As I’ve already mentioned, I think my ideal perspective in visiting a city is neither that of the tourist, nor of the local, nor yet of the tourist who “goes where the locals go”, but that of someone who used to live in the city, and is back for a short visit after some time away*. Everything you see is both familiar and new, both yours and not yours. You are in the city to see your friends, visit your favourite places, walk down your favourite streets, eat your favourite foods. You don’t go to every museum, but you don’t avoid them either – you go to the ones you know you like, and the ones you haven’t been to but have heard about. And yes, an exhibition is a highlight, but so is getting groceries and your favourite bookstore. You feel more of a claim to the city than either the tourists (who are just flitting by) or the locals (who take it for granted). Unfortunately, this perspective is difficult to achieve unless you actually have lived in the city and are coming back after a while. Well, one of the few cities where that’s the case for me is Amsterdam, and, seeing also as a friend of mine is going there soon, I thought it is high time for me to write a few notes about…
How to visit Amsterdam
When to visit: the best time is probably April or May, when it’s not rainy, and not yet totally full. Another consideration is that April 30th, Queen’s Day, is an unforgettable party, where the size of the city swells sevenfold, the orangeness swells many times that, and a good time is practically guaranteed. Yet another is that the best street food in Amsterdam, a broodje paling (smoked river eel sandwich) is seasonal**, and doesn’t appear until about mid-May. A third, though, is that Amsterdam is a city that, to me, matches a given weather, and that weather is kind of a gloomy grey overcast. So visiting in the “off-season” is pretty good anyway.
Where to live: doesn’t really matter, because you’ll be getting a bike. Try to avoid the seediness of the Red Light District, and the poor far-flung areas like Zuid-oost and Duivendrecht.
Whether to get a bike: YES. This is absolutely essential. The city is totally different (much better) if you have a bike. Even if you dislike biking and never do it otherwise, you should do it. I have been told, though not had the personal experience, that the best place to rent a bike from is frederic.nl. Another possibility is buying one. You could go to the “junkie bridge” at night and wait until a junkie comes by and offers you a bike for sale. It might be an interesting cultural experience, but I do not recommend doing this, for several reasons. Practically, the bike you will receive will likely be in terrible shape (even by the extremely low standards of bikes in A’dam), and, being stolen, is likely to be repossessed if spotted by the police. Junkies are unlikely to speak English and are likely to want to swindle you. You would have to buy your own locks and lights, therefore negating some of the savings. And you really don’t want to be directly participating in bike theft, since that’s pretty low. I in general stay away from suggesting people do illegal things unless there’s a good reason, and there is no good reason here. Stick with renting, or buying from at least a semi-reputable location.
Where to be: Oud Zuid (full of beautiful turn-of-the-century buildings and yet also green because of Willemspark and Vondelpark. You occasionally and unexpectedly find something cool like that street where all the buildings are built in Dutch approximation of the styles of other countries of Europe). De Jordaan (Cute Dutchiness. Canals. The chance to see an old lady feeding storks salami or something like that. Music at night). Oost (More turn-of-the-century brick. Turkish food. Man Li Ho restaurant). I love walking down Sarphatistraat, but I am the only person I know that thinks it’s anything special. There is even a famous Dutch story (De uitvreter) the first sentence of which starts “Except for the person who thought Sarphatistraat was the most beautiful street in Europe, the strangest person I’ve ever met was….” so, you know, don’t be too trusting.
Museums to visit: the van Goghmuseum is a must if you have even the slightest interest in painting. The Rembrandt drawings, sketches, prints and “various random curiosities that have nothing to do with Rembrandt” collection of the Rembrandtshuis is probably worth a visit, too. The photography museum (fo.am) doesn’t have a permanent collection, so I don’t know what will be there when. But their taste is usually superb; I always go. If you find somebody with a museumjaarkaart (thereby making museums magically cheap for you), you should go see the largest book and the smallest book in the Allard Pierson mseum’s collection, and an exhibition in the Old Church, if there is one.
