I’ve travelled half way across the world but for some reason, and much to the surprise of lots of my friends, I’ve never visited Amsterdam. So after dropping lots of subtle hints to Sharps (ie telling him I wanted to go there) he whisked me off to Amsterdam for my birthday weekend, with a little help from the lovely people at Visit Holland, so I could seek out some of Amsterdam’s hidden gems. The first thing that struck me about Amsterdam is that despite being Holland’s biggest city it has a kind of small town feel about it, in a good way. From the moment we arrived we felt entirely at ease, there was none of the hecticness of other capitals and even with my lack of geographical awareness getting our bearings was relatively straightforward, well until we strayed from the main streets.
For the first couple of nights of our Amsterdam trip we stayed at the Exchange Hotel, which is slap bang on one of Amsterdam’s main streets, Damrak, about a five minute walk from Amsterdam Centraal Station. The Exchange is a hidden gem in that it’s hardly what you’d expect to find from the façade on the outside, especially given its position next door to a kebab shop on Amsterdam’s equivalent to London’s Oxford Street. It’s location is brilliant as you’re close to the Red Light District and most of Amsterdam’s main tourist attractions aren’t too far away. The only down side to being at the heart of the action was that our room which faced onto Damrak was noisy but if you’re in Amsterdam to party then this shouldn’t bother you. And as I’d read this was the case in advance I came prepared with earplugs, and didn’t have any problems getting to sleep.
All of the 61 rooms in The Exchange were designed by students from the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, so if you’re after something unusual this is definitely the hotel for you – the interior of the rooms have their own individual style. Rooms range from 1* to 5* but if you’re after a unique stay I’d suggest you opt for the higher end of the scale as the 1* rooms are pretty basic (and small) and while The Exchange is quirky I think it would be fair to say it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea. And talking of tea you can also opt to have breakfast at the Stock cafe next door, which is linked to The Exchange which also looks pretty cool decor wise, and the coffee isn’t bad there either.
It’s pretty easy to get round Amsterdam, there’s a great public transport network of trains (you can get from Amsterdam’s Schipol airport to Amsterdam Centraal Station for €4.60 one way), trams and buses so there’s no need to get cabs which, as we discovered on a night out, are quite pricey. Or, like most of the locals, you can cycle as Amsterdam is definitely the city of bikes, with cyclists clearly in the majority (I’ve never seen anywhere that has so many bicycles). We hired bikes from a company called Mac Bikes who have about four branches dotted around Amsterdam, we rented ours from their office near Centraal Station. After a slightly wobbly start, mainly due to a wardrobe malfunction and the wind blowing my dress right up (rectified by putting some leggings on underneath), cycling along Amsterdam’s streets was a breeze, even for me as a non-driver.
We were surprised by just how much ground we were able to cover in a day. Winding our way along the canal paths and bicycle lanes we cycled through the upmarket Jordaan district, which is where you’ll find Anne Frank’s House which is now a modern-looking museum complex (we did try to go in to see Anne Frank’s House but the queues snaked right round the corner so I’d recommend getting there early) as well as cycling to Amsterdam’s Museum District, just south of Leidseplein, which is home to the Van Gough Museum the Rijksmuseum and close to Vondelpark. Obviously, Amsterdam is renowned for its Red Light District so it would have been rude of me not to go to see what all the fuss was about (admittedly I was quite disappointed to find it packed full of stag and hen dos so we gave it a wide berth in the end).
Amsterdam is equally as well known for its relaxed attitude to smoking cannabis and even if you don’t smoke it’s worth checking out one of Amsterdam’s coffee shops for a surreal experience. We stopped off at De Dampkring (on Handboorg Str 29) one of Amsterdam’s most popular coffee shops that was immortalised in Oceans 12. It’s quite weird seeing people (mainly teenage boys) line up at a counter where they can choose what type of weed they want to buy from a menu as if ordering drinks from a bar. If you don’t mind the fact that there are people smoking inside, which feels wrong in some way, you can order a non-alcoholic drink and sit and soak up the atmosphere (and probably lots of second-hand cannabis too). Dampkring also has another branch close to Centraal Station on Haarlemmerstraat that’s a bit more low key and a lot less psychadelic and smoky inside than the original. Considering you’re in the big smoke in Dutch terms, Amsterdam has a relaxed, friendly vibe to it and regardless of whether you get stoned or not this is one hidden gem you’ll leave feeling totally chilled out.