Bikes and the canals of Amsterdam

Amsterdam: A Clichéd City In Three Walks

I’ve got to confess, I didn’t know much about Amsterdam before I arrived. I pictured pretty canals, winding streets and bikes with big handlebars.

And wandering through the red light district, you know…for the culture.

But, beyond that, not much else.

The Dutch capital was the first stop on our European itinerary and it got off to a harried start. We caught the night ferry from Harwich, south England, and set the alarm early to hit the breakfast buffet before arriving in The Netherlands.

Only, we didn’t account for the time difference.

Yup, this travel writer forgot about the most basic of all travel things.

We were woken by a tinny tannoy voice announcing our docking in Hook of Holland which was followed by a mad dash to get up and out. Breakfast buffet-less and bleary eyed we hopped on a train to the capital.

My first thought upon leaving Amsterdam central station was, no joke: I’ve never seen so many bikes! The cliché just came to life. In a city with over 880,000 bikes –  four times the number of cars – I shouldn’t have been surprised.

The bike parking at the station was an urban art piece of layered wheels and metal. More bikes than people, bikes for days. Bikes with wicker baskets and big handlebars, aka the bikes of my Amsterdam dreams.

After checking into our hostel and yet another embarrassing travel fail – not so much as glancing at the pin number of a new bank card before leaving – we set off for our first taste of the Netherlands.



Walk 1: Coffee Shops & Canals


Our first walk through Amsterdam was to hit the classics: the coffee shops and canals.

Canals are the watery veins to the heart of The Netherlands. There are 165 of them in Amsterdam each weaving and winding a different path through the city. Arching around the cobbled streets, buoying the houseboats, stretching out like tourists after eight hours in a ferry cabin. On a summery June day they sparkle and glint, each bordered by cosied up buildings with pointy ceilings.

Coffee shops litter the waterfront. We found one that looked nice, not a hard task, and ventured inside. The air was heavy with the earthy smell of weed. People were lighting up, smoking joints, getting high. Just sitting there. Freely. In public. Indoors.

Isn’t this something we do behind the bike sheds, in darkened alleyways and the privacy of our own homes?

We ordered two little lattes and hobbled with them outside. Sinking into my seat, I gazed down the long stretch of canal in front of us. The narrow houses seemed to bend and sway with the road’s curves. There were bikes chained to bikes chained to railings and, even in the summer light, a few windows flickered with a seductive red light. Clichés complete.



Walk 2: Vondelpark & Albert Cuyp Market

One activity high on the agenda was, obviously, renting bikes. We googled a bike rental and were picking up our big handle-barred babies not long after. Weaving through tourists and locals alike, we cycled towards a large patch of green on our maps.

The English styled Vondelpark is a refreshing stretch of green cosied within Amsterdam’s bubbling centre. Pouring out of the winding narrow streets into the open space felt amazing, swapping cobblestones for smooth pavement and traffic for trees. We circled the park, giggling and selfie-ing on bikes, breathing fresh Dutch air.

After stopping for caffeine, we cycled back. It started to dribble rain and in the last moments, bike shop in sight, I skidded on a tram line, slid on the glossy cobblestones and landed smack on my bum in front of an amused Amsterdam audience.

Bruised and back on two feet, we walked to Albert Cuyp Market. With over 260 stalls, the street market is an overwhelming scene of noise and colour. Bikes whizzed past. Vendors called out in Dutch and English. Birds fluttered and fought over crumbs of bread and cheese.

Stalls stretched down the endless street. Flowers popped, their ripe petals bursting with colour and fragrance. Cheese and fruit and meat lay innocently next to penis shaped chocolate souvenirs. The air was thick with fish, flowers and weed. Clichés complete.



Walk 3: The Big Red Elephant In The Room

No visit to Amsterdam would be complete with the obligatory visit to the big red elephant in the room. Walking through the red light district is a cliché worth indulging in.

We waited until it got dark, letting the night add to the seedy underbelly-esque atmosphere we were looking for.

Walking through twisting alleyways I couldn’t help but get excited for what we were about to see.

Red light flooded the darkened streets. Window displays throbbed with illuminated signs and neon lights. Girls paced and twirled in windows, like impatient mannequins in a dress-up shop.

We stopped to stare a little, respectfully of course, half-smiling, half-not, at this human being up for sale. One girl caught my eye then immediately tapped on the window with her fingernails, beckoning with a curling finger to my boyfriend. Her smirk was half serious and half a show for the huddles of foreigners heaving through the reddened streets.

It was seedy and smelly and amazing all at the same time.

Some streets felt like a performance. A show. Music rattled the wooden frames, girls giggled and waved to tourists, cameras flashed as the red lights flooded the stage.

Others did not. They were real life. It wasn’t a sleazy show for gaping tourists. It was another facet of life, another layer of culture. It was just work. Women work. Men work. Red lights were turned on just as they have been for years. Men waltzed in, unabashed, undeterred, almost as if they were walking to the market to buy bread. It was all just another aspect of life in this city.


Stay tuned for Amsterdam: Beyond the Bikes, Bud and Boobs – a walk through the city beyond the clichés.

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