Amsterdam! Eight days after we left Basel, Switzerland, near the headwaters of the Rhine, the Viking Hlin arrived in its final port, having sailed the length of the great river. My Viking cruise of the Rhine was over, but there was one more city to see – and such a unique and beautiful city that I reserved a couple of extra days to get to know it.
Writers wax poetic about Paris in the springtime – and rightly so. But Amsterdam in the spring is almost as lovely, with the boats cruising the canals under budding trees and locals celebrating the season with a drink on an outdoor patio, or a bike ride through the picturesque streets of the old town.
I arrived on a Sunday, and it seemed the whole city was out having a good time. That included the tourists, of course: Amsterdam is a year-round tourist magnet, and the throngs of visitors were everywhere. They crowded the shopping streets, filled the restaurants and marched through the famous Red Light District.
Along with my friends Maarten and Kim, of the popular Maartech youtube channel, I set off down the Damrak, the main street leading from the central train station. The Damrak is Amsterdam’s main tourist street, lined with souvenir stores, cheese shops and cafés – including, of course, the inevitable Starbucks.
We soon arrived at Dam Square, the centre of old Amsterdam, commanded by the 17th century Royal Palace. The royal family doesn’t live here any more, but the building is still used for formal receptions. And while it’s huge and imposing, it isn’t as ostentatious as many European palaces: Dutch style is a bit more subtle.
The rest of the square is surrounded by more mundane establishments, including things like Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. And most of the time, it’s filled with hundreds of pigeons, who flock in to get handouts from the tourists (we seem to have arrived at a relatively pigeon-free moment). The square was so huge, I was moved to take a panoramic shot: click on the photo to scroll around it.
From there we wandered west, through streets full of curio shops, pancake houses, and Amsterdam’s famous hash cafés, where you can have a lot more than coffee, if that’s your style. Every few blocks we crossed another bridge, over another canal. And every time, we had to stop for another iconic shot – Amsterdam in the spring is one long photo op.
By chance, we happened upon the Anne Frank House. It was a busy spot on a Sunday morning, with the lineup stretching down the street. But the mood was mellow: across the canal, diners enjoyed their meals on outdoor patios in front of restaurants that had stood there for hundreds of years. We joined them for a leisurely lunch.
It was time for my friends to head off. But I was still free to wander the city, and I made my way to Koningsplein (King’s square) and the famous floating flower market. If your idea of Holland is tulips and wooden shoes, this is the place to come: you can buy tulips, more tulips, wooden shoes — and even tulip bulbs in a ceramic wooden shoe. Of course, they have other flowers too, but in Holland, the tulip is king.
Over the next two days I covered most of the city’s high points, including the Museumplein, the city’s world-class museum district. Located on the edge of the downtown, near the lovely Vondelpark, the huge complex covers a big piece of ground. Follow the path through the green park in the middle and you come to the very classical-looking Concertgebouw, or concert hall.
The Museumplein offers three different highlights: the renowned Rijksmuseum, with its extensive historical displays and definitive collection of Dutch Masters; the Stedelijk Museum, one of the world’s leading modern art museums; and the Van Gogh Museum, which follows the painter’s life through his evolving works. (The city honours its other artistic legend, Rembrandt van Rijn, with a museum in his former home further downtown.)
If you’re in this part of town, you have to check out the Foodhallen, a food haven created in a century-old industrial complex. And I did, wandering through dozens of stalls selling everything from Thai dishes to seafood to Belgian waffles. And of course, there was a good supply of the local beers, like Amstel and Heineken. I would have stayed for dinner, but the place was so packed, I couldn’t find a seat.
And of course, if you’re in Amsterdam. you have to see the Red Light District, the world’s most famous sex market. Streets lined with sex shops, sex shows and hash cafés lead to the narrow lanes where the ladies of the evening ply their trade – and not only in the evening. But at almost any time of the day and night, what you’re most likely to see is lines of tourists taking in the sights.
It’s an area where you can see just about anything. But the thing I really didn’t expect to encounter was a pair of coots making a nest on a heap of trash. I guess it’s like the old song: “birds do it, bees do it .…”
Central Amsterdam is quite walkable, so I managed to reach many of the sights on foot. However, I found it was easy to get lost, with canals dividing the city into little segments that tend to curve around and take you in the wrong direction. Still, the extensive system of trams came in handy to get me back where I came from.
After all the walking, I needed a bite. And I couldn’t help but try the definitive Amsterdam snack: pancakes. In this city, that means thin, soft-textured cakes so big they cover your whole plate. You can have them with a variety of toppings, but I chose the original version, dusted with powdered sugar. Warm and filling — just the thing for those days when the wind blows in off the Zuiderzee.
Finally, a note about costs in Amsterdam. This is not a cheap city, especially if you’re spending Canadian dollars. Because central Amsterdam is relatively small and there’s a never-ending stream of visitors, prices are high, even in the so-called “shoulder” seasons of spring and fall. You’ll be lucky to find a three-star hotel under $200 downtown.
You’ll find better deals in areas just outside the city centre; I stayed in the Leidseplein area, still popular with tourists but a little more affordable than the centre of town. Suburban areas like Zaandam are another option; you can get downtown in about a half-hour on the train. The same advice holds for restaurant prices, though there are good deals here and there if you look.
As for getting around, it can make sense to buy a transit pass. I got a three-day pass, which cost 16 euros (about $25 Cdn, or $18 U.S.) and gave me unlimited rides on the trams, subway and buses — including the airport bus. That alone made it a good value. And if you’re moving around town a lot, it’s easier than hunting for change every time you take the tram.
I was a guest of Viking Cruises on this trip; however, the opinions I express are my own.