Amsterdam was the only planned trip I had coming to Europe as all others were booked on a whim 2 days before departure. My good friend/co-worker who is also in London working for the month, and coincidentally also going to South Africa, had some friends in Amsterdam that we could stay with. Couple that with the fact I’ve always wanted to visit Amsterdam as it was just one of those places that was a “must do” not because I watched Eurotrip (ok maybe a little bit), but just because I’ve always just heard so many good stories from people.
City Facts – Amsterdam
|My Trip Dates||April 5-7, 2013|
|Airport Transport||9 (10 being easiest)|
|Time Zone||GMT + 1|
Upon Arrival and Getting Around
The flight to Amsterdam came in at a ridiculously low 125$ round trip with a flight time of less than one hour!! Seriously, I can’t even visit my parents in Rochester from NYC for that cheap or that quickly. You go up, and then immediately come down; you barely felt like you flew at all. Everyone that was on my flight, on a Friday afternoon, seemed to all be in the same mindset, getting ready to party and enjoy their weekends. Upon arrival, you’ll immediately notice the airport is pretty damn nice. The bathrooms are absolutely exquisite which I can’t say for pretty much every other airport I’ve been to except London Gatwick. In fact, Schipol is consistently rated as the best airport in Europe. You’ll breeze through the passport control as I think the customs people seriously see an American passport, and think that all we think about Amsterdam is sex and drugs, let out a sigh, stamp your passport and off you go. The immigration agent didn’t say a single word to me.
Amsterdam is a very modern city, and as such, their transportation is top notch. There are many options to get to the city:
- Cabs – About 40 Euros to get to the city center
- Airport Shuttles, there are many airport shuttle services that will take you to the airport for about 5 Euros one way.
- Public Transportation with the Bus to the city center
Similar to Barcelona, Amsterdam has a bus that will take you to the very middle of the city. As you step out of the terminal, you’ll see a bunch of bus stops, so make your way and catch the 197. If confused, just ask anyone and they’ll point you in the right direction. I actually thought there would be ticket machines around the bus stop but I was mistaken and ended up getting on the bus at the back and straight up did not pay. Clearly this isn’t because I didn’t have the means to pay, I seriously just had no idea where to do it.
The City, Cabs, and Mass Transit
Amsterdam is a TINY city square footage wise. At a New York pace, you can probably walk from one end to the other in under an hour. Of course there are the surrounding areas, but as far the city center/touristy area goes, it is tiny by all accounts. Most of the roads are very small so you’re better off just walking around rather than taking mass transit, and certainly cabs. Cabs are metered here and are not cheap but not expensive. Mass transit is 2.70 Euros a ticket which is quite expensive and we only took the overground trains once to get to a club Saturday night.
When you get to Amsterdam, one of the first things you’ll realize is the sheer number of people that bicycle around the city. In fact, I’d throw it out there that Amsterdam is the biggest biking city in the world. There are real bike roads solely for bicyclists and motor bikes. I’m not talking about the bike lanes that we have in NYC where it’s just a solid line drawn three feet from the sidewalk, I’m talking about an entire road about 8 feet with a median to separate it from the roads for cars. Everyone in this city owns a bike and it is the MAIN method of transportation for its people. Have you ever looked up directions on Google Maps and see that there is an option for Biking directions wondering to yourself, who the hell actually uses this? Well, you can bet that everyone in Amsterdam uses it and this is confirmed from talking to the locals we were staying with. I couldn’t imagine having to drivein Amsterdam as you’d constantly be watching for people AND bikes. Being the tourist that I am, I had to say I biked around Amsterdam. Our friends that showed us around the city provided me with such privilege, and I rode a bike for the first time in probably 10 years, giddy like a little child.
The Dutch People and Their Influence
One of the few things I didn’t expect from visiting Amsterdam was really getting a solid and interesting history lesson. If you didn’t already know, the Dutch were very active back in the colonial times as they used their seafaring prowess to colonize many areas of the world. The Dutch dominated the second half of the 17th century as they established colonies all over the world, including various parts of South East Asia, South America and North America, and of course, South Africa, where they still speak a variation of Dutch called Afrikaans (or Baby Dutch as my Dutch friends told me). Some of you may recognize the names, Dutch East&West Indies Company from back in your history classes.
