Amsterdam has more than its fair share of culture, art and history. The Van Gogh museum and Rijksmuseum are filled with 800 years of dutch art and history whereas Anne Frank’s House tells a dark, more recent story. The city has a risque reputation with its Red Light District, coffee shops and a faint waft of cannabis hanging in the air.
A UNESCO ancient canal system lined with leafy trees and pretty gabled houses is perfect for a wander with plenty of cafes and bars to stop at along the way. But what if you’re cultured out, coffee shop weary and can’t face another Stroopwafel? I’ve put together an alternative list of six cool and quirky things to do in Amsterdam.
We packed a lot into our three days in Amsterdam; boat trips through the canal district, museum visits, free sight-seeing and, of course, plenty of gable-spotting. But I can’t leave Amsterdam behind without mentioning its more infamous attractions; The Red Light District and the cannabis-selling Coffee Shops. We didn’t encounter any rock and roll during our trip but pedalos were prevalent and it sort of rhymed…
Amsterdam’s Red Light District
The Red Light District area of De Wallen is actually one of the oldest and prettiest areas of Amsterdam. Winding cobbled streets, pretty, leaf-lined canals, the gothic 13th century Oude Kerk (Old Church) as a backdrop and plenty of canal-side cafés makes it a pleasant area to enjoy in daylight hours.
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Come dusk the Red Light District becomes a major tourist attraction and when my travelling companion, a girlfriend from school, and I returned to the area in the evening it was cast in a somewhat different light. The lanes were bustling with goggle-eyed tourists, us included, couples strolling hand-in-hand, tour groups and hen parties giggling and gasping their way past less than barely-clad women gyrating their way round the window frames. And, of course, there were those looking to buy. The atmosphere was now a tad edgier.
As the lamplight cast a red glow onto the inky waters of the canal I heard a shout behind me. Looking back, I saw one of the girls launch herself from behind her window, run into the street and loudly admonish a tourist who’d been taking photos – photography is banned here. Luckily the camera remained intact and I know I shouldn’t laugh but seeing my friend being yelled at by a prostitute wearing 6 inch heels and little else still causes me to smile. What a rotten friend I am… We spent the next half an hour recovering with a gin and tonic watching the comings and goings from the safety of a busy pub. We reckoned the average curtain closure time to be 11 minutes. As you can imagine the people-watching here is unparalleled.
De Wallen (red light district), Amsterdam
Nowadays the government is cleaning up the city’s three Red Light Districts. Since prostitution was legalised in 2000 the country’s liberal attitude has been exploited more and more by organised criminal gangs. The aim is to discourage the types of business that are conducive to crime and to allow prostitution in just two areas. Brothels are bought-up as soon as they are vacated, renovated and new business ventures moved-in, such as fashion designers and restaurants, to strengthen the area’s character and help economic growth. It’s thought that a third of the brothels will eventually close. Safety is key here and the prostitution regulations were tightened in 2012 to further control organised crime and trafficking – the workers also have their own union and police protection.
Coffee and Cake, or something else…
So you fancy a coffee caramelata and slice of carrot cake during your Amsterdam trip? First rule of thumb is don’t get your coffee house (koffiehuis) or café confused with your coffee shop. It could get messy. There are definite rules for both types of establishment – one of which doesn’t involve a hot beverage.
Amsterdam is known for its liberal attitude to cannabis and if you’re looking for a coffee and a slice of cake you may get more than you bargain for if you go to the wrong type of café, Let me set you straight – a licensed seller of cannabis products is always referred to as a coffee shop. A coffee house sells coffee and snacks. A café is a casual restaurant or bar. Hopefully I’ve lifted the haze but If you still need help look for the green and white sticker in the window, a license which shows that the establishment is a coffee shop.
Coffee shops don’t sell alcohol as Dutch laws dictate that a shop may sell either alcohol or cannabis products but not both. I would just point out that I don’t partake in the weed via cake or any other means – in fact I’ve never even smoked cigarettes – but Amsterdam has an unmistakable aroma and it was impossible for even me to miss as we first entered the city on the walk from Centraal Station to our hotel.
