For my second Amsterdam post, I thought I’d take a look at some of the tourist hotspots we ticked off while we were there (advance warning – they’re not all “traditional” Amsterdam sights!). There were a few things on the itinerary, and a few others that we didn’t get to do – including the canal cruise and a trip to the zoo, purely because it was too cold! – and there’s plenty more on the list for next time. Here’s a quick hitlist of our main activities during our few days in the Dam.
Culture with Van Gogh
The Van Gogh Museum was at the top of my list, and totally worth a visit. It’s a huge, sprawling museum with floor upon floor of masterpieces; it’s hard to believe he created so many memorable works, given that he only painted for 10 years (one of many new things I learnt on our trip!).
Starting at the beginning, we learnt about his upbringing and his decision to pursue art, and how his style developed over the years as he moved from Belgium to Paris and the south of France. Then, it chronicles his descent into madness and his time in the asylum – which also proved hugely rewarding in an artistic sense – with his illness likely diagnosed as something like bipolar disorder today. Interestingly, his fame can probably be attested to the efforts of his sister-in-law, who worked tirelessly to get his talent recognised by the masses when he died, and whose offspring started the museum. No photos as cameras weren’t allowed for much of it, but also because I was enjoying being “in the moment”. The exception being when we stopped for coffee and cake in the surprisingly fab café.
The Van Gogh museum is one of several you’ll find in the museum quarter, a lovely little part of the city. It’s also where you’ll find the famous Iamsterdam sign – famous and ridiculously busy! Constantly surrounded by people, both in front of and climbing on top of it. Anyone who manages to get a tourist-free shot, I salute you! (Luckily, we found another less famous sign at the airport, which was thankfully empty. Just a shame it was at night…!)
GIN (kind of)
We hit up the House of Bols, home of the famous liqueur brand and birthplace of genever, which itself is the root of gin. Given how much I love the stuff, I couldn’t resist finding out more about Dutch Courage and where it came from.
We may have been slightly excited. It opened at 1pm and we were there at one on the dot, that eager were we to get started! A self-guided audio tour, it introduced us to the history of the company and how production began, as well as how genever came into being. From that, we learnt about the close links to Delft pottery and KLM, the flavour profiles of the various liqueurs and the different modern-day production methods, with plenty of interactive stuff along the way.
It was a slick operation, which could have perhaps been made better if we could see the actual production line or learnt a bit more about the specifics of genever-making as well as focusing on the brand, but all in all it was a fun experience. It was all topped off with a free cocktail, which we made ourselves with the help of a bartender, and there was the option to order more in the bar afterwards. Having learnt about the Red Light Negroni during the tour, I had to get one – when in Amsterdam!
Next up was a trip to the Amsterdam Icebar. Now, I know a lot of big cities have this kind of experience, but I’d never been to one before and wanted to give it a go. Would I do it again? Probably not now that I’ve ticked it off, but it was certainly an experience!
I don’t know about other Icebars, but this one was set up as a kind of pirate adventure. Starting in the ship-themed upstairs bar where we had our first drink, a video appeared telling us about the adventure on which we were about to embark, basically an expedition to the icy north (or maybe the south?). Padded jackets and gloves were provided before we were led down to the Icebar itself; a small room with a small bar and pirate-themed paraphernalia, mostly made of ice. A posh walk-in freezer, if you will. It had a couple of throw-covered ice seats and an ice polar bear thrown in for good measure.
There were two drinks options – beer or a shot of vodka, both served in a glass made of ice. The entry fee included a drink in the upstairs bar and two in the Icebar, and it was a bit of a challenge to stay in the bar long enough to drink both of them; it was seriously cold, hovering around the -10°C mark. Somehow we managed to wait it out and were still there when the next group came down. Hardened!
Anne Frank’s house was next on our itinerary. They were renovating parts of the house when we went which meant booking in advance was a must – no online ticket, no entry. While I don’t think it’s that strict at other times, I’ve heard that it’s still wise to book your slot; long queues are standard if you wait until the day itself.
Booking is definitely worth it, no only to avoid the queues, but to also guarantee that you’ll get to see this moving, haunting monument to the past. Having read the diary many years ago I was familiar with the story, but to see how this group of people actually lived for so long is heart-wrenching; you’re first taken through the warehouse area and offices of the building, learning more about the inhabitants, the business and Amsterdam itself during Nazi occupation, and get a feel for how they managed to stay undetected for those two years.
There’s an audio guide along the way, where you can hear from some of the survivors of the time and those who helped the family. It’s compelling and emotional, and really makes you think.
Then you’re led up to the attic rooms, hidden behind a bookcase, where the audio guides stop out of respect. Each room is left bare at the express wish of Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the only surviving member of the party, but information boards tell more about each room. It’s an eerie experience, particularly seeing Anne’s room, and the various pictures and magazine cut-outs she pasted onto the walls. Realising that eight people lived in these small rooms, in secret, is incomprehensible, as is the fact they had to in the first place.
It still amazes me how such an atrocity happened, how many people were complicit in it, and how many others paid the price. There wasn’t much information about who gave the family away; I think there’s currently an investigation into it and they may actually know the answer, but there’s controversy in that the descendants of the whistle-blowers will likely be the focus of abuse if the names were to come out. It’s a difficult one.
Red light district
Think Amsterdam and one of the first things you’ll likely think of is the red light district, so we had to check it out on our whistle-stop tour. And it was nothing like I expected!
I always thought of it as an area of seedy backstreets, tucked away from the main thoroughfare. But it was nothing of the sort. Granted, there were probably a few seedy backstreets if you wanted to get out there and look, but the main area was just that – a main area. Buzzing with people, the only hints that it was anything less than your typical tourist area were the numerous red windows with scantily-clad women on either side of the street. Oh, and the various “shows” advertised. And the museum of prostitution, Red Light Secrets, which was next on our hitlist.
What can I say! Perhaps the most unique museum I’ve ever been to. It had an audio guide like no other – essentially it was a Russian prostitute recounting stories of her time in the field – and it gave a unique insight into the oldest profession in the world. It didn’t delve much into the history of it, however, more how it works in Amsterdam (such as how much it costs, both to rent a window and for a punter, and how many clients a sex worker can get through in a day. Eye-opening!), but it was still an interesting experience.
To be continued…
We didn’t get through anywhere near as much as we’d perhaps planned to on our few days in Amsterdam. We ended up having a more relaxed trip than our city breaks usually entail, particularly on the first day, where we spent most of it leisurely wandering around the canals, museum quarter and the odd bar here and there. And it was fabulous. Plus it just means there’s lots to see the next time…!