Airport Rating *****
Reception of locals ****
I try to visit new and different cities on each of my trips, but my recent trip to Amsterdam brought it level with Barcelona for the city I have visited the greatest number of times, putting it ahead of other cities I have visited multiple times such as Bangkok, Singapore and Valencia.
I haven't written about Amsterdam until now as my previous visits in my mid twenties were all part of stag parties, and I'll confess, I saw very little of the city outside of a few bars and coffee shops. My most recent trip gave me the opportunity to spend a week in the city and finally see some of cultural and historical landmarks of capital city of the Netherlands.
Amsterdam has a long history, dating back at least a millennium, when it was just a small fishing village. Within 600 years it had grown into one of the richest and prosperous cities in the world. At the height of the Dutch Golden in the 17th century, Amsterdam was one of the world's biggest ports, the financial centre of a global empire, and the base of the world's first stock exchange.
Since the 17th century, the fortunes of the city of risen and fallen depending on the ruling power of the day, but each shift has etched its own mark on Amsterdam.
Anne Frank House
One of the darkest points since the Dutch golden age was undoubtedly the Second World War. The city was conquered fairly quickly by the Germans who imposed a draconian rule, particularly on the city's Jewish community. This period of the city's history is best illustrated by a then 14 year old girl, Anne Frank.
Born in Germany during the rise of the Nazi Party, the Franks moved to Amsterdam in 1934, partly to start a new business, and partly to get away from the increasing anti-semitism across the border in Germany.
At the beginning of the Second World War, Anne's father, Otto, tried to emigrate the family to the United States, but by 1940 the Germans had conquered the Netherlands, and the family were trapped in Amsterdam. As restrictions and measures were imposed on the Jewish community, the family eventually had to resort to hiding in the back of a three story house, in cramped conditions in a secret hiding spot covered by a bookcase.
During this time, Anne began to keep a diary of her experiences, meticulously noting her thoughts, feelings, the conditions that they lived in, her hopes and fears. The diary provides a fascinating insight into how the Jews lived during those dark years. The hiding space, or Secret Annex as she called it, was shared with another four Jews and involved not only living in a small space together, but also ensuring no noise was made - for instance during certain times, toilets couldn't be flushed and speaking could be no louder than a whisper incase the noise was detected through the walls.
Unfortunately for Anne, she was betrayed by an anonymous individual and after two years of hiding in Amsterdam was captured and deported to a concentration camp where she later died. However, her writings survived, as did the house she stayed in.
Following a petition to keep the house from being demolished, it was finally turned into a museum in 1960. The cost for entry is €9.50, although tickets have to be purchased online prior to the day of the visit. Tickets give you entry within a certain time slot, and you have to be at the museum 15 minutes before the slot to ensure entry. I arrived on a particularly hot day and lost count of the number of people who tried to buy tickets on the day, only to be told they can only be booked online.
Following a short wait outside, and a small security procedure inside, you are given an audio guide and then you begin to follow a pre-laid trail around the house - unlike other museums, you can't start in an arbitrary place.
The trail takes you through the proper house, before you go past the famous bookcase into the Secret Annex. The former hiding place of the Franks is eerie, darkly lit with workspaces, living areas, the bathroom and kitchen all clear and visible. On each of the sections the audio guide gives a short chronological overview of Anne's time in the house. Towards the exit, the museum covers the betrayal and then details Anne's last traceable moments in the concentration camp before her death.
The building, beautifully designed on the outside, is one of the most powerful and emotional museums I have visited, illustrating the horrors and stupidity of racism and nationalism and the effects that it can have on society. I would definitely recommend visiting if you get the opportunity.
Next to the Anne Frank House is the Westerkerk, or western church - a renaissance style building from the 17th century, and the largest church in the Netherlands.
At 286 feet, the tower of the church must have been very tall for its time, and it remains the tallest in the country. The base of the church has a beautifully ornate organ, although the best part for me was the view from the top. For €7 you can book a 30 minute slot to get a guided tour to the top of the church. Reservations are made at the church itself, and I managed to get a slot for the same day.
The tour guide was very knowledgable, energetic and had a passion for the church and her city, which always makes things better. I climbed as part of a small group of about 6 and the tour was in English. You climb through increasingly narrower, and steeper staircases, stopping at a number of floors to hear more about the history of the church, and get close to some of the famous bells - hearing about how they were cast, what makes a good bell and how they work together. The steep staircases make for a tricky return trip, and in places you have to descend backwards.
The views from the top are incredible. For me the views were comparable to the top of Grossmunster in Zurich, surpassing the views from St Stephen's cathedral in Vienna and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. In each direction you can see the famous canals of the city, as well as numerous other buildings and landmarks. The Netherlands is a famously flat country, and with no other particularly large buildings in the vicinity you can see for miles around.
As you may have read in some of my other articles, I love visiting different football stadiums, and I've been lucky enough to have seen quite a few around Europe.
The Amsterdam Arena ranks quite highly on my list for a number of reasons. Built in 1996, it's a relatively new stadium, but it houses one of the most historically important teams in world football. Ajax Amsterdam is a paradigm shifting football club, a team that took the style of play from the 1950s Hungarian national team, and transformed it into 'Total Football', a system which was utilised by the famous Dutch national team in the 1970s and had its latest iteration with the recent Barcelona team.