And so to Pedalos…
After all that naughtiness here’s something to calm you down bit. If you fancy something a little more sedate than the RLD and the hazy high of a coffee shop then hire yourself a pedalo, or canal bike, and trundle the canals to your heart’s content. It’s not bad value and afterwards you’ll be too worn out to get up to any mischief…
Amsterdam comes packed with museums, galleries and attractions but it all comes at a price. If you’re visiting Amsterdam on a budget by the time you’ve added travel to and around the city, accommodation and meals into your itinerary you’ll have made quite a dent in your wallet. I’ve compiled a handy list of what to see for free in Amsterdam with a handy sightseeing map to help balance the bottom line of your Amsterdam budget and get just a little more bang for your buck.
The leaning houses in Amsterdam would indicate that the city’s on a bit of a tilt. And, if you’re wondering, no I didn’t partake of anything I shouldn’t have in its infamous coffee shops. Well maybe just the odd glass of red….
As we walked the pretty canals of the city we soon noticed that many of the tall, skinny, Amsterdam houses were on a distinct teeter. In fact some looked positively tipsy. It seems Amsterdam buildings lean every which way.
Amsterdam’s Canal District celebrated its 400th birthday in 2013 making it a very special year for The Netherland’s capital. It’s a city of history, architecture, art and, of course, an infamous edgy side but what I enjoyed most were the Amsterdam canals; pretty leaf-lined waterways, criss-crossed with curvy little bridges, edged with cobblestone streets and leaning gabled houses.
A Brief History of Amsterdam’s Canals
Photo Credit: Wikipedia
First some history. Dug in the 17th century, the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ the canal district is a half-cobweb of over 100 kilometres of intersecting waterways, interspersed by upwards of 90 islands and linked by around 1280 bridges. I had no idea there were so many canals – more in fact than Venice!
The central ring or Grachtengordel (Canal Belt) is a concentric belt around the old city centre made up of three rings of canals lined with gabled merchants’ houses and warehouses. Over time hundreds of narrow streets and smaller canals have fanned out from the centre following the course of old paths and drainage ditches.
Jordaan and The Nine Streets
I got a really good feel for the quieter side of the city wandering the tree-lined canals on the Singel and around the picturesque Jordaan and the Nine Streets areas. If there hadn’t been so much to see in the city I’d have been more than happy spending all my time browsing the chic little boutique shops or lingering in the late-afternoon sun with a beer just watching Amsterdam life drift by.
De Prins Cafe on Prinsengracht Canal
Our favourite breakfast stop De Prins Cafe on Prinsengracht Canal (Princes Canal). The scrambled egg with cheese and ham and a coffee really set us up for a day of sightseeing and it was only a short walk from our hotel.
Amsterdam’s Canal Boats
The canals are not just the pretty face of the city; they’re also a great way to get around. A canal-bus travels three different routes every half hour throughout the city dropping off tourists at 14 major attractions and allowing locals an easy way to get to and from work – I’d guess one of the prettiest commutes in the world.
Barges, rowing boats, canal taxis and sight-seeing boats glide through the canals throughout the day and evening. We took an open-topped canal cruise from near to The Central Station to get a relaxing, orientation from a slightly different perspective. It was idyllic to just sit back in the sun and let the city’s gabled apartments slip by as our ‘captain’ pointed out interesting buildings and landmarks. As it was a smaller vessel seating around 18 we were free to ask questions – so we did; lots of them!
Amsterdam’s canals are home to some 2500 houseboats. They range from brightly painted boats, barges laden with planters full of colourful flowers to modern minimalist looking boats. You can stay in a houseboat rental and there is even one housing a cat sanctuary – home to 100 displaced moggies!
Keeping Amsterdam’s Canals Clean
It’s important to keep the canal water clean and three times a week 14 of the 16 locks around the city are closed and clean water is pumped in from Lake Ijsselmeer. This creates a current which forces the dirty water out of the locks on the other side of the city. Today, the water in the canals is cleaner than it has ever been but although the houseboats were connected to the sewer system in 2005 swimming isn’t recommended.
It’s said that on average 100 people and 35 cars fall in every year although the low barriers along some of the canal edges are supposed to ensure that parked cars stay where they should. There’s a crack squad of four divers on call day and night to deal with vehicles taking a swim.
How many bikes in Amsterdam?
Bicycles are not averse to ending up in the drink either and hundreds of these are fished out of Amsterdam’s canals by dredgers each year. There are nearly as many bikes as people in the city and they have right of way over pedestrians – they don’t take kindly to distracted tourists and I did well to avoid a squishing. Around 300 bikes change hands every day.
The Seven Bridges
Reguliersgracht canal showcases one of the best views on Amsterdam’s canals – a line-up of seven arched, brick bridges. Not sure I captured them all in this shot…