Last weekend, I fell in love with Amsterdam. It’s so much more than I expected it to be. If you think of Amsterdam, what comes to mind first? Canals, perhaps? Tulips? Anne Frank’s house? Or perhaps you think of red light districts and dope cafes? Well, I think I might have been guilty of imagining the city as the setting for one giant stag do, despite recently reading The Miniaturist, a wonderful novel set in the city during its trading heyday. I shall admit, I don’t think I gave it anywhere near the credit it deserves. So, here’s a few things I learnt about Amsterdam that might persuade you to visit too.
The 1600s was a particularly wealthy time for Amsterdam–the Dutch ‘Golden Age’. Borne on the back of international trading, wealthy merchants built the most beautiful houses. Many of them still stand today, and they’re often so wonky, they’re held up with wedges between them. It’s utterly fascinating. Each has a giant hook built into the roof. This is because the stairs are so narrow that large pieces of furniture need to be winched up outside the building on a rope and pulley system and brought inside through a window. We stood and watched as this took place at one house.
The beauty of these houses means that wandering through different districts (especially Nine Streets) is just a joy.
A secret code.
One of my favourite things to learn about Amsterdam is the these old houses have stone tablets or plaques on them–dating back to when they were first built– illustrating the occupation of the householder or something about them. This was to help people know where they were in a city without street names. Once I realised this, it became like following a secret code, and trying to work out what the illustrations meant. Some were obvious–there’s a famous one of a wet-nurse–but others less so. And, there are lots and lots that show wealth arising from the slave trade. Sugar, cotton, tobacco, spices. To my shame, I hadn’t realised that Amsterdam was the slave trading capital of the world. Which brings me to my next point:
A wealth of museums.
Amsterdam is awash with museums, including the ethnographic museum, the Tropenmusem, where you can learn about the cultures of the world – and which which shares the history of the slave trade in Amsterdam. Perhaps the most famous of all historical places to visit in the city, Anne Frank’s house, has a large queue almost the entire time that it’s open. Whilst it is undoubtedly a sobering visit, if you’re short on time, and want to get a deeper understanding of the history of the city during the war, you might be better off visiting the Dutch Resistance Museum. Both of these museums, and many more (including a wonderful Botanical Garden) are in the Plantage district of the city.
Vintage on every corner.
One of the greatest things about walking around a city is coming across unexpected neighbourhood treasures that weren’t on any map. In the case of Amsterdam, we found this turned up in the form of vintage shops. They’re everywhere. The vintage clothes industry is booming in Amsterdam; we found so many little shops and a whole second hand market, all selling great quality vintage clothing. Having said that, we didn’t buy any because we’d only packed hand luggage. Note to self: leave room for shopping!
Ah yes, tulips from Amsterdam. The flower market was sadly rather a washout, with lots of stalls selling exactly the same thing, therefore looking like they’d just all gone to the same wholesaler, and there was a lot of rubbish souvenirs mixed in with the flower bulbs. However, I do think that if you visited in the Spring, this might be a different story.
My tulip happiness returned on a trip The Tulip Museum. It’s a very small, but nicely curated museum, above a good quality shop. Tulip mania happened in 1637 (during that wealthy Golden Age) and led to crazy prices being paid for a single tulip bulb – Semper augustus – a red and white striped parrot variety, being the most prized. The alleged highest price on record? More than the cost of one of those merchant houses…
Whether tulip mania was really as crazed as claimed, remains somewhat speculative, but nonetheless, it’s an amazing story. Anna Pavord’s book, The Tulip, is now firmly on my to-read list.
These days, you can buy beautiful bulbs, including a descendant of Semper augustus and those amazing striped varieties so often depicted in Dutch oil paintings of the period, from the Tulip Museum shop. I might not have brought back vintage clothing, but I did bring back tulip bulbs – which will be planted with my herb garden on the allotment. Excited…
As we walked down Albert Cuypstraat on the evening following the famous food market, I saw a grey heron flying above the street. We stopped to watch, thinking it might have been quite a rarity–in the UK, herons are usually pretty shy, solitary birds. Then, another appeared. And another. It seems the grey heron is the herring gull of the Amsterdam food market; arriving at the end, scavenging for food. More birds arrived, perching on the tops of houses and street furniture, and we watched as they all started stalking around, like modern-day velociraptors. I counted more than twelve, just near us. Fascinating, and not a little scary. They’re big birds, herons…and there’s a lot of them in Amsterdam.
The Van Gogh Museum.
This recently re-opened museum was a real highlight of my visit. Located in Museumplein, its a huge place. We gave the permanent collection a miss in order to devote our visit to the ‘Van Gogh and Munch’ exhibition, and it was worth it, as we were able to linger over the beautifully curated exhibition. It’s just stunning. The parallels between the two artists are so strong, and the exhibition takes you through their exploration and development of artistic styles, from early work, through to the most famous pieces you associate with them today. What I loved was the inclusion of works by artists they’d been influenced by, such as Pissarro, making it easy to learn. I can’t recommend this exhibition more. Pre-book tickets to jump the very long queues, and give yourself plenty of time to absorb it properly.
Last but not least…Apple Pie.
Why did no-one tell me about this before? If there’s one thing I’m going to learn from this holiday, it’s how to make Dutch apple pie. If you’ve got a recipe, let me know!
So, I love Amsterdam now. Which will teach me never to judge a place before I visit. In fact, I have so much still to see, that I’d like to plan a return visit soon. I’ve still got bikes to ride, house-boats to stay in, the Rijksmuseum to visit…
What’s your favourite thing about Amsterdam?
My Travel Summary:
Flights: Easyjet from Leeds.
Accommodation: Nine(T)Teen bed and breakfast. In de Pijp district, which is a great neighbourhood. I loved this little place. Really friendly, local business, great breakfasts and coffee. And–very importantly–apple cake! I’d definitely go back.
Other useful places:
More about those stone tablets
Best places for vintage shopping in Amsterdam (although just walking around will be enough for you to stumble across vintage stores)
This is a grey heron
Best places to get apple pie in Amsterdam (and the cafe run by the people who ran my bed and breakfast!)