Sunday, 16 April 2017

Citybreaks on a Budget - Amsterdam

If like me, the last few months in world politics have made you feel like you've accidentally stumbled into some Stranger Things style parallel reality, then solo travel and the way it reminds you how lovely the world can be, is the perfect antidote.

Last month prompted by an ad for cheap flights in my news feed (dammit Facebook you have figured out my kryptonite) I booked two mini European city breaks in a row on a complete whim. The first of these trips was to the Netherlands' supremely chilled capital Amsterdam. 

My base in the city was a cute little budget hotel next to the river which shall remain nameless for reasons that will soon become clear. It was an incredibly friendly, quirky place - the building was from the 1700's when its owner was a captain in the Dutch East India Company so it had tons of character including the narrowest, windiest staircase I've ever climbed up. My room had plenty of electronic devices including a TV, but randomly no sockets to plug them into which it turned out was an excellent safety precaution as the torrential downpours which were common during my stay caused the ceiling to leak which in the absence of an alarm proved a very useful morning wake-up call. However I didn't visit Amsterdam to stay in my hotel so I didn't mind too much and just grabbed a bag and headed out to explore the city.

Getting lost in the city
First stop was a wander through what I had heard was one of most picturesque areas of the city - the Jordaan. I popped on a podcast, checked my free map and figured it didn't seem that far on paper so headed out on foot, in what I assumed was the right direction. Two hours later I eventually gave in and asked for directions and was told I had walked in completely the opposite way (in fact I had gone so far wrong I was almost off-map). However the kindness of strangers meant that I was guided to the tram stop and onto the right tram to where I needed to go. Needless to say when I eventually arrived in Jordaan my expectations were sky high, and thankfully it was worth the wait. Traditionally the poorest area of the city, popular with immigrants and labourers, the neighbourhood has since grown exponentially in popularity and price. Losing yourself in the labyrinth of cobbled streets, courtyard gardens, tree-lined canals and bridges, traditional architecture, independent cafes and boutique stores, is just magical and the ideal introduction to the city.


While you're in the area don't miss Foodhallen (Bellamyplein 51, 1053 AT) - an indoor food market housed in a beautiful old tram depot conversion. In the evenings it's teeming with merry people and there are plenty of tasty morsels on sale. If you have any trouble finding it just ask one of the super friendly locals - one went completely  out of her way to walk me right to the entrance.

Having had a lengthy conversation with the friendly check-in fella at my lodgings about my second favourite subject (food) I followed his advice and headed to The Butcher's stand for a truffle burger and Belgian fries. As the name suggests the focus here is on fresh ingredients and great quality beef. The result is an insanely good burger that I practically inhaled.

I foolishly decided I would walk back to my hotel and..............yes you guessed it..........I got lost yet again - I'm not really sure why I bother with maps - a 3 year old's squiggle on a piece of paper would be of equal use to me. This time I made it super close to home but still couldn't seem to locate the hotel but a lovely local fella came to my rescue and walked me home. Hilariously I got lost again the following night in exactly the same area and bumped into my Good Samaritan yet again, who instantly recognised me and greeted me with a cheer before walking me home for a second time - what a star!

New Amsterdam Free City Tour

The next day I headed out for a free city tour. This is a great way to get a feel for the city and to meet other solo travellers and to bond over travel stories and travel plans. 

These conversations can prove incredibly useful - for example I learnt about an app called MapsMe which provides offline maps for much of the world with turn-by-turn navigation - technology which was surely invented for me! Naturally when I finally said goodbye to my fellow travellers I gave them a huge hug to say thank you for introducing me to what I knew would be an absolute lifesaver of an app in future.

The tour itself was excellent - what comes across when you learn more about the city is its very pragmatic approach to life and its 'live and let live' attitude - if you are not hurting yourself or others and you are bringing income into the city, the authorities will (to use the Dutch turn of phrase) 'look through their fingers' at you and essentially leave you be. The perfect example of this is their approach to marijuana which has been decriminalised since the 70's when the distinction was made between hard and soft drugs, but has surprisingly never technically been made legal. You have to visit one of the city's many 'coffeeshops' (not to be confused with your standard Starbucks style cafe) to get your herbal high - but once inside you can enjoy yourself to your heart's content. Meanwhile Dutch pragmatism prevails as the city is able to control and collect taxes on an activity that technically exists in a legal grey area. 

