Growing up, I had this warped view of what life is like in Amsterdam. I guess I had the media and pop culture to blame for planting the idea in my head that “anything goes” in Amsterdam. From legalized drugs to the infamous Red Light District, I was under the impression that there was absolutely nothing you couldn’t do in Amsterdam.
When I initially booked my flight to Prague, my itinerary included a layover at Charles De Gaulle in Paris, France. But of course, the combination of upstate New York winter weather and bad luck resulted in a last-minute flight cancellation, a panicked phone call with a Delta Airlines customer service rep, and a new itinerary that included a layover change from Paris to Amsterdam. “Hmm…Amsterdam,” I thought as I stepped onto Netherlands soil to board my connecting flight. “This may not be a bad place to add to the bucket list.”
Fast forward a month and a half to mid-March, and I boarded a 7am flight to Amsterdam with my roommate. We touched down a short hour later and headed to the nearest taxi that would take us to our hotel about 25 minutes outside of the city center.
There’s a combination of nerves and excitement that sets in the minute I arrive at a new destination. I was ready to dive right in to the sights, culture, and energy of the Netherlands’ capital city.
I was immediately blown away by the beauty of Amsterdam upon entering the city center. The canals that ran between the townhouse-style buildings created a scenery that can only be described as something “as pretty as a postcard.” Perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of the city that I noticed was the insane amount of bicyclists that I encountered. Apparently, 50% of Amsterdam’s traffic are bicyclists, and I can count on both hands the number of times I almost got run over. They don’t stop for anyone, so it’s best to have your ears tuned to the sound of a bicycle bell urging you to move out of the way.
For a trip that I went into with very low expectations, it quickly became one that I’ll never forget. I hope to one day go back and explore more of the Netherlands, and I encourage those who weren’t considering it before to add it to their bucket lists. To convince you, here is a list of the top things I did during my short weekend jaunt to Amsterdam.
1. Exploring the City
I love just being able to walk around a new place and wait for the moment when I’ll happen upon cool shops, restaurants, and sights. My roommate and I had time to kill as we waited for our other roommate to arrive in the city, so that’s exactly what we did. After a delicious lunch at Restaurant Cafe In de Waag, we walked around and shopped, grabbing ice cream and a waffle along the way.
We also discovered an outdoor market selling everything from souvenirs to tulips. On the market’s street was what seemed like an unlimited number of Dutch cheese shops. The holy grail of this? FREE SAMPLES. This just proves that calories don’t count while you’re traveling.
2. Anne Frank House
Touring the Anne Frank Museum located in the same house that hid Anne and her family was on our list of recommended activities. So, we woke up early one morning and moseyed over to the city center. We were told to get there early because the waiting line only gets longer as the day goes by.
When we arrived, it was about a 45-minute wait. To bear the biting wind, my roommate ran and got us coffee and croissants. I was grateful to have something warm to hold in my hands since I had forgotten to pack a pair of gloves.
The museum tickets cost each of us 9.50 euros, a reasonable price compared to the other museums we have been to. We unfortunately were not allowed to take any photos, so it’s a trip that will be preserved in memory.
After visiting multiple museums while in Europe, I realized that I am not a museum person. But, the Anne Frank Museum was one of my favorites. It was very well-done and included actual pages from Anne’s diary along with video interviews of Miep Gies and Anne Frank’s father. If you’re not a museum person like me, make an exception for this exhibition. You won’t be disappointed.
If you’re hungry like we were after touring the museum, head to The Pancake Bakery right down the street. It boasts “the best pancakes in town” and has a multitude of positive reviews. We certainly enjoyed it.
3. Amsterdam Ice Bar
After we finished dinner one night, my roommates and I thought it was too early to head back to our hotel for the night. Looking for something to do, we walked to the Amsterdam Ice Bar for both a few drinks and a unique experience.
We paid 20 Euros each, and the fee included two drinks inside a bar made completely of ice and an additional drink in the main bar as a post-drink/chance to warm back up.
It didn’t take long for us to start shivering after we entered the actual ice bar. Thankfully, the bar provided us with heavy jackets and gloves to wear. The gloves came in especially handy because even our drink glasses were made entirely of ice. Two vodka/orange juices later, and we rushed out of there to warm up.
Overall, our experience at the Ice Bar was worth the 20 Euros. I had never heard of the concept of an ice bar until I started experiencing European night life. Although it’s definitely a tourist trap, it gave us something to do other than taking a bus back to our hotel.
4. Photoshoot by the i amsterdam Letters
A well-known city icon of Amsterdam is the giant set of i amsterdam letters. There are two sets of letters in the city, one outside the Schiphol airport and another on the famous Museumplein. We did a photoshoot in front of the ones by the Museumplein, a location that was milling with tourists.
We arrived at the letters in the late afternoon, so it was hard to find the opportunity to take a decent picture. Tourists were everywhere, so I would suggest going early in the morning to avoid the crowds. Despite the difficulty we faced trying to get a picture, it was a tourist attraction we couldn’t miss.
5. Red Light District Walking Tour
On a Saturday evening, we headed to the Prostitution Information Center located in Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District for a walking tour of the area. Each of us paid 15 Euros to be led through the district by an ex-prostitute. Not only was it very informative, but it provide us a new perspective on prostitution.
We were not allowed to take any photos while on the tour, but I’ll paint a picture of what the district is like. Both sides of the street are lined with what looks like shop windows, and women in lingerie are posted up looking out into the street. Red lights are above the window frames, creating an attractive glow above the workers. When a customer enters one of the shop “windows,” a curtain closes. There was a mix of both closed-curtain windows and open windows as we walked along the street.
Our ex-prostitute guide also pointed out a peep show and other gentleman’s clubs that lined the street. As we walked, she informed the group that all of the workers are registered with the government and pay taxes on their earnings. They even pay rent on the windows they work in and are able to pick and choose the customers they serve.
I was shocked to discover how regulated the prostitution business is, and our knowledgable tour guide made sure to inform us that all of the women working are doing it on their own terms without any pressure or force. Although this isn’t a business I would personally get involved in, it was a comfort to know that it isn’t as controversial as I originally presumed.
I would highly recommend the Red Light District Tour because it provides insight into a staple characteristic of Amsterdam. The ex-prostitutes who work at the PIC (Prostitution Information Center) were beyond knowledgable and friendly. They encouraged us to ask them about anything and everything we wanted to know about the business, and I was grateful to them for being so willing to share their side of the story.
6. The Heineken Experience
One of the last activities we did in Amsterdam was The Heineken Experience at the Heineken brewery established in 1864. For 20 Euros, the experience allows you to walk through the brewery and learn the steps in the production of the popular Dutch-originated beer. It also includes three free beers and a lesson in how to properly taste a Heineken.
All of us really enjoyed spending three hours of our day learning the history and brewing techniques of Heineken. It was very interactive, with opportunities to pour your own beer from tap, take pictures in a photo booth, and bottle your own beer.
At the end of the tour, we each received a Heineken tasting glass to commemorate our experience. I wasn’t a fan of Heineken beer before our morning at the brewery, but I certainly am now.
Prior to touching down in the Netherlands, the only information I knew about the country was that they had a famous Red Light District and are really good at speed skating. Now, I have a better understanding of a country that is so much more than that. With its winding canals and historic sites, it’s a country that should be on everyone’s bucket list.