After what I can only describe as an absolutely awful end to October and start of November last year, it was time to do something nice once I was recovered enough from my surgery to walk and get back to exploring. I wasn’t allowed to fly, so we had to choose somewhere we could get the train to – Amsterdam seemed a great choice with a train direct from London in 3.5 hours.
Amsterdam, the most famous city in The Netherlands, really packs a punch. It’s well known for its art museums, canals, free thinking and laid back nature – and of course, for its drugs and prostitution which are dealt with in a way different to the rest of Western Europe.
There’s so much to do in Amsterdam that you can’t see it all in 2 days, but you can get a feel for the city and see most of the major sites. I should also say that we timed our visit with the country being put back in to lockdown, but I was so sick of COVID affecting my plans (and I really needed the boost) that we went anyway.
Day 1 – A laid back start of Canals, Museums & History
A. Nine Streets
Start the day in one of the most beautiful areas of Amsterdam, the 9 Streets. This area is where all the best canal views can be taken, and they’re even more pretty in the early morning sunshine. Be sure to take in the view from Prinsengracht which is especially beautiful.
It’s also a great area to grab some breakfast in a lovely corner cafe – Koffeehuis de Hoek served delicious food, freshly squeezed orange juice and a choice of teas and coffees. Pancakes Amsterdam 9 streets serves amazing Dutch Pancakes, or American Pancakes if you prefer those, and Pluk served the most incredible avocado toast and French toast. Drool.
Jordaan is right next door to the 9 Streets. It’s a great area to stroll around, as it’s full of narrow canals, lovely boutique shopping and good places to eat – Fabel Friet is a great place to try the tradition of Dutch Frites which are delicious with cheese and perfect for a lunch time snack. If you’re interested, it’s also home to the Amsteram Cheese Museum and the House Boat museum – did you know house boats in Amsterdam can sell for over 1 million Euros?!
C. Anne Frank House
A visit to Anne (pronounced Anna, not Ann like it is said in English) Frank’s house is a really important thing to do on a visit to the city. The house is where Anne, a young teenage Jewish girl, went in to hiding with her family and others during Nazi occupation in WW2. Whilst in hiding she wrote a diary about her hopes, dreams, fears and the reality of being in hiding. Anne and her family were betrayed and sent on the last train from The Netherlands to Auschwitz – where Anne and her sister were both murdered. Her diaries were saved, and later given to her Father Otto (the only member of the family to survive time in the concentration camps), who then published the diary – now the world renowned book.
Touring the house, you can see the rooms behind the bookcase in which they hid, including children’s height markings on the wall, posters Anne had up, and information about those hiding and those helping them. You can’t take photos in the museum, so these are just from the outside.
D. Canal Cruise
You can’t come to Amsterdam and not cruise along its canals. You can get The Circle Line cruise from right outside Anne Frank’s House for a 75 minute tour of the water. On the tour you go along all of the narrow and beautiful canals, as well as out towards the Maritime Museum and Nemo Science Museum. Our guide was funny and entertaining and we learnt a little bit about The Netherlands’ incredible need for water management.
We’re not really in to art, but as Amsterdam is famous for its art museums we felt we should at least try the most famous – The Rijksmuseum. We spent about 2 hours walking around it taking in the paintings – there are works by Van Gogh, Rembrandt and many other world famous artists. We also liked the special collections, for example there was a huge gallery of Delft pottery, an armoury of guns and a gallery of model ships.
F. Cuypers Library
Within the Rijksmuseum is one of Amsterdam’s most beautiful places, the Cuypers Library. The Cuypers Library is a research library and is the oldest and largest of its kind in the country and it is beautiful. You can enter the library on the museum’s second floor, or just get a view from the gallery on the third floor.
After a busy day of sight seeing, there are endless choices for dinner. We chose to walk back up to Jordaan for dinner and to incredible Argentinian restaurant, Salmuera. The street food sharer for starters was incredible. Alternatively if you want Dutch food, OCCO Brasserie was lovely and the Indian food in The Madras Diaries was also tasty.
Day 2 – The main tourist sites – Dam Square, Royal Palace, Museums and The Red Light District
A. Dam Square, The National Monument & Melly’s Stroopwaffels
Dam Square is the central hub of the city, and is right in the heart of the city centre. Around the square is the Royal Palace, Madame Tussaud’s, and the New Church, as well as some good shopping and nice places to eat.
