The Mole Diaries: Amsterdam
Charlotte Bindels studied English at the University of Cambridge and spent her year abroad as an au pair in Amsterdam. This is her guide to the city of bikes, canals and 'coffee shops'!
Home to the world’s tallest people, over 600,000 bikes, the infamous “coffee” shops and wooden clogs, Amsterdam seems to have a bit of everything. It’s a place where worlds collide: halfway down a busy high street you can escape through a wooden door into the silent courtyard of the Begijnhof; beautiful old canal houses are home to tourist bars and chip shops; the 800 year old Oude Kerk (old church) sits comfortably in the middle of the red light district. It’s this disorientating jumble of sights and sounds that makes Amsterdam one of the most beautiful, quirky and innovative places to live.
Public transport in Amsterdam is fast and frequent but not cheap so, to save the pennies and experience the true ‘Dutch lifestyle’, you’ll need to get a bike. You can bag yourself a pretty cheap pair of wheels by looking online; the best places I found were Marktplaats (the Dutch version of ‘ebay’, they are very proud of it) or the International Students’ Online Market on Facebook.
Before you go and find the snazziest bike money can buy, a word of warning: bikes are stolen in Amsterdam every day, especially if they look expensive. So, invest your money in a good lock and don’t worry about your street style: find the rustiest, creakiest thing that has two wheels, handle bars and a seat and you’ll fit right in. Also, learn from my mistake and make sure you park your bike in the right place… If you’re not careful, the bike police will tow it to a huge warehouse and it’ll cost you a stupidly long metro ride, €10 and a lecture on illegal bike parking to get it back.
If you do find yourself venturing out on a cold and rainy day and you can’t quite face a cycle in gale force winds (not that this ever seems to faze the Dutch), then buy a discount travel card (called an OV chipkaart), available online or from the train station. They can be used on all trams, busses, metros and trains and you simply swipe them when you get on and swipe again when you get off.
The Dutch are among the most language-savvy nations in Europe which makes the Netherlands both the best and the worst place for native English speakers to visit because EVERYONE speaks English. This can make learning Dutch pretty hard because:
- It’s easy to be a bit lazy and switch into English and...
- Dutch people love to show off their English skills, even if you are speaking Dutch.
This is in no small part due to them being incredibly bemused that any foreigner would choose to learn Dutch. If you persevere, though, they will eventually realise that you’re serious about speaking Dutch and proceed to correct every little mistake!
As far as improving your conversational Dutch, I would recommend the Amsterdam Language Exchange (check them out on Facebook). They run language exchange classes in the OBA library, organised on a week by week basis and almost always including intermediate Dutch. Another great event, the Language Café run by Koentact language school, is held once a month and is a great social event where you can meet up with strangers and practice Dutch and many more languages with an alcoholic drink in hand (great for confidence building).
3. Places to Visit and Things to See
If you plan on visiting museums in the Netherlands at all then get a museum card (museumkaart). They are €60 each but they give you free access into most museums in the Netherlands and are worth every cent. You can make your money back in 3 visits!
Museumplein, home to the recently reopened Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh and the Stedelijk museums, is the hub of the Amsterdam cultural scene. The Rijksmuseum is stunning and cycling through the central archways on my way home is one of my favourite memories of my time in Amsterdam.
The Jordaan is full of beautiful canals, bohemian cafes and second hand stalls in garages. It’s the perfect antidote to the tourist-packed streets of the Damrak and Rokin. My favourite café in the Jordaan, ‘CiTea’, is every tea-lover’s dream: shelves neatly stacked with glass jars of tealeaves in a range of flavours, each with deliciously enticing names from ‘happiness’ to “flame”.
The Negen Straatjes (Nine Streets) are the most famous shopping streets in Amsterdam. Each street contains an assortment of shops, ranging from the unusual to the downright odd. My top picks are Chocolaterie Pompadore, a lavish chocolate shop that will have you watering at the mouth just peering through the window, and the Lomography Gallery Store, stocker of cameras and home to a photo booth complete with props.
Waterlooplein flea market is open every day (except Sunday) and it’s really a trash and treasure kind of place. There’s a lot of rubbish but in amongst it all that are some real gems: old wooden ice skates, post cards and DVDs for €1.
The Sunday Market at Westergasfabriek is a crafts, fashion and design market held the first Sunday of every month. They usually have some live music and there are always stalls selling unique items. It’s a little out of the centre but definitely worth the bike ride, especially when the sun is out.
Ij Hallen is the biggest flea market in Europe and like nothing I have ever been to before. Held once a month in two gigantic warehouses, it’s a sprawling mass of stalls selling anything you can imagine, all at a bargain price. You pay €4.50 entry and then you can spend the next four hours exploring. Catch a ferry from Centraal Station to NDSM-werf, just a 15 minute ride, completely free!
