Amsterdam Weekender: Music, Food, and Museums

After just over an hour on the plane I arrive in Amsterdam from Edinburgh on a Friday afternoon. My fleeting visit to the Scottish capital hasn’t equipped me with much sleep, but I am so excited to have made it to the Netherlands after years of saying I want to go, that it does not hamper me in the slightest. I am here primarily to attend a concert, but cannot wait to see what else the city has to offer.

Schiphol Airport and connections

The connection from  Schiphol Airport to the city is easy – ridiculously so. There is a station at the airport, and I have pre-booked a ticket online. This allows me to scan through the turnstiles with no fuss whatsoever, to an already-waiting train. On the train, I move my bag for what I presume is a Dutch lady to sit next to me, and – bizarrely – begin to chat with her in German. This is inexplicable for two reasons – one, I am not in Germany and, two, my German has still not improved much since my trip to Berlin. Still, she humours me, and I quietly congratulate myself on a slightly more successful conversation than that with the waitress in Berlin. I am delivered to Amsterdam Centraal in around 15 minutes, and hop off to the sight of my first pre-booked activity looming above.

A’DAM Lookout, exploring, getting lost, and Damien Jurado super-fans

The A’DAM Lookout sits to the North of the IJ Estuary (is it an estuary? Is it a river? No one really knows, apparently…) and towers over the city. For €13.50 (€1.00 less if you book online), you can ride a lift with very snazzy light-shows to the top. For an extra €5.00 you can do what I was desperate to do – ride the ‘Over the Edge’ swing. Be warned, though – if you want to ride the swing, it is advisable to book online, as you are allotted a specific time-slot, and there are no guarantees there will be any available on the day otherwise. I am a little early for my time slot, so have a beer in the roof-top bar, and wander around the deck, and have fun with the interactive information panels about the cityscape. My turn to join the ‘Over the Edge’ queue comes around. I spot another solo traveller queuing ahead of me and ask if I can skip the line to use the empty seat beside her (this is no problem). This really isn’t one for those of you who are afraid of heights, but what’s a trip to Amsterdam without getting a little high?

Queue-jumping to ride the ‘Over the Edge’ swing with a new Italian acquaintance

Returning to the ground floor, and picking up the souvenir photo I couldn’t resist purchasing, I head off on a walking route I have planned for myself. I wander around the main draws of the city centre, including the red light district, of course, before heading in what I think is the direction of my hostel. I say I think, because – despite the very easy-to-follow man-made layout of the Amsterdam streets – I somehow manage to go in completely the wrong direction. Suspecting lack of sleep may be getting to me, I pick up my pace, aware that this 10-minute-turned-90-minute walk is at risk of making me late for my evening’s activity, a concert in De Duif – the main reason for my visit this weekend, the ticket purchased months ago. I finally make my way through Vondelpark to the Stayokay Hostel  (which I find in the dusk with a little help from some already merry British tourists), check in, and hastily begin to walk back towards the gig venue. I am early, by the standards of most, but tonight I will see my very favourite artist, Damien Jurado, and this warrants an early arrival to ensure front-row seats. I arrive an hour before the doors open, and am joined immediately by another fan. We have a great time chatting, before securing the very best seats in the house and stocking up on beer. And, wow, what a gig. De Duif is a church-cum-music venue with the most spectacular acoustics and intimate atmosphere, seating as it does only around 450 people. The whole show is a treat from start to finish, with good company and a new like-minded friend as an added bonus – so often an unexpected perk of travelling solo.

Damien Jurado at De Duif

Accommodation, Vondelpark, and cycling the city

The hostel is (so far) the best I have stayed in. It has clean, comfortable, and quiet rooms with large storage lockers (just remember to bring a padlock, or purchase one at reception) and considerate roommates. Downstairs is a funky bar area, with live music and other entertainment on certain evenings of the week. There is also a dinner menu, as well as a continental breakfast which is well worth the €6. It is tucked alongside Vondelpark and you do have to walk through the park to get to it, although this is full of people and feels completely safe, even late at night. The smell of weed does linger throughout the park, but this is true for the entire city.

