I’ve spent an inordinate amount of my life transiting in airports, and some airports have stolen more of my life than others. As a former resident of Scotland, London Heathrow was my often unavoidable transit stop to reach a large portion of overseas destinations. After yet more arduously long layovers at LHR on my previous two return trips to my Homeland since emigrating to New Zealand, I vowed to do my damndest to avoid this soul-sucker of an airport. So when it came to my most recent visit back to Scotland in September of last year, I had done some searching of alternate routes and decided that Amsterdam would be a great alternative, given that I had never been there before and it had great connections to Glasgow, my final destination.
My style of travel differs from one holiday to another. I stay in hostels in some places, hotels in others; and I’ve done B&Bs and motels too. Some trips are planned to the hour, others are spent winging it and making it up as I go along. I might be on a budget on this trip, or able to splurge on that trip. But I will always ensure I know how to get myself from the airport to my first night’s accommodation, and it is often the ease of transit to said accommodation that determines where I will stay. The city of canals and rivers has plenty of options and locations to choose from. The city’s main sights are spread about the city and there is a multitude of transport options to get around, so after doing some research on how I would get from the airport and which parts of the city I wanted to avoid, I ended up booking in at the Clink Noord hostel in Amsterdam Noord, an area of the city across the IJ river from the main city sprawl.
After 2 flights and my customary transit in Singapore’s Changi airport, I arrived in Amsterdam tired and eager to dump my stuff and shower. The train took me straight into Amsterdam Centraal in no time at all and then I just had to trundle my bag out to the river side, jump on the free ferry across the river and trundle across the canal and round the corner to the hostel. It was too early to check into the hostel but a shower was at least an option, so once freshened up I got straight back outside again to explore. I had 1.5 days in the city before moving onward, so with this full day, it was all about walking the city. Taking the free ferry back to the city side, it was all about my two feet and I prepared to walk until they gave out.
Amsterdam is a very busy city. The pavements are crammed full of people and the roads are as filled with cyclists as they are with cars. It took a lot of concentration to make sure I wasn’t mowed down by somebody in control of wheels. The canals full of boats begins immediately past the main train station, and following a vague route, I wove my way towards the Jordaan district. I really could not recount the exact route I followed that day. I just wanted an overview of the city and its highlights and had a rough idea of where some of the city’s more distinctive buildings were. This was definitely one of those trips where I’d done a bit of research, but was effectively making up my plans as I went. I’d missed European architecture, and although the streets can at times be narrow and struggle to remain fit for purpose in a modern World, I was in love with the style of the place, quick to acquire that grin that covers my face when I go to a place for the first time that I’ve long read about or seen photographs of. As I followed first one canal and then another, I was accompanied intermittently by the noise of a passing canal boat. They came in all shapes and sizes.
As I approached Anne Frank Huis, the streets got busier and busier. By avoiding Centrum, I’d managed to escape the worst of the crowds so far, but now I was in touristville and everywhere was packed. I managed to find a vacant table across the canal from Anne Frank Huis and settled in to drink some terrible coffee and consume a tasty sandwich while watching the World go by. People watching is a favourite pastime of mine. The sun was vaguely trying to push through the clouds and it was nice to feel a bit of warmth having come from the Southern Hemisphere’s winter.
Once satiated, I pressed on with my wanderings. At the bridge by Westerkerk, I turned deeper into Jordaan in search of interesting side streets and photogenic canals. I had no desire to go to Anne Frank Huis and as the crowds outside attested it needs to be booked ahead. I do like historical sites and some museums, but I’m not a museumophile and don’t feel the need to go to a museum just because it’s famous. I did however stop at the Anne Frank monument on my way past as I gradually headed into the melee of Centrum.
I eventually found myself at De Dam near the National Monument. There was a buskers show taking place and the performer seemed to be stirring up a bit of controversy as there was some tension between him and a local man who was heckling him. This place was surrounded by distinctive buildings, and despite the crowds, I hung around for a bit taking photographs and acknowledging the immense number of tourists. Heading north from here seemed to be one of the main shopping districts and tram lines which I was quick to leave behind.
