It’s the European capital that features in basically every travel bucket list. Famous for beautiful canals, legal weed and reputed liberalism, Amsterdam draws stag and hen do’s, student trips, gap-yearers and curious tourists alike.
This year I finally took the very short leap to Dam. I’d managed to convince a good friend to join me last minute, and as the date approached and we vaguely spoke about what we wanted to do, life happened.
I got too busy with everything else going on. Work, writing and dealing with unexpected anxiety and self-doubt got in the way of my usual efficient planning. So by the time we landed in the Dutch capital, we didn’t have a plan.
Weekend trips can be the best escapes from your daily routine if you plan them well. You maximise your time away and get to learn tons about a new country or city and make memories that will last a lifetime.
I had to let the city surprise me since there wasn’t a clear agenda. So here are some tips on how to make the most of an unplanned adventure.
Getting to where you need to go
I ALWAYS like to know where I’ll be sleeping the first evening and how I’m getting there.
Our hotel had been booked for a couple of weeks, and I vaguely knew where it was on the map, but my little research hadn’t shown how far it was from the city centre. This is when the wonderful world of technology came along – CityMappers and GoogleMaps.
The second we landed and passed border patrol I searched for the best way to get to our accommodation. Amsterdam is a wonderfully functional city, and public transport is fast, reliable, and frequent. A bit of advanced research would have convinced me and my friend to get a multi-day pass straight away to save a few Euros, but the fare seemed reasonable compared to the exorbitant London prices.
Be familiar with the basics and know how to get to your accommodation. Everything else will be OK.
Deciding what you want to do
I’ve been in this situation more times than I can count. I have planned my general itinerary, knowing where I’ll be and sleep and how to get there, but once I’ve arrived I’m overwhelmed with choice.
It’s a good thing I love walking.
European capital cities are fantastic places to visit without a plan. They all have the “important” attractions such as art museums, cathedrals or a random sculpture with some sort of historical significance, but they all also have a unique personality that can only be found by getting immersed in the local day to day.
Whenever I travel I want to feel I’ve gotten value for my money. As a tourist, visiting landmarks is important because it puts history in perspective. Amsterdam has tons to offer to the history and culture-hungry visitor. Multiple art museums (Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum, Moco), Anne Frank’s house during the Nazi occupation and even the Red Light District shed light into a history of the world that should be experienced in situ. Yet, it has so much more.
While I had a list of the three landmarks I wanted to visit, we were only able to make it to one. The rest of the trip we simply… walked.
We explored side streets and hidden canals, tried bitterballen with beer in a lovely corner pub and posed for photos.
We willingly skipped the ubiquitous coffee shops as neither of us is keen on smoking, but I missed seeing more art. That’s basically it. We walked. We ate. We took pictures. We talked. And it was fantastic.
Don’t get discouraged or disappointed if things don’t go your way. You’re in a new place, let it surprise you!
Knowing when to come back
Amsterdam is a city to go back to again and again. Our lack of planning and our spontaneity-driven exploring left us starved for more.
There are some places in the world that feel like home, and you know you’ll visit over and over again. Amsterdam is one of them.
Unless you’re like me and are happy to be surprised with each step, plan your visit.
How I would have planned it instead
When I go back, because I will, I’ll make damn sure that I have tickets for:
Anne Frank’s House
I remember reading her journal in my early teens. Reading about her genuine account of the horrors of Nazism was not only eye-opening but also sparked my interest in 20th Century history. Often I get sceptical of attractions oriented towards the masses, as I believe the context is lost into voyeurism. With Anne Frank’s House, though, I’m genuinely curious and would love to find out first-hand how her story is being told today.
Van Gogh’s Museum
I’m a massive art fan. My best friend and my mother are both walking encyclopedias of artist names, backgrounds and movements, so something had to stick. The lives of the masters from the past are fascinating, especially as you get to make them human when you learn about their struggles and their social relations. Van Gogh is an eminence of his own, and I regretted not visiting the museum dedicated to him.
Each main European capital has an art history museum. While they tend to be wildly popular, they can also be the least entertaining. The reason for this is the sheer amount of information that you absorb as you wander through its rooms and corridors. Nonetheless, I always find these museums peaceful and thrilling. When else do we get to get a snapshot of the development of a country? Done right you can literally see art and social movements evolving as well as fashion trends, expressions of sexuality and identity.
I’ll have to go back to Amsterdam. When I do you’ll probably find me in a bar tucking into a bowl of bitterballen. They’re delicious and life can be better without plans.