Having legalised prostitution and marijuana, Amsterdam can be considered Europe’s equivalent of ‘Sin City’. But while it may be home to the Red Light District and numerous ‘coffee’ shops, there is so much more to see, do and (most importantly!) eat than most people normally realise.
In such a laidback, tolerant society that’s swamped by cyclists and paved by canals, the transport links are fantastic and always on time, and most people speak English, which is very handy. It’s clean and friendly, although it’s definitely not cheap. Here are my top picks for places to visit and things to do in Amsterdam.
1. Take a bike tour
If you’re a newbie to the city, I’d definitely recommend you start your vacation with one of Mike’s Bike Tours. We took a 3-hour city tour, led by a very helpful guy called Stuart. He peppered recommendations for things to see and titbits about Amsterdam’s history and the Dutch way of life throughout the excursion. It was incredibly useful as it helped us get our bearings right, and we got to feel the wind in our hair as we swooshed through the city. We also learned that the best way to get around Amsterdam is definitely by bike, just like the locals!
2. Design your own Magnum
A chocolate lover’s paradise: at the Magnum Pleasure Store you can design your own Magnum ice cream (picture below) and watch it being made before your eyes. Take lots of pictures of it, and then devour – Instagram can wait!
I was taken aback by the Red Light District. I did not anticipate the openness and casualness of it. I felt like it degraded womankind and made a mockery of equal rights. But enough about what I think: I suppose no visit to Amsterdam is complete without a walk through the narrow streets of the District, where you’ll find rows of small shop windows, and in each window will be a semi-naked prostitute attempting to entice punters to pay them a visit, literally! It was mildly comforting, however, to hear about the security measures put in place to protect these women – inside their rooms they each have a set of alarm buttons, for if they feel in any danger to alert the police. Still, very unsavoury stuff methinks.
4. See how cheese and clogs are made
A forty-minute bus ride out of the bustling city brings you to Simonehoeve Cheese Farm and Clog Factory. You’re given a warm welcome at this family run business, and the traditionally dressed owners provide a guided tour of their factory and demonstrate the machinery used to make clogs (image below). There’s also an opportunity to taste various cheeses, wine, Dutch sweets, and try on clogs – we bought a small, personalised pair with our names on. It’s a pleasant, half-day outing. If all you want to do is try different cheeses, then visit Henri Willig Cheese & More in the heart of Amsterdam – there’s always a lot to taste – and it’s the best way to buy.
5. Go into Anne Frank’s House
Even if you weren’t big on history at school – you can’t miss this. You’re transported back to a chilling time, and almost relive it as you make your way through the actual house in which Anne Frank lived and wrote her diary. There are various videos, drawings and artefacts to refresh your memory or bring you up to speed on what went on, and it’s thrilling stuff. Queues whirl round the streets to get into this place, so either pre-book or get there early or just before closing time. I’m about to reread Anne Frank’s diary after seeing this.
6. Enjoy the greenery
Vondelpark is Amsterdam’s main city park – so it’s just like what Hyde Park is to London. It’s a pretty and vast space, and you’ll often find the Dutch barbecuing, picnicking or enjoying a spliff here. It’s aptly named Vondelpark (pronounced Fondelpark) because once the sun sets, it becomes legal to have sex in the park! A funny – yet true – fact, but don’t worry we didn’t catch any of that hanky panky. Don’t let it put you off either – it’s a lovely space and well worth a visit, even if it’s just a walk through it.
7. Scoff yummy Dutch pancakes
Very close to the main central street, and beside the museum district you’ll find the cute little De Vier Pilaren Poffertes and Pannenkocken Restaurant. Go there for breakfast or for dessert and enjoy the finest Dutch pancakes and poffertjes (left). Taste the banana and chocolate pancake, it’s delicious – and the poffertjes are plump and tasty too.
8. Have a laugh at quirky condoms
There’s a ‘Condomerie’ near the Red Light District that specialises in funky and unique condoms. From Pokemon to farm animals, it has got condoms in all shapes, colours and sizes: it’s a fun stop.
9. Go and see a windmill
We went and sat under the De Goooyer Windmill, in a brewery where they make their own beer. It was a nice opportunity to take pictures with the windmill, which is massive in size.
10. Taste a scrummy homemade apple pie
Winkel 43 has become famous for it’s homemade apple pie (pictured below). It’s a nice little café, with tables spilling out the street. The apple pie is a treat.
11. Make your own falafel
Moaz is a chain of falafel restaurants around Amsterdam. It’s centuries old and it operates a bit like Subway in England – you construct your own falafel and decide what goes inside. Fillings are often unlimited so you can keep topping up if you like. We have a similar restaurant in London (although it doesn’t provide unlimited refills!) – Taboon, in Golders Green (London). Perfect for lunch.
12. Browse Van Gogh’s work
The Van Gogh museum provides a great insight into the life of the famous artist. With four floors of paintings and work from him and his co-artists, it’s an art lover’s delight. Included in the collection are the Sunflowers and Bedroom paintings. Enlightening.
13. Tuck into Belgian fries
By far the best fries I have ever tasted – no exaggeration – at Chipsy King they are cooked Belgian style so they’re crunchy and crispy on the outside and soft in the middle. I wish there was a Chipsy King franchise in London; I would be their top customer!
14. Go flower-watching
We visited Amsterdam outside of tulip seasons, so the closest we got to real tulips were the wooden souvenirs. Still, Bloemenmarkt flower market is nice to pick up flower bulbs, venus fly traps, and to have a mooch at souvenirs to take home. If you’re lucky enough to go during the period when tulips are springing up, I’d insist you visit Keukenhof Gardens, it’s a picture perfect, magical place at that time of year.
15. Have a brick-oven special pizza
There’s plenty of other stuff to do in Amsterdam too:
-Hunt out a bargain: visit one of the many flea markets: Albert Cuyp market, Dappermarkt, Waterlooplein and more.
-Go on a history trail: visit the art and culture museum, Rijksmuseum.
-See how beer is made: at the Heineken experience.
-Watch the world go by: simply sit along the wall of one of the canals and have a little peace and quiet.
-Get your lunch from a FEBO machine: it’s an interesting concept; there are self-sufficient units that behave a bit like vending machines dotted around Amsterdam, but they dispense hot food like croquettes.
-Visit the animals: at the Artis Zoo
Told you there was more to Amsterdam than weed and naked ladies.