Before I came here, I knew little of Amsterdam. All I knew was the stereotypical features of the city – the Red Light District broadcasting prostitutes in public as if it was the norm, the acceptance and legalisation of all sorts of drugs, the passion with their cheese, and the immense clubbing and partying scene. From this description alone, you would think that Amsterdam would be “the” Sin City of the world. Yet, something about normalising and framing drug substances and prostitution as something ordinary makes them less of a vice. When the rest of the world declares such things as evil and anyone who consumes it is evil, Amsterdam manages to give off the vibe that it is about moderation that’s the key to enjoying these vices in life, or at least the acceptance of it and that it isn’t all pure evil. Perhaps Amsterdam is on to something… as humans we tend to want something we cannot have, so this may be the perfect example of reverse psychology.
Anyway, this post isn’t about debating the merits of accepting drugs and prostitution as a society, it’s about describing Amsterdam in general and tips and strategies to have you plan your trip well the next time you do come here. Also, please note that the main purpose I came here was for Amsterdam Dance Event, so most of my time was actually spent at ADE, but I did manage to squeeze some time to do some of the touristy things. I will have another post specifically on Amsterdam Dance Event right after this post.
The first thing that caught my eye was the architecture. Skewed narrow houses, all with triangular rooftops, big rectangular windows, with subdued colours, all standing shoulder to shoulder, already gave this city an appearance unlike any other city in the world. The insane number of cyclists is both impressive and maddening; impressive for having the foresight to create a bicycle-friendly infrastructure, and maddening because as a pedestrian often you have to dodge bicycles especially when they are on the same pathway as the pedestrians.
Then you notice the canals. In my trip to Venice, I thought the romanticism of the canals there was overrated. Once you started noticing the grey skies and its reliance on water taxis to get around, Venice’s canals seem more of a burden than beauty. In contrast, Amsterdam’s canals are more for aesthetic purposes. With the exception of the typical tourist canal rides, transportation is usually through cycling and through the metro station, allowing the visitors to appreciate the aesthetics of the city. Not to forget, the skies and weather in Amsterdam are marvelous.
As a city filled with vices, you would expect it to be unsafe. Usually as a tourist you have that “heightened alertness” when going to a new city due to unfamiliarity. However with Amsterdam, I felt extremely safe, like when I am in Hong Kong or anywhere in Japan. You would expect chaos but it actually is very serene. I think it all comes down to having a great culture and being civilized and respectful. That being said, I noticed that Dutch people tend to be quite tall in general and very friendly, and everyone speaks English.
The one I guess “criticism” I would say for visiting Amsterdam is that prices tend to be more expensive than Asian cities. Of course it may not be a fair comparison, since Amsterdam in general is slightly cheaper than other big European cities (ie. Rome) when it comes to food, dining out, transportation, and daily expenses, but still it should be a point worth noting when coming as a tourist.
Amsterdam is perhaps the second easiest metro to understand its system (behind Dubai). Its map is easily understandable, and pretty much you can buy a 24 hour pass for 7.5 Euros or a 1 hour pass for 3 Euros, and these passes can both be used by the metro or any buses under the GBV company. Note that the train is a different company from the metro, and actually you will need to take the train from Schiphol airport to get to Amsterdam Centraal Station. The train is also very easy to take and ride, and takes only about 15 minutes to get to the city from the airport.
You can also take ferries to go to the “north” part of Amsterdam. During ADE, apparently ferries were available for 24 hours.
What’s also really cool about the Schiphol airport is that a lot of the services have turned into self-services. Whereas before you would need a staff attendant to help you check in, print boarding passes, and check in your luggage, now you can scan your passport to receive your boarding pass, and you can just put your luggage in machine that they have to test the weight, scan your boarding pass, and you’re good to go.
Eden Rembrandt Square Hotel Amsterdam (website)
Eden Rembrandt Square Hotel Amsterdam (Eden Hotel for short) has an almost perfect location for visiting Amsterdam. However, since I was here mainly for Amsterdam Dance Event, I would have preferred staying somewhere near more west, perhaps the bottom part of Jordaan, since that way I would be closer to the ADE conferences, and most of the warehouse and big event parties were all in the west side.
That said though, the hotel is extremely close to the Rembrandtplein Square, with many restaurants, bars, and clubs nearby, including Escape Club and Club Air (which was a favorite of mine). The hotel is situated in Waterlooplein, which is only 2 stations away from Amsterdam Centraal Station. Even going to the airport takes only about 30 minutes.
While the room itself was spacious enough and the service was friendly enough, the room was dimly lit even when all the lights were turned on – it felt as if I was living in the century where electricity wasn’t invented yet and I was lighting my room by candles. Secondly, the first night I was there, they had a problem with creating the room keys so I didn’t have a proper room key to have access to my room until later in the evening.
