10 insider tips for a trip to Amsterdam
The purpose of this review is to explain why Amsterdam is my favorite city and secondary I will provide information for the prospective visitor.
I came to Amsterdam July 1989 to attend a hackers' meeting that was supposed to last 3 days. Back then I lived in Germany and so I took the train. I didn't book a place where to stay upfront.
So I arrived in "Amsterdam Central Station" and walked across the "Stationsplein" ("Plein" means "Place") and, since it rained, headed to the first hotel on the corner.
Don't head to the first hotel, particularly not opposite to the railway station.
I got inside the hotel, glad to be out of the rain and asked a guy where the front desk is. He pointed to a staircase and mumbled something like "first door".
Hmmm. I was naive. I followed the direction and politely knocked on the door. A tiny naked guy opened and in the background I saw another guy (pretty much naked too). Ok.
This was not the front desk to get a room. Turns out that the red-light district is right next to the railway station.
I finally found a cheap hostel. It was called "sleep-in". The price was something like 6$ per night, or the price of two hamburgers.
Young travelers can stay for cheap at the sleep-in
That sleep-in was like 2 miles from the railway station, half a mile from the "congress" and right between the Rijksmuseum and the "Magere Bruk" (= "skinny bridge", famous!).
It was a kind of converted factory, which means that there are rooms with 4 lines of 25 bunk-beds each... yes - that means 200 people in each room.
I rested on my bed and then saw this guy ("foreigner", of course! <grin>) from next bed check me out, next moment he pulled his stiletto knife... gulp... to peel an apple. Ouch.
Don't expect to sleep too much in a room of 200 people - there was quite a party going on every night. For those who care, I think they had one less popular room for females only.
I recommend the sleep-in thing to the young, open-minded travelers and to people who have little luggage.
I spent the following days' mornings with the other computer people. On one of the afternoons I met this girl who just had to be Dutch (blonde, blue-eyed) but actually she turned out to be an American exchange student. We hung out together and I extended my stay a little.
Bums offering stuff - go for it!
When we walked through the city, every now and then some bum would approach us and whisper "Hash? Bike? Hash?". I never got grass there - I saved that experience for the day when I moved to California :-) but I bought a bike that way. It cost me like $10 and had a saddle, front light and even a back-rack to transport stuff. This kind of equipment was like medium quality. For $5 more I would have gotten a model with a kick-stand and maybe even a front-brake, as I learnt later.
Obviously the dealer had been in possession of this luxury vehicle for a few minutes only. I was sure the last owner was just round the corner and so we took off quickly.
Stealing bicycles happens all the time in Amsterdam. I got myself a simple lock but that didn't help - next day my "new" bike was stolen.
Buy your bike and lock on the flea market
There's a great flea market (or swap meet, as it is called in the USA) on Weesperplein. You can choose from many bikes there (they are still stolen) and get a lock. Get the U-lock which will be more expensive than the bike itself, but at least you won't have to get a new bike every day. The U lock is the kind that they use in other countries to secure heavy motorcycles.
Of course you always can change the rules and start stealing bikes yourself. Many bikes are not locked in the first place and people seem just to borrow them for a trip and drop them off when they don't need them anymore.
Even if you're more the conventional traveler, if you are comfortable riding a bike, I recommend you to get one there. In my mind, Amsterdam is "the city of bicycles". The beautiful thing is that you can ride your bike all through the city without ever stopping because bicycles have the right of way over cars. That might not be a written law, but we got strange looks when we stopped on our bikes at red stoplights. After a few days we learnt that only "buitenlanders" (foreigners) stop at a right light when on a bike.
Finally, if you don't care for bicycles at all, then check out the flea market for the art and old stuff that they have there.
After one week, I returned to Germany to get some things organized and then went right back to Amsterdam. With a few days of interruption, I actually spent several months in the Netherlands.
Amsterdam - the city of canals
It's like Venice. You can get on those big boats but I rather recommend the small pedal boats. That's what we did. I admit it. I tried to impress my lady. Didn't work out too well - I was surprised how fit she was. In my opinion, it is a better way to see the canals than on the big boats. The canals in Amsterdam are like a spider-web: concentric circles with several connecting canals going from the center (railway station) to the outside. There are flower markets along the inner canals, which is a nice sight from your boat. On the outer canals you'll see many houseboats.
Do you travel in winter? Get yourself some ice-skates (flee market!) and skate on the frozen canals. The water doesn't flow, so it freezes easily. What could be more romantic than skating for miles without stop signs through the beautiful winter landscape? And if you're single, you might just meet new friends there - Amsterdammies are very open people.
The Tropical Museum
The Tropical Museum is dedicated to the Dutch colonial past - it shows you how life is in Asia, South America, Africa and the Near East. I was certainly not into dry museums, but we liked this one so much that we actually visited it twice. The Tropical Museum is also suited for visits with children.
We visited the Rijksmuseum for Rembrandt and you can find further information at http://www.rijksmuseum.nl/
An "ok" visit in this field might be "Koninklijk Paleis" (Royal Palace) on the Dam square.
