For years, Dispatches has been telling expats not to go to Amsterdam. We weren’t the only ones. City leaders were saying the same thing – beseeching travelers to go to the Netherlands’ other fabulous cities including Den Haag, Rotterdam and Utrecht. Anywhere but Amsterdam.
Now, we’re telling you to go, go, go! And rediscover the city we all thought was lost to modern mass tourism.
Back in 2015, my family – Cheryl, Lale and Lucy – were in the Netherlands on our reconnoitre trip, deciding where in Europe to start Dispatches, when we arranged to meet our cousin Sophia in Amsterdam.
It was a nightmare.
We literally couldn’t get down the streets to rendez-vous with Sophia because there were so many of the huge tour groups blocking the walkways. In 2018, we took a three-day weekend to Amsterdam to see the Van Gogh Museum and decided to park our bags the final day at Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station. But it was so full of tourists we couldn’t get to the lockers. So, we just took the train home early to Eindhoven.
It wasn’t any better in 2019 when our daughter Lale came home calling the crowds “insane.”
Before COVID-19 hit, we stayed away and referred our readers to all the other great Dutch cities that aren’t Amsterdam. And even though we live 90 minutes away in Eindhoven, we didn’t go back other than on business until August 2021. But when we returned, we returned to find that – for better or worse – the pandemic has cleared out the crowds in Amsterdam. No more incessant clickety-clack of tourists pulling those rolling suitcases. No more guides waving little flags at the front of package tour mobs. No more drunken lads’ parties using the canal at the Red Light District as a toilet.
We could even walk down the most famous streets – Singel, Herengracht, Newvezijds Voorburgwal – at our leisure. Pop into boutiques, art galleries restaurants and cafés on a whim. When I looked back at the images, it was a bit eerie … the streets were empty, partly due to it being August and everyone on vacation.
All of this isn’t totally positive. I thought about all the people who had invested in businesses geared toward lower-end tourism and thought they must really be hurting. But it would be interesting to know if more affluent independent travelers will make up for mass tourism in total spends. In other words, does a few euros spent by millions at the coffeeshops or Sex Museum total more than the 200 euro per night hotel rooms at the W, meals at Michelin restaurants and luxury goods purchases? I honestly don’t know.
All I know is that I love Amsterdam again. We took our friend Karen Coke and were able to do things we’ve never had time to do, or hadn’t done in years.
I’m telling you to seize the moment because the tourist crowds will return. Dutch officials just waived almost all the pandemic restrictions, so he who hesitates is lost.
I even have some helpful hints about things to see and do that you might not have been able to do in the Bad Old Days:
• Visit the Anne Frank House. Yes, you still need reservations, but there weren’t as many people. But with the lifting of pandemic limits, expect the crowds to return quickly. And the experience – even after multiple visits – is still as powerful as ever.
• Visit the Rembrandt House Museum on the edge of the Red Light District. This is his actual house and it’s full of Rembrandt van Rijn’s paintings and etchings and the works of his students – celebrated in their own rights – such as Ferdinand Bol. For me, it was great seeing sort of how the artist lived … and it wasn’t nearly as luxuriously as you might think. Nothing like the canal houses depicted in “The Miniaturist,” or the ones we’ve toured along Herengracht.
The lower part of his house was basically a sales gallery and the upper parts housed various parts of his art factory including multiple studios where apprentices cranked out work … And Rembrandt still managed to go broke.
• After all that walking, relax in the rooftop bar at the W Amsterdam. The view is awesome. The drinks are perfect and the staff welcoming at one of Amsterdam’s coolest spots just off The Dam.
• Just walk. I was meeting Cheryl and Karen and decided to stroll down Singel instead of the center of the city when I came out of Amsterdam Centraal. That’s the thing about Amsterdam … every block is alluring, from the shops to the architecture. What we’d forgotten is, Amsterdam is a city of quiet, green neighborhoods once you get away from The Dam and all the tourist traps.
• Check out some of the non-touristy places to eat. The place I liked most was Thai Phutakun tucked back at the end of a walking street in a quiet neighborhood at Reguliersdwarsstraat 11.
• We also had lunch in the rain at one of the de Pizzabakker carry-out locations near the Anne Frank House. Each store in the chain has a real wood oven and the pizzas were divine. There was no inside seating, so we sat on the bench outside. It was way more fun than it sounds.
• Buy affordable art at Varekamp Galleries, Hertenstraat 30. We stopped to window-shop on a Monday and went back the next day hoping the shop would be open. It wasn’t … but lo and behold, the shop owner happened to come back as we were peering into the windows, so we were able to buy a few prints. Turns out, these are some of our favorite pieces of art from anywhere we’ve traveled. According to their website, the shop is only open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 1:00-5:00 but do make a point to stop by. It’s delightful.
Some of the places we’ve visited before include:
• Amsterdam Zuid. Most tourists never realize how big Amsterdam is, but it’s gigantic and there’s always a district you’ve missed. Amsterdam Zuid (south) is just far enough away from Centraal that tourists don’t know it exists. Plus, it’s business area with the Zuidas district. But it also has shopping and quiet neighborhoods with parks. Check out De Pijp, part of the old Amsterdam South district. You’ll find it has a bohemian air with vintage clothing shops our daughter loved, funky and fun places to eat and the Albert Cuyp market, the busiest of all the Dutch street markets.
–– Cheryl Boyd
• Enjoy the must-visit museums, such as the Rijksmuseum, while the lines are tolerable.
• If you’re visiting Amsterdam from another country, maximize your visit by heading to some of the nearby cities, especially Haarlem.