One Day In Amsterdam
Amsterdam!! So good, they named it once (because twice would just be frivolous). I’ve been lucky enough to visit a good number of what are considered the top cities in the world – London, New York, Rome – but few of them have made an initial impression, and gained my instant love, quite like Amsterdam. Especially as the first thing I did in Rome was to get trapped in an automatic door at the airport, but I digress. Amsterdam may have its problems, but on the whole, it’s a wonderful place. So, what can you do in one day there?
Well, read on. Because not only will I let you know what’s possible to cover within one day, but I shall also tell you the travel tale of my trip there – the good, the bad, the buttock-clenching personally embarrassing. You know you want to read about me faceplanting into a metal staircase; c’mon.
Sorry, How Do You Pronounce That?
I flew to Amsterdam from London Southend Airport. The name is a small lie, as it’s actually about an hour by train from London, but that’s never stopped British airports before. There were however, two reasons for this. Firstly, Southend is about as close to Amsterdam as it is possible to be, and still be within the British Isles. The county of Essex is so flat as to practically be a broken-off part of the Netherlands: this means that the flight between the two locations is incredibly, amazingly short.
The second reason is that my boyfriend lives in Southend, and he was accompanying me on this trip. I shall refer to him as The Otter, for reasons of privacy, his love of aquatic mammals, and his tendency to eat shellfish off his belly whilst floating in a pool. I may have lied about that last part.
The first thing I was asked was which airport I was flying to, which gave me my first introduction to the Dutch language. Now, I love Dutch; I think it’s a beautiful language to listen to, and oddly familiar to an English speaker. When you travel to the Netherlands, you realise that English is Dutch’s little half-French brother. Dutch sounds pleasingly like English words mixed with a dash of German, and put in a blender. But that does it a bit of a disservice, as it’s a unique language with many words which don’t sound remotely like either brother-language.
Sadly, i can’t pronounce any of them. Especially ‘Schiphol’.
“Shipple? Sheep-hole? Skip-all?”
I’d tried really hard to learn some Dutch before I left (thank you, Duolingo), and I’d memorised quite a lot of words, but I just couldn’t wrap my tongue around some of them. If I’d been in a country other than The Netherlands, I’d have experienced a note of anxiety at this, but luckily the Dutch are kindly, and English-speaking to a man.
The ridiculously short flight was made even shorter when our pilot announced that he’d taken a shortcut – how does this happen? Wormholes? – and our plane touched down smoothly just as floaty Dutch snow began to fall on to the tarmac. “Looks cold out,” The Otter said uneasily. Remember this comment for later.
However, Schiphol airport was warm, and a delight. For a start, it’s well-organised and easy to navigate. More importantly, it has little shops which sell clogs and tulips as soon as you arrive. Sadly I was denied a shopping opportunity, as it was getting late, and we needed to get our train tickets into town. I’d previously looked up the price of a taxi from the airport (€35), which was rather expensive compared to a train (€8) and a shortish walk, and I am all about saving money where possible. We just needed to get to Zuid station.
“I’d like a ticket to Zweeede station, please,” I asked the nice lady behind the ticket counter.
She tilted her head to one side like a bird. “Where?”
“Zweeeeeeeede,” I replied, with a slight air of desperation.
“Oh, Zoo-id,” she translated with a knowing air. I took our tickets and shuffled off down the escalator to the station, cursing my lack of Dutch skills.
Happily, Zuid took less time to get to than it did to work out how to pronounce it. Sadly, the station appears to be in some kind of mobile phone black hole – my Citymapper app, which had been working fine up until that point, mysteriously decided to stop working. It still showed me the route, but not the map it was located on. This meant that I was supposed to navigate us to our hotel by blindly following a line, with no idea which road was which, or if we were going in the right direction. In the dark. And the snow.
“I’m sure it’ll be absolutely fine,” I said reassuringly, as I navigated us into some roadworks. The Otter wordlessly indicated a waiting taxi nearby. We got in.
