One of Europe’s most charming yet underrated cities, Amsterdam is a fascinating mix of sights and experiences
From the twinkling lights of houses built centuries ago reflecting in the canals on a winter’s evening, to the rainbow-hued blooms crowding shopfronts and markets in spring, Amsterdam is a magical city. Yet it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes it so special as everyone cites a different element of it as their favourite. For some, it’s the city’s extensive network of canals lined with magnificent old buildings. For others, it’s the quaint fact that bicycles outnumber people, or it’s the thriving cultural and design scene. And while there’s enough in Amsterdam and its surrounds to keep visitors happy for weeks, it’s also ideal for a short stopover.
The Venice of the North
Often referred to as the Venice of the North, the canals are an attraction in themselves and the best vantage point from which to appreciate the attractive façades of the traditional tall, narrow buildings with their gracious gables, some built as early as 1602. An absolute must, therefore, is the hop-on-hop-off canal cruise. It follows the same format as the customary bus tour with a recorded commentary listened to through headphones plugged into portals on the boat. This is a quick, pleasant way to become acquainted with the layout of the city and its history, and makes it easy to access all the tourist sites.
There are several well-known art institutions to visit in Amsterdam and high on the list is the Rijksmuseum, which reopened in April 2013 after a decade of refurbishment. Most people go to see the paintings by Rembrandt and Vermeer, but the museum has a collection of over a million paintings, images, historical objects and applied arts with about 8 000 of them on display so there is an incredible amount to see. The Rijksmuseum is situated on the Museumplein, a large, grassy square that’s also home to the Van Gogh Museum. (Take a selfie here in front of the iconic ‘I Amsterdam’ lettering). In summer, the lawn is an ideal spot for a picnic and in winter, it becomes an outdoor ice rink, one of several in the city set up for skating in the crisp, air under the lights of a Christmas tree.
Another historically significant site that’s well worth a visit is the Anne Frank Museum. Walking through the claustrophobic spaces of the annex where the family lived is a moving experience, and there are also creatively curated displays that are intriguing to see.
Something a little more light-hearted (and an absolute must if there are men in your party), is a visit to the Heineken Experience, located in the original brewery that produced the pilsner for over 120 years. This is a landmark in Amsterdam and even if beer is not your tipple of choice, there’s a wealth of interactive material company’s history and its phenomenal global success.
Amsterdam’s nightlife is colourful and vibrant, but it’s often a source of concern for potential visitors, which is perhaps why the city is somewhat underrated. While marijuana is legal and there’s the notorious Red Light District, the areas in which this more illicit side of the city thrives are contained and clearly demarcated, and it’s possible to avoid them altogether. In other parts, the nightlife is relaxed and varied and there’s something to suit all tastes, whether it’s fine dining, a cosy pub or a vibey nightclub.
If shopping is on the agenda, Amsterdam has a wealth of stores for all budgets. The Nine Streets district is a bustling hub of boutiques, jewellery stores, art galleries, gift shops and design stores. If you’re after the big European chain stores like H&M and Zara, head to Kalverstraat or take a stroll down Haarlemmerstraat for bargains and novelty gifts. Most of the stores are housed in old buildings and open straight onto pedestrianised streets, adding charm to even the most commercialised parts of the city. There are several markets in the city that are a delight to explore. Filled with fresh produce, an abundance of flowers and artisanal goods, they also provide an opportunity to interact with the locals who are friendly, helpful and generally fluent in English.
- MUST PACK: A camera – Amsterdam is exceptionally photogenic. You also need an umbrella and waterproof shoes no matter what time of year you visit.
- MUST-SEE: Aside from the city’s attractions, you can go to neighbouring towns like Edam. Look out for windmills or visit cheese and clog factories.
- MUST KNOW: It’s commonplace to see people buying and smoking marijuana inside coffee shops and bars.
- MUST EAT: The famous Dutch stroopwaffels are a decadent treat.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
- WHEN TO GO: If you’re keen to see the tulips in bloom, April is the time to visit.
- VISAS: South Africans require a Schengen Visa to visit the Netherlands.
- CURRENCY: The currency in the Netherlands is the Euro.
- GETTING ABOUT: A tram system makes travelling around the city simple, but investigate your options when buying tickets as once-off rides can be expensive.
- USEFUL WEBSITES: iamsterdam.com and holland.com