Amsterdam had been on my bucket list for years and I was FINALLY able to visit in April 2016. With it being less than an hour's flight from BHX, I can't believe it took me six years of UK living to finally get there (April 2016). It's a small-ish city that has a larger-than-life global reputation, on par with that of Las Vegas. Many tourists like to stop over in Amsterdam to gawk at the brothels or the "coffee" shops, but there is so much more going on in this compact area than anyone might expect.
I was on my own for the first couple of days in Amsterdam while waiting for my husband to finish up some business in London before he could join me. I checked into the small but swanky Hotel Sebastian's on the Keizersgracht, a predominantly residential area on one of the picturesque canals that make up the center of Amsterdam. It's set in an actual, working neighborhood walking distance from the main rail station but far enough away from the tourist noise and with lots of lovely restaurants and bars nearby. Since I had arrived in the morning, my room was understandably not yet ready, but the lovely receptionist stored my luggage. I then went off on an introductory walking tour of the city that I had booked in advance via Viator, followed by a canal ride around the city center canals. It wasn't big on food but it was a fantastic way to get a handle on the layout of the city, learn a bit of history and get an explanation for all of the bikes around town.
Apparently the caliber of tourist leaves a lot to be desired according to this sign in a Red Light District window...
Cyclists rule the streets of Amsterdam and they really aren't sympathetic to tourists who step in their path, or to cars that don't automatically give them the right-of-way, even when it's not theirs to have... Even so, the bicycle is the most efficient way to get around the narrow streets, especially since renting an annual parking space will set you back quite a lot of money. Watching young families with children ride through the streets, sometimes pulling a small cart of groceries or other goods, is definitely a heartwarming sight to see.
After a busy first day in town, and with no partner in crime to keep me from getting too lost or too drunk (or both) I decided to stay close to home and asked the lovely hotel staff for a solo dining recommendation nearby. They directed me to Restaurant Stout, one of many small neighborhood eateries that's an incredibly short walk from the hotel. I turned up on my own without a reservation (it was pretty early since I was famished from all the walking) and was lucky enough to get a table. The server was great - friendly, efficient, & attentive- and the wine list was fantastic. I was treated to two special surprises from the chef before dinner, which were both delicious, and the red fish over curried cauliflower & spring rolls (photo above) was amazing. Day one on my own in Amsterdam - done!
Day 2: Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum. The other half is always happy to skip the "culture bit," so once I knew that I'd be on my own for a couple of days, I booked an entire day to see the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum with a guide. Again, I turned to Viator for the tour booking. I was the only person to show up for the pre-booked group tour and was relieved when the guide, Victoria, said that she would still take me. Victoria is not Dutch and inadvertently settled in Amsterdam (legally, calm down) after a period of traveling in Europe. She's been there for quite a while and will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the Rijksmuseum, its architecture, and its collection of Dutch masters. She is a Vincent Van Gogh groupie and has amazing insight and perspective on the works on display at the Van Gogh Museum. If you want to spend most of the day immersed in beautiful art complimented with intelligent commentary, then look no further than this tour. After a full day of walking and growing my brain at the museums, I was again famished. I decided to try the street food at Foodhallen, a new-ish indoor market recommended to me by a Dutch friend. The Vietnamese wraps, extensive wine bar, and live music were the perfect end to my last day flying solo.
Finally, my other half arrived and I could stop eating, drinking, and talking to strangers by myself. He was thoroughly impressed with my new Amsterdam knowledge - ok, not the museum stuff - and was happy for me to guide him around town. We went on the Offbeat Redlight District Nighttime Walking Tour, again booked through Viator. This tour was such an eye-opening experience and SO MUCH FUN! Martijn is the most enthusiastic tour guide ever and all-around nice guy. I don't know that we would have ventured into the heart of the Red Light District on our own at night but he made us feel like invited guests. His knowledge of the people, the policies (what's really legal & what's not? You'd be surprised), and the area's history makes anyone understand how this famous part of town fits into Amsterdam's culture. After the tour, we found this crazy little bar called Het Elfde Gebod that seemed to be a favorite with the locals - the beer was definitely a hit with my guy.