Sometimes, it’s just not worth it.
At this point, I feel it’s more illuminating simply to type up the extract from my travel journal from that night.
Short taxi ride, watched fare rack up at high speed. Ended up at 15 euros for five min drive. Amsterdam taxis are expensive. Checked into hotel. Room absolutely lovely. Went to gas station across the road to stock up on breakfast croissants and waffles. Returned past a man peeing copiously into a hedge. I like Amsterdam very much.
And I absolutely did, despite the steep taxi fare. It was clean (with the exception of the unfortunate hedge), prosperous-looking, and friendly. Even the lady in the gas station was kindly from behind her security glass; when’s the last time anyone on the midnight shift at a gas station was chirpy and friendly? The snow was falling into the canal which ran alongside our hotel, and even in the dark, it was unbearably scenic. I went to bed licking waffle crumbs off my fingers, and looking forward to the morrow.
I Bless The Rains Down In Amsterdam
I woke up early (The Otter is something of a wriggler in his sleep, as he dreams of swimming between the reeds), so I pottered over to the window and discovered that the snow in Amsterdam falls horizontally. Yes, I had managed to time my visit with one of the coldest snaps in some time – upon checking the weather on my phone, I discovered that it was widely expected to be the coldest March day in Amsterdam on record. Admire my timing skills! This wasn’t so much a problem for me, as I’d packed every item of warm clothing I could, but The Otter had only a light jacket which didn’t close properly, and a cold.
After a surprisingly tasty ham and cheese croissant from the gas station, I went to explore the shower. My hotel (which I wholeheartedly recommend) had very kindly upgraded me to an Executive room. And that included all the free drinks, dressing gowns, and bathroom goodies that I could handle, which I was totally fine with. But also, an executive shower!! This was very exciting. I had never showered like an executive.
Well, it was wonderful. The bathroom was essentially a wet room, with the water falling straight down from the ceiling (like rain!) and the water was gloriously hot, powerful, and non-constrictive. It was the kind of shower that makes you feel like you should have a cigarette afterwards, and I don’t even smoke.
Whilst I was in there, The Otter had awoken and was munching on a croissant. It was decided that the first course of action would be to find him some warm clothing, as he was minus hat, gloves and scarf. But happily, that coincided with my first sightseeing spot, and so we headed off for Albert Cuypstraat.
Who Wants To Be A Pancake Millionaire – Albert Cuypmarkt
As we hit the streets, we discovered that it was indeed absolutely freezing. Even in my warm clothing, and a jacket so padded that I resembled a small barrel wearing a Peruvian hat, I was feeling pretty chilly. The Otter stuffed his hands in his pockets and attempted not to sneeze over the entirety of Amsterdam. The city was in the last, but firm, grip of winter – a cold wind which felt like it had come directly from the North Sea, rustling leafless trees, and bringing a scent of stone and storms.
But what a city it is in the daylight! Already, we were walking alongside canals whilst people rode past on bicycles, and a cat lazily watched us from the warm window of a canalside house. Adverts were in a language which was familiar, but different. Bikes were neatly parked at the side of the road, with tidy little baskets on the front, or child seats on the back. It was all very agreeable indeed, as we reached Albert Cuypstraat, home of the Albert Cuypmarkt market.
The stalls were still unpacking their wares when we got there, but there was enough up and running, and we immediately went into tourist shopper mode. If you want your stereotypical tourist souvenirs, then this is the place to come – I very much doubt that there’s better prices anywhere in the city. Clog-shaped slippers? We bought ’em. Clog keyrings? Sold! Bright orange t-shirts? Mine!
But as well as this orgy of tourist paraphernalia, we had more mundane items to buy, especially as The Otter was starting to get icicles forming in his fur.
“This weather is terrible!” The marketseller said in a lovely, dusky Dutch accent, rubbing his gloved fingers as The Otter perused an array of woolen scarves for sale. “I usually sell summer scarves, but I saw the weather this morning and changed my mind.”
