My trip to Amsterdam was filled with light and water, lined with somber red bricked buildings topped with unique gables, the whir of bicycle tyres and the wind in my hair. This canalside city has many charms, but here are my favourite Amsterdam top six moments.
1. Walking along the Jordaan canals in early morning light
Just after dawn that same day, excited about the exploration ahead of me in a new city, I’m dressed and out wandering the canals. I’m also up early to catch the first light – everyone raves about the light in Venice, that other city of canals, but in the early morning sunrise that steals into the streets of Amsterdam, I am struck by how liquid the light here looks too. It is quiet this early on a Saturday morning, bar the occasional local out on an errand for bread, flowers and the papers – I like how the city seems to be waking up to the tinkle of bicycle bells and whir of thin tyres on cobblestones.
2. Exploring the architecture
The brick buildings line the streets, and overlook the canals. There are about nine hundred little islands here, all connected to each other by curved, solid bridges and bordered by bicycles, chained to every conceivable, chainable metal rod. Each of the houses is crowned by a gable, and the shape of each gable indicates the age of the building – pointed gables are oldest, followed by stepped, and lastly bell-shaped gables, ornamented with plaster rococo.
The houses list sideways companionably, leaning forward as if trying to listen in on the conversations going on in the streets beneath them. They were built that way to facilitate the moving of furniture. Buildings here are notoriously narrow and high – understandable when one is building on a city built on piles sunk in a marsh; real estate is premium here! So, faced with the conundrum of how to move furniture past tight corners and up narrow stairs, the architects designed their houses to lean forward, attached a beam with a hook at the end jutting out from the facade, and commenced to winch their furniture up and through the large street-facing windows by use of pulley. The houses lean forward to stop the furniture from bumping into the facade when goods and such are being hauled up to the upper floors. Absolute genius.
3. Stepping through the secret entryway behind the bookcase into the annexe at the Anne Frank House
I explore Anne Frank’s House – buy tickets in advance online and you’ll swan to the head of the queue. It’s a canal side house on Prinsengracht, and the narrowness of the façade belies how big it really is. For months, eight people, two families, lived in cramped quarters at the back of this house. They relied on friends to bring them food and help to keep them hidden. Only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, survived the concentration camps. When he returned to Amsterdam he wanted the house to be left the way the Nazis left them – unfurnished. There are some good displays and filmed interviews with the people who knew the Franks.
4.Wobbling on a bicycle along with the locals
Later I join a bike tour, highly recommended when in Amsterdam, if you want to feel like being a local. It was a little wobbly at first because they ride on the right, and so I was giving way to the wrong people and not checking for traffic properly. Amsterdammers are incredibly gracious with the packs of cycling tourists that cause snarl ups in the road, though, which is more than I can say about Londoners who mutter past you on tube escalators when you stand on the left.
The bike tour is run by Sandeman’s Tours, who operate in a number of different European capitals (Prague and Berlin for example). For two hours I bounced around in the saddle on Amsterdam’s roads, down little canal side lanes, past landmarks and into parks. It was very professionally done, and the guide was an Englishman so understanding the commentary was no problem. Sandeman’s walking tours are always a big hit, because the guides are enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and more importantly, the tour is free. You are not obliged to pay anything, but tips to your guide are encouraged.
5. Seeing the colours inside the darkness of The Potato Eaters
The next day I head out to Van Gogh’s museum, prepaid ticket in hand. I prefer to buy tickets in advance especially on city weekend trips because it saves time. I also loathe queuing. Once there, you have to hand your bag over to the (free) cloakroom. I would recommend taking all your valuables with you into the Museum – they have handy plastic bags at the cloakroom available for this purpose.
6. Exploring the brown cafes of De Wallen
“If you want anything, don’t go in there, it’s filled with tourists. I know a place… if you want something good” said the dreadlocked Rastafarian, smiling companionably while gesturing at the hand painted façade of the Bulldog Café. Something good, of course, refers to marijuana, a legal substance in that most laid-back and liberal of European cities – Amsterdam. I am standing by a canal in the deepening twilight, watching as De Wallen lights up. This is the red light district, in the old part of the city, and it boasts a sex museum, a hemp museum, a few brown cafes; and, when the red lights go on, the ubiquitous ladies in their windows.