A Winter Trip To Amsterdam

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Photograph: Ioan Powell

After a sleepless night of taxis, buses and planes, I was ready for the heady morning of a new city. Financial worries and linguistic incapabilities aside, the prospect of exploring a new city led me from Schiphol Airport to Centraal Station with giddy excitement. The train, an easy 20 minutes from the airport foyer, trundles along past high rise apartments in a dusty brick red. This is not Berlin or Paris.

But it is happy not to be: Amsterdam is a mercantile city built on spices, slaves and the sea with no palaces or monuments in sight. The canals are a testament to trade, and soon became my guide towards the hostel. Far too stubborn to surrender to Google maps I began my quest, picking up a tourist map and (after becoming impressively lost) finding the hostel. For a group of friends or the solo traveller a hostel is ideal: simple, cheap and quite often centrally situated.

After scribbling down a few Dutch phrases,  I set out. The best way to describe the city is bustling, and in a relatively small metropolis it is an attraction in itself to walk around. The populace is confined to narrow lanes and towpaths, the architecture obliging to the waterways. The canals are Amsterdam’s London Eye, their Eiffel Tower and Brandenburg Gate. In a quest to appear like a local I observe the Dutch drinking habits: always a demi, never a full beer. And many Amsterdammers drink hot water infused with fresh mint leaves – as our group arrives I am consigned to the former and never get a chance to try the mint tea.

The morning offers a chance to gain an insight into the breakfast habits of the city. The expected tourist fare prevails, though the budget traveller can find unexpected solace in small supermarkets: better than ours, they often feature an array of pastries, bread and cheese. A croissant for breakfast, and a pain au chocolat in the pocket for lunch. A boat trip along the canals in the early evening serves a dual purpose: to see the waterways as they were meant to be seen, and to begin the drinking. How crude. But with the price of the tourist bars often astronomical, an hour of touring the canal with unlimited beer is particularly enticing.

Unlike in the United Kingdom, the failing of mainland Europe is that the museums and art galleries often cost (rather a lot) to enter. The Van Gogh museum, for example, is 17 euro. The Amsterdam Museum, at 10 euro for students, is well worth a visit and the Anne Frank House costs 9, though all proceeds go to charity. The Dampkring street art gallery, though small, is free to all visitors and the space integrates framed art for sale with working studios and murals on the outside of the building.

A particular delight, also free to visitors, is Begijnhof. This hidden courtyard was once a Beguinage, and two churches remain in this village green-esque spot. The houses are typical of the Amsterdam ‘townhouse’ style, though unlike the rest of the city there are no advertisements, no crowds and no noise. A perfect way for the exhausted traveller to regain a sense of peace.

Conflicting with the idea of peace is Amsterdam’s nightlife. The legality of soft drugs and prostitution coupled with the liberal outlook of the city creates a melting pot of hedonism that generates an eye-watering proportion of the tourist income. If these aspects do appeal to the traveller, they should keep an eye on official sources as to the particular legality of what they wish to indulge in. And, at the danger of the writer becoming an overbearing parent: never, ever buy from street dealers.

If a quiet drink is all you’re after, do not be dismayed: this is where the city comes into its own. Wandering away from the tourist hub in any direction will surely find you a dimly lit bar with cheaper prices and only the sound of hushed Dutch around you. But that is not all. There is a bar in Amsterdam which exists almost as a night in itself. Located on the IJ, the A*DAM tower boasts a bar, a restaurant, a nightclub and the highest swing in Europe.

The free ferry across the IJ is swift and enjoyable, and from there it is but a short walk to the tower. Whilst the swing costs 5 euro, the bar is free to enter (after a rather disconcerting 20 storey glass-roofed lift) and the prices are surprisingly reasonable. There is usually a DJ setting the ambience and a variety of seating: one could work on a novel here just as easily as they could begin a Stag night. This tower confirms all my beliefs about Amsterdam. It is a city that has been modern since its inception, a place that welcomes innovation and exists as a haven of tolerance. I cannot think of a better place to end the trip: gazing down at the splendour of the city from 20 floors above.