I’m going to be honest and tell you that I thought I would like Amsterdam a lot more than I actually did. It’s not that I disliked it…in fact, there was a lot about it that was beautiful and amazing. But there were two major things I really disliked, and unfortunately, those two things were just about ever-present. But before I share those two things with you, I’m going to tell you all about the stuff that was pretty awesome…starting with the overall charm of the city.
Beautiful, right? Amsterdam’s origins date back to the early 13th century, where it began as a fishing village centered around a dam in the Amstel river (hence the city’s name). It went through booms and recessions, developing into the canal-ringed city that exists today.
We only had two and a half days in Amsterdam, so we wanted to maximize our time there. We arrived in the late morning via train from Brussels and checked into our hotel – the Radisson Blu in the city center. The location of the hotel was wonderful (right on a canal), and the hotel itself was clean and comfortable. It had one full restaurant (with a decent breakfast buffet) as well as a casual bar area. The staff were great, the rooms were good size (we had Superiors) and almost everything was in easy walking distance. I would definitely recommend this hotel.
We checked into our rooms, freshened up, and then headed back to the lobby to meet up with our guide, Frank, whom I found on Tours by Locals. If you have not tried Tours by Locals, I very strongly recommend that you do so. It’s exactly what it sounds like – a website that puts you together with tour guides that are residents of the city you are visiting. Who better to show you around than someone who lives there?? There are many, many different tour options and guides available – and you can read reviews to help you decide which guide sounds like the best fit for your needs.
Frank had tons of positive reviews, and they are all very well deserved. We had emailed several times prior to our trip, so Frank knew exactly what we were looking for on our Amsterdam Highlights tour. We covered a TON during the four hours we were with him – and every minute was informative and enjoyable. We walked at a leisurely pace along the canals through the oldest part of the city, where we saw the oldest house in Amsterdam. Known as the Houten Huys, it was build around 1725 and is one of the only two wooden houses remaining in the city.
We continued our tour through the city, passing through Chinatown and the Red Light District, and Frank was full of great information and insights. He was also a tremendously good sport when I told him I wanted to go inside one of the “coffee shops” – which is the term given to alcohol-free establishments where you can go to legally buy and smoke marijuana. I didn’t want to do either (I swear!), but I didn’t want to visit the city without at least checking one out, and I was too nervous to wander into one on my own. It looked just like any other actual coffee shop/cafe/bar, except instead of drinking beer or coffee, all the patrons were getting high.
The time we spent with Frank was definitely the highlight of our time in Amsterdam. He was incredibly helpful in helping us decide some of the other things we wanted to see and do, as well as providing great restaurant recommendations. If your are visiting, you should definitely consider taking one of his tours – you will not be disappointed!
One of Frank’s recommendations was to take a canal cruise with Gray Line, called the 100 Highlights Cruise. The boats were very comfortable, the captain was funny and knowledgeable. The tour lasted an hour, and was the perfect way to get a different perspective on the city.
Another must see is the floating flower market, known as the Bloemenmarkt. Filled with fresh flowers as well as bulbs, seeds and all kinds of other garden knick-knacks, it’s fun to wander among the stalls. On the other side of the flowers stalls are different shops – where you can buy anything from touristy t-shirts to delicious foodstuff. And, of course, everything you can imagine with pictures of marijuana leaves on it (and marijuana lollipops…gross!). We got some excellent cheese at Henry Willig to bring back home – you can’t go wrong there if you’re a cheese lover.
We also visited the Van Gogh Museum, which is absolutely wonderful – even if you’re not a huge fan of his. If you are, you can’t miss it. It took us a couple of hours to go through the very well-laid out exhibit, and although it’s spread over a few floors, there are elevators for those with mobility issues.
We bought our tickets online, which incredibly easy to do on the museum’s website. You’ll be very thankful you did when you walk past all the people waiting in line and go right into the museum (haha suckers!).
We spent a lot of time just walking around the city – through Dam Square and the surrounding areas, enjoying the picturesque canals. We also spent time (and money) on “The 9 Streets”, a neighborhood filled with vintage shops, boutiques and cafes.
Near The 9 Streets (I don’t think it’s actually part of it, but I may be wrong), is a chocolate shop straight out of my dreams: Puccini Bomboni. When you first step into this store, your sense of smell is overwhelmed with the most mouthwatering scent of chocolate. The delectable chocolates are displayed beautifully and it is nearly impossible to choose which ones to try. There are so many different flavors – from anise to pepper to rhubarb – but you can’t go wrong with any of them. The honey and milk chocolate ones were my favorite!
Unfortunately, due to very poor planning on my part, we did not get to visit the Anne Frank house (I know, I am still so mad at myself). In a severe lapse of judgement, I thought we’d just be able to buy tickets when we where there – but, sadly, none were available. Every time we walked past – the line was way too long (guess I was the sucker this time). I would highly recommend that, if you are planning a trip to Amsterdam, you buy your tickets far in advance – learn from my mistake!
Now – I will share the two things that detracted from my Amsterdam experience: pot and bikes. I have no issue with people who want to smoke pot (responsibly), but the stench of it is EVERYWHERE – especially in the city center. I’m sure if you are out in the less touristy parts, it might be better, but where we spent most of our time, there seemed to be a coffee shop every ten feet, with clouds of smoke drifting across the sidewalks. At first, I got a laugh out of it…but after the first day, it was just aggravating to me.
Amsterdam is known for being a bike-friendly city. Our guide, Frank, told us that every resident owns an average of three bicycles, and that is very easy to believe. They are also EVERYWHERE. The hardest part to get used to is that bicyclists rule the streets…and the sidewalks. Cars and pedestrians must yield to cyclists, and they take full advantage of this status, driving up onto sidewalks if there is traffic or they just want to go a little faster. I can’t tell you how many times I almost saw someone getting run down by a bicycle (and I include myself in that mix). There is no such thing as leisurely strolling or letting your gaze wander as you walk. You had better keep both eyes peeled for cyclists coming at you from all directions. I’m sure it’s a great convenience for the residents, but it’s a potential hazard for hapless tourists.
All in all, I’m very glad we went to Amsterdam. The people we met were all very gracious and nice, and there are many beautiful things to see and experience. Have you been to Amsterdam? If so, what did you think?