Did you read her diary at school or elsewhere- We spent half a day there and I would do it again. It is history coming alive. When going through the house, seeing the exhibition and the documentary movie you might find yourself swallowing that frog in your throat as I did.
Go here Friday/ Saturday night. No. See Leidseplein on any night! It has the Hard Rock Cafe, fast food chains and some clubs. At night this place is full of artists like jugglers, fire-eaters and of course bicycle thieves. Just kidding. The thieves are everywhere all day long. In winter, they had an outdoor ice-hockey field there (artificial ice) on Leidseplein.
Other occasional events: Get a local paper or just look in pubs... there's always many things going on in Amsterdam. By the way, don't worry about the language. English seems to be the official language in Amsterdam. The Dutch people outside Amsterdam are not too happy about it, which is why they distinguish between Amsterdam and the Netherlands - I heard them say "Amsterdam is not part of the Netherlands". One weekend in the end of August, we were to the Uitmarket in the city center (Local bands, street theater). Uitmarket is a yearly event, I believe.
Must-see trips (by bike, of course :-)
One day we went to the Northwest where there should be a beach. I am not really sure about the beach thing - we never found it, but we ended up in Zaandam.
Zaandam is this little village with a row of still operating windmills along the Zaans river. It looks just like on the postcards. Practically it is an open-air museum. Besides the windmills that are open to public (most days) they cut those funny wooden shoes there and of course it's geared to the tourist with souvenir shops etc. Still you will feel that you are in the countryside; at least back then no concrete buildings and no 'Best Western' chain hotel ruined the sight.
To me, the day in Zaandam was one of the best days in Amsterdam. We made this trip in summer, but I believe it'll be fun in any season.
Another fine destination - within Amsterdam - is "Vondelpark" (flowers!). You can go there by bus if you prefer that over the bike. Talking about trips, a visit to Maastricht is a must. Get a train ticket or rent a car for that. Maastricht is a very old university town about 3 hours south of Amsterdam; it's almost in Belgium. Thus you will experience some French flavor there.
During the time described above, I stayed in downtown Amsterdam. Later my lady and I moved to "Diemen", a suburb 4 miles from the center of downtown. Diemen was fairly a typical boring sleep-town. Their judo school was the only good thing.
Back then, the Ajax Stadium was on the way to Diemen, but I learnt that they got a new stadium now. If you are into soccer, you might want to check that out and maybe watch a match. Ajax Amsterdam is a legend of a soccer club and internationally very successful. On the other hand, I cannot really recommend attending a soccer match since there is a great possibility for violence among fans. You won't want to be there.
There are many people from Surinam (a former Dutch colony in South-America) in Amsterdam. Their influence on Dutch food cannot be overlooked. During those months I developed a love for fried rice with a certain spice that comes from Surinam. Later in Germany, I looked for it, but never found it again. I don't recall the name.
My recommendation is to try a restaurant that serves this kind of food. If you are on a shoestring budget, then do not try those funny brown rolls that they offer in vending machines for like a Dollar. These rolls taste awful.
Otherwise, Amsterdam is a very international city. It is actually very much like San Francisco, if that helps you. You will find food from any country in the world here.
If you come to Amsterdam for the drugs...not to say the obvious, but stay away from hard drugs. They are not legal there and thus not of reliable quality. When you leave the Netherlands make sure to carry nothing at all on you. European neighbor countries have a zero-tolerance policy. In spite of the European Community and easy traveling, the border police still checks on trains and freeways.
Oh, about the red-light district. If you are from one of those puritan countries where prostitution is illegal then you might find this part exciting. Contrary to what your government at home may want to tell you, prostitution and crime are not necessarily related. It is more that law criminalizes this profession. In fact, you will feel in the Red Light district just as safe as in other areas of Amsterdam. This is not to say that there is no crime at all! Behind the scenes are drug dealers, hard drugs, people dieing from H and some people are forced into prostitution. But as the average person, you won't notice it. Since we have the same legal situation in Germany, a red-light district didn't appear to be an attraction to me and I cannot give detailed advice here.
As a beginner tourist, watch out for the 'VVV' signs. They mean 'tourist information'. It is a little confusing that they do not follow the international standard = the 'i' symbol. The VVV offices will help you around e.g. they can tell you whether the windmills in Zaandam are open to public today. Again, don't worry about speaking English only. Nobody will hate you for that. In most countries, it is considered rude to assume that everyone understands you speaking English, but in Amsterdam that is normal. 'Dutch' people might actually be a minority in Amsterdam. The TV program for example is English/ German/ French with Dutch caption. Few movies are translated into Dutch.
I fell in love in this city and with the city. Maybe the first was reason for the second. I believe you can too. The Amsterdammies are great, open-minded, living all kinds of life-styles. Amsterdam has many things for everyone. If you are into art and history, into nature or if you just want to meet wild people - Amsterdam has it all. I've been around and I found no city like it anywhere else except San Francisco/ California, which comes fairly close, but compared to Amsterdam, there are too many police cars in SFO, if you know what I mean.
I highly recommend Amsterdam to everyone, be it for a weekend, a week or longer. Oh, and by the way, I never returned since 1989 but I enjoyed writing this review very much.