Amsterdam was the first stop on our 2017 Europe Beer Tour, as I would jokingly refer to the trip we took with my family earlier this summer. This trip had been on my bucket list for years. Now that it’s over, it seems almost surreal. We saw a lot & covered a lot of ground over the course of our three weeks in (mostly) Northern Europe. Maybe that’s why I’m only starting to post about it now. Or maybe I’m notoriously slow at sorting through all the media & memories after a big trip. The latter, most likely.
But here we are, a little over three months after the fact, ready for some bonafide Europe recaps. Whenever someone asks me what my favourite city in Europe is, I freeze. One city? You want me to name one city in the whole of Europe as my favourite? Nuh uh, no way, impossible! I won’t even entertain the idea. There are so many different cities that hold special places in my heart for different reasons. Three days in Amsterdam was all it took for it to win a place on that list. What makes this city so special, you ask? Let’s take a look.
Known as the Venice of the North by some, Amsterdam has over a hundred kilometres of canals. Our first day in the city, we spent most of our time wandering around, exploring the different neighbourhoods. I’ve mentioned before that this is one of my favourite things to do in a new city. There’s nothing like having no set destination or plan & just taking in everything around you.
Wandering the streets in the famous canal ring, or Grachtengordel, is essential to any trip to Amsterdam. I especially loved the bohemian Jordaan quarter, a grid of tiny lanes dotted with specialty shops, restaurants, art galleries, & the incredible Anne Frank house.
We spent the morning at the Anne Frank House on our last day in Amsterdam, & it was a visit I won’t soon forget. Having read her book as a young girl, it was so moving to be able to put her experiences & memories into a tangible space. They’ve done a really lovely job of preserving the families’ memory in a museum. Tickets sell out early for good reason. (If you have trouble getting regular tickets, the introductory program is only a few dollars more & is usually available for longer.)
The bike Culture
We only rented bikes for a few hours one afternoon & it might have been the biggest mistake of the whole trip (at least for me). I loved biking around the compact city centre & wish we’d rented them for longer. It’s busy & a little bit chaotic, but a lot of fun. We biked through the centre to the Museum Quarter then along the Singelgracht to a great brewery.
Afterwards, we biked around Vondelpark, before heading back through town to drop off our bikes. If you’re less confident on a bike, I’d recommend a tour around Vondelpark. Its wide, paved pathways are easy to navigate & there are lots of lovely spots to stop & enjoy the park, or some food & drinks. It’s also a worthwhile stroll if you’re really not sold on biking. Our apartment was a few short blocks away, so we did just that on on our very first day in the city.
Albert Cuyp Market
You’ll find anything from electronics to clothing at this eclectic street bazaar, but as usual, we came for the food. It was herring season, so we went looking for a classic herring sandwich as soon was we arrived. Traditionally, soused herring is eaten with just raw onions, but broodje haring (on bread) is also popular. My dad did not enjoy the texture of the fish at all – it’s a little bit slimy – but N & I enjoyed ours. I’m glad we tried it since it’s one of N’s grandpa’s favourites.
Next up were stroopwaffles. You’ve probably seen these traditional waffle & caramel cookies before. I know I had. They’re even better fresh. The stall we bought ours from made them right in front of us so they were nice & hot – the perfect way to enjoy them. They seem just a little more special when the caramel is soft & melty from the warm waffles.
Our last market food find was well earned, & probably my favourite. Just as I’d given up on finding kroketten as the Van Dobben store that was supposed to be at the corner of the market had shut down, we found their market stall. Hurray! Kroketten for all! A kroket is mashed potatoes and meat, breaded & deep fried, on a bun with a side of mustard. No complaints here.
There’s lots of different food to try at the market, so it makes a good lunch stop between wandering the canals in the centre & the museum quarter. Snack along the way or pick up some things to eat later, in one of the cities many beautiful parks.
The Museum Quarter
If you’re looking for the “I amsterdam” sign, this is where you’ll find it. If you’re looking for a photo op without a ton of people in it, best of luck. It was extremely busy when we went mid-day, however, we took the last tram back to our apartment one night & there wasn’t a soul in sight. Aim for early morning or late evening for a better chance at some photos without the hoards of people.
Surrounding the museumplein, you’ll find three major museums: the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum. My parents went to the Van Gogh Museum & really enjoyed it, but N & I were content to wander the park in this beautiful area.
