The Unexpected Amsterdam

Amsterdam is ubiquitous. Everyone knows about the beautiful canals, the museums and, of course, the relaxed laws regarding what some would consider unscrupulous behavior. It’s a longed-for destination, a symbol of the devil-may-care within us all that might look for the taboo. To even say you’ve been to Amsterdam is met with an almost child-like joie-de-vivre, a look of a coy knowing what everyone knows. You went to Amsterdam to do something you can’t do here.

We all know Amsterdam – we think. As known as it may be, Amsterdam still serves as a dichotomous object – hidden and seen, forbidden yet open. So, what is Amsterdam? What is there to do in Amsterdam, beside the obvious? What is Amsterdam really?

Amsterdam is everything you think it is, and nothing you think it is.

Our recent time in Amsterdam was planned along with London and Dublin, a two-week excursion through Europe through a website we love called TripMasters.

Arriving late, Tracy and I cabbed with our two friends from Schiphol Airport to downtown Amsterdam instead of taking the last crowded bus to the city center. For the extra price, the time saved was valuable and we still got out of the cab for the Euro equivalent of about $25 per couple. Not bad. The cab driver was overwhelmingly nice, very accommodating and served as a great welcome to Amsterdam.

We checked into the A-Train Hotel, ideally located on Prins Hendrikkade across from Amsterdam Centraal in the city center and one of the best hotel deals in Amsterdam. I adored A-Train. The small, train-themed boutique hotel was comfortable, with cutesy locomotive-inspired theme throughout.

The front desk staff were all kind, welcoming and incredibly helpful, and the room itself was big enough, casual, clean and served its purpose for our stay. What was really neat was its proximity to a small, quaint neighborhood in the city center, and Tracy took the opportunity to get some early-morning shots over the beautiful Dutch homes.

If you’ve been to Europe, you know that most hotel rooms are much smaller than in the U.S., and Amsterdam is no different. Expect comfortable, but small. We had that, and we were happy about it given the very inexpensive price of the room, which was about $75 per night.

There are, of course, other options if you’re looking to kick in a few extra dollars. The Park Place Victoria is within a block of the A-Train, and for about $135 per night you can have a more lavish experience, or perhaps even the Bellevue Hotel at around the same price point. The Bellevue, one of the luxury hotels in downtown Amsterdam, is about as swank as you would want in a city as laid back as Amsterdam, and it’s level of class belies the fact that it’s in an area of centraal that is so packed with coffeeshops – but, more on those in a minute. Tracy and I? We don’t do swank very often, and as I mentioned, the A-Train gave us all the comfort we needed and was at a price that allowed us to do more with less.

So, the coffeeshops. We’re not talking about coffee, which is a very good distinction to know before visiting Amsterdam. You will not find coffee in coffeeshops unless you brought it yourself from the cafe next door. Cafes are where you get your caffeine. Coffeeshops are where you get (ahem…) other stuff, if you’re into that.

Now, there is an etiquette in these coffeeshops that you would be wise to know. First, alcohol isn’t sold in coffeeshops. Some used to sell beer, but in 2007 a Dutch ordinance was passed that mandated that these shops could sell either cannabis or alcohol, but not both. Secondly, you should know that the employees that work inside are both professional and helpful. This isn’t some 16-year old ne’er-do-well selling you a bag behind the lunch room, these are educated individuals who take their livelihoods very seriously, and their livelihood involves running a place where you can have a good time and be safe. Don’t buy too much, and don’t be afraid to ask questions if you decide to enter one of these establishments.

Also, it’s okay if you’re just curious about the inside of these coffeeshops, but don’t care to actually partake. It’s actually common, in fact, as was more the case with me. Just don’t be giddy about it, if you understand what I mean. Be respectful, observe, be responsible – almost library-like. Okay, maybe not, but you understand. Lastly, try to stick to the coffeeshops on main strips and main roads – ones where you see people frequenting in and out of. Those will almost always be a better shopping experience, or just a better cultural experience if you aren’t going to actually partake.

One thing with the coffeeshops that is the same as everywhere else, and it is to this area that we’ll digress. Everyone in Amsterdam speaks English. I still found it proper and kind to know how to say “please” and “thank you”, as we always do in the native tongue, but it really isn’t needed in Amsterdam. In fact, most who live in Amsterdam speak four or five languages fluently, which is another reason why its such a popular destination for travelers from all over Europe and the western world.

Going to Amsterdam is easy. Having fun in Amsterdam is easy. Understanding it isn’t.

Amsterdam is like the person who wants to be understood for something other than his/her looks. Amsterdam is sexy. Everyone wants to be there, to party there, but Amsterdam is so much more than simply a place to get high.

Let’s talk about the food. First thing to know about the local food in Amsterdam is that you can probably leave your diet plan at home, as Amsterdam is very well known for delicious dessert-like snacks such as the Stroopwafel, two thin waffles stuck together with a layer of sweet syrup; these delectable delicacies are best enjoyed hot and gooey from a street market or on-the-go. Also common are Olleballen, a deep-fried sweet dumpling covered in powdered sugar. You want to try both, trust me. The food in Amsterdam is very underrated, as a place that normally doesn’t get discussed in the hierarchy of European culinary trends.

