Growing up in the states, as a kid, we were all fascinated by Amsterdam- you can do WHAT? And it’s LEGAL???!? Finally, in October, I got to visit for myself. While you can totally have the kind of experience that’s too good to remember, if you catch my drift, Amsterdam has so much more to offer than that.
We landed in Schiphol airport and within two hours I pretty much wanted to move to Amsterdam. There wasn’t much time the first night to do much other than take the world’s longest route to the hotel (thus seeing a large part of the city as it slowly got dark and more difficult to read the map), and pop in to a couple of brown bars.
Brown bars are the Dutch equivalent of an English pub, stained ‘brown’ from tobacco use or painted brown for tourists. This is a surprisingly effective approach to gaining business as to the untrained eye, it’s very difficult to tell the difference and the brown bars are oh so atmospheric. The good news is that if you can’t tell the difference there’s really no harm done- not many places I found actively try rip you off. (I’d avoid the bars right on Damm Square though including one that was 8 euros a pint and awful.) Brown bars are just as comfortable as your average local (nice local, not the Wetherspoons) and if they’re a truly local brown bar you’ll know immediately because you will be the shortest one in the room and also the only one speaking English. This isn’t to say no one speaks English- everyone does.
The Heineken and Amstel that you get in London or in the states from the tap or in cans, or the Heineken that is referred to in Blue Velvet (one of the easier to follow David Lynch films), is a completely different ball game to what’s available in Amsterdam. The Heineken and Amstel in Amsterdam are absolutely delicious, have several varieties, and if you’re not careful can definitely take the shine off your tour of the Rijksmuseum the next morning. The beer is served in varying-sized glasses ranging from a rather dainty glass that’s a bit smaller than a pint to a massive stein. It’s also served with a massive head on it and the bartender uses a spatula-like tool to smooth off the top in a well-practised ritual.
It wasn’t the best weather (it cleared up just in time to go home), but it worked out really well. The dry spells were perfect for exploring the city and the rainy spells were just long enough to explore a museum, go into a brown bar, or order a sandwich in the world’s smallest café (or what seemed like it) that appeared to have every ingredient imaginable piled high on it and was totally delicious.
I wish I could tell you where this amazing café was, but a. I have the worst sense of direction and b. giving directions in Amsterdam isn’t that straight forward. The central part of the city is based around a series of canal rings. These are semi-circular canals intersecting the city and that make it somewhat difficult to keep track of where you are (impossible for me). That’s not to say there aren’t landmarks, there are plenty, but just that there are several easy ways to get to any one place and following a canal is almost irresistible on a sunny autumn afternoon (or a sunny spell as it were), so it’s not always totally obvious where you’re going to end up (which is lovely!)
There are some distinct parts or neighbourhoods of the city, the oldest part is now the Red Light district. I only went during the day and once during the early evening and I really have no desire to ever go back in the night. There’s some really cool stuff there like the Oude Kerk (where Rembrandt got married) and I guess you have to see what Amstersdam is most famous for. In the Red Light district, prostitution is not only legal, it’s ubiquitous, even in the afternoon. However, the coffee shops were actually totally fine. The only loud or obnoxious ones were the tourist ones. The other ones were just like a regular bar, only playing trippy music and people were just chilling out on couches. Personally, the red light district made me very, very uncomfortable and I didn’t feel totally safe in the evening. As a woman, sometimes the leering men had trouble differentiating between the women wanting to be looked at in the windows and the women who were not in windows and therefore should not be leered at.
Other neighbourhoods we visited were Jordaan (which I really liked),de Pijp, Museumkwartier. There’s lots of neighbourhoods and lots to the neighbourhoods I didn’t have time to see so I’m sure I missed cool things there. Jordaan is where there are lots of nice bars and restaurants and cool canal houses (They’re everywhere really, but I liked these houses the best for some reason.) It still has a sense of being an older part of the city, but not as seedy as the Red Light district. I was only in de Pijp for the morning and went to a market and had a grilled cheese sandwich. This seemed like more of an area where ‘regular’ people live and I wish I’d gotten to explore it more. (There is a pet store with a very, very adorable collection of kittens.)
Coming from London, Amsterdam seemed so quiet and manageable. A 4 day weekend wasn’t enough because I loved it, but it was enough to get a good idea of the city, do a pretty comprehensive tour of the brown bars and get our money’s worth out of the museum card (probably the single best purchase I’ve ever made on holiday). There’s loads of history, museums, and other landmarks (Dam Square, canals, iconic canal houses etc.) and loads to see next time I go.