Nearing Amsterdam Centraal, which is prettier from this side of it than the IJ side, I picked my way via the canal system to the Red Light District. It is probably a very different experience at night, but most of the windows were inactive during the daytime. Instead it was an interesting and curious region to explore and the aroma of marijuana hung thick in the air in places. This was another busy place, full of tourists and devoid of locals. I ogled at shop windows as I went and contemplated popping into the Condomerie for some novelty condoms before deciding to pass on it. I also now know where to go if I ever want cheap sex toys whilst in Europe.
There are some pretty buildings here too, including Oudekerk. I really loved the Dutch churches and took detours to see as many as were nearby. The tall narrow buildings that line the canals are generally very picturesque too and I spent a lot of time looking up as I wandered. Eventually I found myself at Amstel, the large canal to the south of Centrum which was broader than all the other canals I’d seen so far and was full of boats powering along in one direction or another. I’d previously spotted a boat tour that looked a little more low key compared to some of the larger commercial canal boats, and decided I’d head back to go for a canal trip. However, I’d wandered in such a maze of streets and canals, that I couldn’t quite find it again and after a large chunk of the day on my feet, I decided it was time to head back across IJ and take a break.
After checking into the hostel properly, I organised a ticket for the A’Dam Toren which was almost next door. After posing for some obligatory silly photos as part of the entrance fee, I headed up to the rooftop where there was a 360o view and a bar. It was a cracking view in all directions, from the expanse of IJ either side, to the city rooftops beyond Amsterdam Centraal, and elsewhere the more industrial and residential portions of the city. There was even a glass floor inside offering a view directly down to the pavement below. After taking my fill of the view, it seemed only right to order a Heineken at the bar, but I was a little shocked to be presented it with such a head on top, accounting for around 20% of the proffered drink. In the UK, the British Beer & Pub Association states that poured beer shouldn’t be served with a head exceeding 5%, so this was a strange concept to me. I didn’t complain as I was on holiday and didn’t care enough to be pernickety but on enquiring with a Dutch friend, it turned out that this larger head was normal in the Netherlands. Eventually hunger took me back across the river again, and I joined the large queue at one of the city’s recommended fast food joints to partake in some friets, the quintessential Dutch fries with sauce.
My original flights had me in Amsterdam for 2.5 days, but after arriving in the country, I was worried about a short connection time on my way home so opted to split my Amsterdam trip in two. So the next day I had only the morning ahead of an afternoon flight to Scotland. As I didn’t know whether I would ever return to the Netherlands or not, it made sense to seek out a molen, or windmill, one of the iconic Dutch landmarks. Being in Amsterdam Noord, I noticed on my map that there was a molen within walking distance. About 40 minutes following the Noordhollandsch kanaal brought me to Krijtmolen d’Admiraal which was built in 1792. I’ve seen windmills before in Denmark but that seemed so long ago and I was glad that I’d gone out my way to see this one.
My last exploration before heading to the airport was the NDSM Werf on the bank of the IJ river. With the aid of Google Maps I took as direct a route from the molen as I could and this meant wandering through residential and industrial parts of the city. Whilst I didn’t see anything of particular note, it was still interesting to see the real Amsterdam, away from the tourist hot spots and the crowds. I saw nothing but locals going about their daily business and it was a side of Amsterdam that most visitors won’t see. My reason for visiting NDSM Werf was because I’d read that it was a bit of a mecca for graffiti art which I am a fan of. There wasn’t a lot of activity when I got there, and the place was more industrial than the industrial chic that I was led to expect, but there was plenty of artwork on the walls and even a crane that had been converted into a hotel. I absorbed as much of the art as I could, including a stunning mural of Anne Frank by the incredible Brazilian artist Kobra, before working my way back to the hostel to grab my belongings. There was still plenty of things to see on my return, but my tired legs could attest to the amount of ground I’d covered on my time in the city so far. Now, there was just a few hours between me and seeing my family for the first time in 2 years.