Indonesia, Suriname and the Chinese
Upon arriving in Amsterdam, I immediately met my friend’s friends who had Chinese last names and would be considered well . . . Asian in any country. However, they were speaking Dutch with each other which seriously blew my mind. I know most people would say well what’s the difference between an Asian speaking Dutch and English? HUGE difference! English is the language of the world and everyone no matter where they are from learn English to some degree and at a young age. However, Dutch is not a common language and the fact that these girls were speaking Dutch in front of me was just really mind blowing. It’s difficult to describe in words, but perhaps you need to be Asian and see it in person, and then perhaps it may make more sense. And let’s be clear that this was mind blowing in a really cool and awesome way, nothing negative. To add to the mind blowing, their parents weren’t even from China, but Indonesia. Turns out Indonesia was a Dutch colony for hundreds of years and did not see its independence until Japan expelled the Dutch during WWII and subsequently after Japan surrendered from the War, Indonesian Independence was achieved. What I didn’t know about this story were the large number of Chinese merchant traders that did business with the Dutch for hundreds of years. These Chinese merchants settled in Indonesia and grew up speaking Dutch and Indonesian. And as traders with the Dutch, they were seen on higher class than the native Indonesians so when independence came, not only did many Dutch leave, but Chinese as well. They took Asylum in the Netherlands and as such, grew a large number of people that are Chinese in ancestry but Dutch by any other means.
If you’re a fellow New Yorker and did not know New York was once a Dutch Colony (named New Amsterdam), then you should perhaps be the tourist for a day and go on some sight seeing tours around the city. In what is probably the best conquest of all time fiscally, the British defeated the Dutch to take over New Amsterdam in the mid 17th century and established it as New York that would become the NY of today. Amsterdam is a city arranged in a bunch of disorganized semi circles almost like an amphitheater. We know that Lower Manhattan is the oldest part of the island, as well as the most confusing and disorganized. Could there have been a connection?? Nevertheless, what most people don’t know is that a large number of names of streets, districts, and boroughs are actually derived from Dutch words and names. Here are some ones that you’d probably never thought of but are:
Blekers, pronounced Blake-ers, is actually none other than Bleecker street
Haarlem, pronounced Harlem but with more arr, is Harlem
Breukelen (Broke-uh-lyn) – Brooklyn
Jonas Bronck – Bronx
Vlissegen (Vleh-seh-en) – Flushing
Walstraat (Val-Straht) – Wall Street
Kromme Zee (Crow-meh-zay) – Gramercy
The English Language
One of the first things you’ll notice about coming to Amsterdam is how damn good the Dutch speak English. Their accents are hardly noticeable, even though Dutch sounds nothing like English. In fact, Dutch sounds more like German from what the people tell me but their accents are far less pronounced than Germans. I’d have to say the Dutch speak English just as well as the Swedes, if not better. These two countries, from my travels, are on their own plane when it comes to speaking English. When I was at the club in line buying a drink, a girl started talking to me in Dutch, to which feeling like a fool, responded that I don’t speak a word of Dutch. Without batting an eye, she immediately turned it into English and said, “Oh that’s all good, where are you from?” I was thoroughly impressed because in our conversation, I never had to think about what I was saying or if it was too complicated for them to understand. Dutch people all have the mentality that only knowing Dutch will get them nowhere in life and that English is just as important, if not more important than their native languages. The government forces them to learn English from a very young age and TV shows are absolutely never dubbed. It’s with this mentality that I think this is just a tiny bit contributory to why the Netherlands, and similar minded countries in their approach to learning English are doing incredibly well (Scandinavia, Germany, Netherlands, Swiss) versus why other countries like Italy, Spain, and the French that have shunned learning English are in the shit Economy-wise.
Being The Tourist
Again, Amsterdam is a very small city and the list of “must see sights” are gonna be anything like Rome or Paris. There are still many things to see but probably not the first city that comes to mind when it comes to historical artifacts. We started out sightseeing using a map but after you walk around, everything looks the same, and with confusing street names, you end up just getting lost and wondering around aimlessly for awhile which is actually a good time. The city center is split by many canals and on a sunny day, every new canal you see will lead to you exhaling a “wow that is beautiful” thought. This is of course, until you look down and see that the water is absolutely disgusting to the point that if you fell in and somehow survived, you’d be wishing you swam in the Hudson River instead.
Anne Frank and Van Gogh Museum
At some point in our childhood, there’s a good chance we had to read The Diary of Anne Frank in school. I certainly did. At the time, I barely knew anything about Amsterdam so I certainly did remember she lived in this very exact city but she did and she hid in someone’s apartment in the middle of the city for a few years before being captured by the Nazis. This apartment is now a world famous museum dedicated to showcasing her life while in hiding. Tickets are about 10 Euros and the line is LONG. I went there early in the morning and the line was down a few streets. With the little time I had in the city, and hearing from other people that while this museum is famous, it is just a little house that takes maximum 15 minutes to see, decided to move on. If I had the time, I certainly would have paid up but there were too many things to do and too little time so maybe next time.
