24 Feb A Dam Good Time in the Dutch Capital – A Guide to Amsterdam
Words by Nicole Gernon
@nicole_gernon on Twitter
Amsterdam is the go-to city break at the moment for young and old alike. Facebook is jam-packed with pictures of friends taking in the spectacular views of the canals or enjoying a bike ride through the cobbled streets of this spectacular man-made city. AA Roadwatch’s Nicole Gernon has just landed back from a trip to the Dutch capital and has all the details you need to plan your perfect break away.
There’s good news for Irish travellers as Ryanair is now flying directly into Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, after years of just bringing people as far as Eindhoven. Aer Lingus also flies directly into Schiphol from Dublin so you’ve no excuse not to bag yourself a flight.
Once you land, you’ll be glad to hear that trains run directly between Schiphol and Amsterdam’s Centraal Station. There are self-service ticket kiosks in the Airport terminal which are easy to use but only accept coins or cards. A one-way ticket to Centraal is currently €5.40.
You’ll easily navigate around Amsterdam on foot. It’s very compact and the layout of the canals help too so public transport isn’t a necessity.
If you fancy a more relaxed pace of life, a bike or a tram is your best option. Bike rental shops are everywhere and renting a bike is reasonable. Watch out if you’re cycling beside a canal though, as there are no safety barriers! Trams criss-cross the city and there is a variety of options and prices. Although we found walking to be the best way to see the city, you really don’t have to – the trams can take you anywhere.
There are very few bus options, apart from the sightseeing tour buses. Even still, you’re better off getting the water-taxi version. Water taxis can bring up to eight passengers across the city via the canal system. There’s not much point in driving because bikes and trams are considered far superior. Driving in an unfamiliar city is also quite daunting and parking is scarce.
There is an abundance of hotels. Try to stay within the canal belt so you’ll be within easy walking distance to everything. However, trams will be your saviour if you’re staying in the suburbs.
Avoid Dam square and anywhere directly on the main Damrak thoroughfare, as hotels in these areas tend to be pricier. It might go without saying but if you’re looking for a more relaxing break, it’s probably not the best idea to stay in the Red Light District.
If you’re going in a group, Air BnB has some great options. Staying in Nieuwmarkt or Leidseplein is a good idea if you’re looking to hit the bars every night. We stayed in the boutique Albus Hotel on Vijzelstraat, between Rembrandtplein and the Flower Market and we walked everywhere. Rembrandtplein also has plenty of great bars and clubs.
A lot of Amsterdam’s allure lies in its aesthetic beauty and relaxed vibe. You can spend hours walking around all the canals and looking at the famous dancing houses, which seem to defy the laws of gravity. Here are my must-see attractions:
You can opt for a day or a night cruise but I feel that the twilight cruise is a good in-between option. If you’re waiting until later in the year to go, The Amsterdam Light Festival is quite spectacular. It runs from the end of November to the middle of January every year and we were lucky enough to catch it. Artists from all over the world design light installations for the canals and a Colours Cruise at twilight is the best way to experience the festival.
See the home of Heineken, interact with the story of the famous beer, play some virtual rugby, pull your own beer and relax with a couple of cold ones in the rooftop bar. The bar is one of the highest points in this low rise city – the view is beautiful and access is included with your ticket. Make sure to save your drinks tokens for the rooftop bar instead of the bar that you enter at the end of the tour – you’ll thank me later!
The city’s Ice Bar is another fun night-time activity for tourists. We did it the same day as the Heineken experience to get the most from it and it was a great way to kick off the evening. For the price of admission you get a cocktail in the ski-lodge before you enter the ice room and then two drinks in the ice room, which are served in a glass made from ice. Wear something warm but don’t worry too much as they will provide you with a thermal jacket and gloves.
Anne Frank House
Undoubtedly one of the most important things you’ll see in Amsterdam is the Anne Frank House. The Frank Family hid from the Nazis in an annex behind Otto Frank’s factory for over a year and now, the site serves as an important reminder of World War Two. The minute you’ve booked your flights, this should be the next thing you book, even before your hotel. The queue can sometimes be two hours long but a pre-booked ticket allows you to skip the queue. It also entitles you to a pre-tour talk by a knowledgeable guide who provides context and shows you photos from the Frank’s private collection. We found the talk interesting and moving and it provided a good basis for the tour. The rooms are unfurnished – as Otto wanted – but artefacts, short videos and information points help you imagine what the family went through.
The Red Light district
This is perhaps one of the most famous areas of Amsterdam, purely because it’s so unusual. To the Dutch, prostitution is an industry like any other and the working girls hire out the rooms and pay taxes. Wandering down the streets is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced and it’s even stranger because nobody bats an eyelid. While you’re there, you can check out the various museums which might help you gain an insight into the origins of this industry.
These are cute little bars, traditionally in the front room of a canal house. They’re called brown bars because of the brown décor – the result of years of tobacco smoke staining the walls and furniture. While there, make sure you try the local drink, Jenever- a type of fortified wine – just make sure you do so on a full stomach, it’s fairly potent!
There are Tours and Tickets outlets on every corner. They do brilliant discounts and allow you to skip the queues at the attractions. You’d be crazy to go directly to the attractions without pre-booking.
See Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch‘ brought to life with full-size statues and Rembrandt himself overlooking it all.
Marvel at The Royal Palace – the former home of the Royal Family, see the War Memorial Obelisk and visit Madame Tussauds.
The main attraction here is the Reijksmuseum, where all the Dutch painters’ masterpieces are housed. Even if you’re not into art, it’s worth heading down to Museumplein just to wander underneath the great archway of the Reijksmuseum. While you’re down this neck of the woods, make sure you get your photo taken at the Iamsterdam sign – perhaps the best photo-op in the city. There are also other museums dotted around the square, including the Van Gough Museum.
Cafés are where you go for a coffee, coffeeshops provide an entirely different type of herbal refreshment, so don’t get confused! Coffeeshops are on most streets and while there’s often talk of preventing tourists from entering and purchasing anything, they seem to be doing a roaring trade.
There’s plenty of delicious Dutch food you have to try when you’re there, but don’t plan on sticking to your diet!
Cheese: The Dutch are cheese lovers and there huge shops dedicated to cheese everywhere.
Frites: Chips are another staple and the purple cones filled with these fried delights smothered in a sauce of your choosing are the perfect snack day or night.
Stroopwaffles: Melting waffle biscuits with a gooey centre. Heat them up on your hot beverage, dunk and enjoy.
Dutch pancakes: Crepe style pancakes, but larger, served with whatever you can think of. You may as well go the whole hog and get lashings of Nutella and icing sugar.
Before you start planning your ideal city break to the Dutch capital, make sure to:
- Check out the Travel Advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
- Take out Travel Insurance to ensure you enjoy a stress-free break.