A stroll through Amsterdam reveals an abundance of dykes, bikes, and bright lights as I discover on my most recent visit to the largest city in the Netherlands.

When most travellers think of Holland and its largest city Amsterdam (The Hague or Den Haag is the capital), images of windmills, wheels of Edam and Gouda cheese, and colourful tulips, come to mind.

However, the reality is that the closest most travellers will get to these Dutch icons is the endless rows of fridge magnets and key chains displayed in the souvenirs stalls that have taken over the ever-popular flower market in downtown Amsterdam. The reality is that they will encounter dykes, bikes, and colourful lights while exploring this liberal and cosmopolitan city.  

Amsterdam’s red light district of De Wallen and its brown cafés clouded in cannabis smoke are other images of the city while the high art of Rembrandt and Van Gogh present another side of the city’s culture.

Amsterdam is a vibrant and lively city that successfully combines its historic treasures with a racy lifestyle. The streets are alive with the beat of energetic buskers, street vendors doing a brisk trade selling souvenirs and fast foods, cyclists weaving through the traffic, and visitors eagerly taking it all in and photographing the city’s landmarks.

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Central Amsterdam

Holland has always intrigued me and even more so, when I learned that some 26% of the country is below sea level with its main airport of Schiphol situated at the bottom of a former lake and four metres below sea level. I wondered whether this is why planes are equipped with life jackets.

Of course, planes arriving into Schiphol Airport do not land on water thanks to an ingenious system of dykes and polders throughout the country that keep the seawater at bay.

A quick reference to a map of Amsterdam confirmed the presence of lakes, canals, rivers, and I assumed dykes holding back seawater. The capital’s dykes are not so obvious but without these retaining walls and dams to hold out the seawater, there wouldn’t be much to see of Amsterdam as basically it, and much of the country has been reclaimed from the sea in what must be one of the world’s most amazing engineering feats. 

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Above (Photo: David Bowden)

Furthermore, the River Ij divides Amsterdam and, intrigued to get a grasp on why the residents of Amsterdam don’t go to work in swimming costumes and kayak everywhere, I decided my accommodation needed to be in a location where I could get a grasp on Amsterdam’s reclaimed lands. I chose the five-star luxury of the Mövenpick Hotel Amsterdam located on the waterfront divide between central Amsterdam and Amsterdam Noord. One morning there, I awoke to see a large ocean-going cruise ship moored at the docks just metres from my hotel window.

The Mövenpick was a great choice for many reasons with one being that it was within walking distance of the main train station and my link to Schiphol Airport. Visitors emerge from the city side of Centraal Station on the Damrak to be greeted by hundreds of cyclists and locked bicycles next to its entrance. Visitors need to exercise caution as cycle paths are for cyclists and footpaths are for pedestrians.

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A Self-Guided Tour 

Central Amsterdam is mostly flat and can be explored on foot with the aid of a good guidebook (or Google Maps). What initially appears a pedestrian maze turns out to be more organised with main streets dissecting the downtown canals like spokes in a wheel.

Radiating from this central location are the canals that have made the city so famous. Cruising along these canals on a sleek pencil-thin boat is highly recommended as a way exploring the downtown area.

Trams carry commuters along the Damrak towards Dam Square and beyond. Souvenir shops line the Damtrak, as do cafés and restaurants that offer every international comfort food imaginable at prices that reflect its prime tourist location.

Not far away, the infamous red light district is popular more so with intrigued tourists than serious patrons. Rembrandtplein is more subdued and frequented by restaurant diners or those seeking a venue for a quiet drink. 

Some of the other highlights of a self-guided walking/cycling tour include the view of 15 Bridges near Rembrandtplein where it is possible to see all fifteen old bridges crossing the canal in a row. Dam Square, just minutes from Centraal Station is where the damming of the Amstel River in the 13th century formed Amsterdam.

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Culture vultures will love visiting 140 art galleries and 40 museums. The Rijksmuseum is the county’s largest collection of mostly Dutch artists from the Golden Age (15th -19th centuries) with the piece de resistance being Rembrandt’s Night Watch painting.  If you travel here in winter, it is possible to skate in front of the museum. Nearby, the Van Gogh Museum houses the world’s largest collection of the great master’s works while contemporary Dutch art is housed in the adjoining Stedelijk. 

Amsterdam Accommodation

The Mövenpick Hotel Amsterdam is located within walking distance of Centraal Station although the hotel operates a complimentary shuttle service to and from the station. The hotel is perfectly located along the water’s edge of the River Ij. It overlooks the Passenger Cruise Terminal and I enjoyed watching the constant maritime activity along the river. The facilities are perfect too with each room providing a river or city view.

The breakfast served here is superb and the perfect way to start a day of discovery. Guests can opt for executive lounge access with a private lounge where complimentary evening drinks and snacks are served.

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A Tale of Two Cities

Amsterdam is a tale of two cities – Amsterdam by day and Amsterdam by night.  The one most people admire is the city during the day when people are at work or shopping. When the sun goes down, it is a city for play and pleasure.

At sunset, precincts like the Leidseplein and Jordaan swing into top gear. The city’s nightlife is both colourful and cosmopolitan.

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A popular Dutch snack is frites or local chips, which are thick and chunky and served in a paper cone with a variety of accompanying sauces especially mayonnaise.  The city’s finest are supposedly those served at Mameken Pis Vlaamse Frites centrally located along the Damtrak, just look for the queue.

Heineken has etched its mark onto the palates of discerning drinkers and, while there is a sea of it in its hometown, other beers like Grolsch and Amstel plus a whole host of Dutch craft beers are also available.

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Amsterdam is one of Europe’s great gateway cities especially for Malaysians who now have few direct flight options. Schiphol Airport is one of Europe’s finest where passengers can gaze at some of the world’s leading art masterpieces including those of Vincent Van Gogh. There are normally ten works displayed here by famous Dutch masters on display at the airport.

While admiring these masterpieces, pay due respect to Amsterdam’s trusty dykes and don’t be perturbed that you are actually standing below sea level.

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How to Get There
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flies direct to Amsterdam each evening arriving into Amsterdam at sunrise. World Business Class passengers (Business Class) relax on flatbeds and enjoy some of the finest food and beverages served in the sky. Schiphol Airport is an airport city and one of Europe’s leading hubs with connecting flights to most parts of the globe. There are extensive shops, restaurants, and bars as well as a casino, massage and rejuvenation centre, hotels, meditation centre, baggage lockers, and business centre.

Getting About
Travel between Schiphol and downtown Amsterdam is easy by rail. Visitors can hire a bike and become a local for the day in exploring the streets along with most other people who live and cycle around the city’s historic heart. Be careful when walking the streets as there are bike lanes everywhere and cyclists don’t take kindly to gawky tourists getting in their way.

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