Things to Do (warning, some 18+ photos below)
When I asked my friend what there was to do in Amsterdam, he said canal rides, museums and coffeeshops. I asked him again if there were more touristy things to visit, and he repeated canal rides, museums and coffeeshops. That’s because in Amsterdam, there are only canal rides, museums, and coffeeshops to visit (not including the Red Light District or the numerous clubs scattered around the city).
While both canal rides and museums are explanatory, coffeeshops are actually called “coffeeshops” but they are actually marijuana cafes, meaning you can order space cakes, bongs and different types of weed to smoke. The reason why they are called coffeeshops, as the staff explained, is that weed is “tolerated”. In that case, I guess that’s why they are called coffeeshops so it doesn’t come off too much of a vice city, even though everyone in the world knows it is.
The Rijksmuseum is a Dutch museum that houses an insane amount of arts and histories related to both Netherlands and beyond. The most famous Dutch painting, the Night Watch, painted by Rembrandt is also currently in this museum.
Note that photography is allowed in the museum. As such, below there will be lots of photos from the museum.
The floors were divided as such – 3rd floor was 1900-1950 and 1950-2000; 2nd floor was 1600-1650 and 1650-1700; 1st floor was 1700-1800 and 1800-1900; ground floor was 1100-1600 and special collections.
The Night Watch by Rembrandt. From the museum’s website, “The Night Watch is Rembrandt’s largest (379.5 cm high and 453.5 cm wide!) and most famous painting and is the centrepiece of the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour. It was painted in 1642 for one of the meeting halls of Amsterdam’s civic guard, a militia company that protected the city. Rembrandt was the first artist to paint a group portrait with the figures in action and telling a story. The captain, dressed in black, is instructing his lieutenant to give the company orders to march. The guardsmen are taking their places. Rembrandt used light to draw our attention to important details, such as the captain’s gesture and the girl in the background.”
This painting depicts a man wearing extravagant Italian-looking clothing taking us by surprise. From the description – “he appears from behind a tapestry and leans out of the window. He tries to engage with the viewer in order to clink glasses. So lifelike and convincing is Honthorst’s rendering that the fiddler seems to have slipped out from the frame of the painting to join us”
Women are gathering in this central location to oppose a rumoured bill that men are allowed to have two wives. This rumour was started by a little boy at the bottom right of the painting, shielded by several women and men wearing red.
From the museum’s description, “A swan fiercely defends its nest against a dog. In later centuries this scuffle was interpreted as a political allegory: the white swan was thought to symbolize the Dutch statesman Johan de Witt (assassinated in 1672) protecting the country from its enemies.”
From the museum’s description, “The Raven Robbed of its False Feathers – Melchor d’Hondecoeter (1636 – 1695) oil on canvas c. 1671. You do not increase your standing with someone else’s property. That is the message of this painting. Hondecoeter portrays this saying by means of a group of birds reclaiming the feathers with which the raven had adorned itself. Known for the exceptional liveliness of his bird scenes, the painter found favour with Stadholder William III, who regularly granted him commissions.”
You would be mistaken if you thought the naked model was a woman. From the thickness of the biceps, you can tell that actually this is a man pretending to be a woman posing. During this era when it was painted, getting women to model wasn’t always easy, so sometimes you would have to get a man.
From the museum’s description, “Cellar of the Artist’s Home in the Hague – Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch (1824-1903) oil on canvas 1888. On rainy days even a Hague School artist could not work outside. Weissenbruch would then turn to this own house, painting views of the cellar, attic and courtyard. Such paintings allowed him to study the effect of light and the resulting range of colours. A few green cabbage leaves on the tile floor enliven the otherwise subdued palette.”
Self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). From the museum’s description, “Vincent moved to Paris in 1886, after hearing from his brother Theo about the new, colourful style of French painting. Wasting no time, he tried it out in several self-portraits. He did this mostly to avoid having to pay for a model. Using rhythmic brushstrokes in striking colours, he portrayed himself here as a fashionably dressed Parisian.”
Van Gogh Museum (website)
Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of Van Gogh museum’s art pieces as the museum restricted photography from the area, but basically in the museum you get to see Van Gogh’s signature style displayed in a wide array of different subjects and environments, ranging from portraits of people, self portraits, rooms, nature, and his mental asylum. For me, I find that his paintings provide a sense of unsteadiness, movement, a sense of life all being painted with daring colors. You get to learn about the history of Van Gogh (how it was his brother’s wife that purposely put the effort to help Van Gogh’s art gain recognition) and the works of other artists he has influenced.
