Before flying South for the Summer I had to squeeze in one final adventure, the canal-clogged capital of the Netherlands: Amsterdam.
Why Amsterdam? Well I was flying KLM which naturally takes travelers via Amsterdam so I thought it would be fun to experience a little more of the city than the airport’s Starbucks…
While we’re on the subject, I really enjoyed my first experience with KLM. It’s usually the cheapest route from Cape Town to London that doesn’t involve having to do 2 long haul trips (the short flight from AMS-LDN is less than half the length of the traditional CPT-JHB stopover), the staff are friendly, the entertainment selection is great, the decor modern and cheerful and best of all, my return flight was a day flight! As someone who finds it impossible to take so much as a 20 min nap on planes this was a true blessing. I’m totally lying, that’s only the second best part- being able to take TWO x 23kg suitcases is the real winner! #packhorse
My London-based friend Ben decided to join me last minute. We found a gorgeous Airbnb run by an interior designer (go figure) in the suburb of IJburg which is a modern docklands-type area built on reclaimed land. Not at all like central Amsterdam; it’s all very boxy and Scandinavian with large houses (and about a billion construction sites), wide open streets, lakes, canals, parks and a safe and family-friendly vibe. We picked it for the price (central is NOT cheap) and the prettiness of the interior and it wasn’t much of a trek into the city centre- just a 5 min walk to the tram stop and a 15 min tram to Central Station. One big perk is that it is walking distance from the beach. Yes, a beach!!! Confession time, I did not even realize that Amsterdam is on the coast. My sense of direction is atrocious… Although it was nearly fully dark en route to a grocery run I insisted on walking to the beachfront to look at the sea. Guys, it had been nearly 4 months since I’d last seen the sea, something I’ve been able to spot from home in every Cape Town apartment I’ve lived in for the past 5 years, my soul was jonesing.
This is a 2-part post with this bit spotlighting Amsterdam while the 2nd bit will be our day trip to countryside Netherlands; home of windmills and cartoonish quaintness! We actually got super lucky with the weather. Amsterdam is usually about as miserable as London in September (chilly, rainy and windy) and although my weather app kept insisting that we had 18 degree days, high wind and near constant rain to look forward to, the skies rebelled in quite a spectacular manner and save for one sudden and short downpour we had nothing but blue skies, sun and a gentle breeze!
Ben was on a later flight than me so I immediately began exploring this exciting new destination. Jokes, I actually just sat and ate the Dutch snacks our lovely host had left us and took a super long nap. After Ben’s arrival we embarked on a fractically hangry early evening search for food (no restaurants in our neighbourhood) which culminated in a large but weird grocery store that wouldn’t accept any form of credit card or international bank card (like those nightmares where you really need the loo but there’s something wrong with every one you find). I managed to scrounge up 12 Euro in coins from my wallet that I’d been diligently saving up in London from couch cushions and similar locations and after a brutal edit of our grocery basket we eventually made it to a dark park bench for our spoils of baguette, crackers, some Dutch cheeses and a giant bag of plastic knives because they didn’t have any individual ones.
We then trammed into the city centre and roamed the cobbled streets like wide-eyed tourists. I had a second dinner of surprisingly delish prawn noodle takeaway in a Chinatown-type street while Ben had churros and we narrowly made it to the last tram of the night- note of advice, running through cobblestone streets in heeled boots is not for the fainthearted! For the record, there is Uber in Amsterdam but it’s actually more expensive than London’s Uber and if you hadn’t guessed by now I was on the thin end of my budget by this point.
We spent our first full day walking the city. Amsterdam is surprisingly small, so small in fact that we eventually (accidentally) walked a full loop and ended up back where we’d started. The city is beyond quaint! From waterside cafes to tree-lined avenues, interlinking canals and bridges and ancient crooked houses you’ll find a postcard-perfect moment around every corner. Who am I kidding? I meant to say insta-worthy coz who still buys postcards? Sigh… Amsterdam is designed to be explored on foot. Cars have a tough time here which sometimes includes driving into canals- oops! If there was one downside to being a pedestrian it could be summed up by 2 words: Motherfucking. Cyclists.
To put it into a Cape Town context, imagine the day of the Argus. Now imagine that’s every. single. day. Ja nee… If I’d had more time in the city I probably woulda adopted an “if you can’t beat them, join them” kind of approach and hired a bike for the day, but on the other hand, I’ve had a front row seat to the car/tram/bike road situation there and I quite like my life and want to keep it. Apparently you can cycle for 20 mins in any direction and be in the countryside which is nice I guess.
If there’s one thing I highly recommend you do, it’s a canal boat tour. I actually ended up doing two. Mostly because I, erm, can’t remember much about the first one… And also because that boat had a lid on it so I couldn’t really get any nice photos. You must DEFINITELY do an open boat canal tour (unless of course it’s pissing with rain). It is pricier but so much better! While boat #1 was a long ferry-type thingie with earphones that you plug in to listen to recorded info, boat #2 was an intimate little skip with just a handful of other tourists and a friendly, knowledgeable and funny captain/tour guide who we could actually engage with and ask questions. He also pointed out some things which were of specific interest in the context of South African history and the VOC which I appreciated. Fun fact- did you know that every night in Amsterdam at least one person falls into a canal? I’m guessing maybe 420 per year… It’s such a problem that they’ve had to put in stepladders every few meters like they’re Sims!
We explored a number of shops, cafes, bars and a large open air antique flea market but the standout for me was undoubtedly the cheese shops! They are literally everywhere and once inside you are surrounded by walls of cheeses each with their own little bowls of tasters. You can meander around an entire store, tasting all the little cubes, bid them a cheery “Bedankt!” turn a corner and repeat at the next cheese shop. Heaven truly is a place on earth.
Cheese even saved me at the airport when I very nearly missed my flight home to South Africa due to me underestimating times and things and the story of my life… I was starving but had no time to buy food as I was already in jogging mode and there were queues at every food place, but I spotted a cheese shop at the eleventh hour and whipped my cabin luggage around the little displays shoving cheese cubes into my mouth so I wouldn’t faint at the boarding gate. Thanks Holland!
On our final night I insisted on finding somewhere with live music and on the advice of a hot long-haired waiter who had saved our al fresco table from the aforementioned sudden downpour earlier that day with his ninja umbrella skills we ended up at The Water Hole, a rad little spotted stuffed with rock ‘n roll memorabilia, pool tables and plenty of seating. Arriving before 9 we managed to get in for free and nab a front row table. The place soon filled up with a vibey crowd and a series of local bands performed mostly covers. As we say in Africa, it was a jol!
If we’d had more time (and money) we would have liked to have seen the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh gallery and the Amstel brewery. I’d also like to dive into Amsterdam’s culinary scene, but hey, more reasons to return again soon!
Click here for Part 2, our day trip to Zaanse Schans.