Museums to avoid: the Rijksmuseum (the old masters). The old masters are my favourite. This museum has two fantastic Vermeers on display. And yet you should absolutely skip it. It has been under renovation for at least the last 5 years and they have had the same sucky exhibition the entire time. Going there will just make you angry. Last time I visited, the Stedelijk museum was likewise being renovated, and in such a way that the permanent collection was not on display. There is nothing particularly bad about the Tropenmuseum, but there is nothing particularly good, either.
What to eat/drink: Herring. Herring sandwiches (uitjes en zuur? alstublieft!). Frites (currysaus is the most tolerable of the sauces), apple pie, verse muntthee (mint in hot water), Belgian beer. Surinamese food (kinda like Indian-Chinese food? Except without the Manchurian.). Turkish pastries. Sautéed mushrooms on toast is delicious, but honestly I can make it as well as any restaurant, all it takes is knowing that this will be delicious (it will). In the supermarket, go for krentenbollen (currant buns), spek (raw bacon), belegen kaas (aged semi-hard cheese), fresh squeezed juices. My neighbourhood C1000 used to sell a gooseberry-and-kiwi yoghurt that was incredibly delicious, but I couldn’t find it last time I went.
Where to drink beer: during the day, especially if it’s nice out and you aren’t on your own, you should go to Brouwerij ‘t IJ. It’s the best place to sit around with a group and talk over beer and peanuts. Also there’s a windmill right there. In the evening, the best place to go is de Gollem. They have a wide variety of great Belgian beers and bar bands and it’s warm and lovely (and hella crowded).
Where to smoke pot: In Amsterdamse Bos. I just don’t understand people who prefer to smoke pot indoors. It’s just so much more peaceful and pleasant in Amsterdamse Bos. You should buy some pot from Kashmir, and then go to Amsterdamse Bos. If you must be inside (if, for instance, you wanna play some backgammon), you just need to pick a place that is not seedy-looking and not super-popular looking. Two of my favourites are Coffeeshop Reefer (also has decent koffie verkeerd) and Rusland (Russian-themed, and with a large choice of teas in tea-glasses). You should at the very least visit de Dampkring as a touristic curiosity. It’s kinda beautiful.
The best markets: I am partial to the flea market on Waterlooplein. From old brass instruments, to German war helmets, to Bulgarian-Russian dictionaries, and even useful stuff like bike fixing gear, you’ll find it here. Albert Cuypmarkt is supposedly the world’s “longest”, has food and clothes, and probably my favourite frites in town (then again, my taste in frites is utterly plebeian – my second favourite is Febo). It’s anyway worth a visit because just east of it is a bunch of Turkish and Surinamese places. The book market in front of the Athenaeum on Sunday is a good place to buy postcards and prints (and sometimes relatively cheap records). Of course the “everybody selling everything” that is the first half of Queen’s Day can’t be beat, but you only get that once a year.
The best parks: Amsterdamse Bos. Vondelpark. Oosterpark. Try to visit some parks, because otherwise, without you noticing, the lack of greenness of everywhere else will start to wear on you.
Utrecht (old-school Dutch town),
Haarlem (old-school Dutch town, plus Breughel’s proverbs in the art museum),
Leiden (old-school Dutch town, with extra windmills),
Delft (old-school Dutch town, with better pottery. You should probably not do more than one of these four, lest all old-school Dutch towns blend into one),
Monnickendam (old-school Dutch village. For those who don’t like the urbanity of an old-school Dutch town),
Bloemendaal-aan-Zee (the beach. Maybe you can go to the beach in a better place than the Netherlands, but can you enjoy a herring sandwich on the beach anywhere else?),
Keukenhof (tulips! old people! old people looking at tulips!),
Hoge Veluwe (a hell of a long side-trip, but it’s a large forest with wild deer, a fleet of white bikes for biking around, and one of the world’s best art museums inside it. Go there if you have the chance)
*which, incidentally, is why I like Moscow better than Petersburg, more on that in another post, hopefully shortly
**However, the European river eel is a critically endangered species. You should probably not eat too much of it, as it’s at high risk of extinction due to overfishing.