Just back from – a day trip to Amsterdam
Is an Amsterdam day trip viable? In the second of an occasional series, I test whether it’s really worth making the effort for just a single day’s visit to this popular Dutch city. Would I regret not paying for a hotel room as I dashed from attraction to attraction?
I chose to fly from London’s Southend airport, around an hour from Central London but only a short drive from my Essex home. Southend, though expanding, is still a small airport, making it possible to transit the airport in just a few minutes – none of the long queues for security or marathon hikes to the gate that characterise Britain’s larger airports. easyJet fly out to Amsterdam at 7.30am and back at 6pm, making a short day out a cheap possibility. It’s wise to note that easyJet fly into a satellite terminal at Schipol, making for a tidy walk to the gate for your return flight. But they have a good track record for punctuality and my outbound flight was on time. On the return leg, we landed early and thanks to the time difference, I was back in my kitchen feeding the dogs their dinner almost before I should have left Schipol. (Don’t worry about them, we have doggie day care for such occasions.)
Getting into the city
Having made it across the airport without getting distracted by the many shops and even a branch of the Rijksmuseum (Schipol has got to be the best airport in Europe, don’t you think?) I exited through self-service passport control leaving the tulip bulb purchases for my return. Keep straight on as you exit customs for the train station, the quickest way into central Amsterdam. Directly in front of you are bright yellow ticket machines which take cash and cards. A single ticket into the city costs 5,10 euros with a 0,50 euro surcharge for using a credit card; UK issued cards work fine. It’s worth noting, though, that they take coins and not notes if you wish to pay cash. Make a left and head for the train; it’s a quick fifteen minute ride into the city. Trains leave frequently for Amsterdam Centraal Station immediately to the north of the main city. I waited one minute for a train and was walking Amsterdam’s streets by 10am.
The city centre of Amsterdam is compact and unless it’s raining, it’s a pleasant experience to wander the back streets and canal side paths on foot. You’ll need eyes in the back of your head, though, to avoid being run over by a bicycle. The city has dedicated cycle lanes but it’s all too easy to forget where the pavement ends if you’re trying to take a photo. If you hire a bike yourself, it’s customary to ring your bell rather than mutter profanities at wayward pedestrians obsessed with getting the perfect selfie.
For longer distances, the easiest method of getting around the city is by tram. Single rides cost 2,90 euros and the ticket is valid for an hour. Tap the ticket on the reader as you are given it to activate it. If you are likely to make more than three journeys, it’s worth your while buying a day pass, costing 7,50 euros. Tap in and out each time you ride.
What did I do?
I’ve been to Amsterdam before, so decided to give the big museums and the Anne Frank House a miss this time. If you are making a first visit then you should really consider staying a few days to give you time to do the sights justice. Queues for the Anne Frank house are frequently long (even on a Monday in January!) so if you do want to go, and you should, plan to make this first on your day’s agenda when you visit.
I made for the Begijnhof instead. It’s an easy walk from Centraal Station – cross over the canal and head down Damrak, the main drag. Damrak is tourist central, but you can arrange everything from canal boats to bicycle hire here and buy souvenirs tackier than you’ve ever imagined. From Dam Square, continue down Kalverstraat (almost as bad as Damrak) until you get to Spui.
Accessed through a wooden door, a passageway with impressive vaulted ceilings leads through to an enclosed square, the Begijnhof. Women have lived on this site since 1150, primarily to care for the sick. By the fourteenth century, the place had become a nunnery, the women referred to as “beguines”. Taking pride of place in this inner courtyard is the church. The Begijnhof is also the site of one of only two surviving timber buildings in the city, this one dating from 1528. Visitors can access half the square, so long as they keep off the well-manicured lawns; the rest is for residents only. Entrance is free, though donations to the church are welcomed.
The Begijnhof is around the corner from the Bloemenmarkt, on the Singel, which claims to be the only floating flower market in the world. Don’t worry if you haven’t timed your visit for spring, even in winter the stalls are a riot of colour, selling cut flowers and bulbs. The packaged bulbs are aimed squarely at the tourist market – locals make a beeline for the loose bulbs as they’re considerably cheaper.
Next, I set about exploring the area known as “De Negen Straatjes” – the nine streets. This is an area bisected by canals from the Singel to the Prinsengracht and gentrification has resulted in a wealth of designer boutiques, gift shops and art galleries that lend themselves to ambling. This is not a district to walk with a purpose, more an area in which to potter and dither before recharging your batteries in a cafe. Forget Starbucks – though there are plenty – a canal side coffee shop is the way to go. I recommend the Koffee Huis “De Hoek”, a far cry from the smoky cannabis cafes for which Amsterdam is better known. Try their cheese and ham pancake washed down with proper freshly- squeezed orange juice and bag a window seat for brunch with a view.
