Amsterdam is one of those places that has a reputation – and a seedy one at that. Stag parties, the red light district and marijuana cafes seem to come first when you ask someone to describe Amsterdam, with all the other delights coming after (if at all).
But I felt like Amsterdam had more to offer – canals, tulips, huge amounts of history and very very nice beer indeed aside, I wanted to experience slow travel in a place that seemed entirely set up for it. Luckily, two of my wonderful friends and fellow travel bloggers Beverley and Sophie wanted a return trip, and so the idea of a very relaxed, unplanned and chilled out weekend in the Dutch capital was born.
I wanted to experience a city slowly – with a coffee in one hand and a beer in the other, hopping from cafe to bar and back again. Was Amsterdam the right location for it?
I travelled alone to Amsterdam (my first proper solo flight), as I was meeting the girls at the airport, as they were arriving from Leeds. I flew with Easy Jet at a cost of £75 return, booked just under 5 months in advance – I’ve kept my eye on Amsterdam flight prices for a while, and generally speaking they tend to be around this mark. Sadly this meant flying from Luton at 6am, which led to a rather sad overnight stay in a Luton Airport hotel. It wasn’t the greatest start to the weekend, but luckily the flight time from the UK to Amsterdam is super short, which makes it a brilliant destination for a weekend city break.
Once at the airport, it’s really easy to get to your destination using their train and tram system. It cost a little over 2EUR to grab a train to the Central Station, and from there you can pick any number of trams to see you on your way. We bought 72 hour tram tickets for 17EUR which we used extensively – if you are there on a city break I’d 100% recommend buying this ticket. Just make sure you touch in and out every time you use a tram, or your ticket will become invalid.
Where To Stay
There are so many different options in Amsterdam. From super cute and ever so stylish Airbnb’s, hotel names from back home in London (most notably Citizen M and The Hoxton, both of which provide extremely hip accommodation options) and even canal boats there is something to suit every budget and type of traveller. After much discussion, we settled on the Generator Hostel in the eastern part of Amsterdam, a little outside of the main centre.
I’ll admit I was nervous about staying in a hostel in my thirties, my slumming it days way behind me, but I needn’t have worried. Generator Hostels are well known for stylish stays across Europe, and instead of being aimed at travellers looking for dirt cheap accommodation of any type, this felt very much aimed at mid twenties and older travellers looking for comfort, style and a friendly, grown up vibe.
We shared a quad room for two nights, with a private bathroom (and towels included) at a cost of around 282EUR per person. The Generator Hostel (located in a former University building) had a basement club, cafe/bar which could serve you breakfast and lunch (and the best flat whites) and another bar based in an auditorium.
The staff at Generator were extremely helpful – they are happy to sort you out with tram tickets, bikes to hire, directions and a locker that you can use before check in/after check out. Our stay was slick, snug and sassy, and I’d fully recommend a crashing here, especially if you are in a group of friends.
Much like other places around Europe, Amsterdam is split into districts (or neighbourhoods), all of which have their own unique feel – this list may help you decide where you want to stay when you visit Amsterdam, or where you want to hang out for your chilled weekend break.
- Centrum (the Old Centre) – this is the oldest part of the city (including Dam and Nieuwmarkrt) and you’ll find the Red Light District here.
- Dam Square – The central square in Amsterdam, formed by the building of a dam to prevent floodings in the 1200’s. Amsterdam’s most commercial street (Kalverstraat) starts here, but you’ll also find Madam Tussaud’s, the Royal Palace and National Monument.
- Grachtengordel – this is the canal belt, right in the heart of Amsterdam. It’s a series on concentric canals around which are canal houses – but also hotels, bars and cafes where you could easily while away a sunny afternoon!
- Jordaan – growing in boutique shops, upscale restaurants and lots of bars, De Jordaan is now a thriving centre for artists, young people and entrpreneurs where once it was the home of Amsterdam’s working class.
- De Pijp – located south of the city, De Pijp is a beautiful area of Amsterdam where you’ll find pretty houses (often covered in flowers and wisteria), and wonderful cafes and restaurants. It’s also home to the Albert Cuyp street market.
- Museumplein – mainly residential, you’ll find lots of Amsterdam’s most famous museums here, along side the gorgeous (and huge) Vondelpark where locals and tourists hang out and walk on sunny days.
- Oud-West – a great place to stay as the area is packed full of great hotels, restaurants and bars, but you’ll also find Food Hallen here (read more below), an excellent destination for any foodies!
