Eleven Ways to Lose Yourself (Reality) in Amsterdam
Life in Amsterdam is a narcotizing dream. Of anywhere I've been fortunate enough to travel in the world, Amsterdam is the singular place that inherently argues reality is an illusion. The Dutch, particularly in Amsterdam, just get so many things right. The architecture & engineering, fashion & style, food & coffee scene, history & museums (culture), nightlife & entertainment, and daily life are all pragmatic inceptions of incredible imagination. The brilliant architecture and engineering behind the city's charming canals and bridges plus the old, historic canal houses with their gabled roofs is utterly enchanting. Dutch style is progressive and forward thinking; the people there all look like they've walked off the pages of a GQ magazine. The food scene is an incredible amalgam of international flavors, featuring every imaginable type of cuisine from homestyle European Dutch to spice-oriented Indonesian to South American Surinamese to Mediterranean Moroccan and Turkish flavors. To top off the food scene is a blossoming coffee culture culminating in events like the Amsterdam Coffee Festival showcasing Dutch artistry. There is enough history and culture to explore for years and years between the museums featuring iconic Dutch impressionists like Van Gogh and Rembrandt and landmarks like the Anne Frank House. The party doesn't stop during the daytime either; the Dutch have a sophisticated nightlife scene revolving around the coffee shops (weed shops), Jazz clubs, and bumping & thumping house music nightclubs. Everything in Amsterdam is pure bliss. And you get to enjoy most of it by bicycle!
My junior year of college I did a spring study abroad program at the University of Amsterdam and, my oh my, was it a transformative experience. In my time there, a total of 5 months, I was able to discover some of Amsterdam's most prized landmarks; the best places to caffeinate, chill, and/or eat; and a few of the locals hidden gems--with many thanks to my Dutch friends and professors guiding my compass. While I could write about Amsterdam all day and night (and I will--a comprehensive Amsterdam city guide coming soon!), I'm going to hit you with the top ten things to do in Amsterdam for those that are sadly limited in their time in this narcotizing dreamland.
Before saying anything, let me preface my top ten suggestions by urging you, nay, pleading with you, to rent a bike during your time in Amsterdam. Elevate your game and your experience.
1. Get a Beer at Amsterdam's Local Windmill Brewery, Brouwerij 't IJ
Hands down the best Dutch brewery and best beer in Amsterdam is served up courtesy of Brouwerij 't IJ, no contest with Heineken or Amstel. Their standard selection (always available) includes an amber, double, triple, IPA, white, amber, and blond. No matter your preference, they got you all deliciously covered. Their brewery in Amsterdam, located towards Plantage to the East, is inside of a windmill (an iconic Dutch image) and provides a gorgeous outdoor patio in which you can enjoy your brew. Come here on a sunny day and you'll stay a lot longer than you think.
Power move -- Not too far away, maybe 5 minutes via bike, is another iconic Dutch bar, Hanneke's Boom, located right on the water. They have Brouwerij 't IJ on tap (more limited selection of course) and could be pit stop #2 on a bar crawl via bike.
For more info on Brouwerij 't IJ check out their website: http://www.brouwerijhetij.nl/?lang=en
2. Absorb Artistic Excellence at Museumplein
The Netherlands is home to some of the most iconic impressionists of all time, if not the most iconic painters of all time, namely Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Due South of Leidseplein, one of the premier tourist hotspots of Amsterdam, is Museumplein housing three of Amsterdam's most noteworthy museums, all spread around a big green square. Here you'll find the Rijksmuseum, the largest collection of Dutch art and history from the middle ages til now, plus other works; the Van Gogh Museum, a multi-story journey through Van Gogh's personal career as an artist and insight into his descent into quasi madness; and the Stedelijk Museum, a bath-tub looking building housing contemporary and modern art featuring the likes of Marc Chagall, Henry Matisse, and others. While you get spend all day in one and not see everything, venture to whichever museum suits your artistic inclinations and douse yourself with a dose of Dutch artistic excellence.
p.s. -- if you need to satisfy your more basic (bitch) urges, the I Amsterdam sign is in Museumplein.
