Unbeknownst to most (British) tourists, Amsterdam is comprised of more than just the cliché, red-light district, drug scene – rather there is also a whole other side that just radiates raw beauty – stunning parks, canals, leaning houses – and of course windmills and tulips. Fortunately I have a friend from university studying abroad in Amsterdam, and staying with an almost-local meant that we got to experience the best of both worlds (especially as Alex lives in Jordaan – which is an intimate little area, described by Lonely Planet as being comprised of “tiny lanes peppered with bite-sized cafes and shops”). On Alex’s advice we hired bikes at the first possible chance (€11.50/24 hours), meaning that everything in Amsterdam was at most, a ten minute bike away. Our visit to Amsterdam deliberately coincided with that of Shapeshifter – a New Zealand band who is currently in the midst of their European tour. It was a great feeling seeing the local boys doing so well on the international stage, and it was also a unique experience biking to and from the concert.
Of course the red light district is something that every tourist in Amsterdam should probably experience, although the time of day one should venture into this area would differ depending on the experience sought after! We went at about 10 pm, which enabled us to see what really goes on down there, yet was early enough that the lively buzz of tourists meant it wasn’t creepy at all. Seeing all the girls shamelessly parading in the windows was for me enlightening, fascinating but also very sad. At least every second shop is a ‘coffee shop’ which unlike the name suggests, does not sell coffee! Rather this is where you can legally obtain many different forms and variations of marijuana, something which is obviously very unique (and part of the tourist appeal) to Amsterdam! Also common is FEBO – a 24 hour fast food chain whereby the food is presented in a vending machine style – prominent throughout the red light district, I guess people there get the munchies late at night…
Visiting the red light district at night means that the rest of the day remains free for other sightseeing activities. The Jordaan markets are well worth a visit – lots of authentic Dutch food, as well as being conveniently located right by a café called Winkel (pronounced ‘Vinkel’) – which is world-famous in Amsterdam (and Lonely Planet too actually) for selling the biggest and tastiest slices of Apple Pie known to man. Other sights to see include Dams Square (home of the Royal Place), the New and Old Kerks (churches), the Heineken Brewery, and the Museumplein – which is where the famous ‘I amsterdam” sign lives, as well as a number of well-established museums (Van Gogh, Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk museum). A personal highlight for me was the Anne Frank Haus (€9); however time your visit well as the queues can be astronomical (we opted for first thing in the morning). Seeing the actual house that Anne Frank and her family hid in from the Nazis was quite a surreal experience, and the layout of the museum meant it remained interesting for the entire visit (no switching off this time!).
About 13 km away from Amsterdam, Haarlem is only 15 minutes train, or about a 1 hour bicycle (of course we opted for the latter). It is a gorgeous medieval town, with cobbled streets and wonderfully old buildings, built by a canal and near the main square ‘Grote Markt’. We had high hopes of seeing tulips, however to our disappointment we found out afterwards that we didn’t get quite far enough – the place to visit is called Keukenhof Gardens, and for €15 one can gain access to the world’s largest bulb-flower garden, and feast their eyes upon fields and fields of different coloured tulips.
Another place we ventured just outside of Amsterdam was to “Zaanse Schans” on the Zaan river (train station: ‘Koog Zaandijk’). This place is the epitome of everything Dutch! So green and luscious, with little canals, windmills that are actually producing various goods (such as peanut oil), and there was even a few tulips! In my opinion this is a must see; it was lucky we even went as the place is not that well-advertised – which was ideal as it meant less people.
Although the Mauritshuis museum is located here (which houses Vermeek’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” painting) our agenda was slightly different for the day. First stop: the International Criminal Court. Danielle has a friend who works as a prosecutor here, therefore we were lucky enough to receive a tour and even eat lunch in this fascinating environment. We sat and watched the prosecution questioning their own witness for the Kenyan murder case that happened after the elections (For more information click here). I was in a state of awe all morning – these lawyers were incredible, and then thanks to Danielle’s friend we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet these lawyers and ask them questions! After lunch we ventured out into the city to explore, and made our way across to the Peace Palace, which houses the International Court of Justice; not surprisingly,another beautiful building.
I also made a video, check it out here.