By Jim Ferri
The snow was swirling across the cobblestones as I wandered along the street in Amsterdam.
With the frigid North Sea wind nipping at my face, I looked downward, intent on skirting little patches of ice. I kept moving along, occasionally looking upward, in search of a restaurant to spend the evening.
I had no particular place in mind. For me, part of the enjoyment of travel is to stumble upon a good restaurant where the food and ambiance provide a glimpse into the local culture. Pleasant weather, I’ve found, needn’t be part of the equation.
“Who knows what I’ll find ahead?” I thought as I pushed forward.
And then I saw it.
It was fairly nondescript, tucked along a street of ancient buildings in a city full of them. I remember entering and sitting at a table near the roaring fire on the far wall. I don’t recall much else, except that it was smoky and I had the best split-pea soup in my life. It was vintage Amsterdam and made the walk well worth the effort.
I’ve been visiting Amsterdam in dribs and drabs for many years. And when I visit, regardless of the season, I usually add another memory to my mental mosaic.
Most of all, Amsterdam is a city that lends itself well to these moments. There’s always so much to do and see, so many layers of veneer to peel back.
Consequently, it’s a place I never tire of visiting. Maybe it’s that kind of place for you too or will become so soon. With that in mind, let me share some of my personal great places in the city.
It’s well worth visiting the house of one Amsterdam’s most famous citizens. And it’s not far from Central Station – only two stops away on the underground adjacent to the VVV tourist office.
When you exit the station, walk north a block and turn into Waterlooplein Market, a little secondhand street market. It’s one of the best known in the city, though it offers mostly only crafts and vintage clothes.
Walk through it and at the end turn right. On the next corner, you’ll find the Rembrandt House Museum where the artist painted many of his greatest works. It’s a fascinating little place that was Rembrandt’s home for years before he lost it in bankruptcy.
It’s been fully restored to look as it did when he lived and painted there. In fact, walking about it is somewhat like stepping into one of his masterpieces. Be sure to see the demonstration on the top floor.
When you come out of Rembrandt’s House turn right and walk down two blocks, then across the square. The dark building you’ll see on your right is the old Portuguese Synagogue. It was built by Sephardic Jews in 1675 and was inspired by the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. More than 1,000 candles light its large barrel-vaulted ceiling.
When you exit the Synagogue be sure to turn left to see the bronze statue “De Dokwerker” (The Dock Worker). It’s a tribute to their 1941 strike following the arrest of 450 Jews for the killing of a Nazi sympathizer. It’s quite poignant and moving.
Across the street in the heart of the Jewish Quarter is the Jewish Historical Museum. The Synagogue and museum and just about everything in the neighborhood are closed on Saturday, the Sabbath.
Anne Frank House
The Anne Frank House is west of the Synagogue, on the other side of the historic center of the city. You can easily reach it via the #13 or 17 trams, disembarking at to the Westerkerk stop.
The museum includes the warehouse below the area where the Frank family hid. It was there that Otto Frank ran his business before going into seclusion. You’ll also see the famous swinging-bookcase secret entrance and Anne’s room among other things.
The museum, visited by more than one million people every year, is a monumentally moving experience. To avoid the monumental crowds time your visit carefully.
The museum was originally a convent and later became the city orphanage. (The conversion took place in 1580, which gives you an idea of the age of the building). The orphans didn’t vacate until 1960; the museum took over in 1975.
Its age is fitting though since it’s filled with paintings, maps, jewelry, archaeological finds, and artifacts. Taken together, they provide a stunning glimpse into the history of the city and its people.
See the Civic Guards Gallery and the rooms devoted to the 18th and 19th centuries. The exhibit “Amsterdam 1940-1945” displays memorabilia from the German occupation. Amsterdam DNA, as might be expected, provides a historical tour of the city. There’s enough here to occupy you for hours.
Take a Canal Cruise
Despite my many visits to the city over the years, I had never taken a canal cruise. It just seemed too touristy to me. But during my last visit, I thought it was about time, and headed off to the canal-boat flotilla near Central Station.
It was a lot better than expected, providing a fascinating waterline perspective of the city’s famous gabled houses. Even better, however, is that it let me view an authentic slice of late afternoon life in Amsterdam…people picnicking along the canals, lovers cozying above as we slipped beneath a bridge, people sitting in open windows.
For some reason, I soon became fascinated watching young and old on bicycles flying along the cobbled streets above me. Find your fascination in this unique perspective of the city, which everyone should see at least once.
Of course, you find clusters of museums in other great cities of the world. There are London’s famous museums in South Kensington and New York’s magnificent Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue, for example. But nothing comes close to Amsterdam’s marvelous Museumplein.
It’s tucked away in Amsterdam’s center – a huge lawn rife with picnickers, joggers, children at play, lovers, you name it. Around it are world-renown art museums and a grand concert hall, all just a few minutes walk of one another.
Its three museums – the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh, and the Stedelijk – ensure that there’s something here for everyone. In addition, there are plenty of cafés around its perimeter to grab a quick bite or coffee.
Van Gogh Museum
The first time I visited the Van Gogh Museum, it was a weekend. Since I had seen the long queue the previous day, I went first thing in the morning.
Most of all, the Van Gogh is a treasure trove of the artist’s works. Here you can be up-close to such masterpieces as the renowned “Sunflowers,” “Self-Portrait as a Painter,” and “Wheatfield with Crows.”
You’ll also learn much about the tortured life of the artist, although it does include works by his contemporaries. Fittingly, it was his brother Theo, an art dealer, who brought the 200+ artistic treasures together.
Regrettably, photography is not allowed in the galleries, only in specific places in the lobby area.
First of all, the Rijksmuseum, contains the world’s greatest collection of 17th-century Dutch art. What makes the Rijks a standout for me, however, is not just its art but its architecture. It’s a beautiful building, spacious and regal, with room to walk about without being too hemmed in by the crowds.
As you wander, you can’t help but be awed by the masterpieces that surround you. Thankfully, in some popular galleries such as Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, visitors are provided some artful guidance. Easy-to-read guides explain the paintings and their nuances.
The Night Watch, along with other masterpieces, is on the second floor, the most popular section of the museum. The first floor, on the other hand, has few visitors. There you can walk through near-empty galleries, leaving you alone to admire the paintings, antique furniture, and pieces of art.
Moreover, in the Rijksmuseum you may take photos of all its exhibits. Walk of up to your favorite Rembrandt, Vermeer or Hals and snap that picture to use as a screensaver back home.
The Flower Markets
Amsterdam’s flower markets are a great place to buy your tulips, daffodils, and other bulbs to bring back home. Although the markets (there are two of them) are primarily for tourists, you’ll find locals shopping here, as well. In addition, they’re colorful and open seven days a week. You’ll find both on the Singel Canal at Koningsplein.
The better known is probably the Bloemenmarkt on the south side of the canal, much of it on canal barges. Begun in 1862, it is the only floating flower market in the world.
You can easily reach it by tram from Central Station or elsewhere.
Red Light District
Amsterdam’s oldest quarter, De Wallen, remains home to practitioners of the world’s oldest profession. Ironically, it’s near Oude Kerk, the city’s oldest church.
Prostitution is legal in Holland, and the Rossebuurt remains one of Amsterdam’s greatest tourist attractions. Yet it’s also quite safe for visitors, as you’ll likely guess by the various tour groups wandering about the area.
So go ahead and and wander about, although ladies may feel more comfortable in a group.
However, keep in mind that just as in the Van Gogh Museum, photography is prohibited.