What a week. After finishing up teching Emilie, I caught an early flight to Amsterdam via Munich and had a week of honest-to-god vacation. I was hesitant about staying there because I’ve always sort of pictured it as the Las Vegas of Europe. With the lax drug laws, the legendary Red Light District and the proliferation of bars, I imagined it as a party town full of English bachelor parties and stoned American backpackers. I was so wrong. It’s the most beautiful city I’ve seen. It’s incredibly laid back, has an incredible art scene, beautiful architecture and a wonderful nightlife.
If there was some way to package my trip and give it to every one of my friends and family I would. Since I can’t, I figured the best thing I can do is share my experience and write a list of recommendations in the hopes that someone can have nearly as great a time as I had. Note: I was on a pretty tight budget, so this guide is tailored to people who want to spend as little as possible but still get to experience the city. No fanciness here (well, maybe a little).
- CouchSurfing: Amsterdam has a fantastic CouchSurfing community. My first night there, I went to the weekly CouchSurfing meeting in a small café in Centrum. Within five minutes, a guy there offered me a place to crash for the entire week. I met a ton of great people from around the world and many fun locals. Selfishly, it’s great to think of all of these people as potential future hosts, but it was also just nice to meet a bunch of friendly people bought together simply by the common interest of travel and meeting new people.
- Cycling: Amsterdam is possibly the best city I’ve every been in for biking. It’s flat except for the bridges over the canals, has great bike lanes on the main roads, but most importantly, the culture there has a lot of respect for cyclists. Many streets are shared between pedestrians, cyclists and cars and everyone silently negotiates the road. Bike parking was relaxed, too- you could park your bike almost anywhere, lock the back wheel, not chain it to anything and have no fear of it getting stolen. I rented my bike for a week from Discount Bike Rental for 40 Euros and never had to worry about transportation.
- Brown Cafés: I spent a lot of time hanging out in Bruine cafés (the Dutch equivalent of pubs), hanging out, drinking some decent local beers and keeping my travel journal up to date. During the summer, at least, the cafés sprawl out onto the cobblestone sidewalks and toward the canals. It’s great to sit, drink a cheap (but small) beer and watch people and boats going by. Also, many have good food, like bitterballen.
- Rijksmuseum: the Rjiksmuseum (pronounced Rye-ks-museum) is the Dutch national gallery. A massive building with great art, mostly Dutch. The Rembrandt and Vermeer collection is unparalleled. Seeing The Night Watch in person is not to be missed. It looks like it’s glowing- incredible detail and a very impressive scale. The museum also has a great collection of artifacts scattered throughout the exhibit halls. Sadly, no student discount.
- Stedelijk Museum: the Stedeljik (Stay-del-yik) is a modern and contemporary art and design museum right next to the Rjiksmuseum. It was a great combination of art and design shows- a good permanent collection and I saw some fantastic temporary ones: Marcel Wanders, Jeff Wall, Your Line or Mine and a collection of model rooms stand out. Student ID gets you half off admission.
- Vondelpark: Vondelpark is Amsterdam’s huge public park on the south side of town (Oud-Zuid). Beautiful walking and biking, ponds, gardens, playgrounds, cafés and the Open Lucht Theater (where I saw a free Brazilian fusion concert). Make it a priority on a sunny day.
- Westerpark: if Vondelpark is Amsterdam’s Central Park, Westerpark is it’s Prospect Park. Chiller, less touristy and a little less tame, its a nice place to bike, hang out or grab a drink at WGT.
- Eye Film Institute: across the IJ lies Noord, where there’s a growing entertainment district along the shore. Most notably, it hosts the Eye Film Institute, a cinema and exhibition space. I missed the David Cronenberg exhibit which was going up the next week, but in the basement, there are free film pods where you can watch any film in their collection for free. There’s also a cool room filled with excerpts from the collection wrapping round the space.
- Coffee Shops: you can’t talk about Amsterdam without mentioning its coffee shops. Purveyors of cannabis products of all sorts, these vary widely. Some are calm little corner cafés, some have a decidedly hip-hop vibe, many psychedelic, many clearly tailored for tourists to get as high as they possibly can. The calmer ones were much more my speed- super relaxing, especially with sidewalk seating.
- The Red Light District: while we’re talking about vices Amsterdam is known for, we can’t forget about the Red Light district. It’s definitely worth a walk around once. Go once the sun goes down and wander. The streets are packed with tourists furtively glancing though glass doors into tiny red-lit rooms with a nearly naked woman in each. I’d imagined the ladies stood in windows in brothels looking down at the street, but, no- they’re at street level and conduct their business in tiny, sterile rooms. It’s bizarre and foreign and worth a look.
- De Appel: a fantastic contemporary gallery on the East side of town. While I was there, De Appel was currently showing a great group show inspired by an art piece that was denied due to potential fire hazard in the 70s. I was skeptical, but very pleasantly surprised. Highlights included: squid ink simmering in a catering tray, a motion-tracked emergency hammer, a story auction, a lurking black sphere, and a piece that critiques and “improves” the other pieces.