5. Something Else To Look Out For
Bankjes Collectief (The Bench Collective) is an initiative where people all over Amsterdam put out benches in front of their houses to create a collective ‘café’. The bench owners decide what to offer (everything from baked goods to guerrilla knitting sessions) and the customers decide what to give in return. Look out for them on the first Sunday of the month!
6. Nights Out On The Town
Top Tip: Despite its reputation, lots of places in Amsterdam shut up shop early: all trams stop just after midnight and a lot of venues close at 1am. Your best bet, if you want to stay out later, is usually somewhere in the central tourist hubs: Rembrandtplein and Leidseplein.
1. Cocos Outback
What’s the vibe? This is an Australian themed bar and it’s full of international people. It stays open until around 3am and, with lots of offers on drinks and all the top hits playing, it’s good for a cheap and cheerful night out.
Where is it? Rembrandtplein, so it’s next to lots of other bars and clubs, not far from the main tram stops.
2. Cafe Brecht
What’s the vibe? It calls itself a “living room café in Berlin style’, it’s a hip, bohemian little place with old sofas, tassled lampshades and board games on the tables. A café by day and a café-bar by night, it’s the perfect place to go, drink glühwein and have deep meaningful conversations about life.
Where is it? So hidden that I walked past it without even noticing the first time! It’s on Weteringschans 157, not far from Nieuwe Vijzelstraat.
3. Café P96
What’s the vibe? Again, pretty relaxed, with a choice between indoor seating or a terrace on a canal boat.
Where is it? In the Jordaan on the Western bank of the Prinsengracht. You’ll spot it by the lanterns and colourful candles on all the tables.
What’s the vibe? A big nightclub with 5 different rooms and tons of different events going on throughout the year. It doesn’t come cheap: you have to pay an entrance fee and a member’s fee of €3.50, (valid for 1 month). However, it’s open until 5am most nights so it’s a good stop if you want to stay out all night.
Where is it? Leidseplein, right in the middle of all the popular tourist pubs and clubs, right by the main tram stops.
7. Events Throughout The Year
What is it? Literally ‘King’s Day’, it’s the national celebration of the King’s birthday. Everyone dresses up in orange, has street parties up and down the city and, as is only rational, sells their belongings in pop up shops on the pavements. You really need to see it to believe it.
When is it? The 27th April, unless that is a Sunday in which case it’s the 26th.
What is it? This huge festival on Museumplein marks the beginning of the Dutch cultural year. They have one huge stage with performances from famous Dutch singers and musical casts and a number of smaller stages and performance areas. All the arts organisations from Amsterdam turn up and there are lots of fun events and freebies being handed out.
When is it? The final weekend of August.
3. Sinterklaas’ Arrival
What is it? This is the day that the Dutch Santa Claus, Sinterklaas, arrives into the Netherlands on a boat. There is a grand parade through the city and thousands upon thousands of people show up to welcome him.
When is it? Mid November.
4. Turn On The Lights - The Bejinkorf
What is it? A grand ceremony in Dam Square to mark the turning on of the Christmas lights at the Bejinkorf (the Dutch version of Harvey Nicks). Possibly the most bizarre but most spectacular thing I saw all year and it was the perfect start to the holiday season. Get there early enough and they hand out free things!
When is it? The end of November.
8. Top Tip For When You Need To ‘Go’
You have to pay for almost all the toilets in Amsterdam, even in restaurants and cafes. It’s usually only 50p but that can add up over time. However, a certain famous American chain of cafes only use codes on their doors which rarely change. So simply find out the code (either by buying a drink or asking a customer!) and you have free access for the rest of your stay in Amsterdam.
9. Things to Eat
What are they? Syrup waffles; you can actually get these in England but Amsterdam takes them to a whole new level.
Who does them best? If you head down to museumplein you can buy them hot from the food stall by the Van Gogh museum..
What are they? Meat ragout with a crunchy exterior.
Who does them best? I have been told that Eetsalon Van Dobben is the best place for these but we always went to the FEBOs (an innovative cross between a takeaway and a vending machine) found along Amsterdam’s main street, the Damrak.
3. Friet met Mayonaise
What are they? Chunky chips with mayonnaise served in a paper cone.
Who does them best? Again, the Damrak is the place to go. Whilst it’s actually a Belgian company, Mannekin Pis was “Voted Holland’s No.1 Fries”. The chips are super salty and there are a huge variety of sauces on offer- from ketchup through to ‘Groene Pepersaus’- although mayonnaise is the traditional choice.
What are they? Mini pancakes, but puffier, traditionally served with butter and icing sugar.
Who does them best? Pancakes! In the Negen Straatjes because they make everything super tasty and give you a mini clog keyring when you leave (what more could you want?).
What is it? Raw herring served with pickles and onions
Who does it best? Frens Haringhandel, a street stall by the flower market on Koningsplein. They serve it chopped up (which is a little more appetising than the entire fish my host parents made me eat in one go!). And you get little Dutch flags to add that patriotic feel.