Amsterdam is a lot more than saddening red laminated windows, dimly-lighted coffeeshops and jam-packed Argentinian steak restaurants in the centre. In fact, the rest of the city is nothing like that in the daily life of its dwellers. The real Amsterdam is beautiful, multicultural and best seen on the bike.
The next time you visit, do these 4 things for the real experience of the Netherland’s capital city.
Hire a bike
You must explore Amsterdam on a bike. Get off the warm trams and busses, and see the city in a totally different light.
Where to hire a bicycle
There are many bike rental shops around the centre but MacBike probably has the best bicycles for rent. They are sturdy yet easy to use. There are many options, including smaller bikes with hand brakes, which are not common at all in a typical Dutch bike shop. The nation’s tall citizens prefer giant frames with a pedal brake (so they don’t have to worry about cables).
If you are like me, small and cautious, you might find it hard handling using a pedal brake at red lights and on busy roads, which are common in Amsterdam.
If you are conversely tall and familiar with pedal brakes, you can go to any local bike shop, which is likely to be around the next corner, and hire one for a few euros cheaper. Most people speak English well so you won’t have any problems communicating.
Where to explore on a bicycle
The Jordaan is a very pretty area near the centre of Amsterdam: romantic canals, 16th-century houses (both grand and quaint), trendy bars and restaurants serving all sorts of great food. The Saturday organic market by the North Church in the Jordaan sells food of exceptional quality, though a bit pricey. It’s worth a visit if you are around.
You can also cycle eastwards to see the streets opening up to some multi-cultural, upcoming neighbourhoods. Aim for a stop at the Brouwerij ’t IJ. It’s a brewery which also serves beer in a bar and in a sunny garden. Their beer is refreshing and super “lekker”. From the garden, you can look up and admire a charming windmill. Don’t forget to order some beer snacks, the famous Dutch "bitterballen" or the house special raw sausages.
If you don’t mind the wind, you can go along the dockland and visit a couple of man-made islands where streets are straightly lined up. Along the water, there are two harbours where you can take a free ferry ride to the North of Amsterdam, which weirdly reminds me of an England middle-size town.
More nature can be found in the South, such as in Amsterdam Bos, a massive park and a great place for cycling. I find the Southern street fronts monotonous and rather boring, as soon as you leave De Pijp. The neighbourhood is full of great cafes and restaurants, but I am not a big fan of cycling around its narrow streets where there are no separate bike lanes.
While you have a bike, check these four places for a day trip around the Netherlands.
A boat trip
This is one touristy thing I would recommend. Ideally, you and your friends can hire a boat and navigate the water yourself but it could be extremely busy along Amsterdam canals. Alternatively, take one of the round-trip boat tours. It’s very interesting to see Amsterdam from its famous water and listen to the history of old warehouses along the way..
Protip: Take an open-top boat and wrap up
Visit the Foodhallen
Foodhallen is relatively new. Its main hall opened the door a couple of years ago. I remember having been so excited when I found a Vietnamese street food stall. They do the best spring rolls by the way.
Foodhallen is now a complex with many food stalls in the main hall, a small movie theatre, a library, and a few upmarket shops.
The main bit is similar to food courts you would find in Singapore or some other Asian capitals. You get the food from one of the stalls and pick a sit among the tables in the middle. There’s delicious food from everywhere, Vietnam, India, Mexico, Japan, to name a few. One can also get (a lot of) craft beer and cocktails. The whole place has a casual and multicultural vibe.
Have a picnic in the park
Amsterdam parks, either big or small, are always full of people. Dutch people love spending time outdoors, including having a BBQ in a park. Vondelpark is probably the most famous one, located towards the South of Amsterdam. My favourite one is Erasmus park because it is right outside our old house, but Westerpark would be my number 1 recommendation. It is a massive park, with horse riding yards and some areas for permanent campers.
The centre of the park has a couple of bars and restaurants, a waterfront where the children play and a big hall hosting the Neighbourhood market every third Sunday of the month. It is full of locals, running, cycling or having the picnic, which I always find so idyllic and cosy.