We arrived in Amsterdam in the rain…one of only a few rainy days of travel! Luckily, the next day was clear, so we hired bikes from our hostel and set off to explore. Amsterdam is perfect for biking – flat and lots of bike lanes. It was the first time I (Karen) had biked in traffic in years though so I was a bit nervous at times!
Our first stop was the Sloten windmill, located right near our hostel.We then headed down through a little courtyard, past the zoo, Botanic gardens, and over the Magere Brug (the “Skinny Bridge”). This wooden bridge is right by some of the canal locks and opens and closes at times. After biking across that, we went past Museumsplein and to the Vondelpark (a lovely, big park area).
After biking through the Vondelpark, we went to see the floating flower markets. Disappointingly, winter is not really the season for tulips, so we saw lots of bulbs and only a few flowers. We did manage to find stores with free cheese samples, so that was good!
Our next stop was the Begijnhof. This enclosed square was a collection of houses where women lived who wanted to live lives of devotion to God (but unlike a nunnery, they could leave and marry if they wished). It was a lovely, serene area in the middle of town. After this we headed to the bustling Dam square before walking around the red light district. We finished our ride by biking by central station and onto an island before heading back to our hostel. If you want to visualise our route you can check it out here.
We had bought a “Holland Pass” as it saved us a little money on the things we most wanted to see in Amsterdam. Included in this was a free city tour, which we did on our second day in Amsterdam. What a let down! The tour was mostly advertising for the other tours available in Amsterdam, and included a compulsory stop at a diamond factory. I would recommend people get the pass and skip the tour – definitely one of those free things that is not worth the saving! We then visited the Old Church, which was nice, but the highlight was the illustrated choir stalls which had pictures of local proverbs. These were hilarious!
In the afternoon, we visited the Anne Frank house. This house was the actual hiding place where she and her family lived for two years during World War II before being betrayed to the Nazis. It was amazing and very moving to see where they hid, especially after I had read her diary years ago. We weren’t able to take photos but you can see here what it looked like inside (including the secret bookshelf that hid the entrance to the rooms).
We took another walk through the red light district that night. It’s interesting – Amsterdam has a reputation for being very sleazy, and there is certainly an aspect of that, but the red light district was not as big as we had expected and was certainly not as dominant in the city as we had thought. During our time in Amsterdam, we were much more impressed by the culture and beauty of the city than we were overwhelmed by the seediness – a great surprise for us!