“Watch out!” Mario grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to the buildings. Two seconds later, a bicycle loaded up with the week’s shopping whizzed by, its owner happily oblivious to his surroundings.
In Amsterdam, like all tourists, I got used to a few things: the smell of marijuana (it’s no joke!) wafting around the side streets, the rather impertinent cyclists, and—of course—the miles upon miles of breathtaking canals.
There are, after all, over 60 miles of them. They’re all throughout the city, giving Amsterdam its nickname, “The Venice of the North.” Having visited Venice last summer, I can attest to the fact that both cities’ canals are spectacular in their own ways, but Amsterdam’s have an advantage in the orderliness department—it’s much easier to get lost among Venice’s waterways that snake throughout the city, leading you to dead ends and impossible crossings.
Amsterdam’s canal ring, known in Dutch as the grachtengordel, built in the 16th and 17th centuries, was named as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010. These canals, which encircle the old town, were part of a program to extend the city by draining the swampland, thus creating maritime commerce and transportation—an important step in becoming a modern and wealthy city. Though they were once merely a practical feature, Amsterdam’s waterways have beautified it. Its gabled canal-side estates and beautiful monuments are second to none. This year, 2013, the canals celebrate their 400th birthday. (Check out some of the celebratory events!)
What to See
Anne Frankhuis, the Anne Frank House—the house otherwise known as the Secret Annexe in Anne’s diary. (Prinsengracht 267)
Museum Het Grachtenhuis, the Canal Museum—the place to learn the why and how of Amsterdam’s canals. (Herengracht 386)
Kattenkabinet, the Cat Cabinet—a rather odd site, to be sure, but this museum is the former home of a rich cat owner, who opened it after his favorite cat died … but he still lives in the house! There is cat-themed art as well as two living cats. A site for cat lovers. (Herengracht 497)
Museum Willet-Holthuysen—this museum houses silverware, plates, and books from the Dutch Golden Age. (Herengracht 605)
Homomonument—a memorial to the homosexuals murdered during the Holocaust, this monument serves as a reminder that homophobia still exists and a warning not to repeat the past. (Westermarkt)
What to Eat
Amsterdam is dotted with cafés and quant little eateries, so finding a place to sit and rest those legs isn’t a problem. But—as with any city—some places are more worthwhile than others! What should you eat when you tire of strolling around the grachtengordel?
- Pancakes! Amsterdam offers both sweet and savory pancakes—and lots of ’em! (Berenstraat 38) You may also want to check out The Pancake Bakery for a similar option. (Prinsengracht 191)
- De Blauwe Hollander allows the tourist to try authentic Dutch cuisine, which is, surprisingly, not all that easy to find in the city center. Here you’ll be able to sample herring, pea soup, and hutspot, a dish made up of potatoes, carrots, and onions. (Leidsekruisstraat 28)
- Damsteeg specializes in fish, but they have other options too. (Reestraat 28-32)
Where to Sleep
Mario and I chose a hotel outside of the city center in order to save a few bucks, but there are plenty of good options if you want to be in on all the action!
- Mozart Hotel, a budget option located right on the Prinsengracht Canal. They are basic rooms, but around the corner you’ll find the Leidseplein nightlife. Starting at €50 for a single room.
- Seven Windmills Bed & Breakfast, an apartment with all the furnishings. Starting at €95.
- Cocomama, Amsterdam’s first boutique hostel, owned by two women in their twenties, Anika and Lotje. In September 2009, while looking for a place to start, they stumbled upon an old brothel. They fell in love with the place, restored it, and opened up the hostel in 2010. Private rooms start at €76, while dorms start at €26.
Some gabled, canal-side houses
Amsterdam is likely beautiful any time of year, but go when the flowers are blooming! But beware: though it was mid-June, the temperatures hovered around the lower 60s (15 degrees centigrade), with lots of bone-chilling wind.
What are you waiting for?