Yes, Albert Cuypmarkt is also excellent for household goods – aside from the scarf, gloves and hat which The Otter quickly tracked down, we saw plenty of stalls selling fashion, leather goods, electricals, baby clothes – and all at a very reasonable rate. Suddenly, Amsterdam didn’t seem quite so expensive as it had the night before. And all of the stallholders, to a person, were friendly and chatty; there was no hard sell, no sales patter, just people interested to chat and find out where we were from. It was lovely.
And with The Otter wrapped up against the cold and rapidly regaining sensation in his fingers, we stumbled across the other awesome thing that the market has to offer – the food. Oh, god, the food. The food is amazing.
There’s a number of cafes and restaurants in the area which come to life in the evening, once the market has gone, but if you want to treat yourself, buy something from a stall. Stalls of stroopwafels tugged at my heartstrings, but eventually I decided on a place selling pofferjes. Aside from being another Dutch word which I cannot pronounce for the life of me, they’re tiny, miniature pancakes which were being cooked in front of my eyes. As if this wasn’t tasty enough, the pancake seller had twin vats of melted Nutella and white chocolate simmering behind him, and an array of marshmallows and salted caramel chunks. This had to be done.
Well, they were absolutely delicious. As we walked away, The Otter vowed to buy a pancake iron, as I silently plotted dreams of starting a pancake empire in Britain. Seriously, whoever gets on this one day and sells them to London hipsters will be an immediate millionaire.
Number two on my list was the IAmsterdam sign, located just up the road from the Albert Cuypmarkt, outside the gorgeous pile of bricks that is the Rjiksmuseum. My hope was to get a fairly clear view of it for a photo – I’d done my research and heard that it was best to get there fairly early. It was still fairly early, so hurrah!
“I think we’ll be fine,” I chattered happily to The Otter as we walked down a quiet street. “There’s no-one else around here. It should be pretty empt-”
We rounded a corner, and the words died, shriveled up, and descended to heaven on little wings. Suddenly, the entire tourist population of Amsterdam was here before us, posing with selfie sticks, climbing on the letters, posing classily with beer bottles and spliffs. So top tip: if you want to see the IAmsterdam sign without it being liberally draped with visitors, get there really early.
But I wasn’t really disappointed, because the Museumplein is an excellent little corner of the city. If you like your art, culture, and history, it’s an absolute must. The Rjiksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum are all nestled around the square like lounging cats, and the green space in the middle was being well-used even on a cold, snowy day. A woman was teaching her spaniel puppy to play fetch, his ears flapping in the wind, and it felt like a lovely community space even in the midst of somewhere that was so busy with visitors.
I’d decided not to do any of the museums on this trip. Partly because I only had a little over one day to explore Amsterdam, and there was no way I could do a single one of the museums justice unless I spent an entire day in them, which would leave very little time for seeing the rest of the city. And partly because, hey, it gives me an excuse to go back again. So I regretfully walked past the ticket office and went into the museum shop instead, because there’s always time for shopping.
And what a wonderful little museum shop it is! None of the usual generic rubbish, with a hopeful museum logo printed on the side, but genuinely nice gifts which were very unique to those particular museums. I was also amused to see that they sell tiny replicas of the IAmsterdam sign, and was mightily tempted to get one and take a selfie with it, my face looming massively behind it in a role-reversal of the usual. See, you can fulfill those IAmsterdam snaps somehow.
Bloemenmarkt, and Face Marks
We decided to take a random wander through Amsterdam, as we had tickets for the Anne Frank House which were assigned to a certain time slot, and I usually find that there’s no better way to explore a city than getting thoroughly lost in it. Plus I had my beloved Citymapper, so I was safe in the knowledge that I could steer us in the right direction when needed.
