Amsterdam had been on my list long before I organised a trip to the Netherlands. I wanted to get to know Amsterdam outside of the rock’n’roll stories everyone kept telling me.
With only three days to spare, I knew I couldn’t see even half of what the city has to offer but if I could at least scratch the surface and get to the stories behind some of the quirks that make Amsterdam the multifaceted place it is, my mission would be a success.
And I think it was.
A stunning swamp
When it comes to travelling, I’m all for the slow lane, and losing yourself in the maze of the canals mapping the Dutch capital, its narrow streets and beautiful buildings is all you need to get the feel of the city. It’s a treat. The colours, shapes and reflections on the water are truly stunning, and Amsterdam is a perfect example of how practical needs dictate incredible solutions.
Built on a swamp, Amsterdam is an engineering wonder. All houses – and even some trees in Vondelpark – are supported by wooden foundation poles which drive them deep into the ground. Nowadays the piles are filled up with cement but in the past it was just wood. As some of the weaker ones rot and deteriorate, buildings get crooked.
Not only are they famously wonky; houses in Amsterdam are also very narrow and deep, supposedly a result of a tax imposed on houses based on their width back in the day. This affected the size of stairs and most staircases really are rather tight. This is why buildings are fixed with big hoist beams on top – to move things in and out, people hook furniture to those and use big windows to push things through. Practical and pretty.
The Red Light District, or De Wallen for locals, stands out, with 290 red-lit windows scattered around a 14th-century church. Prostitution became legal in the Netherlands in 1811 and the ban on brothels was lifted 15 years ago. Visiting the area as part of a guided tour does shed a lot of light on Amsterdam’s oldest quarter.
Growing up and living in less liberal places, I was curious to find out how Amsterdam made it work, and not just as a salacious, profitable tourist-magnet, but as a trade where women’s rights and dignity are actually acknowledged.
The first thing you learn about the Red Light District is that women there mean business – and that’s what it is. Sex workers pay taxes, have their own union and police protection. It’s how they make a living.
The burning question for me was how this type of a business exploded around Amsterdam’s oldest church, the Oude Kerk. Although rumour has it it was a ‘natural’ order of things – men looking for sin and salvation, and finding both in one place, it actually beautifully reflects the cool local mentality. ‘Live and let others live,’ I often heard the tour guide say.
But the heart of Amsterdam is more than those famous windows. Witness to Amsterdam’s eventful history, it’s also a picturesque residential area full of quirky shops, great cafes and restaurants, very photogenic and unique.
All of the sights
There is so much to do in Amsterdam it’s tempting to cram everything into one visit just to tick things off the list. Focusing on just a few things and taking the time to savour them really opens up a bigger picture though.
What to do? Visit one of the many, many museums the city has to offer, smell the incredible cheese at the Flower Market and learn about the first multinational corporation in the world (it’s the Dutch East India Company trading spices). Or walk up to Dam Square to admire the Eighth Wonder of the World, see the Royal Palace and visit Anne Frank’s house – or at least sit down on the nearby Homomonument.
Go for a lazy walk down the Vondelpark and take a picture with the I heart Amsterdam sign. Or a selfie inside a giant yellow clog. Pop by the world’s first condom shop or sign up for the Heineken Experience.
Or just follow the canals.
If you have only three days, you won’t get to see everything – fact. But it’s more than enough time to fall in love with Amsterdam.
Getting there: Flying is the obvious choice and it’s now cheap and easy. I took the train from London Paddington which probably took a bit longer but the journey between Paris and Amsterdam is beautiful.
Where to stay: In the ideal world, I would have stayed in a homey Airbnb. For a lack of suitable spaces (late booking), Hotel Mozart it was. Cheap and cheerful, good location.
Getting around: Amsterdam really is a walkable city once you get used to the trams coming at you from all directions. You’ll be better off spending your 20 euros on a pair of clogs rather than a tram pass.
Top tip: Joining a walking tour is one of the best decisions you can make in Amsterdam if you’re visiting for the first time. It’s a great history lesson as you walk past the most famous sights and soak in the stories.