Amsterdam: Birthdays, Marijuana Museums and Dutch cycle rides

Amsterdam is a classic weekend break and I feel like almost everyone I know has visited it before, some for the museums and the culture, others for more alternative reasons. Even my customers all seem to be going and they ask me where is a good place to stay and what is worth seeing and I figured I’d finally find out for myself as a Birthday trip last November. This post has been a little delayed with all the Christmas excitement but finally I have a chance to share it.

I’ve been to Amsterdam once before but I wouldn’t really count walking through the streets, getting lost, getting hangry, doing a short canal cruise and then leaving after less than 12 hours a proper visit. As mine and Joey’s birthdays were coming up and they are so close together we thought this would be the perfect way to treat ourselves. So I flexed my fingers, cracked out my travel agent skills and got booking.

 

Day 1 – Pizza and a Temperamental Balloon

Arriving at the airport with the minimum amount of time left to spare I still decided it was a good idea to sit down in Bella Italia and have the pizza I was craving. Twenty-five minutes later and I’m asking the waitress to cancel the order because the plane is boarding as I can see them placing the pizza on the counter ready to be served. We ran to the plane with said pizza in a take away box and munched it while the air hostess did the safety announcement and our fellow passengers shot us dirty looks for being the last ones on the plane. But it was a damn good pizza – I regret nothing!

The air hostesses barely had time to whizz down the isle with their cart before we were touching down. We were staying in The Student Hotel, a place recommended by friends and through work so we knew it was easy to get to we just didn’t know how. Our first experience of the Dutch was amazing! A cheerful lady recommended the 3 day travel passes to us that would allow us to use the trains and trams, explained the easiest route to get to our hotel and wrote down all the details we needed. We were off to a great start.

Getting to the Student Hotel was as easy as promised and a half hour or so later we were crashed out for a late afternoon nap as if we had just flown halfway across the world rather than a 2 hour flight.

 

Feeling refreshed we headed out to Dam Square where I had heard of the grand Switching On of the Christmas lights. We didn’t really know what to expect but it turned out to be pretty cool. A whole show was put on including acrobatics on a crane, singing, dancing and giant balloon birds! The only downside (apart from the fact it was all in Dutch and we couldn’t understand a thing) was the giant balloons had a mind of their own and kept drifting in front of our view at the vital moment. Hence why my photo looks like a giant balloon giving birth to baby balloons! We were so excited by it all though that we failed to notice that the Christmas lights on the De Bijenkorf department store never actually switched on! It was only when we returned home that we discovered someone had tripped a switch and they were never actually switched on.

Day 2 – Anne Franks house and the Weed Museum

Our first proper day of exploring started with a Sandemans tour. We’d been on one of their tours in Berlin which had been brilliant. The guide told us interesting and unique stories and had even given us a full history of Berlin in an amazing 10 minute run down. This tour didn’t quite hit the mark on the same level but I think after Berlin our expectations were high. Our guide, Kendra, was funny and chatty but told more stories about previous groups than about the history of Amsterdam. However, when she did talk history it was clear that was where her passion was and she knew all the old buildings and what they used to be at different points in time.

We went down backstreets, checked out the University and the Amsterdam Museum. She told us that if you’re walking down the street with a pint in one hand and a spliff in the other the police are more likely to stop you for drinking in the street. Marijuana is not technically legal but is tolerated to the point where even the police won’t bat an eyelid about you smoking in the street. We learnt just how many bicycles end up in the canals (between 12,000-15,000) and saw the skinniest house in Amsterdam. And as a final treat Kendra popped over the road to grab us some delicious Dutch cheese from a friend of hers.

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Pancakes came highly recommended to us as a post-tour lunch so we headed there next. It was a nice cafe but not particularly warm or cosy as it had a chain feel to it and the pancakes were nothing special. It’s certainly nice for a quick lunch and more filling than you would expect but there are better options out there and after a bad customer service experience with them later in the trip they wouldn’t be top of my recommended places.

In the afternoon we visited Anne Frank’s House. This is an experience that must not be missed and I found it very inspirational. For me personally, it wasn’t just what the family did to try and survive but Anne’s determination to make something of herself despite her adverse situation. She didn’t just write her diary for fun or to stop herself going crazy in that attack (though these were also important reasons) but to give people a unique narrative of the events around her, something she knew would be hugely important in the future. As a writer this was what I took away from the experience more than anything.