And Amsterdam’s streets are wonderful to wander down. Not too much traffic, only an occasional need to leap out of the way of bicycles, and lots of interesting shops to potter in. My absolute favourite was a shop selling American and British foodstuffs (which I checked out because I have an unfortunate addiction to Fritos): a pancake/British food exchange immediately became part of my business empire plans.
We came across the Bloemenmarkt almost entirely by accident, and it’s a great, albeit tiny, space. It’s crammed between a canal and a row of narrow houses – including the cheese museum, which immediately became a must-see for one day in the future – and is, if you hadn’t already guessed, a fabulous little flower market.
If you know your 17th century history – and who doesn’t? – you’ll know that tulips and the Netherlands have a history together which is more loving than Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, or Kanye and Kim. The growing of tulips, much brighter and exotic than any flowers which were being cultivated in Europe at the time, coincided with the Golden Age of the Netherlands when the country was at the very top of the trading tree. Suitable for the soil conditions there, tulips became a luxury item, something for the rest of Europe to show off to their pals. Amsterdam and the surrounding area became famous for its tulips, despite the bottom falling out of the tulip business eventually.
So if you want your tulips, the Bloemenmarkt is the place to go. Today, it seemed to be mostly populated with people who were taking photos of the flowers rather than shopping for them, but there were a dazzling array of tulips even though they weren’t in season yet. And if you’re worried about bringing tulip bulbs back into your country and having them confiscated at customs, well, they sell ceramic tulips too. I loved this clever side-step, as if the sellers were saying “well, you have no excuse not to buy these ones. Buy a tulip and impress your friends.”
When we reached Dam Square, home of the Royal Palace which has the most delightful bells I’ve ever heard, The Otter was experiencing something of a crisis. A bathroom crisis, to be precise, and therefore a cafe-type establishment needed to be located. We made the mistake of choosing one right on the square, the Euro Pub.
Let me say that the name “Euro Pub” is quite misleading, as it should more accurately be named “A Crapton of Euros Pub”. It was entirely our fault – I knew that somewhere on the main square was bound to be expensive, and we felt bound by honour to buy some drinks if we were using the facilities – but holy cow. A beer and a cola set The Otter back about €17, and he spent most of our time there staring at the receipt in silent shock, with the glassy eyes of a man who’s Seen Things.
I took the opportunity to use the toilets – heck, I was going to get as much value out of the place as possible – so I slipped off. The toilets were located down a staircase made out of industrial steel, but the facilities were nice enough. And then, on the way back up, I managed to do the impossible and trip up the stairs. I staggered up about five steps, arms flailing like an interpretative dancer, and crashed face first into the metal staircase just as someone stepped on. It must’ve looked like I was attempting to kiss their toes. And the dude just stepped over me, and carried on.
I returned back to The Otter, who was downing a pint whilst still staring at the receipt, and silently used antibacterial wipes on my face.
I did not enjoy the Euro Pub.
The Anne Frank House
When I’d suggested visiting Amsterdam, The Otter had one stipulation – a historian by trade, he wanted to visit the Anne Frank House. I gave it some thought and agreed, as long as he got me a present. I didn’t find it entirely necessary to tell him that it’d been my #1 thing to see in Amsterdam.
When you arrive outside the museum, it’s not immediately clear where you need to go, because there is a huge line of visitors snaking outside of the building which completely obscures the entrance. There were quite a lot of confused people milling around – the museum requires you to buy a ticket online in advance (and they usually sell out about two months before your preferred date) – and so there was a mix of people with no tickets, people with tickets who didn’t know where to go, and a smaller queue to one side which was for group tickets.
Happily, the small line was where I needed to be, as I’d paid an extra five euros for a fifteen-minute introductory talk before entering the museum, and it was well worth it. Aside from saving you from the large queue outside, the talk was excellent. A young man named Luke made use of twin timelines on the wall – one detailing the events of the time, and the factors which caused the Nazi party to rise to power in Germany in 1933, and the other – the quiet little timeline of the Frank family. This was illustrated with photos: the birth of Margot Frank, and her younger sister Anne a couple of years later. Pictures of them as very young children in Germany, full of smiles, and smiling still when they were forced to flee to Amsterdam in 1933.
