A mere 30 minute plane journey from London, the picturesque city of Amsterdam with its tall, narrow houses overlooking countless canals appears to be the perfect destination for a quick weekend break. Despite being just a hop across the water, somehow I had never visited this cultural capital. So I braved the groups of rowdy lads on stag dos and caught a flight from London Southend, to see if I could squeeze the best bits of the city into just one day.
From the airport it’s only a 20 minute train ride to Amsterdam Centraal and from here the city hotspots are all within walking distance. Amsterdam is the perfect city to walk around and photograph; the higgledy-piggledy houses, the serene canals, the cosy waterfront shops and cafes. Just remember, cafes sell coffee and coffee shops sell weed. Confusing, I know. But you get used to it, like you get used to the faint but pervasive smell of marijuana that seems to cling to the air. And to your clothes.
It is perhaps due to the city’s tolerant attitude that the locals are so laid back and friendly. (Although this view is possibly biased by the fact that I work in London where everyone is a miserable wanker.) Yet despite the uber trendy vibe of this capital and its hoards of tourists, everyone is just so bloody nice. People wander at a snail’s pace (literally the most irritating thing ever in London), yet here, no-one ever snaps. I didn’t hear a car horn or a bicycle bell once, a far cry from other European capitals where hardly a second goes by without a long, angry toot of a horn. Even when there are oblivious tourists wandering into the bike lanes and in front of trams. This is a relaxed, easy like Sunday morning kind of city and it’s an infectious attitude. This is reflected in the fashion here, which is casual and almost grungy, which works when you’re the right side of 25. Amsterdam is undeniably cool, an arty student city filled with young, unfairly attractive people.
While there is a huge selection of museums and galleries to choose from, with only a day to play with I had to be choosy. At the most popular spots, the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and Heineken Experience, the queues can be enormous unless you’ve booked a ticket online, so instead I headed to The House of Bols, the oldest distillery in Amsterdam, if not the world. Bols was an early equivalent to gin and the base of many a cocktail back in the 1800s. The 16 euro entrance fee gains you access to the museum and a drink at the bar. We are handed a token and a small bottle of unidentified red liquid and told to drink it only when instructed to do so. Very Alice in Wonderland-esque. This time comes when we reach a dark room and a row of cubicles. Inside each one, a camera films you as you drink your alcoholic concoction while the cubicle vibrates and flashes. It’s a pretty odd experience to say the least.
The tour finishes at the bar, where your token can be exchanged for your desired tipple, various tasty Bols versions of classic cocktails. You can even try your hand at flair bartending in a secret booth. (Be aware though, that while you are flinging plastic bottles around and doing your best Tom Cruise impression, your efforts are being played on a screen outside for all the bar to see.)
From the House of Bols we amble around the town; visiting the floating flower market, to pick up some obligatory tulip bulbs, and the grounds of the famous Rijksmuseum where the i amserdam sign is mobbed by people clambering all over it. Our next stop is the Anne Frank Huis, (buy tickets in advance here to avoid the queues) perhaps the most famous of Amsterdam’s museums. An audio tour guides you around the cramped, dark rooms where the family hid in silence from the Nazis before they were discovered and led away to their deaths. It is an eerie tour, especially at dusk as the light is fading outside, throwing shadows into the corners of the tiny rooms. It’s a sobering visit, but an unmissable experience.
From here we stop at Cafe Schuim, an arty hipster hub in the heart of the city centre, for dinner and drinks. With the feel of an open-plan living room filled with a mish-mash of chairs, the impressively stocked bar dominates the left hand wall, while an enormous disco ball spins in the centre of the room. This is a great spot to sit and mingle with the locals and the food is delicious and reasonably priced.
Our next stop is a hidden gem, touted as the only speakeasy bar in Amsterdam. Door 74 is almost impossible to find, unless you know where to look. The unmarked entrance sits unassumingly between nondescript doorways, tucked down a causal side street. Inside, the friendly bartenders will whip you up any cocktail of your choosing with a healthy dose of flair and banter. The website marks the address as ‘On a need to know basis’ yet despite it’s secret location, this is a popular spot and you should book a seat ahead via their text message service. You’ll have to find a way to locate this place yourself! 😉
We couldn’t spend a day in Amsterdam without visiting its most notorious area; De Wallen, better known as the Red Light District. Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, yet it is still a strange experience to walk past half naked women beckoning from the windows. In order to understand more about the practice of prostitution here, reputedly the oldest profession in the world’, and to feel less like we have come simply to gawk at the women, we head inside Red Light Secrets, the Museum of Prostitution. This is a strange yet revealing experience, in places both funny and uncomfortable. An audio tour guides you around the rooms, which can be privately rented for around 150 euros per day, and lets you experience the view from the other side of the window. You can perch on a stool in a room bathed in red light, while passers by stare up at you from the street below. This experience sheds light on the reality of the prostitution business in Amsterdam which, although legal, is still a risky profession with tales of trafficking, exploitation and even murder.
There is a huge amount to see and do in this vibrant capital, there are enough museums and galleries to keep culture vultures entertained and for a laid-back weekend of ambling along the canals, people-watching and bar-hopping into the small hours there is no better place. It’s impossible to see everything in just one day, but with this intriguing city so close to home, I have a feeling I’ll be visiting again, and again to discover more of what Amsterdam has to offer.