First thing on Saturday morning, I head out for a walk around the park after breakfast. Save a few local joggers, there are very few people around, and it feels like the perfect time to then head along the walkways of the Amstel. My stroll eventually takes me back to the IJ, alongside which I join a group at Mike’s Bike Tours for, unsurprisingly, a bike tour. After a safety briefing, in which we are warned not to constantly ring our bells like clueless tourists (this does not go down well with the locals, apparently), we head out to the now crazily busy streets and begin frantically ringing our bells like clueless tourists. It seems that riding a bike in Amsterdam requires a particular blend of politeness and sheer ruthlessness. Cyclers and tourists are everywhere, and mostly not looking where they are going. Our tour guide shares the jaw-droppingly astonishing fact that 20,000 bicycles are recovered from the city canals every year. The tour is fantastic, and we also take in some of the lesser-known residential parts of the city, which are always interesting to see. Whilst I absolutely loved it, I would think twice if you are not confident on a bike (one lady in our group did take quite a spectacular tumble swerving to avoid a meandering tourist), and perhaps consider a walking tour instead.

At the Amstel, during the bike tour. I did not realise quite bow brightly-coloured my jumper was until after these pictures were taken…

I meet some great people on the tour and head for lunch with three cousins from Chicago. We find a little place just off Dam Square which has not one, not two, but three choices of vegan burger on the menu. If I could remember what it was called, I would tell you, I promise, but – alas – I was having too much fun to write it down and, of course, cannot recall the name now no matter how hard I try, or how long I stare at Google Maps for.

Moco Museum and Anne Frank’s House

I head South again, now in full control of my bearings, and arrive at the Moco Museum. There is a great collection of Banksy work here, together with that of provocative Iranian Street artists Icy and Stot, amongst others. I spend a very enjoyable hour or so here before returning to the now-nearby hostel for a drink, sit down, and scribble in my notebook.

I have a late-evening booking for Anne Frank’s House and make my way here next, enjoying immensely the complete transformation of the canals in the dark. People float by in boats, happily clinking glasses and listen to music, lights are strung along every street and it really is beautiful.  Prinsengracht 263 soon appears on my right and I go inside. I won’t spoil anything for you here, because you really must make a space on your bucket list for it, but the House is an emotional and important experience from the second I walk through the door. The only way to guarantee you can visit during your trip is, again, to book online in advance. Tickets are made available on the website exactly two months in advance, and the best slots sell out fast (hence my night-time visit). By the time I leave, it is late, and the rest of the night consists of a visit to a falafel fast food place on Leidsegracht (vegan is so easy here), and collapsing into bed.

Rijksmuseum and food touring

Sunday morning consists of an early visit to the iconic “I Amsterdam” sign outside the Rijksmuseum. Having passed by it on Saturday afternoon on a bike, our tour guide advised an early morning visit in order to avoid the crowds, and his advice was spot-on. I get a few good pictures with only handful of other tourists in shot (on Saturday afternoon you could barely see the sign for people). I would advise you to do the same, however, since my visit, the letters have been removed. The removal is a response to the sign having become a symbol for mass tourism, rather than a prompt to consider the inclusive and unique vibe of the city. It is reported that, previous to the letters’ removal, 6,000 selfies were taken there every day, and I have to confess I was part of that statistic on October 7th.

One of the 6,000; it had to be done. Alas, no more…

Next, I visit the Rijksmuseum, which houses a huge collection of art and historical exhibitions. If you only have time for one museum, pick this one. I could happily spend several hours here, but I have accepted an invitation from two of the Chicago cousins to join them on a food tour, and make my way to Dam Square to meet them and the rest of the group. Free food tours organised by Free Walking Tours Amsterdam leave from the monument in the Square at 10:30 every morning and take you on a journey through Dutch food including chocolate, cheese, liquorice, herring, and special occasion cuisines. They also run ‘original’ city tours, Red Light District tours, and alternative (street art) tours (see website for details). One of the most interesting parts of the tour is a visit to a chocolate shop in which we snorted raw cacao – apparently one of the most effective ways to taste it. Our guide, Bernado, is great – knowledgeable , enthusiastic, and a keen traveller who had visited 16 countries that year.  We become Facebook friends and I still consult him for tips before visiting a new city! Food tours are advertised as being two hours long, but ours is still going strong at 13:00, and I have to leave to make my way (easily) back to the airport, delighted to have finally scratched the itch that is a visit to this vibrant and varied city.

Snorting cacao in a chocolate shop. Another way in which I didn’t get high in Amsterdam…

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