At the end of the timeline was a photo of Otto Frank, their father who survived the war, standing by their shared gravestone at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
We took our audio tours, which were excellently narrated and activated by sensor in each room, and started the tour. If you’re familiar with the story of Anne Frank and her family, you’ll know that they were hidden in an annex in the back of what was then a warehouse and office, and this is where you start the tour. General history sets the scene, chillingly real and recent, with rolling news footage. Individual rooms demonstrate the cleverness of their hiding place, in a warehouse building which seemingly contained no residence, and gives information on the heroic helpers who brought them food and necessities. Archive footage interviews them, and they speak to you across the years.
Most affectingly, Anne’s passport photos are projected on to a wall. They were clearly taken quite quickly after the other, and when shown quickly after each other, Anne becomes animated; no longer a figure from history, but a moving, living young girl. If you can watch it without getting tears in your eyes, then you’re doing better than I did.
And then, after an ascent up a steep staircase, you find yourself in front of the bookcase which hid the door to the Secret Annexe, where the Frank family, along with others, lived until they were betrayed in 1944. The files are still held on its shelves, yellow and curled with age. And then you squeeze yourself through the door, having to hold on to the door frame, and you are transported into a tiny, cramped space which held eight people, whose lives were utterly at risk purely for being Jewish.
The rooms are empty – the Nazis stole almost everything inside – and utterly dark. The people living there had to live in silence and darkness to avoid detection. You walk along the walls, following a queue of people, and give thanks that you’ve had such a privileged life. Plain white plaques on the wall detail who slept where, giving their date of birth, and date of death. And then you move into Anne’s room, where she wrote her famous diary, and where she tried to brighten her surroundings by pasting pictures of movie stars and royalty to her walls. Nothing else remains; it’s all stolen away.
And at this point I’ll add a comment which I’m certain that 99.9% of people don’t need – if you visit the Anne Frank House, for goodness’ sake, be respectful. When I was there, everyone was quiet and somber, as befits such a tragic site. Everyone that is, except for a pair of English tourists who decided to spend the whole thing laughing and joking about someone called George, and his ear infection. Now, I’m not saying that everyone has to go there and have a big moment of reflection – if you don’t want to do that, fine, cool. But understand that the majority of people are visiting because they want to understand, reflect, and pay tribute. They really don’t want to hear jokes about someone’s fucking ear infection.
Similarly, when I returned to my hotel, I read some online reviews of the Anne Frank House which complained about the ticketing system, including one which stated, “I decided to make a spontaneous trip to the Anne Frank House, and I feel that the ticketing system really discriminated against me.” In the unlikely event that reviewer reads this, I urge you to visit the Anne Frank House again having bought a ticket in advance, and learn what discrimination really looks like.
But enough ranting. The Anne Frank House is a magnificent tribute to a young girl and her family, who could’ve ended up as nameless statistics, but who brought home the horror of what happened to Europe’s Jews through the hopeful keeping of a diary. The diary itself is kept near the end of the tour in a glass case, and the reverent visitors bowing their heads before it shows what an impact it has had, and will continue to have.
Anne Frank died on 12th March 1945, in a concentration camp, weeks after her sister Margot died, and two weeks before the camp was liberated.
It must never be allowed to happen again.
Red Fright District
After the Anne Frank House, we needed some food in our saddened bellies, and The Otter requested a pint of something. So we made our way down to the edge of the Red Light District for frites from Vleminckx, which I most heartily recommend. They put British chips to shame – fluffy inside, crispy on the outside, and smothered in a huge dollop of sauce; satay in my case. My goodness, they were delicious. I’ve been craving them since about half an hour after I finished them: it’s something which may remain with me for life.
