So, what can you do with 2 days in Amsterdam? Quite a lot, as it turns out! Click here to read about Day One!
2 Days in Amsterdam – Travel Tales
My second day dawned bright and early, after a comfortable night’s sleep in the hotel ( I really do urge you to consider the Apollo Hotel if you visit Amsterdam – it’s nicely away from the centre and its noise, near the eateries of the De Pijp neighbourhood, and it has a really cozy lobby and bar. Also, possibly the poshest lobby bathrooms I’ve ever had the privilege to park my derriere in). The Otter was still in the grips of manflu, but perked up after a coffee, a shower, and a croissant. Outside, the city slumbered, as a thousand tourists slept off their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.
Winter had relaxed its grasp on the city a little: there was a lack of snow this morning, and wispy clouds raced along a pale blue sky. A lone jogger made his way along the canal outside my window, as cormorants dived into the chilly water. It was a fine day to go exploring, and The Otter and I left our bags at the hotel, which turned out to be a very good move. Plus I wasn’t quite cruel enough to make The Otter lug a heavy backpack around, unwell as he was.
Breezy Like A Sunday Morning
There’s nothing finer than a walk around a European city on a crispy, windy morning; things were quieter than the morning before, but the sun streamed inbetween the narrow houses, reflecting off calm canal waters. As we ambled down towards the Museumplein, the same cat we’d seen the morning before watched us from atop his cushion in a windowsill. I’m not sure he ever moves, like a self-appointed sentinel of Amsterdam. Our squeaks of “oooh, who’s a good kitty, yes you are, aren’t you cute?” did not move him.
Another pleasant surprise was that the IAmsterdam sign is much quieter on a Sunday morning. I don’t know what is is about this sign that makes it so fascinating, but there is a certain mysterious appeal about it.
Also with a certain mysterious appeal are the Miffy souvenirs in the museum shop. If you’re not familar with Miffy, she’s the rabbit star of children’s books written by Dutch author Dick Bruna, and has been delighting children (including me: I distinctly remember my parents reading me Miffy books) since 1955. She is adorable, and you’ll see her everywhere in Amsterdam, including the museum shop and its surrounds. I bought myself a cuddly Miffy toy which was dressed as Van Gogh – happily, she retained both ears – and admired a Picasso-esqe Miffy statue outside the Rjiksmuseum. All hail the bunny.
There’s also a small market in Museumplein on a Sunday morning, but we didn’t wait for it to set up. Passing through sleepy streets, where early risers peered through the windows of antique shops, we headed for my other top Amsterdam sight. I practically skipped with excitement. Was the hedonistic Red Light District? Was it one of the top-class museums? Was it a boat tour of the beautiful canals?
Nope, it was the Kattenkabinet – Amsterdam’s premier cat museum. And when we eventually found it, in a row of beautiful houses, it was closed.
Note to self – always check the opening hours after walking halfway across a city. But happily, it opened in another two hours, so we raided our list of other things we wanted to see that day. We settled on one of The Otter’s picks, the Portuguese Jewish Synagogue, and headed that way, vowing to come back to the Kattenkabinet later. On a beautiful sunny morning, it barely seems to matter how long it takes to walk somewhere, when the walk itself is so pleasant.
The Otter Screws Up, Twice
After walking along and over some extremely pretty canals, The Otter was feeling the need for coffee. I generally hold the belief that The Otter consists of 5% skeleton, and 95% coffee, and he needed to top his life source up. So we stopped in a small cafe just around the corner from the synagogue, and again I was struck by just how perfect Dutch cafes are.
This one was tiny, with less space than a living room, but after ordering from the bar we perched at a table with our drinks, and watched the other patrons. They were all elderly Dutch people, and every so often another would pop through the door (complete with a tiny ringing bell) to be met with a chorus of “Hoi!” and hugs and kisses. Meanwhile, the cafe owner would bring them slices of apple cake which were bigger than my head, and about four inches thick with packed fruit. It was the most perfect cafe you can imagine. I immediately wanted to be an elderly Dutch person. When we left, The Otter suddenly realised that he’d left his gloves behind somewhere – I popped back in, and they were already hanging up neatly on a hook on the lost property rack, like they were awaiting the return of an old friend.
So if you’re in that part of Amsterdam, visit the ‘t Hooischip cafe at 31 Amstel. They’re very friendly, reasonably priced, and the apple cake is awesome.
Next it was on to the Synagogue, which The Otter was keen to see, having some Jewish heritage but never having set foot in a synagogue. He even had his own kippah to wear, and impressed the old chap in the ticket office with a couple of words of Yiddish, whilst I hung back, heathen that I am. But I had no need to worry – upon starting the audio guide that we were provided with, one of the first things that was stated was “this is our place of worship, but you’re all very welcome here”, which I thought was wonderful.
And the synagogue is a bit of a hidden gem (as well as being very good value for money; your ticket also gives you entry for the Jewish Museum over the road). We started off in the treasury, and it is no less than stunning how much has survived, how much was recovered after the Second World War, and how beautiful the objects are. We stared in awe at fabrics, so delicate and beautiful, silverwork, and books, which are all still used today.
