Tuesday, 30 June 2015

10 things to do in Amsterdam

Despite its compact size, Amsterdam offers a plethora of fun things to see and do. The city is home to some of the world's finest art galleries, cultural sights and sublime buildings, there are bustling markets for those in search of street life, there is also a great choice of guided tours and canal cruises. I would like to help you to get the most from your stay in Amsterdam.

     I amsterdam sign in the Museumplein

Amsterdam and its split personality.

Amsterdam is a city of many faces: it is full of culture and history and full of oddities and quirks, some parts of it are quiet and have village atmosphere, others are loud and pulsing with life and promise of adventure and new experiences; it is a home to Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House, Rijksmuseum but also a home to Sex Museum, Hash Marijuana Hemp Museum (the only one in Europe to to chart the history of marijuana) and Red Lights District.  It is a city full of contrasts: its beauty and charm co-exist happily with a slightly seamy underside. 

10 things to do in Amsterdam:

1.Take a relaxed walk!
Amsterdam is a relatively small city. And as I have mentioned earlier, it reveals itself well on foot. Moreover, plenty of evidence suggest that being simply near to water makes people more content - so what better place to spend your leisure time than alongside a picturesque canal or Amstel river? I did lots of walking on my first day in Amsterdam, simply because I wanted to  immerse myself slowly and steadily in the city's unique atmosphere and architecture. Walking on the first day helped me to create a visual, intuitive map of the city and its landmarks in my mind. A pleasant walk took me past museums, tourist information centres, shops and numerous cafes. I lost myself in Prinsegracht - the most charming Amsterdam's canal, which is full of funky houseboats and little shops where you can buy many unconventional things. As I wondered along canals I admired the grace and elegance of waterside mansions and watched an array of boats floating by. The city's canals and waterways embody the very spirit of Amsterdam. They are spanned by many beautiful bridges. 

If you want to learn more about the city or just fancy some company, why not join Amsterdam walking tour? It is informative and educational. During 2,5 hour walk around historic centre you will be introduced to over 800 years of Amsterdam's history, culture and traditions. The tour will take you to Dam Square, the Bengijnhof and the Red Lights District. You will also have a chance to taste some typical Dutch delicacies: herring, cheese and genever. For more information about walking tours check out Keytours.

2. Taste the flavours of Amsterdam!Sample cheeses and soups!

Although the Netherlands does not enjoy the gastronomic reputation of France or Italy, the chances of finding delicious food at a reasonable price in Amsterdam are high. Dutch cuisine is simple and straightforward and contains many diary products. Holland is a dream destination for cheese lovers. There are hundreds of cute cheese shops in Amsterdam.

Any shop will be happy to let you try free samples before making a purchase. In front of every cheese there is usually a small plate with chopped pieces of cheese. Grab a toothpick and start sampling. There are many types of handmade Gouda cheese of different maturity. There is a great variety-aged cheese: smoked cheese, pesto cheese, Delft Blue cheese, Contadino cheese, Mustard cheese, Cumin cheese and many, many more!


WoW! I bet that all you can see now is CHEESE :-) Don't be surprised if you find deliciously melting slices of Gouda cheese even in your soup!The Dutch are great soup eaters, often featuring soup as a meal's main dish. Since they like cheese so much it is no wonder that one of the nation's most beloved dishes is cheese soup. Erwtensoep is also a popular soup in the Netherlands. It is a thick pea and smoked sausage soup, which is often served with bread and ham. Two soups which I strongly recommend are caramelised onion soup and cream mushroom soup.

 I became a huge fan of Dutch soups. They are thick, wholesome, hearty and wonderfully filling. As you burn lots of calories walking and exploring the city; a bowl of delicious, warm and creamy soup served with crusty rolls and garlic herb butter will recharge your energy levels for many hours to come.

Caramelised onion soup looks incredibly humble. However, richness of its flavour compensates humble looks.

Cow skin tapestries in La Colina - a lovely,tranquil, rustic, brown restaurant which serves the most delicious caramelised onion soup in the Netherlands.

Fancy something sweet? Amsterdam is brimming with mouth-watering delicacies, colourful delights and gorgeous desserts topped with fresh fruit.

