Impressions of Amsterdam

My aunt and her two adult children decided to take a five-country tourist-bus trip of central Europe to celebrate my cousin’s fiftieth birthday, with Amsterdam as their first weekend destination. With an eye to seeing them on this side of the Atlantic and the bonus of seeing Amsterdam for the first time, I decided to make a weekend trip, arriving Friday midafternoon and returning to Lausanne on the red-eye flight Monday morning.

As their tour didn’t give them much free time, other than dinner Saturday night and a brief break for after-dinner drinks the night before, I had a free agenda the rest of the weekend. Fortunately, Arnaud could join for part of the trip—arriving late on Friday and leaving at midday on Sunday—so I had some company for part of it and didn’t have to spend the entire trip alone.

Teeming with Tourists

Complaining about tourists has evolved into a hot-button issue, especially in Europe, with many governments debating how to handle the seasonal influxes that can cripple some of the most popular locales and can so change their characters that they no longer exist on anything but a tourist plane.

I tend to think travel has value, and that we should find ways to make it more sustainable over squashing it entirely or almost so, including better educating tourists on respectful behavior. Through improved management of tourism, we can make tourism more enjoyable for locals and visitors alike—and if we move quickly enough, we can put plans into action before we lose certain places to the inundation.

Alas, I think we may have lost some cities already. Amsterdam among them.

I wish I had seen Amsterdam twenty years ago—or at some point in the past at which the influx of tourists hadn’t changed the character of the city so much that I didn’t feel like it had any authenticity left. I felt like I’d entered a theme park, replete with a Madame Tussaud’s and a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! and a Body Worlds and “The Amsterdam Dungeon,” which promised to “bring the city’s dark history to life” through “scary true stories, ‘orrible actors, and hilarious surprises.”

Thinking it a city built for their entertainment alone, as though they’d entered an actual amusement park, tourists had left trash everywhere. They wandered willy-nilly through the streets and sidewalks, halting in the middle of the transit flow, crashing into other people, shouting and scream-laughing at their companions, and stopping traffic through posing for elaborate staged photographs intended, I suppose, for Instagram feeds taken via selfie sticks, spouses, and friends. I saw enough bachelor parties in gaggles roving the city to make me feel like I’d taken the wrong plane and landed in Las Vegas. Sure, I saw canals all around me—yet I think Vegas has some faux canals, too. (Though the Vegas canals have a Venice theme, if I remember correctly. To these tourists, same difference, I’d guess.)

Local shops that would exist in a city with local life had closed for tourist shops. In fact, even the few grocery stores we saw looked set up for tourist necessities and grab-and-go food—not everyday shopping. Arnaud mentioned that we didn’t even see a pharmacy anywhere—and most European cities have pharmacies in every small neighborhood.

I hadn’t visited such a massively touristed place in years; my recent visit to Lucerne gave me the first glimpse of a town thronged with tourists, and that experience came nowhere close to Amsterdam. Most of the cities I’ve visited that attract tourists en masse have enough size—geographical and populational—to absorb the influxes more easily. When in Paris and in London, you can escape the touristy areas without much difficulty, thereby avoiding the touristy inconveniences. However, Amsterdam just doesn’t have the size of London or Paris.

Does this mean I don’t recommend a visit? No, I’d say you should see it. (Though I’d say that people should see Las Vegas at least once, too.) You might have a better experience than I did if you go in a slightly less high season than I did. I didn’t have an option, given the timetable of my family members’ European vacation.

If you visit Amsterdam, I have the following guidance:

Do: Book Museum Visits in Advance

If you plan a visit to Amsterdam, book your tickets to see the Anne Frank House well in advance. When I looked to book tickets ahead of my visit, the museum had no availability six weeks out.

The exterior of the Anne Frank House—also known as the closest you can get to seeing it if you haven’t booked tickets well in advance of your trip. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. June 28, 2019.