Most of the house is empty and the only things to see are the information and photographs on the wall but the audio tour was very enlightening. Alongside general descriptions are anecdotes and insights from those who were there at the time, making everything in the house seem more real despite the sparse rooms. You move through the house practically in single file and see the warehouse rooms, the offices upstairs and finally the iconic bookcase that kept the annex secret for just over two years. The annex itself is one of those rooms that carries an almost tangible feeling with it. It wasn’t chilling in the same way standing in the gas chambers at Auschwitz was, after all these walls had heard laughter and everyday chatter as well as sadness, worry and fear. Yet it still felt heavy, like a magnet at once drawing you in and weighing you down. What struck me the most was the photos pasted on the wall, perhaps because there was no other furniture, but also because I knew whose hands had pasted them there and from the extract printed next to them “Thanks to Father – who bought my entire postcard and film collection here beforehand – […] I was able to plaster the walls with pictures. It looks much more cheerful” I knew what they had meant to Anne Frank. On my way out I bought her diary at the gift shop and received a special sticker inside to say I had bought it there. I’m still only in the beginning stages of the diary and it is interesting to hear Anne talk about daily life and how, although in many ways it was quite different, in yet more they still went through the same every day struggles they did outside of the secret annex.

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It was still early and there was so much more to see and do so we headed over to the Hash, Marjuna and Hemp Museum in the Red Light District next – just a slight change of pace from Anne Frank’s house! The museum was actually split up into two exhibits in separate buildings down the street from each other. The first detailed the history of marjuana, it’s uses and different varieties. There were some interesting tit-bits in here but no great wisdom that would set about changing opinions on the subject. The second was focused on hemp and the products you can make with it. As fascinating as it is to see car doors, shoes, clothes and children’s toys made from the same substance as a recreational drug, we were flagging at this point and could probably have missed it out altogether. However if you want your free taster of vaporised weed then it’s still worth stopping in at.

Day 3 – Banksy and Red Light Secrets

As we felt that somehow we had flitted back and forth from the Red Light District (who would have known it would be such a lure?) we decided to head off to a different area of Amsterdam and visit the museum square. First things first we attempted to take our classic “I am Amsterdam” sign photo but typically all the other tourists were ruining my own perfect selfie. It was also threatening rain so after a quick snap we ran to the nearest museum.

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The Van Gogh museum takes some forward planning as the queues are ridiculous if you want to get in there and then. Book ahead or rock up literally as they open the doors if you are keen to go. We weren’t feeling the Van Gogh vibes on this trip, instead we went to the Moco museum, which had a great selection of Banksy’s most thought-provoking works. It was just a shame there wasn’t more information about where each artwork was placed as often this is half the significance of the peace. I still found it very interesting and also enjoyed the Roy Lichtenstein and Salvador Dali works that were also on display. It was just the right amount of art for the day and didn’t take too long to go around – plus we picked up discount cards from our hotel to get a cheaper entry.

Our next museum of the day was the Body Worlds Exhibition. This was one I wasn’t sure how I felt about at the end. In case you haven’t heard of it before the Body Worlds displays plastinagtions which are essentially a real human body that has been dissected and preserved with special polymers turning them into anatomical models. Many will find this quite macabre. Peering at dissected body parts or full posed bodies did at times make me feel a bit funny. After all these were people who had once lived their lives, dancing, running and sitting in the same ways their bodies were now eternally posed in. However it also serves an important purpose to showcase our internal structures and make us think in more detail about what makes us us. The exhibit is not just limited to anatomical knowledge and learning how the body works physically but also has a specific theme for each exhibit. The one in Amsterdam was exploring the idea of happiness and all the ways in which our bodily functions affect our happiness. Despite the initial weirdness it was fascinating and I just wanted to absorb every piece of information in there. If you have reservations I would say give it a chance, you might be surprised.

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As if the attractions we had visited so far couldn’t already be more different our next stop was Red Light Secrets the Museum of Prostitution. This is of course in The Red Light District and features the only windows you are actually allowed to take photos of (although of course you ideally want a picture from the outside of yourself in the window but to do this you would need to go through the museum while your friend waited outside). Since prostitution is legal in Amsterdam I was expecting a positive argument running through the museum to persuade people of the reasonings behind this move but I was surprised to find that the information didn’t shy away from the dangers of this profession. You’ll get to see replications of the rooms they use and the difference between a high class prostitute and your average red light window. There are plenty of hilarious photo opportunities as you check out the bondage room and the classic red lit windows. There is also a screen that shows the kind of looks the workers get as they stand in their windows, which definitely sent a shudder down my spine. Actually the part I enjoyed the most was the sex confessions that visitors had written on the wall just before the gift shop. They were brilliant! Even though it wasn’t shining as positive a light on prostitution as I expected it was still a pretty good museum and was the perfect balance of gimmicky and informative.

