This past March, my partner and I escaped our never-ending winter and flew away to Holland. We had three days to spend in Amsterdam (our last day in the Netherlands we spent in Haarlem). Everyone was so excited for us. Not only because I bought the tickets in September and then kept them a secret from my other half until Christmas morning, when we had to unwrap clues to our destination, but also because everyone had something to say about Amsterdam.
“Amsterdam is my favourite city!”
“Amsterdam is amazing!”
“You have to go to Anne Frank House!”
“The Van Gogh museum!”
“The Jazz Festival is incredible!”
“Go to the Sex Museum and take a photo with the giant penis!”
Truly, it seemed anyone who had ever set foot in this city loved it. It seemed like Amsterdam was one of those cities that everyone should visit but we never had. We were excited! I had been a little worried that three or four days wouldn’t be enough, that we would not have time to see everything we wanted to see. But as I carefully asked around (remember, this was a secret and I happen to be absolutely awful at keeping secrets), everyone said that three or four days would be enough to get a good feel for the city. And I found many people, having enjoyed the city so much, had visited Amsterdam more than once.
We arrived around 10 am on Monday morning, after an overnight flight on Wow Air. The train station is located right at the airport and the trains run every few minutes. Five Euros and 20 minutes later, we were at Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station. Our Airbnb was located a short walk from the ferry on the north side of the IJ (the river, pronounced something between “eye” and “ay”). We exited the station on the North side and immediately saw the ferries. It was beautifully simple. There are four different ferries, going to three different spots. The two in the middle use the same route – a short 3 minute ride across the IJ to unload cyclists and pedestrians.
I should make a note here about the cyclists. Pedestrians do not get the right of way so look both ways and do not, under any circumstances, accidentally find yourself standing in a bike lane. I will hazard a guess and say you will most likely NOT be run over. However, they will ride so close to you so fast and ring their bell at the exact moment to give you a heart attack. I felt I had a better chance of crossing the street without incident than the bike lanes. By the end of the four days, I had become neurotic about checking both ways for bicycles three or four times before even stepping foot into the bike lanes. Consider yourself warned.
We stepped off the ferry into Noord and after quickly and clumsily getting out of the way of all the cyclists, we made our way gently and calmly to our Airbnb. It was about a 10 minute walk, though we took slightly longer due to Bob’s ankle being pretty stiff after the long flight. Our Airbnb hostess met us on the sidewalk outside their place and showed us our home for the next four days. And truly, it felt like a home. It was a cozy attic studio apartment with a small terrace and three flights of extremely steep stairs (like everywhere in Holland). It had everything we needed and our host family was lovely and welcoming.
The first thing we needed to do was get some food. Our hostess told us about a food market nearby and a restaurant that was nice yet relaxed that we could get a coffee. We freshened up and headed out the door again for our first day exploring the city.
We headed directly for the Food Markt closeby for the first order of the day – coffee!! The area north of the IJ is fittingly called Noord. It is the old port and ship-building area and was never considered by locals to be part of Amsterdam. Now it is being gentrified into hip food markets, exciting restaurants and chill coffee shops, adorned with graffiti art. Who knows if we would’ve hopped on the ferry if we hadn’t been staying there but we were happy that we did.
Over the next several days, we retreated from the bustle of the touristy part of Amsterdam and just enjoyed the relaxed feeling of grabbing a drink at Stork, while watching the blue hour creep in, stopping by the nearby food market to get a simple dinner and bottle of wine for the evening, or walking through the park and having simple and cheerful conversations with all the dog-owners.
Noord has a lot of interesting things that we didn’t see as well. It has two microbreweries (Walhalla and Oedipus Brewing); it has the EYEFilmuseum, a cultural centre that has films and exhibitions; the A’DAM Lookout, a 20-story building that has a guitar throne in the lobby and swings on the top of the building that swing out over the edge. (Yes, terrifying.) The A’DAM Lookout used to be Shell headquarters and when they left it, the city decided to sell it for 1€ to the bidder that had the most interesting idea on how to use the building.
After wandering around the north bank of the IJ, we hopped on the ferry again and headed to central Amsterdam.
This is the area that everyone knows; it’s home to the Red Light District, Anne Frank House, Jordaan, the canals, the Museum District, the Heineken Experience, among other things. Very close to the station is the main shopping district. These are the stores that you can find in any other big city as well as sex shops, pot shops, and touristy restaurants. Keep walking and the crowds will start to thin. We ended up finding the oldest fry shop in Amsterdam – Vlaams Friteshuis. I got some fries with Belgian mayo as a snack. Then we wandered around aimlessly just taking in the iconic street scenes, sitting on the benches and people-watching, taking photos, exploring our guidebook and buying some small souvenirs at the Bloemenmarkt. It’s a floating flower market and the tulips and other flowers are beautiful. Of course, we weren’t buying any but it’s also filled with souvenirs of the standard variety if you are looking to get that done in one fell swoop.
