When I studied abroad in Amsterdam, friends from my home town of New York would frequently visit me, but never for more than a long weekend. When asked why, they said that Amsterdam is the sort of place one makes a brief stop in.
Amsterdam is a world capital, just like London or Paris, yet it’s seen as a long weekend destination. (And, for those seeking copious amounts of alcohol, weed, or even prostitutes, it’s a lost weekend destination.)
But this charming city deserves more of your time. Once you’ve been there for three days, you’ve probably seen two museums, taken a canal cruise, spent the night drinking in the Red Light District, woke up late the next morning, and are now scrambling to pack for your flight to Paris/London/Berlin. By the time you’re leaving, Amsterdam is only warming up.
Amsterdam is not just made up of canal houses. It radiates out, like ripples in a lake. It starts with Centrum, the most densely packed, tourist-laden area in all the Low Countries. Otherwise known as Postcard Amsterdam, Centrum has an area of only 3.10 square miles. Most tourists don’t venture far from there. The city then continues through rings of canals, when cheesy museums and souvenir shops give way to quieter streets and inviting bars.
Past the canal rings lies De Pijp, a hip and trendy neighborhood built up in the 19th century. You’ll only find canals and the Amstel river lining the edges of this neighborhood. But what it lacks in water, it makes up for in thrift stores, flea markets, record shops, and boutiques. The streets are wider than in Centrum, and because the buildings are comparatively newer than their 17th and 18th century cousins, they’re taller and more ornate.
The main attraction is Albert Cuypmarkt, an outdoor street market that’s open throughout the day. Almost every time I walked through to pick up some groceries (which was often), I was assailed by the friendly chicken man from Benny’s Chicken. I believe it was Benny himself who shouted “Try my chicken!” repeatedly until he managed to flag someone down. Whereas most hawkers only succeed in making me flee, Benny, with his long curly blonde hair and broad smile, drew me in. He handed me a piece of fried meat on a toothpick and it was delicious. I immediately ordered a chicken sandwich.
Watergraafsmeer & Amsterdam-Zuid
Past De Pijp lay some neighborhoods that may make you ask, “Am I still in Holland?” My old neighborhood, Watergraafsmeer, is one such place. I had cafes and bars a short bike ride away to the north, but to the south, away from Centrum, was Amstel Business Park. There, some of the city’s only high rises loomed in the distance, almost as if someone had transplanted Philadelphia in southeast Amsterdam.
My old university, Vrije Universiteit, or the VU, is on the edge of town in Amsterdam-Zuid. Cycling here each morning felt like finding my way into some dystopian world where Amsterdam is building giant condos and office blocks that look somewhat like spaceships. But it’s really happening, and has been for some time.
But these areas are worth visiting. You’ll see where the locals go, and where Amsterdam is headed. Instead of tourists, you’ll see Dutch people riding to work in immaculate suits, or carting their three children in specially modified bikes that resemble oversized wheelbarrows. You’ll see youths speeding around on Vespas, or elderly women speeding around on bicycles. You’ll rarely see stressed business people late for work, or hunched-over elderly people trudging down the streets. You may not encounter a single homeless person.
Rent a bicycle and head south. Besides, you can get to almost any point in the city in 20 minutes if you’re as fast as the locals. And the cycling is much easier beyond the canals, away from the steep humps of bridges, locals shoulder to shoulder at rush hour, narrow bike lanes, or cars passing you within a fraction of an inch.
For those who are less interested in Amsterdam’s plentiful supply of museums, there are enough cafes, bars, and coffeeshops to lose yourself in for a week. Many of these establishments — both old and new — are cozy and inviting, or as the Dutch say, gezellig. The dark wood-paneled walls and heavy wooden tables and chairs, coupled with soft, warm lighting make you feel right at home. If you want something more like a West Village New York dive bar, Amsterdam does that well, too.
The Norderlicht Cafe in Amsterdam-Noord offers fantastic live bands as well as a view of the city across the IJ bay. A friend recommended it to me while my Californian father was visiting me (just for a long weekend), so I took him. On a sunny yet chilly April afternoon, we found ourselves sitting outside, Dutch beers in hand, enjoying the cafe’s live music. The band was a vibrant jazz combo reworking classic songs with saxophones, electric guitar, and a Hammond organ. Those elements together, plus the view of the old city across the bay, the sunset, and the trendy locals (and oh, the glorious 3 euro beer!) turned it into a magical evening.
And the coffeeshop La Tertulia — I’m told — is a cozy place to smoke marijuana in.
It’s almost impossible to get the essence of a city as vibrant as Amsterdam in only three days. After living there for nearly six months, I only got a taste.