Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities in Europe and I was fortunate to travel there for business last week. Even though I spent most of my days working, I still had plenty of time to explore one of the most charming cities on earth. Molly and I last visited Amsterdam nine years ago, so I had a lot of catching up to do.
OK, let’s get this out of the way and talk about the wooden shoes. Every gift shop in Amsterdam sells these and I almost bought a pair to bring home because…why not? I was told by a local that they traditionally wear these to keep their feet dry while working in the soggy fields. Kind of like gardening clogs. They take time to break in and will eventually custom mold to your foot like a nice leather shoe.
Amsterdam is also famous for canals. The city was built on the water and the canals were used for flood control and transporting goods. I’m not sure how many there are, but basically every other street is a canal. It’s very popular to tour the canals in a glass top boat because it rains a lot and the glass keeps you dry. We took one of those tours when we last visited and really enjoyed it. I didn’t take a glass top boat this time but instead opted for an open top boat that offered all-you-can-drink Heinekens.
This is one of the most famous locations on the canal because you can see seven bridges at once. I took this photo from my tour boat, as you can tell by my fellow tourist’s phones. The canal is about ten feet deep and the water is surprising clean considering all the Dutch houseboats that probably empty their shitters in it.
The canals and streets of Amsterdam are all tightly lined with neat rows of attached houses, most of which date back to the 1600s. These homes are very narrow because they were originally taxed based on how much space they occupied on the street. Almost all of the houses also have a lift beam installed at the top near the roof. This is because the narrow houses were built with narrow stairways and the beams were used to hoist furniture into the windows. Amsterdam residents still move furniture into their houses like this today.
Amsterdam is known as the bike capital of the world and it’s one of the best cycling cities on the planet. The 300-year-old streets are so narrow and congested that it’s much easier to get around by bicycle than it is by car. There are thousands and thousands of bikes covering every street, sidewalk, and bridge in the city. This photo above is a common sight outside of most train stations and office buildings – bikes as far as the eye can see. A popular pastime for locals is to get drunk and find unlocked bikes to throw in the canal. According to a local I talked to, the city of Amsterdam pulls an average of 10,000 bikes from the canals each year.
The bike that I rented in the picture above is a great example of a typical Amsterdam bike. Features include an all black paint job, fenders to keep your legs dry, beefy chain guard, cargo racks, and a low top bar to make it easy to get on and off. Purely functional but also beautiful. There are thousands and thousands of identical bikes like this in Amsterdam. I actually had to take a picture of where I parked it outside of my office so I could find it when I came back out. The Dutch don’t use u-locks like Americans to lock their bikes because they say they are too easy to compromise. Instead, each bike has a claw-like lock integrated into the rear wheel. To provide an additional layer of security, and extra thick chain is also used to secure the front wheel and the frame to any nearby bike rack or canal railing.
I kept seeing bikes around Amsterdam with one blue front tire. There were seriously thousands of these everywhere. I asked a local about it and they said it was for better visibility at night. This didn’t sound right to me, so I later asked someone else and they said it was the marketing tactic of a very dominant local bike leasing company. All of their bikes have a blue front tire so they are instantly recognizable. Free advertising. Genius.
If you know anything about Amsterdam, you’ve probably heard about the famous coffee shops where you can smoke dope. Marijuana is legal in the Netherlands and this is where it’s sold and consumed. These cafes are on almost every street corner and overrun with tourists and young stoners. I didn’t have any interest in visiting a coffeeshop on this trip, mainly because it’s legal in California these days and the novelty has worn off. I’ll have to plead the fifth if you ask me about my previous trip when I was here nine years ago.
I was fortunate that my hotel was located on the canal almost next door to the famous Westerkerk church. The church was constructed in 1631 and the Dutch painter, Rembrandt, is buried somewhere inside (they aren’t sure where). The church is a popular tourist destination because it’s located next to the Anne Frank museum and you can climb the bell tower up to a magnificent observation deck. From this deck you can see the entire city. Molly and I tried to do this when we visited last time, but the tours were sold out. I was sure not to miss the opportunity this time and the tour did not disappoint.
To get to the top of the tower, you have to climb multiple levels of stairs and steep treacherous ladders. There are a few landings within the tower where you can stop and admire the internal architecture. The photo above was taken of one of the bells inside the tower that still rings on the hour. The bells are so larger that they would crack the tower if they were mounted directly to the brick. Instead they’re mounted to a free-standing wooden frames that date back to the 1600s.
The view from the top is totes worth it. The deck actually isn’t at the top, but about halfway up. Still, you can see 360 degree views the entire city. The guide who took us up there let us wander around for about 10 minutes and snap photos. He took this photo of my fat ass after climbing up all those ladders.
Anne Frank wrote often in her diary about seeing Westerkerk’s clock tower from the attic window where her family was hiding from the Nazi’s. She said the chiming of the bells gave her comfort. When I was up on the tower, I could amazingly see not only the secret annex where she was hiding (see the blue arrow above), but also the small window that she used to look out on the side of the attic.
This is the Anne Frank House as viewed from the street in front of the canal. The house has been restored and turned into a very popular museum. Molly and I toured it the last time we visited and it really left an impression on me. You can visit the secret annex apartment where Anne’s family hid from the Nazi’s and even climb through the original bookshelf they used for a hidden door. I remember our tour guide called it “the most famous bookshelf in the world.” At the end of the tour her original diary is on display. In hindsight, I kind of wish I had toured the museum again this time.
Aside from cheese and stroopwafels, the Dutch aren’t really known for a specific type of cuisine. Nevertheless, Amsterdam has a pretty legit food scene. One night for dinner, I wandered outside of the city center to an old train station that had been converted to a street food hall called Foodhallen. Inside there are a few dozen vendors selling all types of delicious food and booze. They served everything from local seafood to California burritos.
In the land of Amstel and Heinekin, I was astonished to find Lagunitas IPA on tap at many of the bars in Amsterdam. Now that Lagunitas is a subsidiary of Heineken, it’s contract brewed in the Netherlands at a local brewery. As a frequent drinker of this beer back in California, I can report that The Netherlands version tastes slightly different. It has a little less bite and crispness. I’m not sure if this is intentional to closer match European beers or if maybe the water is just different.
One of the restaurants I really loved was De Kas, which sits inside an old renovated greenhouse in the middle of a city park. The restaurant isn’t strictly vegetarian, but serves mostly plant-based dishes using vegetables they grow on-site and on their nearby farm. The menu changes constantly with the season and the vegetables are picked the morning they are served. Our prix fixe dinner included seven (!) courses and lasted four (!) hours.
Finally, what trip to Europe would be complete without a little shopping. I visited several great street markets including the Albert Cuyp Market in the De Pijp neighborhood. This came at the recommendation of a friend, Jonah, who used to live in Amsterdam. It was here that I found a beautiful wool scarf to bring home to my love.