Afterwards, we put our feet up in a nearby pub. The Dutch have a fantastic talent for pubs; known as ‘brown cafes’ as they have dark wood furnishings and tobacco-stained walls, I refuse to believe that there are cozier places anywhere else in the world. The Dutch have a concept called gezellig – if you’ve come across the Danish term hygge then you’ll know what I’m talking about – which encompasses that feeling of warmth, fun, and togetherness. Amsterdam has nailed it in one.
As it was creeping on towards the end of the day, we decided to go and see the Red Light District, because we felt compelled to go and see it so we could say “I saw it”. I’ve got to say, as a non-drinker and a non-weed-smoker, the appeal of the place was somewhat lost on me. I’ve got no problems with people drinking or smoking weed, as long as they don’t directly affect me: I just choose not to do them myself because they absolutely bugger up my anxiety. But maybe the Red Light District is far more entertaining if you’re seeking out either of those things.
As an area, it’s actually very pretty; it’s the oldest part of Amsterdam, and it shows. The canals running through the area are beautiful; the houses are glorious. Bridges, salted to protect against the ice and cold, stretch scenically across the water as canal boats chug underneath.
But it’s super busy, and as this was the weekend (and St. Patrick’s Day, for good measure), it was filled to the brim with tourists looking for a good time, and those who had already overindulged. And I hate to say it, but the British tourists seemed to be the most far gone. It’s a conveniently short trip for a Brit on a booze cruise – in fact, there was controversy a week later when English football fans caused widespread disturbance – and although they’re allowed to enjoy themselves in whichever way is legal, it did make the Red Light District feel a little edgy and unpredictable.
So, to escape the crowds for a bit, we decided to visit the Oude Kerk, or Old Church, which lives up to its name by being the oldest building in Amsterdam. It’s a gorgeous building, absolutely beautiful, and well worth visiting to take in the views of the outside structure. We paid our €10 entry fee, and entered.
There are two things that the Oude Kerk doesn’t tell you before you go in. One – it’s not really a church any more. It’s been de-consecrated and the graves moved, and now acts as a centre for art installations.
The second thing they don’t tell you is that part of this art installation is a wire statue near the entrance, which talks as you go past it, and absolutely scares the crap out of you.
The church was draped in black bin bags, towers of black plastic stretching up to the ceiling and covering the details. The central aisle was a festival of coats spread out over the floor. A neon arrow pointed upwards at the back.
We wandered around whilst The Otter, a fan of church art, made unhappy noises. Random statues asked us questions about death. Eventually we came to one which must’ve had something stuck in front of its sensor, because it kept repeating its question.
“Did you shit yourself? Did you shit yourself? Did you shit yourself? Did you shit yourself? Did you shit yourself? Did you shit yourself?”
Now I don’t confess to be an art expert, but that statue was worth the entrance fee alone. Even better – it was located by the toilets.
End of Day One
The Otter was seriously flagging by this point – we’d walked about twelve kilometers and he was suffering with a heavy cold, so we decided to head back to the hotel for a more restful evening. As we walked, I mused on my findings so far.
Even though some of the things we’d experienced during the day hadn’t been quite what we’d expected – the Oude Kerk specifically, which could do with a little more signage as to its nature – I was falling into a contented, happy love with Amsterdam. Yes, it could get crowded, but as the crowds seemed to mostly congregate around specific areas, they were quite easy to avoid. The city was extremely walkable and clean. Places to eat and get refreshment were plentiful and cozy.
But most of all, I loved the Dutch people. Everyone we met had been friendly, polite, and welcoming, despite the numbers of tourists they must have visiting their home every year. When I looked at some of the rowdy tourists down by the Red Light District, I realized what an infinite pool of patience the locals possessed, and how they were rightly proud to show off their beautiful city.
Better yet, I had one more day to go.
Got two days in Amsterdam? Click here for the tale of Day Two!
Have you been to Amsterdam? What did you visit? Were you too thoroughly creeped out by statues asking about your toilet habits? Let me know in the comments!
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