This first day was really just getting an idea for the layout of the city. The canals are shaped like a horseshoe with Amsterdam Centraal station at the top in the centre. The city is really as stunning as it is in all the photos you’ve ever seen, even in cold and cloudy weather. We popped into some shops, took plenty of photos, stopped for a glass of wine, and by this time, evening was falling as were our energy levels after a very long, overnight flight the night before. We ferried back across the IJ, bought some simple groceries at the market and headed back to our Airbnb to retire for the evening.
The next day was full-on rain, an eventuality that we were prepared for. Once we disembarked from the ferry, we bought a two-day transit pass for 12.50€. This allowed us on the trams and buses for a 48-hour period. The automatic kiosks for these transit tickets are in the station and are blue, different from the yellow kiosks that sell tickets for intercity trains (including to the airport). You can also buy a pass at the cashier on the tram but you can only pay with credit card. At the kiosks in the station, you can pay cash.
Because we knew it would be a rainy day, we had decided that this would be our Museum/Market day. I headed to the Rijksmuseum first and Bob decided to check out the Albert Cuyp Market since he’s not an art aficionado. Museums as big as the Rijksmuseum can be overwhelming and exhausting so I gave myself two hours. Once there, instead of an audio guide, I downloaded the app for a tour of the highlights, on the Museum’s wifi. The app told me where I was in the museum, how to get to the next highlight and then gave a short description of the piece. Included were the Dutch masters – Vermeer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt – as well as pieces that told stories of Dutch life, and information on the famous blue and white Dutch delftware. I found it informative, easy-to-use and look forward to using a similar app if it is available from other museums.
After a couple of hours, I left the Rijksmuseum and started towards our pre-appointed meeting point. I passed the Heineken Experience but we had no intention of going in because I can’t drink beer and Heineken is no longer brewed there.
I met Bob and we headed to our next destination – the Waterloo Market. These outdoor markets were not all that exciting due to the consistent rain. A few brave vendors were out but that was it. As we walked through the sporadic vendors, we noticed a Bagel and Beans café and quickly made the decision to stop for a latte and a gluten-free bagel and cream cheese to regroup and dry out.
We decided to just head to our next museum – the Dutch Resistance Museum. Holland is known for a few things – tulips, windmills, pot, cheese, Heineken, wooden clogs. And resistance to injustice. When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in WW2, the Dutch started resisting in small yet powerful ways. This museum is that story. It was an incredible experience. I learned so much about Dutch history in this era but it also connected me to their modern-day liberalism and this unwavering belief that everyone has the right to live peacefully, without trodding on the rights of others. In these modern times, when our global leaders embody the qualities that we detest, it renews a sense of what needs to be done, that small acts can have big impacts and that it is our duty to resist that which we find immoral and unjust. On the flip side, it made me sad. Because I really don’t feel that we have anyone left in our population who would risk their lives like people did back then in order to save another’s life. I just don’t think we’re raising that kind of human anymore.
Right across the street from the Resistance Museum, is the Artisplein (the zoo). We weren’t interested in visiting a zoo. But we were interested in seeing the flamingoes for free! The main entrance to the zoo is right across from the entrance to the Resistance Museum. But if you walk back to the main road with the trams on it (Plantage Middenlaan), you will see a fancy looking restaurant. There is a terrace that is open to the public that is enclosed by the restaurant on one side, storks (or some other white bird) along the inner side, a building on the street side and the flamingos at the far end across from the restaurant. Had it been nicer weather, we would have bought a drink and relaxed for a bit while watching the birds.
It was 6pm at this point so we went in search of dinner. I know this might horrify some of you but we were looking for a McDonald’s. But not just any McDonald’s. A GLUTEN-FREE McDonald’s!! Bob had informed me that in his search for gluten-free options in Amsterdam, he found a gluten-free McDonald’s so we added it to our list of must-do’s. The labyrinthine streets of Amsterdam turned us around and got us disoriented as we went into McDonald’s after McDonald’s asking for gluten-free options. We heard a resounding ‘no’ in all of them. Finally, only a block or two from the station (Nieuwendijk 70), we found it!
I was equal parts excitement and anxiety as I ordered my favourite – a quarter pounder with cheese with fries. It had been at least 15 years since I had had a meal from McDonald’s. What would the gluten-free burger taste like? Would it be like I remembered – a happy memory forged in my mind from those special trips to the city to eat at a McDonald’s (my hometown didn’t get a McDonald’s until I had moved to the city for university)? Or would I instantly regret it as my unprocessed, gluten-free tastebuds revolted at the sudden onslaught of processed unknowns?