If you do decide to visit one of the popular museums, it’s a good idea to purchase tickets online first. Even the Heineken Experience gets some crazy lines. An e-ticket will save you wasting time waiting, if you can plan what time you’d like to go in advance.
Enjoying food & drinks on the water
The tilted, gabled canal-side buildings make the perfect backdrop for lunch, dinner, afternoon drinks, or a fun night out beside the water. There are no shortage of places to enjoy any of these things in Amsterdam.
We found a number of great bruin cafés (brown cafés are laid back bars – you’ll find them all over the city) & restaurants along the canals in every neighbourhood. My favourite dinner was at Gent aan de schinkel near our apartment. We sat outside & watched boats go by on the canal, enjoying a lovely meal together.
I’m a sucker for spending time near the water, & Amsterdam delivered on this. We took a boat tour one day, one of those big touristy ones. Next time, I think we’ll rent a smaller boat for the afternoon & enjoy some drinks & a meal as we tour around the city. Watching others doing just this from our crowded boat definitely made it seem like the better option.
I absolutely loved the renaissance architecture in the center of Amsterdam. The tall, tightly-packed homes sometimes look like they’re holding each other up. On our Free Walking Tour, we were told that residents paid taxes based on the width of their homes. This is why you see these characteristic tall & narrow homes in Amsterdam. Since this makes for tight staircases & hallways inside, they also tend to have have a hook above the top floor to hoist larger items into the home or business.
These narrow, long homes are actually what made Amsterdam the perfect place for the Frank family to hide. From the street, it’s hard to tell how far back many of the homes actually go.
The Red Light District
We visited the Red Light District during the day as well as on a lively Saturday night. It was interesting to see both. In daylight, De Wallen almost seems like any other neighbourhood in Amsterdam.There’s a beautiful church, the Oude Kerk, a market, & many great cafés & restaurants. Even in the morning, you’ll notice a few women behind windows here & there, as you sip your coffee & wander the area. It’s quite the juxtaposition. We did the morning free walking tour with New Europe & had a lovely time learning about the center of Amsterdam & the Red Light District.
N & I went back late that evening, after dark, & the district seemed to have come alive. The narrow streets were so crowded that you could barely walk down them sometimes. Bars were overflowing. It almost felt like there was some kind of festival going on, instead of just another Saturday night. There were also a lot more windows with women behind them. & many of them were putting on a bit of a show to entice customers, sometimes even knocking on the glass to call them over. The atmosphere at night was completely different than it had been during the day.
If you have the time to check it out both in the morning & evening, I’d definitely recommend that. Grab a drink in one of the pubs & enjoy watching the debauchery on a Saturday night. We went back on a Sunday & while it was busy, it wasn’t quite the chaos of the night before.
It wouldn’t be a Europe Beer Tour if we didn’t drink any beer. You’re likely already familiar with Heineken, but there are so many other great beers too. & even better, there are so many great places to try them out.
Wandering around on our first day, we took a break for some drinks & fantastic lamb meatballs at De Ysbreeker. Named for the icebreakers that docked in front of the building, it has a beautiful terrace & a great selection of local beers like de Prael. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy a beautiful summer day.
Another spot we came to love was Hoppe. It’s been in operation for over 300 years & has a great selection of beers. Inside you’ll find antique stained glass windows, old gin barrels, & sawdust on the floor. A table on the covered terrace is a nice place to spend a few hours with friends (& maybe some bitterballen to snack on), but more often than not the after work crowd spills out into the bustling Spui square. Come here for the great local atmosphere, & some fantastic beer.
I saved my favourite spot for last: Brouwerij ‘t IJ. We biked to this microbrewery in east Amsterdam, next to the old de Gooyer windmill. Share a long table with other customers on their tree-covered terrace or head inside to their tasting room, lined with an impressive bottle collection. On weekends, they do a brewery tour for 5 euros. Arrive early to sign up – it fills up fast (as we, unfortunately, learned).
With a large selection of interesting (& tasty) beers, it’s a great spot to spent an afternoon. Check it out before 3 pm if you’d like to try a flight. It’s a little bit off the beaten path, so you’re more likely to find yourself amongst locals here, a welcome change after spending a couple days playing tourist.
I could go on about all the great places we saw in Amsterdam (& all the great beer we drank) for a lot longer, but I’ll leave it off here. There’s something about the laidback Dutch vibe that takes all these incredible sights & experiences to the next level. Thanks for a great introductory visit, Amsterdam. I hope to come back again someday.