Amsterdam is, in many ways, a culinary mixture of the Nordic lands to the north and Germany to the south. The German influence is evident in the use of potatoes in many dishes as well as fried of cured meats, while much of the Scandinavian influence can be found in the use of Amsterdam’s proximity to the sea.

The Dutch share one well-known commonality with Denmark and Finland – herring. Herring is a thin whitefish typically found along coastal edges and are served great either smoked, salted or pickled. Herring can be eaten raw, as its found in many street carts throughout the city, and has a particularly sweet flavor throughout the summer months.

If raw fish is a bit too adventurous for you, and you’re looking for a delicious fried option, try the Kibbeling – which can be thought of as the Dutch version of the fish used in Fish and Chips. Kibbeling is normally made with cod, same as Fish and Chips, however normally served by itself with a herb mayonnaise sauce and lemon. It’s delicious, and quickly served via food cart to be eaten on-the-go.

Something that makes Amsterdam unique are the prominence of vending machines throughout the city (normally located near coffeeshops, go figure). Now, these aren’t any vending machine. You won’t find Doritos in these machine, but rather deep-fried goodness such as fried cheese dishes similar to cheese sticks or even bitterballen, delicious meat and potato-filled snacks that are often served in pubs with a mustard sauce.

You can’t find a better snack – you really can’t. These are so good, and very consistently made throughout the city in virtually any bar. I ate my body weight in bitterballen while we were in Amsterdam, and never got sick of them. They go absolutely perfectly with beer, and make for a great shareable dish among a couple or friends in your group.

Amsterdam is also much of a cultural cornerstone in terms of the arts and its many museum offerings. Amsterdam is home to many world-class museums that offing very inexpensive (sometimes free) entertainment that will deeply enrich your vacation experience.

Our favorite, as Tracy is an artist, was the Van Gogh Museum. If you’re less of an art fan, take advantage of the Anne Frank Museum – but get there early. Lines at the Anne Frank are long and form early, so make sure to plan ahead. Others you should plan on visiting are the National Maritime Museum, Rijksmuseum, the Hermitage or the Rembrandt House Museum. We were able to make ample time enjoying the museums in Amsterdam, and highly advise you do the same to make the most out of your trip!

A word on transportation – do not attempt driving a car in Amsterdam. Cars are outnumbered by bikes by a favor of more than 2:1, and bike is the preferred method of transportation around the city. Walking is the second most favored, and Amsterdam is a very walkable city. In terms of getting bikes, you can easily rent bicycles throughout the city for just a few Euros that will be yours to use, and yours to drop-off at any cooperating station.

Another popular method of transportation is via paddle-boat. The canals in Amsterdam are absolutely gorgeous, and offer numerous lines and routes you can take while self-navigating yourself throughout the city. You can get tickets through many sites that will combine the paddle-boat experience with other must-do activities, such as the Heineken Experience, at a very good price.

The views along these canals are absolutely beautiful, and really give you an idea of what the makes Amsterdam unique. It is a gorgeous, scenic city from land, sea or canal, and offers a great location to travel solo, as a couple or as a group.

Can you go to the Red Light District? Of course. Is it safe? Surprisingly. However, the Red Light District is for a certain personality to experience, and it’s not something we spent much time doing other than a walk-through for photo opportunities. The point is this – without the salacious elements everyone knows of Amsterdam, it’s still an ideal city to visit. Without those elements, it’s still a top three city in Europe by any measure.

Amsterdam is beautiful, as shown by its many parks such as the world-famous Vondelpark, where one can take a sandwich, relax with a bottle of wine and watch the day go by. Visit the Keukenhof, also known as the Garden of Europe, one of the most awe-inspiring gardens in the world. More than seven million flower bulbs are annually planted over this sprawling 79 acre estate, making a great opportunity for nature-lovers, couples and photographers.

Amsterdam offers what most major cities in Europe do, and so much more. She is impossible to define, and perhaps that’s what Amsterdam wants – to remain undefinable.

If you’re a beer-lover or culinarian, Amsterdam is for you. If you love natural scenery and beautiful parks? Amsterdam is for you. If you love history and museums, Amsterdam is for you. We love Amsterdam, and so will you.

If you want to get loose and have a bohemian time, you can do all of that. However, don’t get lost. The array of coffeeshops and the scandalous calling of the Red Lights District are certainly a part of what Amsterdam is – but a small part. There’s simply too much, for a city too grand, for Amsterdam to be categorized.

So, what is Amsterdam? Can you define it? Will she be what you think she is? Yes. And, no. Definitely, and absolutely not. Come to Amsterdam and expect to be amazed, surprised and captivated.

Most of all, expect the unexpected.

2 Comments on “The Unexpected Amsterdam

  1. Thank you for the travel report and the pictures. Wow, seven million flowers! I love beautiful parks, arts and museums. Amsterdam must be amazing. Stroopwafel and Olleballen sounds very delicious. When I ever travel to amsterdam I will try both.

    • Thanks! It really is a great, great place. It’s gorgeous, people are kind, it’s casual. Love it. Thanks for checking out the article!

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