We balanced our heaping tray up to the second floor to find an empty seat overlooking the street. And…
I was happy to discover that it tasted just like I remembered! In a GOOD way!
I realize to most of you, this is nothing special. But to someone who has a hard time eating out, who sometimes struggles with the language barrier when finding food that won’t make her sick, who generally has to pay an exorbitant amount of money for gluten-free food, who carries protein bars in her handbag “just in case” there’s nothing else she can eat, this act of being able to order a quick, cheap and filling bite to eat was like winning the lottery! In our four days in the Netherlands, we ate at a McDonald’s twice.
On our way back to our Airbnb, we popped into the Amsterdam Public Library for a great view and then onto Stork in Noord for an evening drink. Then home to dinner and bed, well-deserved after 14 km of walking through the city.
This day had a promising forecast and we were excited to roam the outer edges of Centrum – we planned on starting in the east and then making our way around on the tram to Jordaan in the west.
We took the tram from the Royal Palace to Dapr Markt. This day was the perfect day to explore an outdoor market. The sun was out, the wind was low and everyone was cheerful. It felt like spring.
The Dapr Markt is a typical outdoor market that has vendors selling their wares – sausages, cheese, vegetables, fish, as well as recycled clothing and housewares. Our plan was to stock up on food for a lunch in Oosterpark, which was only a short walk away.
As we walked down Eerste Van Swindenstraat, just before we got to Oosterpark, we passed a very cool vintage clothing store called We Are Vintage. It was the one time I wish we had more than just our carry-on luggage! This store is a vintage shop that sells clothing by the kilo. You can buy each piece individually but if you find other pieces, they are sold for a better price by weight.
At the end of the block, there is a fabulous beer garden restaurant – de Biertun. This restaurant has an endless list of beers to choose from, including two gluten-free beers that are very tasty. It also has a spacious outdoor patio that was lovely to enjoy on the beautiful day that we had.
We continued on our way west, through the beautiful Oosterpark. Not much to say about the park other than it was a beautiful walk, the crocuses were blooming, people were out with their dogs, and most of the benches were occupied with people just enjoying the warm sunshine.
At the other end of the park, we hopped onto a tram and headed west and north to Jordaan, to meet our Airbnb experience of a private canal cruise. Due to a teachers’ strike and demonstration, the tram had to be diverted through de Pijp neighbourhood. I was intrigued by the shops and local flavour I only saw from the tram windows and was sorry that we didn’t have time to get off and explore. The next time we are in Amsterdam, we will definitely make a point to visit this area.
After having to eventually disembark and find another tram going in the direction we needed, we eventually made it to Jordaan. We found the meeting spot of our canal cruise and since we had time, decided to wander the area and grab a quick drink.
Jordaan is historically the neighbourhood where all the people who built the canals lived. The houses and streets often had pictures of trades on them to note who lived there (stonemasons, carpenters, etc.). Now it is being gentrified and is filled with chic little shops and gastro-pubs. It has some tourist sites (like the Anne Frank house and the Tulip Museum) but it also has some fun shops with housewares, stationery, and classic adventure clothing as well as cozy pubs and patisseries offering a variety of delicious meals and treats. It is well worth a visit.
We met with our Airbnb experience hosts Geertje and James and climbed aboard their small boat. There were 7 guests in total on this cruise and we were provided a beautiful spread of snacks and beverages. It wasn’t the usual tourist cruise in which the host speaks for the entire tour about history. It was just two people who love their city and knew a whole lot about it inviting up to 8 people on their boat to cruise around the canals and chat. It was very chill and it was a great way to chat with others in a very relaxed and calm atmosphere. The weather was spectacular and we were able to take down part of the roof to let the sun and heat in. On our one day of sun, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend it. Being on the water, with wine and snacks, reminded me of summer. Our hosts were very knowledgeable about their city and the conversation was organic and comfortable, the complete opposite of a lecture. It really did feel like a bunch a friends were just hanging out on a sunny afternoon.
Our cruise went from 3 pm until 5 pm and when we disembarked, the sun was just starting to set. We decided to wander the streets of Jordaan looking for a place to eat and to see the neighbourhood. We happened across a funky little vegan restaurant called De Bolhoed. Vegan restaurants are usually safe places to find some gluten-free options so we stopped in and were enchanted. International and aromatic flavours and gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian options. We stuffed ourselves with pumpkin curry, vegetable casserole, salad, basmati rice, tempeh and broccoli with satay sauce. We had organic wine, beer and some warm sake to keep us warm on the walk home.
Finally, we called it a night. This would be the end of our stay in Amsterdam as the next day, we were heading out of the city to Haarlem. It was a wonderful city that offered enough in three days to convince us to return another time, perhaps during a festival or tulip season or warmer weather. If there is something you think we should see, please let us know!