Amsterdam

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I’m just going to get this off my chest now because it’s the main reason I didn’t post much on Facebook during my visit to Amsterdam. Yes – sometimes I caught whiffs of marijuana as we wandered through the narrow streets of the city centre, but I get tired of people who assume it’s the top (or only) reason to visit. Even Anthony Bourdain is getting a bit bored and refers to this juvenile assumption in his travel tips. Sigh.

Amsterdam is full of distinctive seventeenth century architecture, more canals than Venice, a swoon-worthy amount of art and friendly, laid-back locals for whom a smart-ass sense of humour seems to be mandatory. Either that or I ask a lot of stupid questions. I loved how they would take my earnestness, set me back on my heels with a wee bit of sass and make me instantly comfortable.

It’s an emotional city for me as well. My parents are Dutch, so being surrounded by soft, guttural Dutch speech transports me back to childhood family gatherings. During one cozy breakfast in a small café, the radio was on and the morning show DJ sounded exactly like my late father. 

And the food! Whether it’s the sausages and cheese I grew up with on every brown café menu, the abundance of pancake houses or the little speculaas or stroopwafel biscuits that appear with each cup of coffee or tea, I’m never far from my roots.

This was our first experience using AirbnbWe planned this trip rather quickly and our visit fell during the Tulip Festival so available hotel rooms either had Manhattan prices, or were so small that we’d be able to dive into the bed from the doorway. Our rented flat was in a great location near the museums and a short walk to the city centre. I’m definitely a convert – for less money than a tiny hotel room, we had a large, airy flat with a huge open-concept living room/kitchen, along with a comfortable bedroom and bathroom. Our hosts were easy to reach by text and email, punctual and helpful. We’ve used other flat and house rental agencies in the past, but Airbnb has moved to the top of the list.

When we last visited Amsterdam in 2011, we quickly realised we could have easily added at least three more days to our itinerary so I whipped up this short trip to right that ancient wrong. And it was my birthday. There’s nothing like waking up in a different, exciting city on your birthday.

Armchair Travel
Stunningly beautiful pictures of Amsterdam (exactly what it says on the tin)

I always love me some travel shows when I’m researching, and my two travel gurus are Anthony Bourdain and Rick Steves. Bourdain’s bad boy balances out Mr. Steve’s more wholesome ethos and delivery. But as much as I’d rather have a night out with Anthony,  it’s my man Rick’s insistence on travelling with only carry-on luggage that has saved my ass on multiple occasions, so…I think Rick wins.

More specifics on food, drink and fun below.

Food and Drink
On this visit we wanted to relax in a few of Amsterdam’s famous ‘brown cafés’. Using I amsterdam.com’s list of brown cafés as our guide, we visited Café de Wetering, Café Gruter, In ‘t Aepjen and Café Thiessen. Steeped in gezelligI wanted to become a regular at each of these cafés. People were often sitting on their own, reading the paper, working on their laptops or chatting with the bartender, sometimes there were larger groups catching up or celebrating, but all the cafés had a wonderful cozy atmosphere and, probably because it was early in the week, none of them were so packed that it was difficult to find a seat. If all you did in Amsterdam was a carbon copy of our trip – walking, soaking up some art and visiting brown cafés, you would feel like you spent your time very, very well indeed. 

A special massive thank you, thank you, thank you to the bartender at In ‘t Aepjen who took care of my smartphone when I blithely exited without it, only to return tearfully two hours later. Since my phone is normally grafted to my hand, this anecdote might serve to prove how relaxed I became on this trip. 

bitterballen

Bitterballen at Cafe Thiessen

What’s the difference between a café, coffee shop or Koffiehuis?
It could very well be that my obsession with ‘brown cafés’ has some of my friends confused and convinced that once I set foot in Amsterdam I become a stoner. People often get brown cafés mixed up with coffeehouses.

Van Kerkwijk – we had an amazing meal in 2011 and I chose to return for my birthday dinner. We had another amazing meal. Just go. Great wine list too. 

Pancakes Amsterdam had the honour of serving me my birthday breakfast. Set in the picturesque ‘9 Streets’ district, it’s a small, bright place with friendly service. I had traditional bacon and apple pancakes. Pancakes are the birthright of anyone Dutch and the first recipe Dutch children are taught. These were good, but I wished I’d had the presence of mind to ask for maple syrup. According to their website they do have it, but the syrup on the table was very different. I’m glad I thought to taste it before mindlessly drowning my pancake in it. It’s not bad, just not what I was expecting. 

I like to keep track of restaurant recommendations by ‘starring‘ them in Google Maps. Café de Koe is starred, I don’t remember doing it, so it was probably in 2011. It’s a wonderful way to ensure that we eat well while wandering, but also keeps things spontaneous and to me, more in the spirit of travelling. Nothing worse than having a reservation hanging over your head – we either arrive too early, or find ourselves rushing because we misjudge the amount of time it would take to get there. If a place is starred, it means ‘past-tense’ Heather is telling ‘present-tense’ Heather to go. I’m my own best personal assistant when it comes to trips! And getting back to Café de Koe – we had a great meal (I had sticky ribs I’m still dreaming about).

One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the places recommended to me in 2011 are still recommended in 2016, which means incredible consistency and longevity for in-demand Amsterdam restaurants. 

FEBO – so much fun! Automatic fast food vending machines. Their little cheeseburger isn’t bad, especially if you’ve just had a couple of drams of whiskey on an empty stomach, and it’s a great place to pick up a croquette (kroket).

Manneken Pis on the Damrak was highly recommended for frites, but we ended up at a place down the street called Vlaamse Frites instead as it didn’t have an insanely long queue. For the sake of our cardiac health, we didn’t finish our frites slathered with mayo, but they made a nice snack. 

Fun
“Look both ways, look both ways, look both ways; watch out for the bike” was our mantra whenever we approached an intersection, and our caution probably saved us from a nasty accident more than once. I have a lot of respect for anything hurtling toward me, be it car or bike, but I have extra respect in Amsterdam for two reasons – one, there are so many bikes that I can’t even impress upon you how many bikes there are, and two, the system of roadways, bike paths and pedestrian sidewalks works so well that I don’t want to be the oblivious, bumbling tourist messing it up.

We walked and walked and walked – through the city centre (Centrum), The 9 Streets (De 9 Straatjes) and Jordaan. I haven’t gone Fitbit crazy but I recently downloaded an app on my phone that measures how many paces and kilometers I walk each day, and on our second day we walked over 18 kilometres!  I always knew we walked a lot whenever we visit a new city, but I didn’t realise it was quite that much. No wonder we get so hungry.

Vondelpark – a nice place to chill out after elbowing other tourists for a small glimpse of The Milkmaid by Vermeer. 

Canal Cruises – A boat tour is the best way to view Amsterdam’s striking architecture, as most buildings were built during a time when people would have approached by water. 

Art & Culture
The Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum are both top of mind for me, but there are many more, including the Stedelijk Museum (modern art) and Anne Frank House. Truth be told, each day we’ve been in Amsterdam the weather has been stunning, so we have only visited the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum so far, with the Van Gogh being my favourite. The collection of Van Gogh’s work is arranged in chronological order so you follow him through his life’s work and observe the development of his artistic vision. I walked out feeling as though I knew him. 

Helpful links
I amsterdam.com
I visited this site again, and again, and again, before and during my trip. 

Amsterdam City Guide – The Guardian  as well as 10 of the best ways to enjoy Amsterdam…on a budget  Good, solid stuff here. 

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