Continuing along Prinsengracht, and just past Westermarkt I passed the long queue for the Anne Frank House. Further along on the opposite side of the canal is an interesting little museum devoted to tulips. Behind the extensive gift shop and down a steep flight of steps, a series of small interconnecting rooms tell the history of this iconic Dutch flower, which you’ll soon learn, isn’t Dutch at all. In fact, it is native to Asia (who knew?) and it was the Ottomans who introduced the flower to the Netherlands in the sixteenth century. They soon became fashionable, with growers competing to see who could produce the most sought after bloom. Speculators moved in on the industry and soon bulbs with the right “pedigree” were changing hands for crazy sums of money, with some selling for twenty times the annual salary of the average Amsterdam resident at the time. Out of control, the market crashed in 1637 and it was to take a further 200 years to steadily rebuild it. Fortunately, the prices of tulips are far more reasonable today, as is the 5 euro entrance fee.
Back at the Westerkerk, I jumped on a number 14 tram heading east to my second museum of the day – the Dutch Resistance Museum. This absorbing museum recounts the experiences of the Netherlands from 14 May 1940 to 5 May 1945, the period when the country was occupied by Nazi Germany. As well as resistance, the museum explains how people chose different paths in coping with the invasion – some collaborated, some fought back. The exhibition covers all forms of resistance: going on strike, forging documents, helping people to go into hiding, publishing underground newspapers, maintaining escape routes, and even armed resistance and espionage. Entrance costs 10 euros which I thought was good value for money. Take the free audio set that’s offered as it unlocks a series of explanations in English; the exhibits are all signed in dual language but some of the text is on the small size. A short film puts the museum in context, in kid-friendly language, and there’s a special children’s section to the museum as well. Families, this is your part of town – Artis zoo’s just across the street.
All that history had made me thirsty (and my back ache) so sinking into a chair in the Cafe Koosje on the corner of Kerklaan and Plantage Middenlaan came as a welcome relief. The hot chocolate topped, of course, with a generous dollop of cream and the friendly wait staff made this a good place to take a break.
It was time to head back to the centre for some shopping and my mind was on food. Taking the number 14 tram back to Waterlooplein, I walked to Staalstraat where I’d read about a foodie’s paradise at number 20. Het Hanze Huis is crammed full of European foods, from syrups to flavoured tea, chocolate to tasty biscuits. Mouth already watering, I decided to continue by number 24 tram (tram-hopping like a local!) to the market on Albert Cuypstraat. A mix of market tat, food trucks and cheese stalls, this place is definitely worth a visit. I stocked up on Stroopwafels, a family favourite, from a charming man who posed happily for a photo. Bag full, I had to pass on the Gouda cheese, but figured I could at least get that in Sainsbury’s.
Heading back to the centre on the number 4 tram, my final stop was to a pub with no bar. I’d come across De Pilsener Club, located on Begijnensteeg, via several bloggers on the net. The pub’s nickname is De Engelse Reet, which apparently translates as “The English Ass”. Perfect, I thought. After all today’s walking I need a seat for my own ass. According to what I read, the pub has been in business since the end of the nineteenth century. It’s been in the current owner’s family for four generations (I read that they all share the same first name, so that’s four men called Tuen Van Veen) and they don’t like change. Stepping over the threshold is like travelling back in time, with sanded floorboards and tables pockmarked through years of use. Given the early hour (for a pub, anyway) I expected to have to drink alone, but two tables were occupied when I walked in and by the time I left, it was full. It seems it’s a very popular meeting place in the late afternoon for Amsterdam’s over 60s.
As with Lisbon, I pre-planned my itinerary in order to minimise the chances of wasting time arriving somewhere that’s not yet opened up for the day or unnecessarily backtracking across town. Both times I’ve been fully prepared to ditch things as the day goes on, but was once again surprised by how much I ended up doing. I’ll admit, Amsterdam has never been one of my favourite cities, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could find a city I love within a tourist city I really don’t. A bit of extra research this time uncovered parts of Amsterdam that were a whole lot more rewarding than the Red Light District, tacky souvenir shops and mainstream museums I might otherwise have felt obliged to visit.
I also made good use of the Travel Telegraph’s app, and grew increasingly fond of its “favourites” capability and very functional zoomable map – particularly helpful as my paper map began to disintegrate in the drizzle. Because of the shorter flight time and the exceptionally quick train connection, having a later outbound flight and earlier inbound flight wasn’t an issue, though I could quite happily have holed up in De Engelse Reet and made a night of it. Next time that’s where you’ll find me, though perhaps I’ll get Tuen Van Veen to serve me up a couple of hard boiled eggs to soak up the Heineken.