As a wonderful surprise last Christmas, my husband booked us a week’s holiday in Amsterdam in late January and early February to celebrate our 16th year of being together, and our third year of marriage. Last year was difficult for us both and we hadn’t been travelling out of the UK together for a while. I’d been wanting to visit Amsterdam and the Netherlands for some time – my sister loves Amsterdam and I loved the idea of walking around the canals and eating tasty things in the many cafes! Although the city has a reputation for excess, it’s definitely possible to experience a different side of the city, with good food, art, culture, and history.
Amsterdam in January was cold – about the same chill in the air as the UK has at this time of year – so it’s best to take a warm coat and be prepared for some rain with an umbrella. Comfortable walking shoes are important too! There’s no point hiring a car unless you’re planning to travel out of Amsterdam to see the rest of the Netherlands or elsewhere in Europe – the city is easy to traverse on foot or by using the tram system (Dan and I loved the tram system, I wish we had the same in London, much better than the tube, very deaf friendly too). I did feel that it could be difficult for people using wheelchairs (even on the trams) because the pavements were narrow and cobbled in places and I felt the cars and bicycles at crossings were impatient with pedestrians. There were a few instances when crossing over at the right time when scooters or cars decided to go even with a red light. Despite all that, it’s easy to pick up the momentum of the city once you get used to it. Bicycles are literally everywhere! I thought that Cambridge was a bicycle friendly city, but Amsterdam is a cyclists paradise.
We stayed somewhere quite special considering the occasion, and in a cultural part of the city, in the museum area (very close to Museumplein, with the Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk, and Rijksmuseum), at Hotel Piet Hein. The rooms were clean and comfortable, and the staff friendly. I loved the lobby, especially at night, lit with pools of warm light from candles and four huge comfortable couches. Breakfast, when we made it (!) was buffet style, but definitely had plenty of dutch pancakes. It’s expensive to stay anywhere in Amsterdam anyway, so I think it just depends where you want to stay and what deals you can find. If we’d booked in April or May, peak tulip season, it would probably have been more expensive, though I would love to visit again sometime to see the city in spring. It’s easy to converse with people in the Netherlands as English is widely spoken as a second language, though it’s nice to try and learn a few helpful phrases if you can! I especially liked the words Boekenwinkel and Katten…
On our first day we did quite a bit of wandering around trying to get a feel for the city. We started by going over to the Jordaan area near the Prinsengracht canal (where Anne Frank’s House and the Westerkerk are), a small maze of streets you can wander around with curious little shops and cafes. Unfortunately we had two confusing maps – one for the tram system and another tourist map which didn’t help us much at all, so we wandered around confused and a little frustrated for almost two hours (mostly missing the Jordaan by ending up walking past it). In the end we ended up in a cosy, candlelit cafe having lunch and cake at a place called Ree7. If you’re in the area then I heartily recommend it – their carrot cake was delicious and their grilled chicken sandwich was amazing.
After that, we tried to find a museum in the area but were again defeated by the confusing street names and maps we had. We made our way back to Centraal Station on the tram, and passed a canal tour boat, so we decided to hop on and tour the canals at night. It was a lovely experience to see the bridges lit up and the numerous quirky houseboats along the canals. Some were traditional and looked a little cluttered, whilst others were state of the art and looked modern but cosy inside. In fact, the word ‘cosy’ is one that I’ll use many times to describe our experience – better defined using the Dutch concept of gezelligheid (similar to hyggelig in Danish). Seeing the canal houses and the canal boats via water is something everyone should do at least once.
We stopped in one of the pubs on the way back to figure out where to have dinner, and decided on an Indonesian restaurant near to our hotel, Sama Sebo, a well-established place with delicious food. Both Indonesian and Surinamese cuisine are something Amsterdam is known for, mostly because of the history of the Dutch East India Company – when it went bankrupt in 1800, Indonesia became a much loved colony of the Netherlands. So there are many Indonesian and Surinamese restaurants in Amsterdam and in larger Netherlands cities. We ate quite late at Sama Sebo so skipped the large tasting menu for Nasi Goreng instead, a rice-based dish of curry, pickles, crispy noodle bits, chicken satay skewers, and various condiments. It was delicious – I liked the combination of mild spiciness balanced with the pickles and a cooling fried banana.