Traditional Dutch cuisine may come across as simple, wholesome and hearty, but the variety of food on offer in the city is huge and influenced by culinary styles from across the globe. Holland was once a major colonial power and its trading ships brought back exotic ingredients, ideas and people from former colonies to settle. 

If you are up for exotic food you should go to the Floating Palace. It is the largest floating Chinese restaurant in Europe. This floating, enormous, pagoda-style restaurant is impressive and unforgettable sight on a dock, 5 minutes from Centraal Station. The huge menu offers Cantonese staples such as won ton soup, alongside more unusual Pekingese and Szechuan dishes.  

3. Delve into the history of the city at the Amsterdam Museum. 

Amsterdam has a rich history and this interesting and illuminating museum does it justice. A wealth of historical information is on display here. The museum  takes you on a journey starting from the Medieval Ages and going through the Age of Intolerance, The Golden Age, the Age of Industrialisation and then onto Amsterdam at War History to the present time. The museum has on display paintings, models, archaeological findings, photographs, but also less likely items such as a penny-farthing, a "white car" (environmentally-friendly vehicle from the 1960's), a dial-time recorder - a clocking device or a quirky specimen of obstetric model. 

Provo began in May 1965 in Amsterdam, as a protest movement of the young, of students and artists against the established order. I like the word Provo it sounds provocative to me.

Provo appealed to people's imagination with its journal, happenings and plans for free white bicycles, libertarian creches, a free sexuality and a new relation between individuals and authority. 
In 1966 it gained a seat on the city council. A year later it abolished itself. According to one of its founders, Provo was a name to conjure with, bewildering the authorities with its spectacular happenings. Like the peace movement, the women's movement (Dolte Mine) and the young left-wing Liberals of D'66, Provo with its dashing style left a mark on the Amsterdam of the 1960's.

No matter whether you are homosexual or straight, Bet van Beerem is a name worth remembering. Bet was one of Amsterdam's legendary café proprietors. Her Café  't Mandje was one of the first cafés where homosexual people did not have to conceal their predilection. Bet was a lesbian and 't Mandje became a favourite watering-hole for gays and lesbians. Bet discovered her taste for women at an early age. As the oldest daughter of a family of 12 from Amsterdam's Jordaan district, Bet van Beeren began working young. Café life was what appealed to her and in 1927 she took over 't Mandje café on Zeedijk.In her leather jacket she roamed through the city on her motorbike, sometimes with her latest flame riding pillion.
When Bet died in 1967 she was laid out for two days on the billboard table in her own cafe. 
Her sister Greet continued the business until life on the Zeedijk became impossible due to the heroin traffic. 

4. Rent a bike and get cycling.

Cycling is a quintessentially Dutch means of getting around Amsterdam so do as the locals do and experience Amsterdam by bike. This is certainly the fastest, most flexible and most fun way of getting around in Amsterdam. While cycling you can discover the city's many canals, museums, attractions and other famous sights at your own pace. By bicycle, you can reach places that would otherwise remain inaccessible. 

If you don't want to cycle on your own you can take a guided bike tour. These safe tours will give you a nice impression of Amsterdam's rich history and charming architecture. You will pass all the interesting spots, including the harbour, the Jordaan quarter, the Anne Frank house, the Western Church, the Rijksmuseum, the Vondelpark, the River Amstel, the Skinny Bridge, Rembrandt's house and the Red Light District. You will also see hidden parts of Amsterdam, with its tranquil small canals and quiet hidden courtyards. 

5. Visit Body Worlds Exhibition.

I strongly recommend a visit to Body Worlds. It is an exhibition of preserved human bodies and body parts that are prepared using a technique called plastination to reveal inner anatomical structures. The exhibition's developer and promoter is a German anatomist Gunther von Hagens who invented the plastination technique in the late 1970s at the University of Heildelberg (Wikipedia).