Similarly with the Van Gogh museum, this is a huge attraction and probably one of the must do’s in Amsterdam, especially if you’re in art. I saw the line for this place and turned back. I like art, but it’s just not worth waiting in line for an hour for me. The entrance fee is 15 Euros and is probably worth anyone’s time but only if you have it.
Red Light District
This one little area of town is probably what Amsterdam is best known for. This certainly is not music to the Dutch ears to know this, but unfortunately, is the case. Amsterdam is famous for its legal prostitution. At night time, this whole area is filled with women from all over the world standing in a room lit with red lights through a window, trying to entice you to come in to sample their services. What most people don’t know if this is not just random girls on the street in Vegas trying to get you to take them home, this is a strict business, where the women have unions, health benefits, and pay taxes! The best time to visit is during the night as it is obviously their peak business hours, and when you can really see the red lighting of their windows. Taking pictures at night is obviously a huge no and I’d reckon somebody would come out in a hurry if one of the girls did end up catching you trying to sneak a photo in. I’ve seen and heard all about the Red light district prior to coming here and I gotta say that nothing will prepare you for seeing it live. You’re seriously just strolling around what would be rather a very nice part of town, and there are these near naked girls just a few feet from you separated by a window trying to get you to go in and spend money. It’s quite a surreal experience and I’d recommend to only go during the night. We walked by it during the day just to get a contrasting feel and the neighborhood looks like an upscale area that you’d never imagine would house red lights and sex by night. There are girls here during the day but much fewer in number.
Boat Tour Around the Canals
Walking around the city, we saw plenty of ships cruising around the canals giving tours so naturally we had to do this. Price is 15 Euros a person and you spend about 1.5 hours sailing through and then around the city. While you’d think a cruise around the canals would be romantic and quaint, these tours are strictly tours. Not to mention the water is so nasty that you begin to question if you’ll see three eyed fish jump out at some point. Nevertheless, it is still a great tour as you get a good history lesson out of it and can chill out while seeing some parts of the city you’d probably miss by walking. I was so tired by the time we did this (around sunset) I ended up passing out for most of it.
Hitting the Gange
Another thing that probably comes in as a close second is legal pot. Technically, by law, weed is actually newly illegal in Amsterdam but everyone turns the other cheek and no one really gives a damn. This has lost some of its unique appeal nowadays as Washington State and Colorado have legalized marijuana and I’m sure many more states will follow suit. I’m not sure how Amsterdam became the weed capital of the world but I can say again that the Dutch probably aren’t proud of this fact and they’re certainly not all potheads (less of potheads than Americans in fact). Going into one of these coffee shops (Coffee shops mean weed house, whereas cafe is actually for coffee), there are a lot of baked goods containing cannabis and a huge selection of different types of hashish hash. I’m certainly not the expert connoisseur of weed some of my friends are as the last time I smoked was in college, but when in Rome . . . well guess that doesn’t apply in this case because the Dutch really don’t smoke much weed so I guess when in Rome, do what the dumb tourists think the Roman’s do. I know I did.
Partying it Up
Having stayed with locals, we were really treated to some good experiences while going out. Had it just been my friend and I, we’d have for sure stuck around with all the other tourists and hung out the entire night pounding beers at an Irish Bar with other Americans, which isn’t that bad but we ended up going out with our Dutch friends and got to really hang out at some local establishments. We went to a few places where it was clear we were the only non Dutch speaking people there which was a cool experience. I don’t remember any names of places we went to as they were probably Dutch but this city has so many nightclubs and bars you shouldn’t have any problem having a good time with your friends. The people at the bars were quite friendly to me and their English is absolutely top notch so it wouldn’t be difficult to strike a conversation. One small fact about the Netherlands is that this country statistically boasts the tallest people in the world. This was certainly on show at the bars that I went to as everyone there was Dutch. Being 6′, I’ve never felt short at any bars I’ve been to in the past but my god, I felt short here. I’d say the average height for a guy is a solid 6′, maybe a little more. Girls are tall here as well, averaging 5’8 or so. So if you’re a girl, and you like tall guys, this is probably a good country for you to start.
