsterdam has more canals (165 to be precise) and obviously more bridges (1281 in exact numbers) than Venice.
- There are more bikes in the city than residents. The population of Amsterdam is around 825.000, the number of bicycles are 8881.000 while the number of bicycles that end up in canals each year is 25.000! Oddly, they say only 8.000 bikes are pulled out of the canals annually which leaves quite a few still lurking under the waters.
- Over 2,500 houseboats float in the canals of Amsterdam. Many of these expensive icons have been converted into hotels or b&b.
- Amsterdam has beaches! If the trendy urban (Strand Zuid - luxury, Strand West - laid-back, and Strand Ijburg - family) and rooftop beaches aren’t for you, with a drive of 25 minutes, you can actually reach a real beach like Wijk aan Zee or Zandvoort.
- The city hosts a stagering 300 festivals per year; from dance festivals to foodtrucks, kids or festivals for the LGBT community...
Ready to find out more?
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