Dam Square is also home to the National Monument which commemorates the casualties of WW2. Stop here for some breakfast and enjoy some of the shops, as well as heading to Melly’s Stroopwafels for a Dutch tradition as post breakfast snack. The tasty treats are totally delicious – you could go for original stroopwaffels, or get a flavoured one like white chocolate, marshmallows or hazelnut. Yum!
B. Royal Palace
The Royal Palace was once the Amsterdam Town Hall. However, when the French took the city in the 1800s, Louis Bonaparte (brother to the famous Napoleon) converted it in to the Royal Palace, which it has been ever since. You can now tour the Palace with an audio guide which takes around an hour. It’s really interesting to learn a bit more about the city and The Netherlands as a whole – its wars with the Spanish, French takeover, colonialism and modern day monarchy. Plus the building is beautiful and still used today for state visits.
The Begijnghof is such a special place – founded in medieval times it is a beautiful courtyard full of tall houses which was once home to religious women who did not want to become nuns, but did want to live a religious life as a community. The last such woman died in 1970, but the houses today are still lived in by women only. I couldn’t help but think what a lovely community that must be to be a part of.
D. Amsterdam Museum or The Resistance Museum
The Amsterdam Museum is worth a visit if you want to find out more about the city. The Amsterdam DNA exhibition charts its history from the 1000s all the way up to the present day through a series of exhibits and an audio guide. The country has such an interesting history – The Netherlands was part of the catholic Kingdom of Burgundy (along with present day Belgium and Luxembourg), before it became Protestant and broke off to become the Dutch Republic. Since then, it’s had Napoleon (and thus the French) take over, independence through the House of Orange, prosperous ‘golden years’ largely as a result of exploitation in what was the Dutch East Indies & Caribbean (now Indonesia, Suriname, Curacao etc – which didn’t become independent until 1945), and then more recently, the WW2 Nazi occupation and present day trading boom.
Another great museum option is The Resistance Museum. This museum documents the story of The Netherlands in WW2. It is focused on stories of resistance against the Nazis (and thus like so many other war museums, distances itself from supporting fascism). There is also a really interesting exhibit on the Dutch colonies (mainly Indonesia) during the war and their occupation by Japan. We found it fascinating and spent 3 hours here!
Both museums are well worth a visit though, so if you’re greedy like us and you have a bit of extra time in the city then go to both like we did!
E. Red Light District Tour
I never really know how I feel about these sorts of places. On the one hand, I don’t really agree with what is in effect commercialising sex, and find areas with lots of drunk people (ashamedly normally English) not a place I want to be. Equally, I can see the argument of making something that is happening in every city all over the world safer – with cameras and lots of people around, and also with making it less taboo.
A great way to experience the red light district in a positive way is on a tour – we did one with the amazing Mark from Amsterdam RLD Tours. He told us about the history of the area, the legalities, what it’s like to live in the red light district, and what it’s like to be married to one of the workers! He brought the area to life in a completely non sleezy, educational and interesting way.
F. A final delicious dinner
Finish off your trip to the city with a final great meal. You could try delicious Thai at Bird Thai Restaurant which served some of the best Thai food we’ve ever eaten and is just on the outskirts of the RLD.
Aside from the itinerary, Amsterdam is the first place outside of England and Germany where I’ve returned somewhere. I first visited in 2011, a decade ago.
It made me reflect on how things have changed in both the city, and in myself – 10 years ago I had life in front of me, no commitments, just enjoying living in the moment. I figured I’d meet someone, have a family, get a great job. I didn’t really know who I was and the world was my oyster to find out. I realised that slowly over time that feeling has changed. I’m no longer 22, after all.
10 years later and life didn’t pan out as I expected (when does it, for any of us). BUT I did meet someone, build more meaningful relationships with friends and family, get a great job which I enjoy, I’ve travelled a lot and seen some wonderful places. I didn’t have to stay in a hostel on this visit, I stayed in a really nice hotel. In the last decade I’ve lost a lot of hope in ‘perfect’…but I’ve gained a huge understanding of what makes me happy, who I am, my resilience, my empathy… and ultimately I’m a better person for it.
The me that visited Amsterdam this time wasn’t the same me that visited a decade ago. I think that’s probably the way it should be, but the 2 wonderful women I came with 10 years ago are still my best friends to this day, so the important things remain.
Nostalgia aside, what do you think of Amsterdam? Have you been to this amazing city or is it on your list of places to see? If so, I hope you liked the itinerary and got a few helpful hints. And if you have longer in the city, then also consider day trips to:
Stay safe and happy travelling everyone.