- Holland Festival: the timing on this trip worked out so that I could see part of the Holland Festival, an annual international performing arts festival. I was lucky enough to get a rush ticket to a dance piece by Netherlands Dance Theater with music by Phillip Glass, performed by the Kronos Quartet. It was presented in the “food center,” which, to my surprise, was just a large warehouse in which food is bought and sold wholesale during the week. Fantastic piece. I also saw an installation piece that responded to the Japanese tsunami a few years back. There was a lot more festival, but most of it happened after I was gone.
- Waterland: some other CouchSurfers and I took our bikes on a trip North of the city to the Volendam and the even smaller Marken. Both were a lot of fun- Marken was less touristy, and very, very small. Tiny streets and houses. We had a little picnic on a small beach by a lighthouse. We took a ferry (not free- heads up) between the two. Honestly, the towns were just bonuses to the ride through the idyllic Dutch countryside. The weather was absolutely incredible getting there, but we got caught in the rain a bit on the way back.
- Haarlem: I sort of went to Haarlem on a whim and had a great afternoon. Haarlem is a small town with a lot of history. If you want to get your medieval Dutch town fix, it’s the place to go. Apparently, it’s bitable from A’dam, but I was still sore from Volendam, so I took the 15-minute train ride. Haarlem has a vibrant art scene- a lot of nice contemporary galleries. It’s got a couple beautiful old churches, too. The highlight for me was the Teylers Museum, basically a walk-in cabinet of curiosities. It had room upon room of oddity, brass scientific device, artwork, medical ephemera and more, centered on an enlightenment-era exhibition hall. Really amazing.
- More Art Galleries: Amsterdam is chock-full of art galleries and museums- most I found were in the Jordaan area on the West side of town. Most of them are free to browse around. Highlights include: W139, Arti et Amictae (free for art school students!), Rento Brattinga, Ellen de Bruijne Projects, tegenboschvanvreden.
- Electric Ladyland: also in Jordaan lies the incomparable Electric Ladyland museum of fluorescent art. The place itself is incredible- blacklight-responsive artwork and natural minerals all around you, a massive walk-in florescent sculpture in the basement. That said, it’s worth going just to meet the owners. One is a friendly middle-aged French woman, the other is an American expat parody of a hippie. Giant beard, gruff voice, leather vest, eyes that have seen some things, man. He leads you through the elements of the sculpture and a brief history of backlight art and technology with a sort of detached passion.
- Shops: I didn’t do too much shopping, but I did a little poking around. Highlights: the Otherist, the Cheese Museum, a great bookstore in Spui.
- Anne Frank House: it’s a little weird and unnerving that The Anne Frank House is probably Amsterdam’s biggest tourist attraction. It’s heavy and a downer, but absolutely worth going. Feeling tangibly connected to something you’ve relegated to the status of legend or history is really powerful. I happened to go on what would’ve been Anne’s 85th birthday. The museum is also a really good example of clever exhibit design. Go early (before it opens). The line can apparently last a couple hours on bad days.
- Food: I ended up mostly eating pub food or snacking on the street, so I don’t have a lot of great restaurant recs. I had great pancakes at Pancakes! I though Manneken Pis was good but overrated (how good can fries really be?). I had incredible ice cream at IJscuypje and Banketbakkerij van der Linde. I had phenomenal Shwarma at Jerusalem, a fantastic fried sampler at Café Hoppe and a really good mushroom salad at Café Tabac.
- NDSM Wharf: NDSM is a wharf that’s been taken over by art and design studios. The inside of the biggest warehouse is a really neat example or architectural repurposing, but there wasn’t a lot join on when I was there. I imagine if something was, though, it’d be cool.
- Door 74: I splurged on my second to last night and went to Door 74, a speakeasy-style cocktail bar. This is what every New York speakeasy aspires to be. The bartenders were great, friendly, making adventurous drinks and trying new things out on me. One of the bartenders freelanced, working independently at parties around town and at a monthly dinner party with custom cocktail pairings. I had a mushroom-infused old fashioned, a twist on a penicillin, and tried some very herby things. Not cheap. 15 euro / drink. Worth it.
- OT301: formerly an art squat, OT301 has gone legitimate, but only barely, it seems. It’s got floor upon floor of studios, not really public during the day, but it hosts a bunch of events at night, both in its theater and its vegan café. The café has no menu and the give away yesterday’s cake for free. I saw a mediocre dance show in their theater space there one night. Great music and lighting, the dance seemed a little uninspired and restrained, but what do I know.
All this said, the best parts of my trip weren’t planned at all. There’s no way I could’ve planned to meet all the people I did, stumble upon so many cool spaces and events if I had tried to pack my days with an itinerary or followed a tour book to a T. I’m glad I had my Wallpaper and Lonely Planet guides, but they were best as reference, inspiration and a map. The best advice I can give is go with some things in mind, but keep your eyes and ears open. Meet people, pick up some local info, get lost. I’m sure I missed some cool stuff, both in this list and in Amsterdam, but that just means I have to go back.