Sadly, the synagogue’s human population did not fare so well during the war. 80% of Amsterdam’s Jewish population never returned home.
The main building itself was completed in 1675, and is known as an Esnoga, which was a word I thoroughly enjoyed hearing every time it popped up on the audio guide. And major props to the audio guide – it was excellent; informative and activated by sensors, it gave you all the bite-size details on this gorgeous building. And it really is beautiful, in a dignified, understated way. It stretches up to a high ceiling, and there are candles everywhere you look – there’s no electricity in the building, and so at night, it’s completely lit by candlelight. I could only imagine how magnificent it must look, basking and gleaming in a golden glow.
Every interesting aspect of the building was explained, but never going into so much detail that you switch off – the couches near the top of the room and their usage, the deliberately-broken railing, hundreds of tiny little details which were fascinating and delightful. Eventually The Otter and I made our way up to the Ladies’ Gallery, looking at the wooden benches with their family names attached to them (Pinto seemed to be particularly well-subscribed). The Otter had been thoroughly enjoying this little exploration of his heritage, looking around respectfully, until he suddenly winced and groaned.
“What is it?” I hissed, looking around for snipers.
The Otter turned shame-filled eyes upon me.
“I’ve done something very bad.”
“What?” I whispered. What could he have possibly done? I hadn’t even left him on his own for five minutes.
“I’ve just realized that I’ve got a pork sandwich in my bag.”
We looked at each other in silence for a moment.
“We should probably leave,” we agreed.
Rembrandthuis, and Rushes Of Blood
Our next stop was the Rembrandthius. I mostly wanted to go there because of how confused Rembrandt looks on the street sign outside.
We got in after buying our tickets – if you’re thinking of visiting yourself, don’t have too many bags with you; take advantage of the free lockers and coat racks – and it was just wonderful. Rembrandt lived here, in this building, from 1639 to 1656, and it looks like he never left. In reality, he had to move out after being declared bankrupt, which was excellent news for this museum – as a result of all his belongings having to go up for auction, it allowed them to reconstruct the building exactly as it was from the auction inventory list. Probably sucked for Rembrandt, but there you go.
Most of the rooms look eerily like Rembrandt has just popped out for a cup of tea, so accurately are they recreated. My favourite was the kitchen, with the tiny box bed which would’ve been occupied by his maid, which looked like nothing more than a cupboard. Apparently it was fashionable at the time to sleep sitting halfway up, in order to avoid rushes of blood to the head, which were widely believed to be fatal. I may have made an aside to The Otter about avoiding A Rush Of Blood To The Head, which is an album by Coldplay, and widely believed to be fatal.
It was also great to see the entrance to the house, with a wooden chair on a plinth which must’ve loomed over any visitors – I must get one for my place – and the painted box beds and door frames which mimicked the more expensive materials of ebony and marble. It was cleverly done; who would’ve thought that Rembrandt would be good at a bit of painting?
Another highlight was the studio in which Rembrandt used to train his students: not only for the sight of the place, with sunlight slanting through attic windows to fall on beds and easels, but the scent. The air was thick with oil paint, made from pigment and oils by a helpful member of staff (they do demonstrations on making the paints, and sell the pigment in the shop downstairs). And your visit is rounded off by a journey into a linked, modern building, which houses some of the great man’s work.
As we walked back down towards the exit, we were startled by the sudden blaring of an alarm. In these days, your thoughts immediately turn to catastrophe, danger, terror. But no: it was two ladies who’d accidentally left the building whilst still wearing their audio guides. They were returning to the front desk to hand them in, sheepish, and giggling uncontrollably. The Dutch guy on the desk held out his hand and clucked his tongue.
“Naughty, naughty!” he said with mock reproach, the two ladies beside themselves with laughter. Kindly museum staff are worth their weight in gold.
A Discussion of Amsterdam’s Toilets
Yes, you read that headline correctly. Toilets.
They are tiny.
I get it; the buildings are very narrow, and there’s not much room in some of the small cafes to have a vast, glittering palace of poop. But the toilet belonging to the Cafe Stopera, in which The Otter and I found ourselves after the Rembrandthius, had one of the smallest toilets I’d ever been to. It was so small that I banged my head on a hand rail as I stood up, hard enough to stagger face-first into the door.
And this was not an uncommon occurrence. Perhaps I’m just cursed, but every toilet I had the pleasure of using over the weekend was minute. I went into one in the Vondelpark which was roughly the size of my refrigerator (which isn’t even a posh American one); I couldn’t stretch my arms out any further than my elbows in either direction. I could only do a passable impression of a battery hen. You are in serious danger of smacking your head through the door, and looking like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.
Now, I am quite petite; I’m about 5’3 and have a slender build. I have no idea what people bigger than me would do, unless it involved a handstand. I’m just letting you know for your own good.
As we emerged from the cafe, having enjoyed some frites with a surprisingly tasty sauce of mixed ketchup and mayo, we saw some demonstrators going down one of the main streets, handing out leaflets and waving flags. Police, armed with batons and shields, watched from a distance. Police horses, lined up in a row, stamped in anticipation.