Also, tickets can only be bought online. Unlike other museums that get filled quickly, I happened to be able to purchase the tickets on the day of, albeit having to wait an hour before I was allowed entry.
Anne Frank’s House Museum (website)
One thing to note – whenever going to any European museums or noteworthy places, remember to book on their website at least 2 weeks ahead; this was definitely the case for Anne Frank’s House Museum. I, along with many people in this world, are probably familiar with Anne Frank due to reading her diary about her experiences being trapped in a rooftop while the Nazis were searching for Jews. I was really hoping I could visit the museum, but apparently you need to book online to get the tickets. OK so I tried to book for that day, but when I tried, I noticed that the next available entry was 2 weeks after.
I also heard from a group of girls that just visited the museum that there were a lot of stairs in the museum, FYI.
Erotic Museum (website)
There are two sex-related museums in Amsterdam – the Sex Museum, and the Erotic Museum. I had an hour to kill (not an excuse, it’s true!) and stumbled upon the Erotic Museum while exploring around Red Light District. Looked online, said it took about 45 minutes, and I thought it’d be perfect for me. Plus, Amsterdam is all about sex… right?
Online, you can purchase it for €6.50 for entry. The museum mainly has sculptures and paintings and art pieces related to people having sex with each other. There is even a section on the second/third floor where you can see the breasts of Snow White bared for all seven dwarves to see. In that same room, you get to see cartoon characters having sex with each other.
After the first floor, the other floors become more sparse in terms of content.
Do I think it’s worth it? If you really want to see erotic art and if you have an hour to kill, sure.
Red Light District (website)
What Amsterdam is most famous for, Red Light District! Yes, visit De Wallen as it is the largest and best known Red light district in Amsterdam. I was around the area around 6pm and saw what it was most infamous for – prostitutes who were dancing and telling you to “come in” in scantily dressed costumes. I remembered even walking by and one of them was knocking on the glass door and winking at me and trying to get my attention and trying to get me in.
One thing to note about Amsterdam’s sex scene is that despite its reputation, I actually find Japan’s sex culture much more fascinating. Amsterdam’s sex culture is too explicit, direct and realistic, whereas the Japanese have their sex culture as very fantasy, imaginative, and in a way a bit crazy which I think is actually much cooler.
As I had mentioned earlier, the term “coffeeshops” is used rather than a weed or marijuana café because the term coffee shop is more acceptable. Weed, as I had mentioned earlier, is framed as something “tolerable” in Amsterdam, meaning that while you can do it, they expect tourists to think that it isn’t completely normal, although let’s face it we all know what Amsterdam is about. Employees of these coffee shops would not want their photo taken for fear that it can cause future legal or prejudice issues.
So I did my research prior to coming to Amsterdam and found quite a number of Coffeeshops that are around the central part of Amsterdam:
- The Bulldog
- 1e Hulp
- Green House United
- Coffeeshop Paradox
- Smoke Palace
- Barney’s Coffeeshop
- 420 Café
- Grey Area
- Green House Centrum
- Mellow Yellow
Walking around Amsterdam
Feel free to walk around, or perhaps even bike around, Amsterdam and just explore this beautiful and clean city.
While waiting for my entry to Van Gogh Museum, I was sipping hot chocolate at this café called Blushing Café. Funny and irritating story – blackboard says a cup of hot chocolate was about €5 something. I decided to pay first rather than pay later. The cashier sprang up and it was €6 something, so I asked the waiter OK why is the price different from the blackboard? Then he said it’s because we’re adding whip cream on top of it. I was like … because you may as well have added the actual price on the blackboard rather than a discounted price assuming I would have no whip cream on it and without him asking me whether I want whip cream or not. I told him I didn’t want whip cream.
Shopping in Amsterdam
I left this part last because there isn’t much to say about food since everything I ate was sort of “on the go” and not preplanned, so I ate anything that was nearby whenever I was hungry. Most of what you will eat are sandwiches, toasts, bagels, cheese and the like. There are some places that also sell pizza and pasta as well. While everything was OK and decent, my favorite foods were an Indonesian snack consisting of chicken and a bun with some Indonesian sauce that was in the music festival (!) and a chain Japanese restaurant called Wakayama (I ate chicken curry). Surprisingly, any foods that are spicy are actually quite spicy. Usually in western countries, the definition of spicy is different compared to the spiciness level I like in South East Asia, yet the two meals I had in Amsterdam that was advertised as spicy turned out to be just as spicy as the things I’ve accustomed to eating.
I love Amsterdam. Great city, comfortable, convenient, young, and lots of the dance music that I like. Definitely will try to come again for the parties. Also love the weather and hospitality here as well.
Last updated: Nov. 4, 2018