Before embarking to the Dam, I heard many stories about Amsterdam’s more ‘seedier’ side: the omnipresent lingering of marijuana, the infamous Red Light District in all it’s liberal glory, the packed out coffee shops and the pickpockets. As a first timer in Amsterdam, these urban legends were attenuated almost instantaneously by the admirable, tall red-bricked buildings, the never-ends canals, the cordiality of the Dutch and the nonchalant pace of the small city. This city deserves more than just four days but with semester two of university looming I made the most of every second.
As a keen linguist, I always had the upper hand when visiting a foreign country. Interaction with the native locals, reading current affairs in newspapers and being of help in a medical emergency in a non-English speaking hospital had always lay within my realm of comfort. I had never visited a country where looking at a simple café menu left me perplexed. The prospect of being met with long-winded, difficult to pronounce Dutch words left me feeling quite wary before my visit to Amsterdam. However, much to my surprise, within just ten minutes, I soon became aware that an English-speaking tourist in the Dam could get by with knowing not one word of Dutch during their entire stay. Everyone you encounter, from the waiter in an Italian restaurant to the tram conductor to the old lady at the tram stop, will speak English, and in most cases, better than you do with little to no grammatical errors. Very impressed to say the least!
Act like a Local
With around one third of the population using the bicycle as their form of daily commute it’s easy to see why the Dutch are praised for their environmentally, friendly lifestyle. Cycling is with out a doubt the most popular means of transport in Amsterdam with the average Amsterdammer owning 1.5 bicycles! I didn’t seize the opportunity to pedal like a local on my first trip to Amsterdam as I didn’t want to face a stubborn Dutch cyclist for not abiding to the ‘unwritten bike lanes’ code of conduct’. Amsterdammers may have liberal outlook on most things but cycling slowly whilst you gawk at the surrounding, picturesque canals would not bode well with many of Amsterdam’s fellow cyclists…hence why I chose to stroll instead of pedal. There’s always next time.
Getting Round and About
If you’re like me and you’re not keen on upsetting the locals with your lack of cycling etiquette then the trams are the way to go. The efficiency and how frequent the Amsterdam tram service was made Belfast’s Translink look like the 1800’s horse-drawn cart. What shocked me the most was that the grand, red-bricked building in the heart of Amsterdam happened to be the Amsterdam’s Centraal Station and not a town hall! With tickets costing just 12 euro for 24 hours and 17 euro for 72 hours, it’s easy to see why the trams are the most popular form of transport for tourists. That being said, if you want to be fully immersed within Dutch scenery, go by foot and marvel at the tiny, narrow streets with endless canals running down the centre or even better… see the city in all it’s beauty on an evening canal tour.
Amsterdam Centraal Station
What better way to see the city at night than by a canal boat?
As a vegan, travelling anywhere always comes with a catch. However, the sudden explosion of plant-based lifestyle has meant that even countries as slow-paced as Amsterdam have jumped on board the vegan scene. The amount of times I seen the word falafel, gelatine-free and dairy-free assured me that Amsterdam was perfect for veggie-lovers as well as the carnivores amongst us. £5 pizza and pasta shops are plentiful in the Leidsekruisstraat area, expelling much of the obscene myths I heard about Amsterdam being totally unaffordable, with authentic Indian, Greek, Thai and your bog-standard McDonald’s dotted in-between. Whatever your food budget may be, whether it be from the famous chips in a paper cone to high-end gourmet menus, Amsterdam certainly accommodates all. As we were there in one of the colder months, I was forever thankful for the endless choice of cafés along the canal front. I didn’t even get strange looks for ordering soy milk with my vanilla latte!
Whether you came to shop the latest trends in Dam Square or window shop through the red stained glass in De Wallen, only a five minute walk separates both. My perverse curiosity about the Red Light District had to be put to rest. Within one metre, I witnessed potential customers negotiate with the women in natural daylight illustrating just how sought after this service was. A brief walk from one end to the other opened my eyes to a city where tolerant and liberal attitudes towards both prostitution and sexuality can exist. Amsterdam is an open promoter of LGBT rights with more than 90% of Dutch people supporting same sex marriage and the Homomonument to commemorate homosexuals who were persecuted and killed during WW2. It was even empowering to see that the occasional blue light in the Red Light District signified this window was occupied by a transgender or transvestite.
Amsterdam is home to no fewer than 400 museums and you’d be mad if you missed out on some crucial parts of history. ‘That girl’s diary’ we were all forced to read in primary school, without understanding the gravity and complexity of her thoughts, can now come to life with a visit to the Anne Frank House located along Prinsengracht canal right next to the Westerkerk, the very church Anne mentions in her diary whose bells would chime throughout the day. The deathly, somber atmosphere makes the experience all the more sobering as you’re guided through the tiny rooms where 8 people had to live as quietly as possible for two years. The walls are riddled with snippets of diary entries which serve as a constant reminder of the emotional trauma a young Jewish girl, living under Nazi reign in 1940s, had to endure. One thing I was glad of was the fact that as soon as I had my Amsterdam dates jotted down in my diary, I purchased the tickets online as with the 1,000,000 visitors annually nobody likes a two-hour wait outside a museum in sub winterly temperatures.
Following a walk around the Rijksmuseum and capturing the stereotypical picture in front of the ‘Iamsterdam’ letters, it was a pleasant surprise stumbling upon the Banksy & Warhol museum which is dwarfed right in the middle of Museum Quarter. As this modern and contemporary museum is located in between the historical Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum – it was no surprise that inside I was surrounded by wider, international and young audience who backed political activism in the form of urban graffiti. It’s a must see for all as it serves as a nice complement to the Rijksmuseum.
Small but Mighty
Although Amsterdam won’t be one of the largest cities I’ll have visited in my life, it will certainly be one of the most memorable. I realised four days in a city like Amsterdam was not enough time to really see it in all it’s glory, but given Amsterdam’s dense nature, I was able to see all the major attractions and still feel submerged in Dutch culture and heritage.
Until next time, Amsterdam.