The next day was our anniversary – we kicked it off by visiting the Van Gogh Museum. Though Van Gogh never lived in Amsterdam, he was born and grew up in The Netherlands – and lived in various places including Nuenen, Etten, Drenthe, The Hague, and Antwerp. His brother Theo, with whom he had a close, supportive relationship (for much of his adult life, Theo supported him with money for supplies and living costs), lived in Amsterdam with his family. The Van Gogh museum was the brainchild of his nephew, Vincent Willem Van Gogh, who inherited the estate from his mother – she was a champion of Van Gogh’s work and legacy after his death (and the death of Theo).
I found the museum both eye opening and tragically sad – Van Gogh never gained the recognition he deserved during his lifetime, and struggled with mental health throughout his life. On the other hand, I also found his journey inspiring – he initially taught himself to paint and draw, and had the kind of determination that led him to try new things and work at his art. I’ve always loved his style of painting and his use of colour, and there were some paintings that I’d never seen before – a couple of intensely green striking forests. My favourite Van Gogh painting, Cafe Terrace at Night (1888) wasn’t there, but it is likely on display in Arles or Paris.
He was also a thinker, and a great writer of letters. He corresponded with artists of his time, and wrote long letters to his brother. Theo Van Gogh bought a letter cabinet specifically for Vincent’s letters which was on display in the museum. Imagine buying an entire cabinet for letters from one person! Their relationship enabled Vincent to get through many difficult periods in his life, and ultimately, was tinged by tragedy when Theo died a year after his brother’s suicide. Vincent’s family, however, have made sure his legacy is known and his story has been told, and we are lucky to be able to see the life’s work of such a passionate and experimental artist.
After walking around the museum, we had a spot of lunch in the attached cafe, Le Tambourin, which was one of the best museum cafes I’ve been to – the food was delicious and it’s laid out canteen style so you can choose what you want. It was a little expensive, but about average for a museum cafe and the food was worth it – of course I decided to have a slice of Dutch apple pie as a pick-me-up! The apple pie in Amsterdam was beautiful – I had it twice during our visit and it’s like a cross between apple strudel and a thickly filled apple tart. I’d love to try baking one sometime. After our lunch we decided to try again in the Prinsengracht area to find that weird little psychedelic museum – the first museum devoted to fluorescent participatory art – mentioned in our guide, Electric Ladyland. Amsterdam has a lot of little museums, and the two that stuck out for me was this and Katten Kabinet (the Cat Cabinet, a museum devoted to cats in art).
When we arrived, we were both a little unnerved to discover it was a little hippy shop and studio run by the artist Nick Padalino and his wife. However, the art in the shop was interesting, lots of structures made with different kinds of fluorescent objects, paint, and materials, and in the basement there was the large fluorescent cave-like structure that Nick Padalino had made, and various natural rocks, fluorescent ephemera, objects, and information related to the world of fluorescence and neon. It was strange to step into an alternate world that I hadn’t thought about before, and though our visit could have been shorter, I won’t forget it in a hurry (the words trippy and psychedelic have never been more appropriate)!
We ate and relaxed in Cafe P96 on the Prinsengracht (on the opposite bank from Anne Frank’s House, a little further along) for the rest of the evening. I had the best hot chocolate here, and we shared a huge plate of Nachos with all the trimmings. Dan had been sketching and drawing most of the day when he got a chance, so this was another opportunity for him to document the day we’d had (he was taking part in a 24 hour comic – Hourly Comic Day). The best thing about the cafes and pubs in Amsterdam is how they go out of their way to make things so cosy – P96 was full of candles, blankets, and fairy lights. This is a good opportunity to try some Netherlands delicacies like bitterballen and meatballs with your beer or cider (and why not have another slice of apple pie?).