- Oost – we stayed in this district, right inside the Oosterpark (which is beautiful in and of itself), but you’ll also find the Tropenmuseum and Dappermarket here too.
Seeing Nothing + Everything
As I mentioned, I arrived in Amsterdam with a thumbed through guidebook and zero plans. This is very very unlike me (who plans itineraries to the second, with back up options and googlemaps on high alert), but was absolutely the right move in a city like Amsterdam. Of course there are so many things to see and do, and I’m already planning a museum sweep style trip for when funds allow, but the fantastic thing about Amsterdam is that you can see absolutely nothing and still feel like you had a glorious, culture-filled weekend.
Actually, doing nothing in Amsterdam is a perfect city break tip – unlike other cities I’ve visited like Prague or Brussels where I believe you need to do the tourist haunts to really soak up the place, Amsterdam is a city best served chilled. And this is how we did it.
First stop (after getting your fill of flat whites and brunches of course) is a browse around Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt to get your dose of tulips, practically the national flower. In fact May was an ideal time to visit Amsterdam because there were tulips EVERYWHERE, and this floating flower market along the canal allows you to see, and purchase them in all their glory. In fact, it’s the world’s only floating flower market.
Located: along the Singel Canal between Muntplein and Koningsplein
I’ll be honest, if you don’t like a canal, Amsterdam might not be the place for you. Because everywhere you turn, there is another one. There are large canals with big wide bridges across them, and much smaller canals in a complex pattern of semi-circles which carve up the streets. You can float down them, walk along them and drink next to them and they really provide a central focus for any weekend in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam, has more than one hundred kilometers of canals, about 90 islands and 1,500 bridges for you to explore, and each section has its own unique charm and feel. Wandering around the Grachtengordel (the concentric semi-circles of canals near the centre of the city) is a little disorientating, but it is easy to find your way around because the city centre is quite small (it’s also fun to get lost for a while too!)
The canal belt was also added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010, cementing its place in European history (and beauty). Next time I visit, I’m definitely going to be booking some sort of canal cruise.
Side Street Wanders
What I don’t do enough of on a frantic weekend city break is just spend time getting lost around the side streets of a city. When I’m on the clock and on an itinerary, it’s really easy to just head from attraction to attraction without taking in all the bits in between.
Don’t do that in Amsterdam. It would be a grave mistake – some of the most stunning architecture can be found off the beaten track, and wisteria clad doorways, racks of pretty bikes and beautiful door porn awaits you if you just stray off your itinerary.
De 9 Straatjes (or “Nine Little Streets”) is a super cute shopping district close to the canal belt which houses incredible vintage, boutique and designer shopping, cosy cafes and speciality buys. It’s a micro-neighbourhood in and of itself and is picturesque in the extreme.
Located close to Dam Square, these nine cobbled side streets connect the main canals between Leidsegracht and Raadhuisstraat and will provide at least a couple of hours of wandering potential!
Another area we really enjoyed strolling round was the De Pijp neighbourhood, located just outside the centre of the city. It’s known as Amsterdam’s Latin Quarter and is packed with bars, cafes and restaurants (including our favourites The Avocado Show and Coffee + Coconuts).
Aside from all the yummy food and drink on offer, you’ll also find incredible side streets with wonderful apartments, all clad in greenery, wisteria and planting. We also hunted out some excellent street art in this area, and some cute boutique shopping opportunities and spent a good few hours exploring.
If markets are your thing, you’ll also find the famous Albert Cuypmarkt street market with 260 stands operating six days a week – it’s the largest outdoor market in The Netherlands.
Who doesn’t love green spaces on a city break? Being a Londoner I’m spoilt for parks in our city, but in Amsterdam the Vondelpark would give any park a run for its money. Packed with incredible planting, a lake, a fountain and places to sit and watch the world go by, I could see strolling through here with a flat white in hand to be a must-do activity in any season.
The Vondelpark is actually huge, and has been awarded heritage status. Much like Regents Park in London it has its own open air theatre and a real mix of tourists and locals hang out here. Cyclists, skaters, walkers and loungers all share this truly beautiful outdoor oasis.
Not to be missed: the rose garden, home to 70 different types of rose!
Not to be left out in the “I’m green and beautiful stakes”, Amsterdam’s Oosterpark was the location of our hostel and some lovely mid-morning/early evening strolls for us. It’s filled with ponds and streams (and ducks too!), and after some research, I’ve just realised that there is also a ‘speaker’s stone’, where people speak their minds every Sunday at 13:00. Wish we’d caught that on our last day!
