I’ve walked with lions in Mauritius, paraglided over the Swiss Alps, and swum with sharks in Tahiti, but nothing could have prepared me for bicycling in Amsterdam.
For natives, who practically roll out of the womb on two wheels, it’s no problem. They view their bikes as an extension of their bodies, and they’re able to engage in any activity you can imagine without taking their feet off the pedals, from texting on their mobiles to cycling in high heels while tweezing their eyebrows and juggling chainsaws.
According to statistics, there are more than a million bicycles in the city—far more than the population of 700,000, suggesting that some residents can actually ride two bikes at one time.
For me, however, it’s a different story. Having rarely saddled up since my training wheels came off, I’m attempting to stay within a narrow bike lane while simultaneously avoiding oncoming cars, women ambling along with baby carriages, and little old ladies stepping blindly off the curb.
If I live through this, I reckon I’ll be ready for anything life might throw—or wheel—at me in the future. (If I have a future, that is).
While cycling in the Netherlands’ capital isn’t for everyone (and definitely not for me), there are plenty of less death-defying ways to experience Amsterdam.
Here are a few of my top picks.
AB FAB FASHION
Pieter Cornelisz Hooftstraat is Amsterdam’s most chi-chi shopping street, featuring fashion houses like Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, and Louis Vuitton. Take a stroll down Kalverstraat for more mainstream shops, like H&M and Zara, then wander through the Bloemenmarkt on Singel near Muntplein for a look at the colourful assortment of tulips and other flowering bulbs for sale.
My favourite area is De 9 Straatjes (www.de9straatjes.nl), a collection of nine quaint streets connecting the Heren-, Keisers- and Prinsengracht canals, flanked by all sorts of unusual boutiques.
For funky vintage finds reminiscent of Endora’s closet on “Bewitched,” pop into Laura Dols (Wolvenstraat 6 and 7, www.lauradols.com).
For art and fashion books, check out Mendo (Berenstraat 11, www.mendo.nl).
Hipsters, meanwhile, will dig the pottery and leather at Terra (Reestraat 21).
Monday to Saturday, head to the Waterlooplein Flea Market for deals on everything from furry handcuffs to second-hand clothing, or browse more than 300 stalls along Albert Cuypstraat, home of one of Europe’s largest multicultural markets, where vendors hawk clothes, cameras, cosmetics and loads of other stuff that doesn’t begin with a “c.”
Lastly, fashionistas will want to pay their respects at the Tassen Museum of Bags and Purses (Herengracht 573, www.tassenmuseum.nl), which showcases more than 4,000 examples dating back to the 16th century.
ART AND HISTORY
From landscapes to self-portraits, still-lives and personal letters, the Van Gogh Museum houses the most comprehensive collection of Vincent’s work in the world, as well as paintings by Pissarro, Monet, Manet and Gauguin. (Paulus Potterstraat 7, www.vangoghmuseum.nl)
Nearby, behind the Rijksmuseum’s castle-like façade, you’ll find a wealth of historic relics and important artworks, including Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch.” (Jan Luijkenstraat 1, www.rijksmuseum.nl). To see where Rembrandt lived and worked between 1639 and 1658, detour to the Rembrandthuis. (Jodenbreestraat 4, www.rembrandthuis.nl)
Although it’s guaranteed to reduce you to tears, you must visit the Anne Frank House for an incredibly moving, insightful glimpse into the heart and mind of this talented young woman. Tour the “secret annex” where she and her family, along with four others, hid for two years during World War II. (Prinsengracht 263-267,www.annefrank.org)
WET AND WILD
Amsterdam is a bit like Waterworld, only people dress better—and if they have webbed feet and gills, they’re well-concealed. But it is surrounded by the wet stuff, a port city crisscrossed by canals, with an airport that’s situated 12 feet below sea level. So it’s only fitting to explore it by water.
The Blue Boat Company’s large, glass-top boats offer an informative introduction to the city, giving you the lay of the land—and the water—along with a bit of history, courtesy of a recorded commentary. www.blueboat.nl.
Alternatively, purchase a 24-hour pass for the Canal Bus, which lets you hop on and off as often as you like, with 20 stops, including the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank House. www.canal.nl.
