Adventures in Amsterdam

Amsterdam has always held somewhat of a mythical, perhaps mystical quality to me. The Dutch capital, with its infamous red-light district, liberal laws, picturesque canals and fairy-tale windmills has long piqued my interest and imagination, so a visit on our month-long Eurotrip this year was a must. Friendly, open-minded, with a unique history and countless beautiful spaces, it lived up to all my imaginations.

When to visit Amsterdam

We visited this July at the peak of summer, and while some attractions needed to be booked in advance, such as the Van Gogh and the Anne Frank Museum, we didn’t find it overly busy. The weather was almost perfect during our stay, with a light shower of rain on the first evening, but otherwise fine – not dissimilar to a Spring temperature in New Zealand.

Getting around Amsterdam

As one of the most famous cycling cities in the world, most locals and tourists alike travel on two wheels. The city is designed for cyclists, with separate cycle-ways and wide roads, making cycling easy and safe. As usual, though, we chose to walk – the city is so compact, and nowhere we walked was much further than an hour away.

Where to stay in Amsterdam

We were fully immersed in all walks of Amsterdam life immediately, spending all but one night of our stay in the well-known “De Wallen” or De Walletjes (Red Light District) that’s also home to most of the “coffee shops” whose offerings go well beyond the caffeinated variety. However, while we were certainly very central to all the city’s wild offerings, the abode itself, Sofitel Legend the Grand was in stark contrast. Complete luxury, 5-star accommodation in a building dating back to the 17th Century. If you wandered the opposite way up the canal, you could be completely oblivious to your surroundings. While the idea could be off-putting for some, it certainly didn’t discourage us. The hotel is set back off the main roads and is very private, too.

More photos at end

The city’s small, so wherever you stay, you’re not far from anywhere, but it was an ideal place to base ourselves from to walk or bike all-over. As a couple who didn’t want to spend our entire stay high and wandering between sex shops and brothels, though, we were very happy to have the retreat of the Sofitel Legend the Grand as our abode.

The hotel is actually a significant historical place itself, founded as a convent over 600 years ago, then becoming the City Hall of Amsterdam, and the place of marriage of Princess (then Queen) Beatrix and Claus von Amsberg. Now, as well as being an exquisite hotel, it still hosts couples for weddings and vow renewals, with the most beautiful ‘Marriage Chamber’.

Of course, we were there just to enjoy ourselves, and did so to the utmost. The staff were wonderful, and even surprised us with a canal booking for our last evening in the city (even though we were not staying with them that evening). If you can, book one of the three suites with private access to the canal at the back, for the ultimate in privacy.

For the final night, to be closer to a friend staying near, we moved to the Museum Quarter and Latin area, a couple of miles South of the Central City. Just 600 metres from the Rijksmuseum is Sir Albert Hotel, a former diamond factory renovated with a very modern, artistic feel. At a mid-range price point, it’s good value, a comfortable spot and great location to base yourself from to enjoy the museums and some fantastic food in the area. The hotel itself has Izakaya Japanese, and we particularly enjoyed a casual Turkish restaurant, Zagros, on the same street.

We also had the most incredible view of the city from our private deck off the room – it was a little cloudy while we had our morning coffee, but would be a stunning spot for an afternoon wine on a good day.

Amsterdam Must-do’s

Of course the Red Light district is a must-see. It is a fascinating piece of history dating back to Medieval times, as well as being an eye-opening experience, even in today’s world. It’s certainly the most visible portrayal of the sex industry I have ever seen. The area is perfectly safe, sans pick-pockets (as in most European cities) and really worth experiencing.

Go on a Canal tour. In a city best known for its canals, the best way to experience them is from the water, and it’ll give you a great excuse to rest your legs if you’ve been walking or cycling the city. Most seem to have wine and food available too, as ours did, which made for a very pleasant afternoon on the water.

See the windmills! The Netherlands are famous for their windmills, but you don’t come across many within the central city. Luckily, one day from our hike to the roof of the NeMo Science Museum (from which you can get a great view of the city) we spotted one within walking distance, along the banks of another canal and situated next to Bar Langendijk – the windmill is called De Gooyer. If you have a little longer, the beautiful Zaanse Schans windmills are a great day trip.

Drink the local brew. Heineken is a Dutch beer dating back to 1864, which is about all I can remember of the Heineken Experience tour because you drink quite a lot of beer on the tour – especially for someone who doesn’t usually drink beer. During the summer the lines can get long as thirsty punters line up for a beer, but like most museums, you can book tickets online.

Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh and the Anne Frank Museum are the most popular Museums of the city, and all of which Blair had visited on a previous trip. While I love a Museum on a rainy day, we didn’t actually get a rainy day, and had more than enough to fill ours, so I can’t speak from experience on these. We did, however walk past the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum and through its gardens (and past the famous “I Amsterdam” sign outside, and our canal boat took us past Anne Frank House too.

Get around. Whether walking or cycling, you can see so much of Amsterdam in a few days: coffee shops, cafes, beautiful canals and the architecture surrounding them, Dutch artisan stores and boutiques, tulip markets, bridges, house-boats and graffiti, to name a few. Nothing beats getting lost among the city streets and canals, exploring the magic of this fabled town.

Room and Breakfast at Sofitel Legend the Grand Amsterdam