Turns out it’s one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Alongside all the standard Amsterdam stuff – various vegetables that make you grow webbed feet, etc etc – I also saw quaint cobbled streets, stunning canals and cute, pointed houses touching the sky at three stories high. I explored the Begijnhof neighbourhood – a 15th-century courtyard originally built as a sanctuary for a Catholic sisterhood – and wandered around the Old Centre, where grandiose architecture and al fresco diners come together to create a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in romantic Italia. Dam Square, built in the 13th century and home to the ‘60s hippy movement, remains the city centerpiece with street entertainers vying for space and a constant buzz circling the air. It’s also home to the Royal Palace and the (slightly phallic) National Memorial statue, but it somehow manages to maintain the laid-back, take-it-easy air that defines Amsterdam and its city-dwellers.Beyond that I discovered the capital has an insane number of museums – from the national Rijksmuseum to the Van Gogh gallery, the Rembrandt House to the Heineken Experience and many more. In what was perhaps not the most cultured move, we skipped half of them in preference for the aforementioned sex museum, which turned out to be one of the most bizarre (and hilarious) experiences I’ve ever had – I felt a little bit like the giggling girls laughing at boobs at the art exhibition in Love Actually and found myself inadvertently gazing upon 1960s porn. Two hours later we were wandering around the Anne Frank house and reassessing priorities, but both were worthy trips and the latter most definitely deserves an hour or more of any visitor’s time (as does the former, just perhaps not directly before or after.)
I was actually staying outside of the ‘dam in Alkmaar, a small city a half-hour train-ride away that felt like a mini version of it – without all the tourists (although a fair collection of souvenir clogs were present – wouldn’t be Holland without it). It was a lot calmer and arguably just as beautiful, with people milling around outside cafes and cyclists cruising along its peaceful canals. It provided a bit of tranquility away from the more bustling Amsterdam and felt a little more like the Netherlands I’d imagined (i.e. cheese, windmills and kids running around in aforementioned clogs) and I’d definitely recommend it as a short trip for anyone looking to escape the city and its signature weed wafts for a few hours.
We also ventured over to Haarlem, another small city to the east of the capital where historic buildings, traditional restaurants, quiet canals and cobbled paths go together to create a similarly Dutch feel that seems to be missing a bit in the ‘dam (although a hunt for herring was to no avail – shame? I think not). Once again it was a lot more peaceful than the capital – and I somewhat bizarrely found myself on a Friday night sipping cucumber juice on the banks of a beautiful canal before heading to a jazz festival – not quite what you might imagine when someone says they’re hitting up Amsterdam for the weekend but an experience nonetheless…
That gives a bit of a glimpse into the diversity of the country. Sadly we didn’t have time to see more, but after just a few days I’d fallen in love with the place and its people. Amsterdam is most definitely worth checking out and it’s certainly one of the coolest, most anything-goes cities I’ve been to, but the rest of the Netherlands shouldn’t be overlooked – its tiny size makes venturing beyond the capital and seeing the real Dutch way easy, and you’re likely to find hidden gems that most visitors hopping over to the ‘dam for a few days to smoke some mary jane might never discover.