Feeling more energetic? You’ll get two typical Amsterdam experiences—peddling and splashing—for the price of one with a Canal Bike pedal boat which seats up to four. www.canal.nl/bike.
EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY
On Saturdays, begin with a visit to the Boerenmarkt (Noordermarkt), an organic farmer’s market offering a selection of fresh bread, cheeses, olives, spices and more.
But leave room in your shopping bag—and your belly—for a chocolate treat at Puccini Bomboni (Singel 184, www.puccinibomboni.com), where you can choose from quirky flavours like pepper, port, and rhubarb, all handmade on-site. (Dessert for breakfast? Why not? You’re on holiday).
At Nieuwmarkt, enjoy lunch in the atmospheric Restaurant-Café In de Waag (www.indewaag.nl), an old medieval fortified gate house.
Stomach rumblings satiated, head to the hip House of Bols (Paulus Potterstraat 14, www.houseofbols.com, adults 18+ only), where you’ll wash down a few facts about Bols Genever liqueurs with a free cocktail and two shots of the liqueur of your choice. (Catchphrase: “Some museums have a great bar. Our bar has a great museum.”)
Sip a sobering cup of coffee at Café Americain (Leidsekade 97, www.edenamsterdamamericanhotel.com), admiring its beautiful stained-glass windows.
Then pay a visit to De Kaaskammer (Runstraat 7, www.kaaskamer.nl), which stocks more than 300 different cheeses, which can be mailed to you or shrink-wrapped for travel. (If you can milk it—cow, goat, sheep or buffalo—they sell the cheese).
For dinner, consider a belt-loosening Indonesian feast—the adopted cuisine of erstwhile Dutch colonizers–at Blue Pepper (Nassaukade 366, www.restaurantbluepepper.com).
But if it’s seafood you’re after, make a beeline for Bridges at the Sofitel Legend Grand Amsterdam (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 197, www.bridgesrestaurant.nl).
As for Amsterdam’s infamous “coffee shops,” which sell mood-altering substances that are much more hardcore than espresso, what can I say? Just follow your nose.
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: The 177-room, 52-suite Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam is one of the leading hotels in the city, located canal-side in the Old Center. It is one of only two “Legends” in the world, a designation denoting not only luxury, but history. Marie de Medici, Queen of France, visited in 1638, and Beatrix, Queen of the Netherlands, held her civil ceremony here in 1966. A two-year renovation maintained period details, like magnificent marble floors in the lobby, with stylish new contemporary décor, a redesigned terrace and spa. Oudezijds Voorburgwal 197, www.sofitel-legend-thegrand.com.
Canal House is an intimate, 23-bedroom boutique hotel ensconced within three 17th century merchants’ houses in the charming Jordaan neighorhood. It boasts dramatic, modern design and an elegant restaurant overlooking the garden. Keizersgracht 148-152, www.canalhouse.nl.
Hotel Pulitzer Amsterdam, a Luxury Collection Hotel, encompasses 25 canal houses, connected by an intriguing labyrinth of hallways. Some rooms boast period details, like sturdy oak beams, and afford views of the award-winning terrace or the canals. Guest rooms and Pulitzers restaurant were featured in the movie “Ocean’s Twelve,” which starred George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. Prinsengracht 315-331, www.pulitzeramsterdam.com.
Tourism info: www.iamsterdam.com. Offers tips on restaurants, current happenings and detailed descriptions of Amsterdam’s different neighborhoods.
“I amsterdam City Card” includes:
– a public transport ticket
– more than 50 free and 60 discounted offers on tourist attractions and restaurants from 39 euro for 24-hour card.
Amy – as recent (albeit temporary) residents of the Netherlands (I also happen to be a cousin of Becky Holmes’), I love this article! My husband and I are planning to take the train to Amsterdam in March with our 2 daughters (ages 9 & 14), and now we have a much better idea of what to do and where to go. We also visited the Harry Potter studios in London in November – so fun for all of us Potter fans! Thanks again for the great info!
Hi Marcy. Any cousin of Becky’s is a friend of mine! Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m sure you will love your time in the Netherlands. I would definitely visit the Tassen Museum in Amsterdam. http://www.tassenmuseum.nl/en They have beautiful handbags from the ages on display, and better yet…a gift shop. Happy travels!