Amsterdam’s is an unpretentious beauty. This is no Paris, Hong Kong, London, or New York, no grand capital of industry or sprawling metropolis of the future. Rather, this is a place of casual, unassuming magnificence. I was in love from my first glimpse.
What is it about Amsterdam that so enchants me? Sure, it’s home to the likes of Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Vermeer masterpieces. No doubt, it has postcard perfect canals and charming narrow streets where the roofs nearly touch. And no one would deny its public parks are second to none.
But those things are just where my love for the city begins. What I love most of all is the feel of the place. Like all great cities, it bursts with potential. Anything could happen. What comes back to me most are memories of riding through the ample bike lanes, dodging trams and pedestrians and irate motorists. Of settling down for a dinner of mussels and frites (Dutch French fries), of sipping jenever in a crowded bar near the waterfront as the setting sun bathes Amsterdam Central Station in pinks and golds. It’s a city that manages to be relaxed yet industrious, proper yet good-humored.
I began my journey to Amsterdam on a 7 a.m. bus to Belfast International Airport. This would be my first stop on an Easter break trip across Europe. Touching down in Amsterdam International and making my way through Dutch customs, it struck me how for the first time in my life I was traveling in another country alone. Sure, I’d come to Belfast by myself, but that was all part of a carefully choreographed sequence of itineraries. For the first time, I was truly alone, with no special plans to speak of. Anything was possible.
I made my way to my Airbnb in Hoofddorp, a town just outside of Amsterdam, and went for a stroll to orient myself. I prefer to travel with only my transportation and accommodation planned in advance, leaving everything else up to when I arrive. I felt a duty of sorts to visit the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum, so I set off for both the following day, managing to negotiate the (exemplary but still confusing to a foreigner) Amsterdam metro system.
There’s no possible account of visiting these museums that won’t sound cliché, but they really were magnificent. There’s something about seeing an artistic masterpiece in person that feels unreal, dreamlike. “That can’t really be The Milkmaid. I’m not actually looking at one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings.” But there they were.
Having done earlier than I expected with my museum goings, I spent the rest of the day (the next 2 days, really) exploring the streets of Amsterdam. I wandered throughout the “Canal Ring,” as that iconic part of the city is called. I discovered on this trip that wandering is my favorite activity for any new city. Sure, museums and cultural sites are grand, but what I like most is meandering through the streets.
My wanderings took me many places, and I took in all the classic views of the canals. The beautiful weather didn’t hurt, either. I sampled Belgian beer for the first time (its reputation is deserved), and I had dinner at a traditional Dutch restaurant (harder to find than you would imagine). Mostly, though, I just wandered and marveled.
My flight out was the next day, but not till the evening, so I took the suggestion of a Dutch friend from Belfast and rented a bike. The three hour rental term went faster than I imagined, and I managed to see much of the city. Biking in Amsterdam is only slightly less terrifying than I imagined. I only got yelled at a couple times and had just a few scary run-ins with motorcycles, so I’ll call that a success. No doubt, it’s the way to travel around Amsterdam.
My bike returned, I grabbed a quick bite from Albert Heijn (basically the Dutch Whole Foods) and hopped a bus to the airport. After that, I was on to Vienna. Tales of my adventures there are soon to follow...