The exterior of the Anne Frank House—also known as the closest you can get to seeing it if you haven’t booked tickets well in advance of your trip. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. June 28, 2019.

All guides recommend booking in advance for the other major museums, including the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Though both museums have more availability than the tiny and highly popular Anne Frank House, I booked my visits in advance and felt glad I did. You can’t assume you’ll get entrance otherwise, and particularly not at your desired time.

Given the teeming tourist population in Amsterdam, moving to set entrance times with advance tickets to manage the population made for a smart move by the museums. Though both museums had good crowds, neither museum felt crowded.

Pass: Don’t Bother with Albert Cuypmarkt

Following guidebooks’ “musts,” we took a long walking detour Saturday midday to see the Albert Cuypmarkt, which I don’t recommend bothering to see. Though the venders do have fruit, vegetables, meat, and fish on offer, most of the venders sell junk, from touristy trinkets to cheap clothing.

The Albert Cuypmarkt on a busy Saturday afternoon. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. June 29, 2019.

The Albert Cuypmarkt on a busy Saturday afternoon. Amsterdam, The Netherlands. June 29, 2019.

Amsterdam must have more authentic markets elsewhere—if, I should say, it has any actual residents left to shop at markets (and they haven’t all fled the tourists to other Dutch locales).

Do: Take a Boat Tour of the Canals

On yet another recommendation of guidebooks and Dutch people we met in Lausanne, we took a boat tour of the canal. We chose ours at random by walking up to the first vender we saw; we wished we’d gone a different, more research-driven tour-choosing route.

I’d still recommend a canal tour, as it gave us an entirely different vantage point on the city, and the guide provided valuable background and history to many of the sights we’d walked past on Saturday—yet I’d recommend a small-boat option or a private tour, especially on an evening, even if it cost a bit more.

The tour we took had dingy windows from which we couldn’t see terribly well, and the situation of the seats—set up to accommodate as many passengers as possible—made it difficult to see out all sides of the boat easily. Many times, the guide referred to sights I couldn’t see and I didn’t often know if what I did see and what he mentioned aligned.

Do: Walk or Bike the City

Just walk—or bike. I ended up walking across most of Amsterdam during my stay. On foot, I felt I had the best and most flexible view of the city, allowing me to meander into all sorts of corners and tiny streets. I managed to see most of the major city sections. I didn’t bother renting a bike, but I can see the appeal of biking across the city (and even venturing out further into its environs).

With hours to wander, I did find a few areas of town that had fewer screaming throngs:

  • Though touristy, the museum district had a more calmed down set of visitors, with more families and older guests and fewer wasted bachelor-party groups.

  • The area to the north east of town, The Plantage, still had many people out and about, yet it had a more civilized, less frenetic-tourist feel. The area also houses a lovely zoo and aviary park.

  • Additional lovely, more idyllic neighborhoods included Pijp in the south and Jordaan in the northwest. Pijp had fewer canals, and it felt the least touristic of all the Amsterdam neighborhoods I visited. Jordaan, with its canals and proximity to the city center, had more tourists, but fewer tourist activities, which kept things calmer.

I Don’t Know: See the Red Light District

Amsterdam has legalized prostitution. This, plus the legalized use of drugs, excite a certain subset of tourists purely for the sense of the city’s freewheeling indulgence in taboo. Taboo-driven tourists spend most of their time in Amsterdam’s red light district, where drugs and sex abound. If this sort of thing excites you, yet you have too timid a spirit to adventure into the area alone, you can even join a guided walking tour of the red light district.

Personally, I don’t feel much titillation or curiosity about prostitution, legal or illegal. Nor do I find drugs particularly interesting. Therefore, though Arnaud and I had talked about walking through the red light district during our trip, our limited time and general ambivalence kept it off our list of Amsterdam to-dos.