I can only imagine that they were campaigning for bigger toilets.
The Kattenkabinet – The Greatest Museum In The World
What’s better than an awesome museum? An awesome museum full of cats; that’s what.
Those who know me will know that I have many passions. Fritos. Geek stuff. Leicester City Football Club. And most of all, most overwhelmingly, cats.
I cannot resist cats. I have to stroke every kitty that I see. I am quite happy to have cats following me down the street, and into my workplace. I buy anything with a cat on it. I like cats an awful lot.
So for me, the Kattenkabinet is the greatest museum in the world. Aside from housing works of art, from paintings and etchings by Picasso and Rembrandt, to statues from around the world, it also contains cats. Actual Dutch cats. The kitty in residence today (they come and go as they please, due to being cats) was pretend-snoozing on a heating vent, and doing that thing of being completely disdainful when you approach, but completely loving it when you scratch them behind the ears.
The building itself is beautiful, and worth the entrance fee even if you’re not keen on cats (hissssssssss). Built in 1667, it’s the only one of the buildings on the Golden Bend – a gorgeous row of narrow houses which used to be the preserve of wealthy merchants, and in the case of the Kattenkabinet, the residence of the mayor of Amsterdam – to open its door to the public. It was even a filming location for Ocean’s Twelve, and it’s easy to see why when you step inside. It’s like a miniature palace, with wonderfully painted ceilings, dark wood, and restored wall coverings. It also has cats depicted in various stages of annoyance.
One of my favourite parts was right near the end; a small shelf devoted to messages from visitors, and drawings of their cats. There were messages in all languages imaginable: English, French, Japanese, all with doodles of beloved pets. So I wrote a message on behalf of my beloved kitty, with a small drawing of her in a good mood, and left it with the others.
I officially have my art being displayed in an Amsterdam museum, yo.
The Vonderful Vondelpark
Our time in Amsterdam was drawing to a close. So, we decided, there was no better way to bring it to a close than a walk through the Vondelpark.
And what a delight it is. Opened in 1865, it’s a little oasis in the middle of the city – not that Amsterdam is exactly a gritty urban landscape, but it’s still nice to get the grass under your feet. I am an unashamed nature lover; I don’t feel right if I can’t see greenery or trees, and I love warm summer grass underneath my bare feet. Despite the fact that I would’ve frozen my toes off if I’d tried that today, I loved the Vondelpark.
Part of that love was that it was being so well-used. Locals were out walking their dogs, or cycling through, or walking around with a boombox (hello, the Eighties! I’ve missed you!). Artworks enhanced the pathways. And most wonderfully of all, exotic parakeets flitted through the trees, bright flashes of lime-coloured feathers. Apparently, there’s over 4000 of them around Amsterdam, after a pair were released in the 70’s and flourished surprisingly well. Although they were a novelty for me and The Otter, I do wonder how the native species fare when they have such a large, well-adapted competitor. I do know one thing: they would not stay still for a photo – as soon as I brought the camera up, they were gone. Bastards.
Speaking of, the Vondelpark was again the site of my being concerned about what impression some British tourists abroad give out. The only people we saw in there who were staggering around drunk were British. We stopped in a cafe for a drink, and a group of girls were lounging opposite us, phoning back to Britain as their flight had been cancelled by snow. People were turning around to stare at them as they swore vitriolically at the poor easyJet agent on the other end of the line.
As a Brit myself, I really hope that people know that we’re not all like that.
Alas, time had run out. After a lovely walk back from the Vondelpark to our hotel to pick up the bags, we requested a taxi to take us back to Zuid station.
“Sure!”, our lovely concierge said. “Which one do you need to go to?”
“Zoo-id,” I said proudly, remembering my little Dutch language lesson at the airport on arrival.
He tilted his head to one side, like a bird. Like the lady in the Schiphol ticket office.
“Zoooo-id,” I said, an increasing note of confusion and awkwardness growing in my voice.
The Dutch language confuses me.
Languages issues aside, I’d absolutely loved Amsterdam. It can be quite rare to go to a large city – a capital, no less – and feel quite so welcome, quite so at home, and in my case, a complete and total lack of anxiety. And I give credit completely to the wonderful people who live there. As I’ve said before, they must have infinite patience and tolerance to put up with the overwhelming numbers of tourists who wander around their city, get in the way, and stumble into their bike lanes, let alone the ones who have too much to drink and decide to tip a bicycle into a canal for a joke. They put up with it with eternal good grace, and excellent humour.
When we went through security at the airport, where you usually put your hand luggage though the scanner and get frisked by glaring guards, the staff were singing and dancing. One was pretending that his scanner was a microphone. One of them squealed at my cat scarf, and told me how much she loved it. A part of the airport which is usually horribly stressful and soulless became one of my favourite memories. That’s Amsterdam for you.
The city is beautiful. The people are equally so.
Do yourself a favour. Go to Amsterdam.
Do you love Amsterdam as much as I do? Let me know in the comments below!
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