On our day out of Amsterdam we finally chose to go to Zaanse Schans, rather than Haarlem, because Dan wanted to see some windmills (and to be fair, so did I…). As far as I could see, there were some windmills in Haarlem, but after reading about Zaanse Schans, where you could go inside a number of working mills and walk around a few traditional Dutch buildings and craft workshops, this seemed like a good contrast to Amsterdam. We hopped on a bus from Amsterdam Centraal (Rnet bus 391), which runs until 11pm most days – it took roughly 45 minutes.
It was great to get a different aspect of the Netherlands, driving through different towns and getting a sense of the architecture and rural landscape. Zaanse Schans was fun and interesting – I loved the clog craft workshop, and we popped through a cheese-making workshop too. We decided to go inside De Kat (the cat!), the paint-making mill, and climbed all the way to the top, where we stood under the powerful churning blades, and had a wonderful view of flat fields and a peach sunset. It was a little touristy – but the history of the place, the buildings, and the windmills is worth learning about, and there is a chocolate and biscuit factory (contained within a museum), that we didn’t go to. The first thing I noticed when I got off the bus was the smell of chocolate biscuits drifting through the air. It was a good day, and a slower, more leisurely pace compared to Amsterdam.
On Friday, we rambled through the Jordaan, a place of quirky shops and cafes, then we managed to get tickets online for Anne Frank’s House. I would recommend booking tickets at least two weeks before, if not more, because we were very lucky to manage to get online tickets at the last minute. I’d read Anne’s diary as a teenager, and that same hardback copy is still on my bookshelf. With the current political climate, visiting the annexe was always going to be a painful and necessary reminder of how things can change, how intolerance and hate can turn the world on its head, and how much we still need to learn from history, from what is happening, has been happening. It was only 71 years ago. Anne was only one voice, there are many others, but perhaps the most important thing about her diary and the annexe is that it makes things real, it provokes empathy, and takes us closer to understanding.
After our visit we planned to go to a popular pancake eatery but it was closed so we walked around for a while before settling on a Vietnamese restaurant, ‘The Taste of Vietnam’, on Herenstraat, where we processed the experience over a wonderful tasting menu (it was probably the most expensive meal we had on our trip, but we felt we needed the mood boost). This restaurant was a real gem – the food was fresh and tasty, and there was no grease in sight. The staff were friendly and welcoming, and I felt a little better after such lovely food.
On our last day, Saturday, I was feeling ill coming down with a cold, so we took a while to get going. We took the tram to Koningsplein for our visit to Katten Kabinet, a little museum on Herengracht devoted to cats in art. Of course, we were hungry, so we found a Japanese sushi place (Sumo 2) for lunch – it was packed with regulars and had a lunch all-you-can-eat menu which we found a bit confusing to start with (you had to choose four things each, and could choose another round only after you finished). I don’t like sushi that much but they had other choices so we were both happy.
The Katten Kabinet was just around the corner, in a beautiful house with tall ceilings and a stately staircase. There are four resident cats which wander around freely, and the museum itself is just on one floor (the second floor is a residence). Of course, I love cats, and there were plenty of things that captured my imagination – the Art Nouveau posters, the notes written to their cats from visitors around the world strewn all over a table, the paintings by Steinlen, a few drawings including a rough one by Picasso, and a pinball machine with lucky cats. A couple of the resident cats were around too. One of them appeared when we were browsing the shop – a little white calico. It made off with a feather pen from the gift shop and the receptionist had to rush after it!
We spent some of the evening with a cat too – at a cafe-bar (called P. King) just down the street from the museum. The bar had a resident cat which was more than happy to curl up right next to me for a little while.
It was a gezelligheid way to end our trip to Amsterdam, with a cat in a cosy cafe…
“Time spent with a cat is never wasted.” – Colette