However, with our hotel in the neighborhood adjacent and our attempt to see as much as we could on foot, we inevitably happened upon it. On Sunday morning, wandering around a bit in the time between the end of the canal tour and Arnaud’s train, we happened into the red-light district. At 10:30 a.m. and with church bells ringing, the sector still had red lights and women in windows.

We didn’t linger long, seeing just one long street of it before veering off into other neighborhoods. Did it offend me? No. Did I find it fun, exciting, or interesting? No. However, I can well see how some people would want to see it for the novelty of it—and because Amsterdam has so much renown for it.

Amsterdam Logistics: Food

On the food front, we didn’t uncover much in Amsterdam to impress us. We tried to find places less dedicated to tourists where we could. (Which meant I didn’t end up trying the famous Dutch pancakes, pannenkoeken; I didn’t see a single restaurant offering them that didn’t have “cheesy tourist trap” plastered all over its signs and decor.)

For some reason, Amsterdam has a toast obsession: Almost everything on offer comes served on a thick slab of toast. I have no problem with toast—I just didn’t expect it. Also, as of this visit, Amsterdam loves avocado. I don’t mind and don’t crave avocado, which means I ate more avocado on this trip than I have in the past twelve months. Yes, these two facts in combination meant I ate a lot of avocado toast, even when I didn’t realize I’d ordered it.

Of the food venues we visited, I’ll give quick reviews:

  • On travel, I tend to find a grocery store or market and eat most of my daily food from whatever I can find there. In Amsterdam, I found Albert Heijn, which had several small groceries throughout the city center with a variety of quick food options and snacks. Frankly, I ended up happier with the fare I found at Albert Heijn than I did in any of the other venues we visited.

  • Friday, after checking in at the hotel, I had my meal of the day at Singel 101, where I sat along the canal and sipped on a fresh pumpkin soup and ate a hearty open-faced sandwich (also known as cheese, chicken, and avocado on toast).

  • On Saturday, Arnaud and I had brunch at Gartine. Arnaud had a tasty-looking and plentiful eggs benedict dish and I ordered scrambled eggs with fresh herbs, toast, and bacon. I made the mistake of not asking what herbs the kitchen included in its fresh herbs and so ended up giving my eggs to Arnaud and subsisting on the toast and bacon. (I can’t stomach dill.) If you plan to eat there, note that Gartine only takes cash—something we wish we’d known before we sat down, so we didn’t have to dash out for an ATM at pay-the-bill time.

  • For our family dinner Saturday night, we went to The Uptown Meat Club. Arnaud said his burger passed muster, though barely, and my roasted chicken had passed dry thirty minutes before it exited the oven.

  • On Sunday, I had lunch at Buffet van Odette on my way to the Rijksmuseum. Even my waitress warned me to expect a small portion of the entrée I ordered, so I ordered a cheese plate for dessert as well. The entrée, something called “lamb ham,” came served on a bed of—you guessed it—mashed avocado. I didn’t love it, though I’ll credit it for innovation. The cheese plate came with fig bread (less like bread and more like the inside of a Fig Newton) and a dollop of molasses for dribbling over the two. Yummy.

Amsterdam Logistics: Hotel

I booked the trip to Amsterdam on somewhat short notice and wanted a place in the city center not far from the main attractions and the train station, so I had few options—and that suited me well. I found a hotel called Cityview in exactly the right spot; it looked nice enough and it had reasonable rates. Done.

Upon my arrival Friday afternoon, the woman at the front desk shared that they had opened only a month before, in May 2019, after a complete renovation. The capsule-style rooms come well-appointed and clean, all with modern décor and fixtures. Our room had little space to spare aside from the bed and bathroom and a small table on which to work, yet we didn’t plan to spend more than a minimal amount of time in the room aside from sleeping, which made it perfect for us.

Further, the hotel offers a to-go breakfast of pastries and coffee each morning in its tiny basement kitchen, and the coffee machine stays active and available all day and all night. With a box of tea bags from Albert Heijn in my room, I stayed happily in hot tea my entire stay.