Today’s contributor is Laura Mannering, a London-based travel writer and editor of online travel magazine World Out There.
It would be easy to spend a week in Amsterdam touring its canals, markets and museums, losing afternoons in coffee shops and staying out all night. But, on a recent visit, I had just eight hours in the city, so had to come up with a focused plan of attack.
After finishing work in London on a Friday evening, I hopped on an overnight ferry from Harwich, on England’s east coast. The boat landed at Hook of Holland, 48 miles south of Amsterdam.
I took an easy 90-minute train ride from the port to the city and from the carriage window I got my first glimpse of quintessential Holland – fields of tulips in spring-time bloom. Wide strips of purple and red flowers created colorful bar-codes and every now and then the swathes of tulips were punctuated by fields entirely planted with white or yellow daffodils.
I arrived at Amsterdam Central at around 10.30am for my whistle-stop day trip and decided to home in on a couple of contrasting areas – the risque Red Light District and the more tranquil, bohemian Jordaan.
Armed with local insight from friends who had spent time there and a genial tour guide called Kees, I managed to get a good feel for this rebel city – famed for its tolerance and determination not to do what it’s told.
Here are my top five recommendations for how to get to the heart of Amsterdam, even if you only have a few hours…
#5. Hire a bike and hope for the best
I am not a natural bike rider, so hiring one was a kamikaze mission, especially in a city where residents seem to have been born on two wheels. They float effortlessly along the water’s edge and through dense crowds, while I jump off my bike at the first sign of trouble. But if you want to fit in, it has to be done.
There are plenty of places to find bikes for rent – I used Hotel Scooters and Bikes (Spuistraat 30), which charges 12.50 euros ($16) for the day. The main roads have bike lanes and there are lots of small back streets to ride down in the city center, so you can avoid traffic and people.
I spent most of the day cycling, with only a few near misses, and it was a great way to cover more distance in the limited time I had. Just make sure you lock up your bike if you’re leaving it for any length of time.
#4. Don’t be afraid of the Red Light District
Hiring a tour guide isn’t my usual approach – I much prefer to wander on my own. But my morning with Amsterdam local Kees gives me some great insights into the city and meant I didn’t waste time getting lost.
While he rolled a constant supply of cigarettes from his pouch of Drum tobacco, we made our way along the wide canal of Oudezijds Voorburgwal and its offshoots, lined with bars and brothels.
Amsterdam’s world-famous Red Light District is as integral a part of the city as canals and bikes. According to Kees, prostitution has been rife here since the 15th century, when sailors went to sea and their wives were left behind to make a living.
Twelve years ago, prostitution was officially legalized and brothels were forced to get licenses as part of a clampdown on pimps, he tells me. Prostitutes now pay tax on their earnings – they hire rooms for 60 to 80 euros and work eight to ten hour shifts, taking an average 50 euros per client.
This neighborhood is right in the heart of the city, centered around two picturesque canals, which are also home to churches, schools and some of the most sought-after waterside properties in Amsterdam.
It’s a strange scene – locals going about their day-to-day chores, tour groups being shown around, and women of all shapes, sizes, ages and nationalities posing in their underwear in the plate glass windows lining these streets, as early as 11am. One woman applies her make-up in a mirror, a bed behind in full view, with a cushion thrown across it embroidered with the word ‘love’.
This zone and all its temptations (including plenty of dope-smoking coffee shops and ‘smart shops’ selling hallucinogens) exemplifies Amsterdam’s different take on the world – it tries to cater to human desires and control them all at once. The balance between tolerance and a desire for order is a quintessential part of the city’s character and its history, which is why a visit to this famous quarter is a must.
#3. Discover the boho delights of Jordaan
The western neighborhood of Jordaan has a reputation for artistic disobedience and is slightly off the tourist trail. It’s great for shopping, browsing and people watching, with a range of cute boutiques, small galleries, cafes, bars and restaurants.
From the 1850s to 1960s, Jordaan was mired in poverty and the government wanted to bulldoze the area – in protest at the demolition plans, students, artists and hippies moved in to the derelict buildings and the area was given new life.
Go to main street Westerstraat for everything from organic cheese at the busy bio market to amazing Perspex designer furniture from design store Anno.
Nearby are brilliant contemporary galleries Go Gallery on the major canal Prinsengracht and, round the corner, KochxBos (Eerste Anjeliersdwarsstraat 5), both central to the neighborhood thriving art scene.
Also worth a visit is vintage shop De Kleedkamer (2E Egelantiersdwarsstraat 8), which features hats by Dutch designer Le Mo. And don’t miss old-fashioned sweet shop Snoepwinkeltje (at number 2 on the same street), which specializes in Amsterdam’s sweet specialty, liquorice. Varieties include honey and bay-leaf flavors,
#2. Head to the ‘hofjes’
Also in Jordaan are some of the city’s unique ‘hofjes’. These former alms houses are easy to miss but well worth seeking out. Built around secluded inner courtyards, they date back to the Middle Ages and used to house elderly women, or women in need.
Now they are home to Amsterdam locals, who enjoy the historic buildings, white picket fences, shady trees, lawns and flowers of these inner sanctums. All are open to the public and free to enter.
My favorite was the Raepenhofje (Palmgracht 28 to 38), a tiny unexpected courtyard in the north of the Jordaan, built in 1648 and hidden behind a big wooden red door. With pretty painted facades, box hedges, lots of greenery and, of course, a bike shed, it’s a cozy escape from the world outside.
#1. Eat and drink with the locals
Amsterdam does food well – wholesome and home-cooked, with fresh ingredients. The city pays particular homage to coffee, beer and carbs – great bread and cake are staples.
My first coffee of the day was a latte in the sun on the terrace at Café in de Waag, a beautiful 15th century building on Nieuwmarket square, just east of the Red Light District. As with most hot drinks in the city, my coffee was served with something sweet – this time a toffee waffle on the side.
The café sits opposite a small market which was selling bright bunches of tulips and piles of the season’s (non-magic) mushroom crop – I followed the crowds of locals to the Le Perron bakery stall, where I grabbed a warm, chewy coconut macaroon to see me through until lunchtime…
The Jordaan is ideal for lunch and people watching. I sat outside at Tazzina (Brouwersgracht 139) and tucked in to a delicious smoked mackerel and salad roll. A tiny canal-side café with a ‘no laptop’ policy, Tazzina was filled with friends and couples who had settled in for a relaxed graze.
After picking up a bag of delicious vanilla fudge from Snoepwinkeltje (see above) for an afternoon snack, I ended my day in the welcoming, canal-side pub t’smalle at the east edge of the Jordaan (Egelantiersgracht 12) for a glass of Zatte – a deep orange, honey-tasting beer.
I envied the plates of Dutch cheese being tucked into by other customers, but I had a train to catch. Tight for time, I ended up giving the last half of my beer to an elderly busker who had come to sit beside me. ‘Less haste more speed’ he advised me, in perfect English…
Hopping on the ferry that night and making my way back to London for Sunday morning, I promised myself that, next time, I’d linger much longer in this great city.
Laura Mannering traveled to Amsterdam with Stena Line ferries and took a cycle tour of the Red Light District and Jordaan with Viator. The writer was not compensated for this post but received sponsored excursions for the purpose of writing this review. All opinions expressed are solely her own.
Laura Mannering is a freelance journalist and editor of online travel magazine World Out There.
She was inspired to set up the blog after a 10-month career break spent traveling around the world. Now back in London, she writes features for UK magazines and is a regular contributor to online events guide le cool London.
Find her on Twitter at @world_out_there.