It's a shame I didn't get to see a game, but a stadium tour was fantastic, particularly because of the incredible history of Ajax. At just over €15, it isn't a cheap ticket, but to see the numerous trophies (including the Champions League) that the club has won, as well as parts of their history is a great experience. The stadium itself is nice, although it doesn't have the raw beauty of the Nou Camp or Bernabeu and despite its retractable roof, it has been overtaken in terms of modernity by the likes of Wembley and the Emirates. The history and traditional associated with the stadium, however, made it an enjoyable experience.
Canals, coffee shops, and red lights
Of all the European cities that I have visited, Amsterdam ranks as one of the strangest. For a start, everyone rides cycles - in fact cycles here have the right of way over cars, and strangely, also pedestrians. I found myself on more than one occasion almost run over by bikes. The popularity of bikes is a function of the relatively flat landscape, but also thanks to a local government that has decided to build miles of dedicated cycle paths. It's unlike anything you will find elsewhere when it comes to cycle path infrastructure. It means you will see groups of cyclists at almost every junction, or droves of them hurtling along the road, one after the other.
If you don't want to get around on two wheels, how about on water?! When you think of canals, you automatically think of Venice, but the canal system in Amsterdam is comprehensive. During one of my trips, I rented a pedalo with a group of friends, and we navigated our own way through the canals. It's a great way to spend some time seeing the city from a slightly different perspective, and at roughly €10 for 90 minutes, it isn't too expensive either.
Then you have the coffee shops, establishments where you are able to purchase and consume weed, all legally. Now, (natural) cannabis has a special place in Sikhi, as it does in a number of religions and cultures, and is used as a pain killer and meditative aid. When not consumed to intoxication, and when not taking lab created versions of the natural plant, the medicinal properties of cannabis are amazing - as long as you don't smoke (a cardinal sin). In Amsterdam, you can get cannabis in the form of edibles at a decent price, and because it is legal you know exactly what you are buying, and you can be sure that the quality of the product you are getting is also high. And, personal opinion, it is infinitely better than alcohol (which I'm not a fan of).
It's probably then surprising that I made a visit to the Heineken Museum - but it was something that my friends wanted to do. I've done brewery tours before, but this was one of the more insightful ones, giving a good insight into how beer is made, and ending on the rooftop of the factory.
Now, as I do with all my articles where I reference alcohol, it's something that we as a community need to really fight against, and although you don't have to drink when you visit (I didn't), it's still not something I want to promote too heavily here.
And finally, we get to the strangest part of the city, the Red Light District. Originally I wasn't sure if I would cover this, but I think it's an important part of the city. Now, as a Singh, there a certain things I'm uncomfortable being around, after all I'm representing more than just myself in public. I hate hearing stories of Singhs doing things they shouldn't, although I always say, it takes more than just long hair to be a Singh - and unfortunately, some people haven't quite clocked that.
Some of the things that happen in stags make me uncomfortable, and I had a lot of apprehension just being around the area for one of my friend's stag do's, but it turns out I shouldn't have. Families and people of all ages seem to be walking the streets, peering into windows, on the other side of which are women (and men), selling their services.
Amsterdam is a very liberal city.
The area is quite large, covering a few streets, the activities legalised and regulated. Again, personally for me, paying for that is the biggest no-no in my book, if you have to pay for sex, your life went very wrong somewhere - but that didn't stop other people approaching the windows. Sometimes I wonder what type of person uses those services!
Even my own friends, who do some crazy things, drew the line here (well most of them did). I didn't stick around too long, but it really did feel like one of the weirdest places I've ever seen. I can't say don't visit - just don't be the creepy guy that actually pays!
Is Amsterdam worth visiting?
I did a lot of walking on my most recent trip to Amsterdam, from my work base near the Rai Conference centre, to meeting some old travel friends in the city centre. It gave me an opportunity to really take in the city. It's a divisive city, but I hear more good than bad, and I would definitely echo that.
It's not as large as London, and it doesn't have the breadth of things to do that you would find in New York. However, it has an incredible history, and is definitely a unique city. I have visited some cities where I think to myself that they could be anywhere, but when you are in Amsterdam, you know you are in Amsterdam.
The canals are a prominent feature in the city - as are the bikes, but Amsterdam also has a number of parks. One of the events I had during my trip was based in the fairly large Amstelpark. I actually found myself walking through or past a fair number of parks in the city, and whilst none match the size of the likes of Hyde or Central Park, there are a lot dotted around the city.
Then there's the museums, the art galleries and the boutique shops that line narrow passageways towards the centre of the city. Trams are constantly criss-crossing the roads, and are a great way to travel, particularly the day tickets which you can get for as cheap as €7.50.
A place you have to visit is Manneken Pis, a small hole in the wall style shop famous for its chips. They are advertised as the best in Amsterdam, and you'd be hard pressed to disagree.
Finally, a word on the airport. Schiphol is one of the larger and busier airports in the world and is home of some pretty advanced scanning equipment. I was surprised when I was told to leave all my liquids in my bag and it saves a little bit of time. I'm looking forward to the day these are more widely rolled out at other airports. Airport security itself was fine, a small patdown being a minor inconvenience. The quickest way to get from the airport to the city is via the train, and at less than €6 the price is also very good. Plus, you get to ride the cool double decker trains.
As I mentioned, Amsterdam is a liberal and welcoming city, and due to the Netherlands colonial history, it also has a diverse population. However, as with many other countries, there is a growing nationalist backlash so it's prudent to be slightly careful. That being said, in all my trips to the city, I have had just one dodgy comment, and no real trouble.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.