Beers are also incredibly cheap to buy at grocery stores (bars are quite cheap as well compared to NYC) as I got a six pack of Hoegaarden which is delicious beer for only 3.50 Euros (4.50$). You can’t even get 1 of these beers at a bar in NYC, and six pack at the grocery store would run you close to 15$. Perhaps it is because these beers are brewed close by but whatever the reason, you’ll be happy because you are spending basically nothing for quality beer.
My favorite part of any vacation is the food. Prior to this trip, I scoured the internet trying to figure out what Dutch food is but as I suspected like the British, the Dutch don’t really have much of a cuisine to call their own. Thankfully, Amsterdam is a melting pot of different countries and the Dutch colonized the right countries for culinary reasons and there are some great restaurants to be had in Amsterdam. Make sure to try some mint tea while you’re here!
Indonesian Food – Sampurna
Never realized until I came to Amsterdam that I don’t think I’ve ever had Indonesian food which is crazy considering I lived in NYC for 4 years and any and every cuisine was made available. NYC is home to countless number of Thai restaurants which was heaven for me but I never saw many and certainly can’t name any Indonesian restaurants off the top of my head. But since the Dutch colonized Indonesia, delicious delicious Indonesian food was made available to the Dutch. We visited a restaurant called Sampurna for dinner and it was delicious. Indonesian food reminds me a little bit of Chinese food but with the more exotic spices used in SE Asia cuisine like lemongrass, coriander, tumeric, and ginger. Indonesian food, like Thai food, is not eaten with chopsticks but rather fork and spoon. Do not ask for chopsticks when you come here or in Thai restaurants for that matter (unless you legitimately think eating Pad See Ew is easier with chopsticks) because being a part of Asia does not mean every country uses Chopsticks like the Chinese/Koreans/Japanese. We had a huge selection of food with satays, beef, chicken, curries, and fried rice. Food is Spicy as well, but can be made mild. Would definitely recommend this restaurant.
Surinamese Food – Spang Makandra
Another food I had never tried before, let alone even had a clue existed is Surinamese food. Again, being a Dutch colony, their delicious cuisine was brought over for the world to try in Amsterdam as I don’t remember seeing anything Surinamese in NYC. Surinamese food is the ultimate combination of different cultures, and in my opinion, an amazing mix between Indian, Chinese, and Creole. They have their own variation of Dhal Roti, Chinese Stir Fry, Curry dishes, and meats. The blending of all the different cultures is really noticeable and you just gotta try it to understand. Unfortunately for us, we were late for the airport so we ended up ordering the food to go and when it finally came, it was much later than we thought so we had to wolf it down on the street for all patrons in the restaurant to see but it was delicious nonetheless. The restaurant is tiny (30 seats max) but was packed when we went Sunday night so you know it is good. They don’t take reservation so be prepared to wait, it’s worth it. Also the menu is completely in Dutch so you may consider just telling the waiter you want to get a good taste of the cuisine so just order it up for me.
This is the actual name of the restaurant, it is home to Pancakes that are not your typical pancakes, but rather an omelet/pancake hybrid. Place has very good reviews on tripadvisor and the place was packed when went at 2pm. The service here was god awful. I felt like the waiters here feel like they are not the privileged ones to have us dining at their establishment but rather the other way around. The people I ate with, all who live in Amsterdam, confirmed what I said about the service and to not expect any while I’m eating in Amsterdam. Nevertheless, when our pancakes did arrive, it was glorious and the absolute perfect brunch place in the city. Big portions, cheap meal and a unique experience as I had never had anything like this even after all the brunches I’ve had in NYC.
This is a unique Dutch dish that is available at a few spots around the city. You’ll see stands serving these and it is certainly worth a try if you’re a seafood fan. I’d liken this to the Dutch version of Sashimi where they take the raw fish and lay it in salt for a few days to let it ripen. It’s eaten with pickles and onions, or just straight up. The taste and texture is a little fishy but again, if you like seafood, you’ll probably like this dish. I had it twice and would have eaten more if they were more readily available.
Summing It Up
Amsterdam is certainly a city you can do in a weekend. There are lots to see, but more to do. I was lucky to have stayed with some friends who could show me the city from their perspective and lucky to have discovered Indonesian and Surinamese food because of them. Going in early April, tourists overran the city and being as small of a city as it is, I feel bad for the locals that just want to get away from them because there aren’t many places to escape to. Whether you come here to party it up, the red light district, or to hit the reefer, you’ll find pretty much anything here. Most people’s perceptions of Amsterdam are far from reality.
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