The museum will take you on a fascinating journey through the human body and its functions. For me the visit to the Body Worlds was an illuminating and eye-opening experience. Over 200 anatomical specimens of real human bodies reveal the complexity, resilience and vulnerability of the body. It was the best anatomy class I have ever had. The exhibition  teaches you respect for your body, it inspires sense of awe and wonder, it shows what a fine instrument your body is, it reveals a complex scaffolding of muscles and bones. We can look into the mirror and see our external appearance but Body Worlds also allows us to discover what lies beneath the skin: respiratory track (plastinated lung capillaries look incredibly  fantastical, they resemble ethereal coral reefs), digestive system, reproductive system and nervous system. Body Worlds is a must. The educational value of this exhibition is enormous. After a visit to this museum you will never look at your body in the same way.

The exhibition not only tells the story of our bodies but also of the influence that the emotional phenomenon of 'happines' has on our health. BODY WORLDS: The Happiness Project is a specially-developed interactive exhibition examining what happiness is, the science behind it, and its effects on both body and the mind. I am going to write about The Happiness Project in my next blog entry.

6. Visit the Rijksmuseum for Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings. 

A trip to Amsterdam would be incomplete without at least a single visit to Rijksmuseaum. I visited Rijksmuseum twice: on Tuesday afternoon and then on Wednesday evening. The museum is simply too vast to be seen in a single visit with its 80 galleries and more than 7,500 works of art and historical objects to see. It is famous for owning probably the best collection of Dutch art in the world. Click the link to check opening opening hours and prices.

Below Still Life with Cheese, by Floris Claes van Dijck (1575-1651). The illusion of reality is astounding, the pewter plate extending over the edge of the table seems close enough to touch. The Haarlem painter Floris van Dijck ranked among the pioneers of Dutch still-life painting.

The applied art and sculpture sections, and the Asiatic artifacts, are equally captivating. 

The picture below presents The Lombok Treasure. Indonesia, before 1894 (gold, silver, precious stones).
In 1894 Dutch troops captured the royal palace on the Indonesian island of Lombok. The native inhabitants had enlisted the help of the Netherlands, which used this as an excuse to further its colonial expansion. The troops took 230 kilograms of gold, 7000 of silver and countless gemstones as booty. The scorched coins and bracelets on display are silent witnesses of the atrocities of war. Most of the Lombok Treasure was returned to Indonesia in 1977.

If time is short, visit the Golden Age section, taking in Frans Hals, Vermeer and scores of other Old Masters, to arrive finally at Rembrandt's famous The Night Watch.

 Rembrandt's Nightwatch, 1642

The use of chiarascuro - a strong juxtaposition of light and shade allowed Rembrandt to achieve a dramatic intensification of action and mood. 

  Rembrandt's The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (1661-62)

7. Visit the Van Gogh Museum.

The Van Gogh Museum houses the world's largest collection of the Dutch painter's work, with almost 800 paintings and drawings along with the painter's own collection of glorious Japanese prints and an array of paintings by his contemporaries. It is a dazzling collection of Van Gogh's paintings and letters to his brother Theo, and you should allow at least 3-4 hours to take it in at leisure. 

It might be hard to believe but Van Gogh Museum struck an emotional chord with me.  It doesn't happen frequently, does it? It's not the kind of thing that normally happens to me; I mean, I don't usually get that whole "moved to tears in front of a work of art" reaction. Visiting Ann Frank's House was impressive and emotional too. It was somber, it was claustrophobic, it was thought-stealing. That's understandable. But Van Gogh Museum? Yes, indeed. I was deeply moved by Van Gogh's Tree Roots (1890) which is considered to be his unfinished and last painting. When you look at it, you see wilderness of twisted tree roots, trunks and leaves, all laid down on canvas with powerful brushstrokes. Left side of the painting looks dolefully bare and incomplete in comparison to the right side, as if the artist's hand was too weak and too depressed to finish it up with black lines and short brushstrokes. When I was looking at the painting I swallowed hard on a lump in my throat, I welled up and struggled to hold back my tears. I felt a deep sense of connection and sadness that I can't ever recall feeling in a museum or gallery. I imagined Van Gogh and his life's struggle, his unbearable mental pain and existential anguish, his isolation and his lingering and "withering" hand. Unfinished painting telegraphs such  a dramatic message of hopelessness and surrender. Capitulation of will, art and life. I went into deep mourning for Van Gogh in front of Tree Roots.
The museum has organized its material in a very comprehensive way: from Van Gogh's birth, childhood and adolescence (ground floor), through his journey as an aspiring artist who discovers his calling to paint at the age of 27 (first floor) and his  relentless and awe-inspiring effort to establish himself as a successful painter (second floor) to a series of mental breakdowns which open the final chapter of the great painter's legend (third floor).
We get to know Van Gogh not only through impressive display of his art but also through the clever combination of his biography, family pictures, stories, quotes directly from the artist, letters to his brother Theo and friends, a mix of videos and artifacts. This interactive, immersive experience makes us bond with the artist - during our visit to the museum we get insight into his deepest thoughts, fears and his unique world. We get to know him as an extremely sensitive individual, a gifted artist and a master of letter writing (his letters to his brother Theo are pure art). We befriend Van Gogh...I hope that my emotional reaction to Tree Roots is fully justified now. 