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Day 4 – Birthday celebrations!

Today was my birthday and as such we were in no rush to go anywhere early. Though the trip was for both our birthdays, Joey had celebrated his the day before we departed so it was my turn to open my presents. I sat in bed eating what has to be the ultimate birthday breakfast of a strawberry and cream waffle drizzled in chocolate and opening my cards. I had already received my awesome polaroid camera early so I could use it on the trip and I had a couple left for when I returned home but even so I was totally spoilt.

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After a relaxing morning we headed off for the Sandemans cycle tour in the afternoon. This isn’t one of their free tours but an extra you can book. Funnily enough we ended up with Kendra as our guide again and enjoyed a few more funny stories and historical facts as we took our bikes across on the ferry with the rest of the group. It was a nice change to get out of the city centre and see some countryside. We zoomed through picturesque parks and cycled along country roads. We saw some classic Dutch houses and the highlight of the tour was the pretty windmill perched on the riverbank. It was an easy pace with lots of stops to ask Kendra questions and hear more anecdotes. On our way back she announced that she had an idea. we could either continue on our way or take a detour to a new brewery that had just popped up nearby. Of course the majority voted brewery and off we went! Though I’m not a fan of beer I will admit that the SOMETHING had some interesting flavours to try and was a unique twist to our tour.

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Back on our bikes we went over on the ferry again and saw the last stragglers from the Sinterklaas parade, the celebration to welcome old Saint Nick to the city for Christmas, that had taken place that day. As much as I enjoyed the ride I couldn’t help the little kid in me being kind of disappointed at having missed Santa Claus.

As if the Marijuana Museum, Prostitution Museum and even the sex show weren’t enough we decided we had to check out the Sex Museum too. This was something I had never imagined doing on my birthday! There is also an Erotic Museum but apparently the Sex Museum is much more worth visiting. I hadn’t expected it to be so big! Although why I was shocked about the amount of sexual artefacts, photos, erotic designs and other paraphernalia that existed from throughout the years I don’t know! It was a good laugh and the sheer amount of stuff was overwhelming! There are actually a few interesting exhibits that show different cultures views on sex throughout history but for the most part this is a very tongue in cheek museum from the giant penis model to the clunky animatronics. It’s cheap, it’s funny, it’s full of penises – whats not to like?

A birthday celebration wouldn’t be complete with a full blow out meal and we couldn’t have chosen a better place. The Seafood Bar does the most amazing seafood platters we just had to try first hand! I think the waiter was getting a bit impatient as he came over about three times and each time we were still debating what size platter we could realistically manage. You can choose between a hot or cold platter with a variety of shellfish and fish dishes piled together in the ultimate feast. We opted for the hot one as it came with prawns and lobster and our eyes almost fell out of our heads when they placed a stand on our table that would hold a plate almost as big as the table itself. We gorged ourselves on seafood and still had room for dessert afterwards. As an extra special touch they even served our desserts on the same plate with a birthday message to the both of us written out in chocolate. Right from the free procesecco when we arrived to the birthday wishes at the end, the staff really worked to make the night special.

Day 5 – Souvineer Shopping and Final Canal Walks

We only had one morning left in Amsterdam and we decided to use this to grab our souvenirs for friends and family. There are plenty of shops around Dam Square (also where Body Worlds and the Sex Museum are located) so we wondered in and out buying tulip bulbs and postcards. Even though it was bitterly cold and threatening rain we took some final photos on the quaint canal bridges and of the neat narrow iconic Dutch townhouses.

I loved Amsterdam and I could see why it was such a popular destination. Even though we had crammed a lot into our five days here it is somewhere I could easily return to again and again and still have more to do.  Winter time was a lovely time to visit, though unfortunately we were just slightly too early for the Christmas markets, but I can imagine that summer strolls along the canals and picnics in the park as bikes whiz by would be equally beautiful. Amsterdam might seem like a city break that everyone has done but there is a good reason for this. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

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