Been There, Never Done That: Four Hours (or more) in Amsterdam

May 10, 2012 by Aart Balk
Category: Culture

About guest author Aart Balk: Aart is Interactive Creative Director for the Education Management Corporation, where he leads a team of web designers. Born and raised in The Netherlands, he has experience in multilingual website design and a Master's degree in Literary Theory and Criticism.


Walking the Walk & Talking the Talk in Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s narrow streets and busy traffic make driving and parking daunting tasks. Luckily, ninety percent of the time, you can get anywhere by public transportation. A vast network of trains, trolleys and busses connect Dutch towns, villages and sights. That goes for Amsterdam as well, making it very easy to navigate the city.

Walking around downtown is probably the quickest way to get a good sense of Amsterdam’s unique, creative inhabitants, especially when the weather is nice. Chances are you’ll get to see spectacular street performances. Dancing, magic tricks, and theatre shows are common.

If you get lost, don’t worry. You will quickly find that most people in Amsterdam have no problem understanding and speaking English. In fact, if you’d want to practice your Dutch, you’ll probably have a hard time convincing them you want to speak Dutch instead of English!

Watery Ways

For a quick glimpse at all Amsterdam has to offer, there’s no better way than a guided boat tour through Amsterdam’s canals. These tours offer a unique perspective on famous and historic places of interest. Most tour boat companies can be found around Central Station and the Leidseplein. (An electronic tour guide, available in several languages, is standard.)

Music & Museums

Do you enjoy classical music? Treat yourself to tickets for a concert at the Koninklijk Concertgebouw (Royal Concert Hall). This hall is world famous for its phenomenal acoustics, and its renowned orchestra, the Koninklijk Concertgebouworkest (Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra). Prepare for an exquisite experience!

If classical music isn’t your thing, have a look at who’s playing at Paradiso, the place to be for young and upcoming musical talent and more “progressive cultural events.” For a larger selection of live music venues, see this article on the best live music venues in Amsterdam.

To rest your ears and indulge your eyes, venture into Amsterdam’s rich history of famous painters. Rembrandt and Van Gogh probably are probably the most well-known. Any self-respecting art lover should feel obliged to spend some time in the Rijksmuseum and Rembrandt’s Night Watch. The Van Gogh Museum obviously has a stunning collection of the post-Impessionist painter’s work.

For Amsterdam’s history, you can visit the Amsterdams Historisch Museum, and then there’s the Anne Frank Museum, another must-see but for quite different reasons.

Time to Eat

Why miss out on an opportunity to go hardcore local with Amsterdam cuisine? Do try the traditional raw, salted herrings, sold all over Amsterdam. The best time of year to eat them is from May to July, when they're at their freshest and taste at their best (“Hollandse Nieuwe”). Don't forget the raw onions with it! And please, do not ask for a fork if you want to eat it the proper way. Here’s a guide on the herring tradition and how to eat them properly.

Like most, it’s really the fries you’re looking for. They come in a few varieties:

  • franse frietjes (French fries), the thinner and smaller fries
  • patat or patat friet, comparable to the regular cut fries
  • Vlaamse friet, similar to steak fries

Fries come with a vast choice of sauces. Standard is frietsaus, a mayonnaise-like sauce but sweeter and far less fatty. Other popular sauces are ketchup, satehsaus (peanut butter sauce) and curry ketchup.

The Dutch are proud of their beers, so as long as you’ve got some fries in hand, don’t miss out on a real Heineken, Amstel or Grolsch. Also try the traditional jenever (commonly compared to gin, but any Dutchman will argue with you that it’s not the same). Or, if you want to combine the experience, order a kopstoot (literally “head bang”): a shot of jenever served along a glass of beer. You drink them side by side.

Finally: the cheese. The Dutch are nicknamed kaaskoppen (cheese heads) for a reason: Holland is the largest exporter of cheese in the world. Gouda cheese is the most common variety, available in all kinds of flavors, from very mild and creamy (young cheese) to harder, salty and sharp (old cheese). However, there is a lot more cheese to choose from, like the very mellow Edam cheese or the sweet, nutty Maasdam cheese.

If you’ve had your fill of fish, beer, and cheese, Indonesian cuisine is probably the most popular of all international cuisine in Holland. Two great places to find it are: Tempo Doeloe (call for reservations), and Bojo.

Hopefully this brief guide will give you an appetite for all that Amsterdam has to offer. 

Photo attribution: Stuck In Customs

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