The air tasted clean and faintly salty in the morning light. Town houses stood shoulder to shoulder along the canal, painted in ochre and salmon and buttermilk yellow, their crisply white window frames like eyes overlooking the cobbled streets below. Houseboats bobbed on water the colour of sea glass, moored along the banks. People with clear skin and yellow hair rode past on bicycles, wrapped in wooden scarves and hats, chatting and laughing as they wheeled by.
As March arrived, we had been feeling a little stagnant. Our feet were itching, our backpacks gathering dust under the stairs, and we yearned for the taste of a new city. Impulsive flights were booked, and we stood a week later on a tiny bridge in Amsterdam, shivering with excitement in the cold, smokey morning.
With only two full days in the city we knew we weren’t going to get through all the major sites, and after a fruitless hour spent queuing to get into the Rijksmuseum – where we were immediately corralled into another queue to buy tickets – we quickly decided to forget the tourist traps and explore Amsterdam our way. Which means that I did almost none of the things that you’re supposed to do in Amsterdam, but I did eat an enormous amount of cheese, which in my book is always the right decision. Here’s how I filled two days in Amsterdam.
We stayed in an Air BnB apartment for our weekend in Amsterdam, in the Rivierenbuurt district. I often like to stay in residential areas for weekends in European cities, as these areas can offer the opportunity to immerse briefly into a local life style, a different travel experience to staying in a central hotel. We made friends with an elderly neighbour who told us stories from her 50 years living in Amsterdam, bought wine and supper from a local supermarket and got to people watch from neighbourhood cafes, gaining a glimpse into local life in Amsterdam.
I love walking through a new city. Exploring at ground level brings the opportunity for adventure and spontaneity, getting lost and finding hidden facets of a place that you would never see from the tourist trail. Amsterdam is compact and we easily walked everywhere, discovering the distinct characters of each neighbourhood, from eclectic De Pijp to quirky Jordaan.
We wandered down residential streets and through local Sunday markets, along the canals and through the streets of Chinatown as the sun dipped pink and grey in the sky. Our apartment was located in Rivierenbuurt, near De Pijp, and from there we walked leisurely into the centre of Amsterdam each morning, taking detours along the way to explore hidden streets and stop for coffee or waffles. I’ve listed some ideas for directions in which to wander below.
- Wander through the streets of de Pijp, the ‘Latin Quarter’ of Amsterdam, and stop for breakfast and people watching at one of the quirky cafes, bars and restaurants that line its narrow streets.
- Explore the grand streets and green spaces of Museumplein, making stops at the Van Gough museum, Rijksmuseum and Stedilijk Museum if you feel inclined.
- Walk the canals and cobbles of de 9 straatjes (the 9 streets) and pick up some vintage bargains from the independent shops and boutiques.
- Shop for antiques and curiosities around Spiegelkwartier.
- Get lost in the streets around Rembrandthuis.
- Head for the three main ring canals that circle Amsterdam’s oldest streets – Herengracht, Prinsensgracht and Keizersgracht – in the late afternoon golden hour for canal photo opportunities.
Pillowy, sugary, and drenched with melted white chocolate. The perfect street food. (I don’t have a picture of the waffles, because I ate them in about 4 seconds flat).
Breakfast is my favourite meal, and Amsterdam has loads of options for lazy weekend brunch (the best kind of breakfast). We loved Coffee and Coconuts, a loft style hangout in a former 1920’s cinema full of people who look like they’re in an Ikea advert, that served fresh salads, tacos and eggs as well as their trademark coconut pancakes; and Omelegg, a tiny cafe with heavy wooden tables that churns out fluffy omelettes filled with farmhouse ham, gooey cheese and fresh crunchy vegetables from their open sided kitchen.
Cheese shops line the streets in the centre of the city, selling Dutch gouda, creamy goat and sheep cheeses and hard farmhouse cheeses in every flavour from truffle to pesto to lavender. Most of them offer free samples of their cheeses, along with crackers, jams and pickles. We saved money one day by substituting lunch with a free cheese crawl – but spent it a day later when we went back to buy enough cheese to see us through until Christmas.
Golden, crispy and drenched in cheese sauce and mayonnaise – Dutch fries from one of the greasy little hole in the walls around the red light district may be the ultimate end-of-the-night snack.
The famous floating flower market was a little bit disappointing – I didn’t actually realise that I was in the middle of it until Rikki pointed it out, although that could have had something to do with the fact that we’d just come out of a ‘traditional’ brown coffee shop. I’m told it’s more impressive in the summer though, when there’s more in bloom. However, on Sunday morning we visited the Albert Cuypmarkt in de Pijp which I did love, a bustling street market selling everything imaginable, the streets thick with the smell of perfume, marijuana and frying potatoes.
We may have avoided the big ‘must sees’, but I loved the uncrowded and laid back FOAM photography museum, which has a reading room in the attic full of big books of photographs from previous exhibitions which you can thumb through, in addition to some beautiful and bizarre temporary collections. The Amsterdam Tulip Museum is also a good choice for an insight into an intrinsic part of Amsterdam’s culture without the queues and tourist crowds.
I didn’t get to Ann Frank house during the time that I was in Amsterdam. That’s the one thing I really wish I had seen, but with four hours left before we went to the airport, we chose to explore Jordaan, eat breakfast by the canal and go cheese shopping rather than queue for three hours. It’s definitely worth booking tickets online – everything was booked up for us because our trip was so last minute – but the way I see it, it just means I’ve got a great reason to go back to Amsterdam as soon as possible.