Before visiting Amsterdam a friend had joked about how a decade ago he had smoked some super cheap, low-grade weed in Amsterdam and had experienced the weirdest trip where he was convinced he was going to meet his end by being run over by a tram and that to this day he still feels nervous when he sees tram tracks. If you hadn't guessed he told me that story to encourage me to visit a coffeeshop during my visit, but strangely enough it had the opposite effect. However if you do fancy a visit its worth reading a guide to coffeeshop etiquette.

Anyway back on topic, the Dutch have a similarly pragmatic approach to prostitution which has been a constant feature of the city ever since the 1300's when prostitutes would carry red lanterns and meet sailors near the port. The creation of the red-light district was an attempt to make the world's oldest trade a lot more safer for the women involved and the fact that legalising it means millions of euros are generated in taxes doesn't hurt either. During the day the 'shop windows' are mostly empty and this is a relatively normal and quiet neighbourhood, with a church and even a working creche in it. While learning more about the area hasn't converted me to being 100% behind the concept (my feminist instincts are just too strong for that), I can definitely understand the argument behind it much better.

Van Gogh Museum

From the city tour I headed to Museumplein (home to Amsterdam's best museums). Short on budget, I decided to just visit one of the many impressive museums and art galleries on offer. For most people the obvious choice would be the Rijksmuseum, which houses an impressive collection from all the old masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer. However travel should be about visiting the places you really want to see not the places other people say you should see and there was only one place I knew I had to visit - the Van Gogh Museum. I'm glad I made this call as I absolutely loved this collection - I got a chill seeing famous pieces like 'The Sunflowers' in person and it was really interesting learning more about the life of this tortured genius.

Pancake Heaven

While my appetite for art had been fully satisfied, my stomach was crying out for food, so I headed to De Vier Pilaren (Stadhouderskade 11, 1054 ES) for a giant savoury pancake followed up by proffertjes (delicious sweet pancakes covered in icing sugar) with what I thought was a scoop of ice-cream but after ladling it on top of my pancake and taking a huge bite I realised was actually a giant chunk of butter - naturally I ate it anyway (well it would have been rude not to!). In case you were wondering what it was like - it was both seriously good...........and insanely unhealthy). When I managed to clean the plate the waiter looked supremely impressed and it was only then I realised that all the other tables were ordering one plate to share between two - There goes the diet! And it was going so well (not!!)

Canal Cruise

No trip to Amsterdam would be complete without cruising along the city's famed canals. Amsterdam is often called the Venice of the North, as it has over 100 kilometers of canals and over 1000 bridges. Sitting back and watching it all sail by is a really lovely way to rest your weary legs after a busy day of sightseeing.

Anne Frank Museum
Another must-see is the Anne Frank Museum. Anne's diary chronicled the years she and her family and friends spent in hiding during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands before they were captured and sent to a concentration camp. When the diary was found and published after her death it became one of the most famous books in the world. Visiting the museum which includes the chance to see the Secret Annex where they all hid, is an emotional, sobering and utterly unmissable experience.

Floating Flower Market

With only an hour to go and keen to end my trip on cheery note, I headed to the world's only floating flower market (Bloemenmarkt). I found it pretty underwhelming to be honest as I had imagined a floating equivalent Colombia Road Flower Market in London. For the most part the stalls were filled with fake flowers and tulip bulbs. However right at the end of the street there is a very pretty floating flower stall which was definitely the highlight of my Bloemenmarkt visit as it is filled to the brim with beautiful fresh flowers, colours, scents and......... a pair of giant clogs!

Sampling local delicacies

Final stop was one of the city's herring carts. I had been reliably informed that the traditional way to eat this delicacy is to order one of the raw herrings, hold it by its tail, tilt your head back and swallow. However I was less than enamoured by that idea, so instead I went for a broodge haring where the raw herring is served in a bun with pickles and onions. I know this sounds massively unappetizing but actually it was pretty delicious - sweet, salty and tangy, with that fresh taste of the sea.

And with that tasty treat my mini-Amsterdam adventure had come to an end. My time in the city had really challenged the wink-wink, nudge-nudge reputation of Amsterdam as place that is only about pot and prostitutes. Instead in the way that only travel can, it had helped me peel back the layers to uncover a fascinating, friendly, chilled and beautiful city, and one which I look forward to visiting again very soon.



  1. As usual beautifully written and funny ! Loving it ! :)

    1. AWhh thanks. Glad you enjoyed it so much!


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