Q: What can you do in Amsterdam if you're not interested in "coffee" shops or peep shows?
Introducing Amsterdam: the capital Netherlands, the country's most populous city, its cultural hub and probably the most popular tourist & transit destination. Known around the world for the lenient drug (and various other) policies, the canals, clogs, tulips, windmills and a history of commerce, Netherlands is one tiny European giant. Tiny? The country is smaller than the island state of Dominican Republic and its famous capital has a mere population of about 800.000 - that is one tenth of London, one third of Paris and even slightly less than in Stockholm.
The name Amsterdam comes from Amstelredamme, as in "dam of the river Amstel". Historically the city was one the most important ports in the entire world (in the 1600s) and the global center of commerce. No wonder you find Amsterdam sights also on the UNESCO World Heritage List. But enough about the history...
What to see in Amsterdam?
Amsterdam is kind of like a nice small town - in a big scale. It's a massive cluster of restaurants, shops, bars, services and all kinds entertainment, all wrapped in an array of small quirky streets, canals and waterways, green spaces, market squares and general good mood. There's a distinct lack of skyscrapers and wide avenues that would make you feel you're in a big city. Unfortunately, yes, there is litter. And yes, the city centre can at certain times of the day be quite hectic. But Amsterdam is much more than the city centre.
We enjoyed the most the area of De Pijp. This is located south of the city centre and is known from its mix of inhabitants; ethnic groups, hipsters, students and yuppies. De Pijp has lots of parks, biggest of them called Sarphati, and has a more laid back atmosphere all round. All the buzz goes on the Albert Cuyp Market, the most well-know street market in the Netherlands. There aren't that many canals there to see but great restaurants (try e.g. Little Collins for brunch), shops, parks and quirky slightly crooked houses decorated with tons of flower pots. Take my advice: spend some time outside the city centre and you'll be sure to find your favourite area!
I'd say this is the most obvious thing to see in Amsterdam. You'll find the most interesting & picturesque canals in the city centre, the Jordaan and southern canal belt. Pick your favourite! Canal boat tours are from around 15€ and up. We skipped the boat ride as we saw plenty of the canalas just walking and cycling around. But I'd say if you catch a nice little boat on beautiful day it is worth the ride. Don't forget to scout all the über cool house boats all around the city!
Many of the city's famous sights are museums. There's an entire museum district really. Everybody recommends the Rijksmuseum (National Museum). We weren't in a museum mood so we skipped it (along with all the others). But the building is interesting to see; and you can even drive through it - with your bike, of course. Imagine me seeing this massive old building and looking it very sceptically, "I'm not going in there" and then seeing loads of people on bikes just cycling in.. "You can cycle through it!" Oh the small joys in life. On the west side of the buiding is the famous "Iamsterdam" sign. More museums to check? Try the Van Gogh Museum, Hermitage Amsterdam or Anne Frank House, or,(which I choose to put in the same category) the Heineken Experience or Madame Tussauds. All also equipped with long lines for those that are into them!
You're never too far from a park in Amsterdam. The most famous one is Vondelpark in West Amsterdam. If you're visiting the museum disctrict then you're almost there. But you don't have to look to far to see a green space in Amsterdam. If you're looking for more, then take a bike ride to South Amsterdam - it's almost like being on the countryside.
If you like open air markets, definitely visit the Albert Cuyp Market I mentioned above (open Mon-Sat 9am - 5pm on Albert Cuyptstraat): you can find anything and everything from fruits & vegs, cheeses, meats & fish, street food, clothes, shoes, household supplies, nick-nacks, souvernics.... All at low prices. For even cheaper stuff, try the Dappermarkt (open Mon-Sat 10am - 4.30pm on Dapperstraat in East Amsterdam). If you're walking around in the trendy Jordaan area, then go for the Nordermarkt: a slightly more upscale and touristy market (open Sat 9am - 3pm). Beyond the markets, the Negen Straatjes is the most famous shopping area in Amsterdam. Located in the hip & trendy Jordaan area, these - quite literally - 9 streets are full of small designer shops, featuring items you never knew you really needed. Vintage clothes, design glasses, 60's furniture, tooth brushes.. sure thing! During the weekend we also buzzed around in what I called "shopping hell" (though I loved it) on Kalverstraat. Lots of high street shops there and all around the center.
Jordaan and de Pijp are easy areas for great food and atmospheric small restaurants & cafés (you can find plenty of them without the smell of weed, luckily). For specific places I recommend to try: Little Collins in De Pijp (brunch is a must), Los Pilones in Nieuwmark, southern canal belt or Jordaan (Mexican, the authentic kind), Kerkstraat 59 in southern canal belt (amazing breakfast and cool dinners), Café Goos close to RAI Amsterdam (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and Drover Dog in SW Amsterdam (best burger I've ever had). Don't forget the delicious cakes, pastries and handmade chocolates in tiny cafés, close to Negen Straatjes you'll find plenty of those! For the friends of chocolate, I dare you also to try (and finish) the chocolate tart with melted chocolate at the Schiphol's Café Chocolat, near the C gates.
What is Amsterdam if not the epitome of entertainment? The city is notorious, obviously, for the coffee shops and the red light district that will surely entertain many. But Amsterdam is also quite the mecca for clubbing, live music and theater. Book your tickets early for the big international shows - or go see a less know performer and be amazed with all the cool talent. We tried the punkish, and highly authentic Maloe Melo. It's fun enough just go to one of the local, gezellig pubs and have a tiny pint of beer, or two (or more). Highly entertaining! If you want to dance in Amsterdam, then check my previous post for zouk, kizomba, bachata & salsa.
So what's so orange about Amsterdam? Well you must know orange is the color of Netherlands. And we were in town during the FIFA World Cup so the city was pretty much painted with the national football team's colour... Oranges flags, banners, streamers, balloons and decorations of all sorts lined the shops, bars and residential buildings. We managed to catch one of their games as well and joined the cheering crowds in a local bar. The streets were almost deserted while the match was on and everybody was gasping and shouting as one. There is also a big football stadium in Amsterdam and the local team Ajax is the most successful club in the Netherlands.
Last but definitely not least - you have not seen Amsterdam really unless you've seen it on two wheels. Once you arrive to the city you realise all the stories of a city filled with bikes is more than true. There's a constant flow is people (with all their belongings) on two wheels, criss-crossing each other quite elegantly. You bike may be in the most terrible condition but your lock won't be - the they're in stellar shape, and heavy duty!
We had bikes for two days and had absolutely no trouble going with them everywhere (note that some areas are pedestrian only, like the Central Station surroundings). You may lose your mind if you try them on the busiest of shopping streets and in the red light district you have to be careful for highly distracted groups of young men.... But if you are comfortable on a bike, you'll be joyfully zipping through all the city. Bike rental is about 15€/day, including insurances. We can recommend the Black Bikes!