If it's your first trip to Amsterdam, you’ll certainly be captivated by its architecture of long and narrow brick houses peeking down on the many canals from white curtainless windows; you’ll be surprised by the amount of bicycles you'll see, the number of bridges you'll cross and the quantity of fried food you'll eat. There's this and so many other things to do in Amsterdam when it comes to reasons to visit the Dutch capital. Simply wandering through the streets will give you a glimpse of how vibrant this city can be! So whether you’ve never visited here before, or you think it’s time to head back, here are my 5 reasons to visit Amsterdam.
Art and history
If you are traveling to Amsterdam then I would recommend you take in the wonders of Museumsplein, or museums’ square, where the famous red and white “Iamsterdam” sign welcomes you with its bold flashing lights.
Once you're done climbing and posing all over the giant letters, rum around the square and you'll find a few museums. Some of the better-known attractions in Amsterdam are the four-storey Rijksmuseum with its red brick facade exhibiting paintings from Rembrandt and Vermeer, the top-rated and most-visited Van Gogh dedicated to the Dutch artist, and the vanguardist Stedelijk with works from renowned artists of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
A “hardcore” visitor on a trip to Amsterdam would probably spend a day or two walking the rooms and halls, scanning the buildings inside and out; but if you’re pressed for time, aim for the collection's highlights – with the aid of a fancy multimedia guide – and skip to the next museum after two hours. No matter which category you fit into, make an effort to allow yourself enough time to breath in art and history.
Anne Frank's House
Another reason to visit Amsterdam? Anne Frank's house (huis, in Dutch) which is not that far from Museumsplein, close to the 17th-century Renaissance style church, Westerkerk, and facing a street that runs along the Prinsengracht canal.
The place is certainly worth a visit for its historical importance – not only for the city, which has housed Jewish refugees fleeing persecution – but for all mankind. It makes you empathize with the personal tragedy and everyday life in hiding of a young girl and her family during WWII and will certainly enrich your trip to Amsterdam.
Food glorious food
It turns out Dutch people know a thing or two when it comes to frying stuff and if food is not on your list of things to do in Amsterdam, then I truly believe it should be!
Dutch people are not only Sausmasters, offering a vast range of tasty concoctions, (try the only-for-the-brave oorlong, which literally translates into “war”: an Indonesian sweet and sour peanut butter sauce joined by mayo and onions), but they have truly mastered the art of frying food with a crunchy but not oily nor overpowering pastry.
When strolling around town, taking in the attractions in Amsterdam, it's common to find take-away-only chip shops where you can order a portion of frites (whatever you do, don’t call them French fries) accompanied by other fried snacks. The most famous ones being the bitterballen: smaller than a golf ball, they typically contain a beef-stew type of filling, but they can also be stuffed with cheese, truffle, spinach and so on.
If that is not enough to tantalise you to take a trip to Amsterdam there is more! You might have heard of stroopwafels, a traditional sweet of the Low Countries region, consisting of two pieces of chewy waffle with a gooey caramelly-like center. You can easily find them in supermarkets or - and this is the best way to try them - you can have them freshly-pressed and spread with some hot stroop (a Dutch syrup with a color and texture similar to caramel). The stroop – or the caramel variant for caramel lovers – will ooze out of the sweet waffle sandwich while you bite into it. It's heartwarming and kinda sticky.
Also worth mentioning here, as they don't seem to receive enough credit, are the poffertjes, mini pancakes usually laid on top of a melting knob of butter and generously sprinkled with some icing sugar. Indulging in these delights in a traditional setting is just one more reason to visit Amsterdam.
Outside culinary influences
When traveling to Amsterdam you are likely expecting to experience local traditions and cuisine. Keeping in mind that the Dutch were once powerful merchants and explorers, dominating the seas around the globe, it's no surprise that Indonesian and Surinamese food (Indonesia and Suriname were former Dutch colonies) officially rank in the top-ten of the Dutch cuisine.
Pay attention when wandering around the city, taking in the attractions in Amsterdam, and you will certainly spot quite a few global restaurants. If it's uncharted territory for you, start off your culinary journey with a Surinamese broodje pom (pom - a traditional mix of beef and pomtajer – a potato-like root – served on a bread roll).
Last but not least, the national favorite and the simplest and most straightforward of dishes: an incredibly tasty and meaty raw haring (herring) served with onions and gherkins. Market stalls or fishmongers' shops serve this delicacy. If you like a hipster vibe, try some of the above-mentioned foodie goodies at DeHallen or at the Albert Cuyp street market, in the newly-regenerated De Pijp neighborhood.
Charming canals, picturesque bridges and lots of bikes
Thinking about things to do in Amsterdam, one of the first things that should spring to mind is the ingenious canal system linking the Zuiderzee (South Sea), the sea-facing the harbour, to the Amstel river. The Netherlands (literally, the Low Lands) owe their name to their position: below sea level.
The construction in Medieval times of a “dam on the river Amstel” (hence the name: Amsterdam) to prevent flooding, was later upgraded and expanded to a concentric semicircular canals system. The canals were dug during the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) to accommodate a thriving and ever-flourishing trade to and from the Amsterdam port and it gave the town its present, unique look.
Called “the Venice of the North” for its waterways, Amsterdam is indeed similar to the Italian gem when it comes to bridges, which are enough of a reason to visit Amsterdam. Inevitably the canals have called for the construction of picturesque bridges to link one bank to the other. Also, canals and bridges create quite the romantic scenery.
The multitude of bicycles is nonetheless particular to the Amsterdam “landscape” – with unusually high seats and wide handlebars as they're made to fit the tallest people in Europe! – secured to the bridges railings. Find the best spot and take out your camera: the combo bikes, bridges and canals always makes for a classic photo-op to get stunning pictures.
Hoards of tourists visiting Amsterdam stream up and down the heart of the city: the Die Wallen neighborhood, best known as the Red Light district, is the city's oldest and well-preserved stretch of land surrounded by canals and linked by numerous bridges.
It's the city's libertine side with its infamous red-windowed brothels and the coffeeshops selling hashish and marijuana. It's probably incorrect to use the term “loose morals” as it is mostly the Dutch pragmatism that called for the regulation of certain habits, rather than prohibiting them altogether. Prostitutes are legally paying taxes and can offer their services in a seemingly protected and monitored place. Coffee shops have to abide by strict rules: they cannot serve alcoholic beverages, nor allow for the use of tobacco within their premises and can only sell five grams of soft drugs per person, per day (hard drugs are rigorously forbidden).
By legalising prostitution and tolerating marijuana consumption, they are cleverly keeping the tourism sector – at least one type of tourism – alive and well. And even though the right-wing administration has in the past few years reduced the number of coffeeshops and brothels, like it or not they remain the city's steeple and an undeniable attraction more so for the tourists than for the locals.
It is maybe due to the placid stream of its canals that Amsterdam seems to enjoy such a chilled vibe. Some may joke that it's the smell of weed that here and there assails the nostrils and calms the nerves. Either way, Amsterdam seems to provide a laid-back atmosphere to its inhabitants and, by extension, to its visitors.
Be it a busy Saturday night in the Red Light district or a quiet Sunday morning strolling in and around Vondelpark, the strong belief that Amsterdam offers a rather mellow approach to everyday life doesn’t falter. And if you want to blend in and do what the locals do, don't mind the unpredictable weather and end your day (or your trip) in a brewery. Abandon the temptation of ordering a safe Amstel or a boring Heineken, and be instead adventurous experimenting with less famous craft beers. You may be pleasantly surprised!
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