There are plenty of tram stops outside the park, so it’s in easy reach no matter where you happen to be staying (and if you do pop over, go in the Generator Hostel cafe, Nescio).
Watching the Sunset
I don’t know anyone that doesn’t like a good rooftop view, and given Amsterdam’s phenomenal architecture, excellent canal system and all round prettiness, seeing it from above seems like an obvious thing to do. Combining that with cocktails and music even more so, so if that sounds like you, you’ll want to head to Amsterdam’s SkyLounge close to the Central Station to check out the view.
Head over just before sunset to get the most amazing colours which you can toast with possibly the most expensive but delicious cocktails I’ve had. And I say this as a Londoner, where there are only expensive cocktails.
Where to Eat + Drink
The food in Amsterdam is incredible. I’ve basically never eaten as well as I did in Amsterdam, and I felt that the prices and options on offer would suit every budget and every diet. I’m going to be writing a full post on all the places I visited for food and drink (it deserves a total essay, it was that good!) but here are the highlights:
Brunch is my favourite meal of the day. Amsterdam does good brunch. Ergo, we headed out to brunch every single day. Head to these places for all your brunch dreams to come true:
- The Avocado Show – amazing food, with an avocado theme. Huge queues and no booking system, so arrive early to avoid disappointment. You can put your name down and go off for a coffee too.
- Bakers + Roasters – a Kiwi cafe with a huge brunch and breakfast menu including eggs, avocado, pancakes and a scrumptious vegetarian breakfast that is not to be missed. They do an excellent range of coffees and juices too, and the service was extremely friendly.
- Coffee + Coconuts – probably the most instagrammable cafe I’ve ever been too. They should probably open in Shoreditch as they would go down a storm there. All the usual menu items with the addition of gorgeous cold brewed coffee and a refreshing watermelon juice.
After such a great brunch (and obviously some snacks), we didn’t need to eat anything else until dinner, so we saved our bellies and our pennies for these places.
- Food Hallen – an incredible covered market with food stands, bars and communal seating. This sort of place is becoming pretty common in European cities, and Food Hallen was up there in terms of quality and vibe. They had an amazing gin bar, and on the Friday night the DJ was smashing out 90s RnB classics like it was no big deal. A must visit.
- Little Thai Prince – Beverley’s excellent suggestion took me about as close to the Red Light District as I was going to be and we feasted on some excellent thai food which was exactly what the doctor ordered. Especially after all the beer and cocktails we’d spent two days consuming. The restaurant was small, but authentic. You may have to queue, but it’s worth it.
Drinks + Snacks
Obviously we couldn’t go to Amsterdam without sampling the beer culture and without getting on board with some sweet treats. We couldn’t even touch the sides of what was on offer in 3 days, but here is what we tried:
- SkyLounge Amsterdam – located right at the top of the Hilton, this rooftop bar is a great place for amazing cocktails, but mainly the incredible view. Head over in golden hour for beautiful views across the entire city (and you’re more likely to be able to grab a seat outside). Cocktails are expensive, but one lasts for a really long time.
- Cafe de Prinz – so good we visited twice! Right alongside the canal, you could hang here with a cold beer and watch the world go by for an entire afternoon and not feel like you’d wasted any time. I have it on good authority (Beverley), that the bitterballen here is really good, but we didn’t get to try it this time.
- Sticky Fingers – pretty coffee, pink tiles and sweet treats – a travel bloggers dream right? Located near the Vondelpark, we headed here after getting caught in a rainstorm of epic proportions to dry off and indulge our sweet tooth. If you like banoffee pie, definitely visit if you’re in the Vondelpark area.
- Ijs Bakery – in the heart of Amsterdam’s central district you’ll find lots of places to grab a waffle or a crepe. We happened upon this tiny place when we realised the cookie bakery had sold out and grabbed insanely chocolate covered waffles, laden with fruit and oreos and sauces. Sometimes you just need a sugar hit.
Look out for my foodies guide for more details this month!
I had no idea what to expect from Amsterdam. I’d done very little research before pitching up, instead deciding to go with the flow and see how the city felt upon arrival. It’s fair to say I’ve fallen in love after a weekend in Amsterdam just a little bit. Friendly locals, amazing food and so many places to wander and get lost in mean that I had a relaxing weekend just soaking up the city and getting a feel for it. The feeling was good.
Of course I want to return – I’d like to wander some more, indulge some more and get to grips with some of the more historical aspects of the city, but for now I’m content with my memories of sunny days watching the bikes go by.