8.See great Dutch art at the Stedelijk Museum.

The Stedelijk Museum became the national museum of modern art in 1938, displaying works by artists such as Pisasso, Matisse, Mondriaan, Chagall and Cezanne. After years of planning and preparation, the renovated museum and its spectacular wing holds collections from present-day artists.

I am Curious, 1973
Bill Copley
Oil on canvas, acquired in 1973

 If you are fan of Henri Matisse art you should definitely go to the Steledelijk Museum. 

If you are a fan of Henri Matisse art you should definitely go to to the Stedelijk Museum.The Oasis Matisse is the largest-ever retrospective of work by Matisse (1869-1954) to be shown in the Netherlands. The exhibition traces the multi-faceted and inspiring development of Matisse's artistic practice from his early experiments to the dazzling cutouts of his final years. 

The exhibition comprises of two parts: 

Ground floor

This section of the exhibition features paintings, drawings and sculptures by Matisse in dialogue with works from Stedelijk Museum collection. Matisse's art is presented alongside works by Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso and others.

Top floor

Top floor presentation focuses on Matisse's monumental cutouts. In his later years, while confined to to his home by illness, Matisse developed a new and spectacular way to make art. With the help of assistants, he devoted himself to his cutouts. The first were the cutouts Polynesia and Oceania, inspired by memories of Tahiti, followed later by oases such as The Parakeet and The Mermaid and Memories of Oceania. These wall-filling cutouts are now at the heart of the second half of the exhibition.

  The Parakeet and The Mermaid, 1952-1953

"I have made myself a little garden around myself where I can walk" was Matisse's comment on this work.

9. Visit the Anne Frank Museum 

The Anne Frank House's museum is unique. It is the hiding place where Anne Frank wrote her diary during the Second World War. For two years during the war, the Frank and van Pels families, both Jewish, hid here until their betrayal to the Nazis. The 13 year-old Anne began her now-famous diary in July 1942. It gives a heartrending account of growing up under persecution, and of life in confinement and never-ending fear.
The museum is full of quotations from Anne's diary, original documents concerning the Frank family and photohraphs.There is a set route for visitors to follow through the museum. Visitors enter the annexe via the revolving bookcase that hid its entrance. The museum's rooms are now empty, except for the film-star pin-ups in Anne's room, and a model of annexe as it was during the occupation. 
Get here early or late in the day - with nearly one million visitors a year, the museum gets tremendously crowded.

The picture above illustrates massive crowds snaking around the museum. I waited three hours to enter the house. If you want to avoid waiting so long you'd better get there as early as possible ;-) 

 10. Take a canal cruise. 

The Amsterdam canal area is over 400 hundred years old and has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Canal cruise is one of the best ways to discover its beauty. Admire the elegant merchant's houses that have lined the canals since the Golden Age, the decorated facades and gables beautiful churches, the iconic Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), the VOC-ship, the docks and many more highlights. During the cruise a commentary is offered in several languages. 

There are lots of options to choose from. You can go for a small open-top boat cruise. Thanks to its diminutive size, the boat can access places that regular canal cruise boats can't. If you chose a small boat cruise you will boat down not only the wide Amstel river and the popular 17th century canal belt, but also the narrow canals of the Red Light District. Boats run on solar energy and are therefore environmentally friendly, clean and completely silent. You can listen to your captain's stories while taking pictures of beautiful vistas and the famous canal houses.

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