Amsterdam‘s winding canals and leafy streets weave you aimlessly round a city that varies from fun and seedy to quirky and cool with each turn. What does not change is the buzz created by the Dutch who cycle, eat and flirt on these cobbles. This city is lively, and it’s catching.
As you exit the cavernous Centraal Station onto Amsterdam’s main avenue, Damrak, you may wonder if you fell asleep on the train and woke up in Buenos Aires. Steak houses abound, and if you have visions of Amsterdam being all elegant tall-houses leaning into one another then this first impression of the city is bound to disappoint. The only things swaying into one another are the drunken stag parties, but if you see Damrak as a bit of fun then it will be. Buy a silly clog or a ticket to the sex museum. Amsterdam does not take itself to seriously, and invites you to loosen up along with it.
Just off Damrak, the Jordaan district makes me want to do a little happy dance. Quaint but cool, this is a lovely area where you never need to know the time. The Notting Hill of Amsterdam, it has it all. The myriad of canals meander around handsome houses, drawing you past windows displaying Mexican kitsch (kitsch kitchen, Rozengracht 8-12) and Dutch designers (SPRKMT, Rozengracht 191-93); via antique shops where impossibly smooth owners languor in the doorway over Gauloises. There are also flowers everywhere: on rooftop gardens, in hidden courtyards, on cafe trestle tables, and on designer houseboats.
The houseboats that sprinkle these waterways are a voyeur’s dream. Many should be in Wallpaper* magazine, all floor to ceiling windows and Droog furniture. Some should be in a scrap yard, and you’ll see mannequins giving you the finger from the deck as you meander past. Every boat, however, is both fascinating and envy-inducing.
If you get peckish during the day, snack on golden chips flaked with salt and dipped in thick creamy mayonnaise, bought from a sunny outdoor stand. For the evening, let Bistro Bij Ons (287 Prinsengracht) envelop you into her bosom for a few hours. This place is not trendy, but it is kooky in a way that I love. Chintzy chandeliers sway over pictures of Elvis and ceramic pigs, while the hosts, Esther and Carla, sing along without irony to traditional Dutch music. Nestled in at a tiny table in this candle-lit cavern, you’ll feel impossibly lucky, because as you’re snuggled up in a dark corner, you’ll notice people are constantly turned away from the busy bistro.
Play a game with the Red Light District and visit it during the day for your first time. You’re about to jump out of your skin, as mannequins start winking and pouting for you from the tiny windows. These women are living dolls.
The area is made up of the oldest buildings in Amsterdam, where everything is in minature: the bricks, cobbles, bridges, alleys – everything. The juxtaposition between the beautiful Oude Kerk, and the smutty peep shows surrounding it is especially startlingly and somewhat sad.
If the Red Light District gets too surreal, slow your mind down with a spliff at Bulldogs coffeeshop. The weed is potent but its traveller friendly and unlike the claustrophobic quarters of other coffeeshops, Bulldogs is spacious. The locals’ coffeeshops such as Tweede Kamer (Heisteeg 6) make you crave fresh air so much so that you run out of the bar bang into a kebab shop window. Not that I would know or anything.
Some say this is a dull old district but there are three great reasons for making the half hour walk from Centraal Station to Waterlooplein: big cheese, big tulips and a little windmill. Yeh sure, your glee over stumbling across this picture of classic Holland is ironic. Sure. Who cares? All travellers are secretly thrilled when they come across de Gooyer windmill (Funenkade 5).
For the big cheese, head to the daily flea-market on Waterlooplein, a huge street filled with market tat. Later, as you stroll back towards the centre of Amsterdam, climb aboard the top of NEMO (Oosterdok 2), the ship-shaped science museum, for free views across the city.
Take a free ferry from the back of Centraal Station to Amsterdam North, which is a couple of minutes across the water. We went in search of NDSM (TT Neveritaweg 15), a former shipyard that facilitates hip young things with workshops so that they can create great art. To reach this bohemian utopia, take the ferry that goes to your left.
We took the ferry that went straight ahead by accident, ending up in an area that fell somewhere between a sleepy Dutch town and 1957. It was brilliant. We stumbled into some Halal food shops, where we got delicious rolled ‘pizza’ filled with spiced potato, and a rotisserie chicken for a pittance, before heading toward the park, where the tiny ducklings nearly killed me with their cuteness.
Sir Walter Raleigh once said,
‘Romance is a love affair in other than domestic surroundings.’
But at the beginning of a romance all you can dream of is that maybe, one day, you’ll get to make this person’s coffee every morning and curl up on the sofa with them every evening. I think a city is truly romantic if it helps you along in imagining that domestic ideal. Everyone who visits Amsterdam is sure to find a houseboat that’ll make them sigh,
‘When I’m older I want to live here.’
Amsterdam is the perfect romantic city. At least it was for me. For the first time in my life I actually said those three little words…
I love Amsterdam.
*Originally featured on st-christophers.co.uk