Amsterdam has a somewhat dubious reputation as the city of “coffee” shops and the red light district but for me those are just expressions of its liberal and modern society. It’s the capital city of the bicycle, stroop wafels, pancakes, art, music, history, leaning houses and beautiful tree-lined canals. Amsterdam is also the city of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) which was a world super power and had a significant impact on this history of South Africa.

Top 10 of Amsterdam:

1. Canals and waterways

Amsterdam’s canals, particularly the elegant ring of 17th century canals which have been declared a word heritage site by UNESCO, are incredibly picturesque with 1703 pretty bridges and 75km of canals. You can’t go to Amsterdam without walking/riding and taking a picture of these magnificent waterways.

Amsterdam canals
Amsterdam canals

2. Bicycling

I have never seen so many bicycles and cyclists in one city. Bicycles parked on every conceivable spot on-and-off the pavement and zipping and zooming around on every street and alleyway. The bicycle is the main form of transportation in Amsterdam with the ratio of bicycles to men, women and children being 2 bicycle:1 person. I found it quite hazardous being a pedestrian but was able to join in on the fun with a 4-hour bicycle tour around the city of Amsterdam. There were a couple of close calls from cars, scooters and other cyclists (mainly the dodgy cyclists in my own tour group). We cycled all over the city in our rain ponchos and I absolutely love it and would recommend renting a bicycle in Amsterdam. The public transport system of busses and trams is excellent and definitely safer but not as much fun.

3. Anne Frank House

I read Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager and tried to comprehend her story of living in hiding in the “secret annex” in her father’s offices in Amsterdam. Her writing is painfully honest and in addition to capturing the horrors of World War II, it was so easily relatable in the emotional rollercoaster, trials and tribulations of a teenage girl. It’s a very popular spot and you have to book a time slot on-line in advance. I spent the whole time in the museum in one long and continuous queue. This only added to the claustrophobic and oppressive atmosphere of the secret annex. But what really broke my heart was to see the preserved pictures of movie stars and Greek/Roman statutes that Anne had posted on her bedroom wall to try to make the place cheerful and knowing from her own words how she longed for fresh air and the sounds of birds.

4. Art

Amsterdam has some of the finest collection of art in the world from Rembrandt in the Rijksmuseum to the Van Gogh Museum. One of the museums was even hosting a temporary exhibition of the British graffiti artist “Banksy” while I was there. Sadly, for me, I was tired of the queues and the crowds and decided to put the Amsterdam museums on my bucket list for next time.

5. Food

There is a big debate amongst the French and the Dutch about who has the better cheese. The French cheese tends to be creamier and the Dutch cheese has sharper flavours. But Amsterdam is also known for its poffertjes, bitterballen, pannekoeken, stroopwafels and patat with special sauces. Not to mention the chocolate brownies found in some coffee shops.

6. Leaning houses

The houses in Amsterdam are built on wooden piles sunk into the marshy subsoil from 13m to 18m deep. If the piles come into contact with air, they rot, which has produced the effect of the leaning houses. Today concrete is used instead of wood. Because the property tax in Amsterdam was based on the width of the house, the houses are tall and narrow with ridiculously high and narrow stairs. This makes furniture delivery a challenge and so the houses have pulleys on the top of their roofs to lift furniture in/out of them. Our tour guide told us a “delightful and relevant” story about how he used such a pulley to move all of his ex’s stuff (or “her shit”) out of their house after an 8-year relationship and how convenient it was. He also told us how he was over it because it happened 3-months ago and how he was enjoying Tinder.

7. Red light district

I have heard stories about the notorious red light district but didn’t realise that we would be walking through the district on our bicycle tour. It was surreal to see all different types of women preening in little less than their underwear behind glass doors with their bed in the background open for business. The atmosphere of the crowd was predominantly male (in groups or alone) and predatory which made me and a number of the women in my tour group feel a bit uncomfortable. I think I found the blunt commercialization of sex as a transaction (60 Euros for sex and 15 Euros extra for a blow job) to be quite shocking. On the plus side, prostitution is a regulated industry in Amsterdam where the women are supplied with security, medical care (with mandatory 2-week STD check-ups) and even pay taxes. I also thought that the general frankness and openness about sex was liberating and that people should be entitled to express their sexuality in whatever form they feel comfortable. If they still believed in love and romance, then that was their own business.

8. Coffee shops

Despite my mother’s allegations about my “giggling with friends” in my Facebook picture, I did not have a “brownie” in an Amsterdam coffee shop. The Irish girls on my tour spoke guiltily about their visit and how they lost hours and hours of unaccounted time to which they would not speak of again. I appreciated that Amsterdam offered this freedom to indulge in hash/dagga with everyone being quite civilized about it and it had not dissolved into some nightmarish dystopia of a drug den.  So maybe it is also something for the list for next time?

9. Language

I was so thrilled to discover that Dutch was close to Afrikaans that I could understand so much of the language and all of the road signs. Despite the Dutch being very disparaging about the Afrikaans (calling it “cute”), I found that it was incredibly helpful to understand Afrikaans in Amsterdam.

10. People

And the best part of Amsterdam was the people. Not everyone was as friendly as the French with at least two bus drivers being rather sour, impervious to my charms and not returning my winning smile. But I did well enough with the rest. A real highlight of the trip was being able to catch-up with my old friend, Ken, and meet his beautiful Dutch girlfriend, Willemijn. Ken invited me to a viola performance at a sweet shop followed by cocktails at a James Bond themed cocktail bar (with drinks like Octopussy and Chew Me, it felt a bit hipsterish especially when one of the barristers donned a leather apron). Ken’s Dutch friends were all so friendly, warm and very “huggy”. It was lovely to take a break from the tourist scene and enjoy some local experiences.