3. Hazily Lounge at a Dutch Coffee Shop
One major stereotype of Amsterdam is the legal status of cannabis. While you're there don't miss out on the opportunity to get dazed and confused at one of the many coffee shops serving cannabis (most coffee serving shops are called cafes, though coffee shops serving weed do serve coffee). They have pre-rolled joints and spliffs plus cannabis of many different strains and tastes available to curate each and every person's hedonistic high. My top 5 recommendations are:
The Bulldog -- an iconic Amsterdam coffee shop with numerous locations. My vote is for Leidseplein, an expansive converted police station or their Red Light District location.
Dampkring -- Located on Harlemmerstraat in the northwest, Dampkring was by far my favorite coffeeshop to smoke at and served up some seriously domeless spliffs.
The Old Church -- go-to place to pick up joints/spliffs before going mobile.
The Power -- their Strawberry Kush is hands down the best cannabis I had in Amsterdam. I'm not one to tout the entrancing smells of cannabis, but it legitimately smelled more like strawberries than cannabis...and it was next level.
Mr. K & Co. -- A hidden gem in the Jordaan offering an offbeat vibe with tribal decor. It's a weird place, in the sense it's intriguing, with board games, a lofted nook. Oh, and they supposedly won the 2014 Cannabis cup.
4. Wander & Window-shop in the Red Light District at Night
The other major stereotype of Amsterdam is based on the sex tourism, headmasted by the Red Light District. I don't know how you feel about the Red Light District, and I'm not going to make assumptions (or judgments) either way. In any event, it's arguably the most iconic image of sex tourism in the world, between the women lit up in red lights in the windows and the variety of sex shows (primarily banana shows) advertising themselves along the canals. Personally, I find the existence of the Red Light District incredibly captivating, though the actuality of acting upon my more primitive urges there is repulsed by the procession of old Mediterranean men and young Brits almost consistently exiting rooms with their ladies there. Take a gander along the moody red-lit canal streets and see yourself what this hedonistic haven is all about.
5. Dance the Night Away to House Music
Amsterdam has a thriving nightclub scene soundtracked to house and techno music beats of many varieties, particularly the (deep) house music which many Dutch DJs have risen to international stardom courtesy of. The Dutch love their dancing, and they love to dance to this electronic dance music. See for yourself what this is all about, and if you can keep up through the night. My club recommendations:
Chicago Social Club -- I like the DJs they bring in, though would caution you that due to the location in Leideseplein, Chicago Social Club attracts a sizable number of tourists who happened upon the place and don't care about the music and (sub)culture behind it.
Radion -- A serious trek, located near the city limits of Amsterdam, Radion was the first Amsterdam club to get a 24 hour license so they could party all night. If you're feeling extra energetic, this is a good bet, and you're likely to hear famous Dutch house DJs as well as select house music legends dating back as early as the 90s.
De Skool -- A new club opened by the people behind Trouw--undisputedly Amsterdam's best club until its closing in 2016. De Skool also boasts a 24 hour party license and I can guarantee their bookings are world class as their booking manager was the RA in my dorm during my study abroad--the guy knows what he is doing.
Claire's -- A newer club opened in the same venue as Studio 80 in Rembrandtplein (what was my go to club during my time in Amsterdam), a nondescript red door with no signs or indications there is a club. Claire's features more minimal house and techno acts with a knack for just the right amount of flair and funk. Before going, scope the line-up because the bouncers will be asking if you know who is playing at the door (in order to filter out drunk tourists at the bars nearby and curate a crowd of people in the know about house music culture).
If you're in Amsterdam at the right time, you cannot cannot cannot miss their premier festivals: Amsterdam Dance Event--a city wide celebration of electronic dance music, DGTL--a festival located in shipping crates and containers near the docks, and Lente Kabinet--a smaller festival outside the city, a legitimate "forest rave" that can only be accessed via bike through 9 km of windmill laden countryside.
For more information on nightly events, check out Resident Advisor (and keep in mind the aforementioned clubs): https://www.residentadvisor.net/events/nl/amsterdam
6. Picnic in Vondel Park
What Golden Gate Park is to San Francisco or Central Park to New York, Vondel Park is to Amsterdam. When the clouds and nigh omnipresent rains of winter give way to the sunshine, Vondel Park becomes a vibrant picture of life in Amsterdam. There's groups young and old having barbecues, families taking walks together, joggers, and of course a few indulgers in cannabis. There are tourists and locals both, but more Dutch locals for sure. Stop at a nearby Albert Heijn, the prototypical Dutch supermarket, or a Dirk (van den Broek) a more German-ish supermarket and pick up some munchies and wine and enjoy the sunshine with a picnic in the park.
7. Absorb the Architectural Beauty of Amsterdam
As I noted in my intro, Amsterdam has a profoundly pragmatic and stunning sense of architecture, design, and engineering between the dikes preventing Amsterdam from being washed away by the sea and building their city with a massive infrastructure of canals. This isn't even mentioning the centuries old canal side buildings with their enchanting gabled roofs and mesmerizing hues of color. A few noteworthy spots of architectural beauty and insanity include:
Magere Brug -- a white painted drawbridge (most famous bridge in Amsterdam) crossing the Amstel River with a view of the Amsterdam Opera across the water
Bridge of many bridges -- at the crossroads of Reguliersgracht with the Herengracht, there is a stellar view of 10+ bridges, an insight into the architectural complexity of a canal city and ultra romantic scene at night when the bridges are lit up
Aforementioned Stedelijk and Rijks Museums
Brouwerij 't IJ windmill brewery
Oude Kerk (Old Church) located in the Red Light District
Stalmeesterbrug Love Lock Bridge -- nearby Magere Brug to the east is this smaller bridge adorned with the initialed locks of lovers with a view of the Munttoren Tower
Royal Palace of Amsterdam in Dam Square (more on this in a minute)
Cover photo of this article: what Amsterdam looks like on a postcard. This view can be found on Binnenkant right near its intersection with the Prins Hendrikkade roadway.
8. Splash Around (not literally) the Canals on a Boat Tour
I've touched on the imaginative beauty of Amsterdam's famous canals. While you can enjoy them traipsing around the city, the most proper way to see Amsterdam is to venture into the canals yourself via boat. There are guided tour boats, house boat lodgings, even a freakin' brunch boat that floats around the canals as you delight in the brunch, booze, and mind-bending sights. Pick your poison and don't miss out on this quintessential Amsterdam experience.
G's Brunch Boat: http://www.reallyniceplace.com/brunch-boat
9. People Watch in Dam Square
Under the medieval glow of the Royal Palace of Amsterdam, modernized appeal of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), and National Monument to World War II victims, sit and have a sandwich, spliff, or beer while people watching the ceaseless ebb and flow of humans. See if you can spot the locals out from the hordes of tourists here in Amsterdam. A surely glorious scene to behold between the architectural design and the people watching.
p.s. -- there are occassional ceremonies & fairs in Dam Square (one is end of April around King's/Queen's Day, so be on the lookout).
10. Vintage Shop in the Jordaan's De 9 Straatjes (9 Streets) or Europe's Largest Flea Market
Recognized as one of the most, if not most, photogenic scene in Amsterdam is De 9 Straatjes. These 9 criss crossing streets create a cute and quaint micro-neighborhood lined with oodles of vintage stores, trendy Dutch fashion (like Scotch & Soda), and some warm and cozy cafes to caffeinate or sit outside and enjoy the beautiful scenery.
If you like bargain hunting, vintage shopping, and flea markets, don't miss the once a month IJ Hallen flea market. This is Europe's largest flea market located in a warehouse across the water from Centraal Station. They have clothes, music + records, antiques, food, everything under the sun.
11. Go Bonkers for King's/Queen's Day
Once a year in late April (the 27th since 2014) there is an absolutely electric city wide party in celebration of the royal leader. The whole festival dates back to 1885 and the birth of Queen Wilhelmina (formerly known as Queen's Day), but in 2014 with the crowning of King Willem-Alexander King's Day was born. When I say celebration I mean this shit is totally bonkers. Everyone is decked out in excessive amounts of orange for Dutch orange pride. The canal streets are lined with garage sales city wide. Street corners feature outdoor bars, food stands, and even musical acts. The canals are clogged with boats traveling both directions, boats with live music and people getting ceremoniously hammered. It is an all day affair of epic proportions and a once in a lifetime opportunity.
This is by no means a comprehensive guide. Amsterdam has so much more to offer than just these 11 activities & events. There's plenty of lekker (cool) cafes to stop in and recaffeinate with that sweet brown nectar of the gods, a smashingly sophisticated food court called Foodhallen, a plethora of offbeat bars, and other places to relax or catch a view of Amsterdam. After my time there, my knowledge and experiences--as well as those of the people I encountered during my time in this Dutch dreamland--have led to this particular compilation of eleven of the most iconic, unmissable, and unmistakably Amsterdam things.