Amsterdam is one of my favourite cities for a weekend break from London. Although the flight is just over an hour, due to the time difference, you arrive two hours later on the way there and at the same time as departure going back, which is pretty awesome.
I’ve been to Amsterdam many times before, as I used to live in Holland and have some Dutch family. But it had been a while, six almost seven years, since my last visit. In those years, a lot has changed. Now a married 30-year-old woman, I could hardly recognise myself against the forgotten memories triggered by a cobbled street, a tram stop, a park bench, a square…
As a child, Amsterdam was always this grown-up place. A busy, bustling city with shops and entertainment my parents didn’t want me to see as we passed by smoking teenagers and women in windows. So it felt very strange (and incredibly awesome) when, as a young adult, Amsterdam was no longer off-limits.
For as long as I can remember, I was on the outside looking in with my face pressed up against the glass. Observing the place and its people as they chained their bikes to canal rails and disappeared inside mysterious bars and smoky shops. I wanted to smash through every door to know what was inside. So finally, when at 19 years old I found myself back in Amsterdam, I met up with a Dutch friend to show me all of Amsterdam’s secrets. I hopped onto the back of her bicycle and together we got lost in a maze of streets and canals.
As I arrived in Amsterdam last weekend, I caught a glimpse of my 19-year-old self as she whizzed by on the back of a bike without a clue where she’s going. All these years later it now makes me laugh like when you see someone walk too close to a pool and suddenly fall in. And that’s when I realized that all the curiosity I had associated with this place was not actually about the place at all. Those crowded streets I longed to be a part of had nothing to do with the streets themselves. The truth is that I didn’t even explore Amsterdam, I explored adolescence and early adulthood. Amsterdam, I had yet to discover.
Where to stay
Amsterdam has no shortage of amazing hotels, such as the Dylan, Lloyd, W Amsterdam, or Andaz, occupying some of the most interesting old buildings. I find Dutch architecture fascinating. Tall narrow buildings that tilt in different directions. Decorative gables, always with a hook underneath for hauling bulky furniture up and in through the windows.
Only because we didn’t plan on spending any time in the hotel other than for sleeping, we decided to book somewhere cheaper. Having stayed several times at the American Hotel off Leidseplein, I wanted to try somewhere different and more central. I picked NH City Centre Hotel to be closer to the attractions we planned to visit and could not have been happier with my choice.
Although the room was rather small with no view, it was also the cheapest rate. Travelling as two female friends, our twin beds were comfortable and the bathroom was spacious enough with an amazing mirror. For better or for worse, I don’t think I’d seen my face that clearly in years. The staff were wonderful, polite and helpful, and the hotel’s public spaces look modern and recently updated. The location was absolutely perfect, with a tram stop around the corner, a Pain Quotidian and a gorgeous Dutch restaurant called The Five Flies “d’Vejff Vleighen” next door.
After an incredibly busy week and 3 am check-in, we skipped breakfast and slept in until noon. Amsterdam has so many amazing cafes but my breakfast pick is often B&B Lunchrooms on Leidsestraat. It’s easy to spot with a big red sign that says B&B. My favourite thing there is the rare roast beef. Unlike the British well-done version, in Holland, you get layers of chilled blood-pink roast beef, which I like to eat topped with avocado and mayo. If we’d gotten up earlier, that’s where we would have gone, followed by some window-shopping or biking around Vondelpark.
De Vier Pilaren Pancake House
Having grown up eating Dutch pancakes, there’s only ever been one kind of pancake that interests me: pannekoek met spek. That’s Dutch for bacon pancakes and you can try them at De Vier Pilaren, a traditional Dutch pancake house opposite the Leidseplein Casino. The way to eat it is to drizzle syrup and powdered sugar all over your plate and then either roll it up or just eat with a knife and fork. It’s not too heavy either so perfect for a light lunch. If you’re still a bit peckish, try the poffertjes.
Van Gogh Museum
The Van Gogh Museum was very unexpectedly the highlight of our weekend trip. The museum tells the story of Van Gogh and his life through his works so beautifully. I was surprised to learn that he only painted for 10 years of his life, from the age of 27 to the age of 37 when he died. A reminder that it really is never too late to follow your passions. His art career was financed by his younger brother Theo, also his number one fan. I was deeply moved by the close relationship between the two brothers and the support of Theo, without which Van Gogh might not have succeeded the same way.
As you climb the floors, you see the evolution of his work, from early portraits and inspiration to his days in Paris and bolder experiments with technique and colour. One of my favourite moments in the museum is when you reach Sunflowers. It describes how excited he and his brother were when they realised he had painted a masterpiece. Yet, as his work took on more colour, his struggle with his mental health intensified. After the famous ear-cutting episode he had himself committed to an institution.
Van Gogh believed in painting as therapy, but in the end, took his own life. Tragically, his younger brother Theo also died one year later, leaving behind his wife and newborn baby. What’s also fascinating is that after their deaths she continued to collect and promote Van Gogh’s work and after she died, her son did the same. Named after his uncle, Vincent Willem transferred the collection to the Van Gogh Foundation in 1962 and devoted the rest of his life to the museum. It really is a touching story of incredible talent, dedication, and family. I only wish they had kept Starry Night in this museum instead of Moma in New York.
We bought skip the queue tickets online for €18 per person. Plan at least 2-3 hours to fully enjoy the museum.
Green House Seed Co
As this is an Amsterdam guide for a relaxed weekend, I suppose I should also suggest a relaxing coffeeshop. We had a few hours to kill between the Van Gogh Museum that closed at 5 pm and our dinner reservation at 9 pm. It was also -100 outside so we decided to find somewhere warm and aromatic to chill. You don’t have to smoke and can just order a coffee or drink if you like.
The Green House Seed Co is one of Amsterdam’s most famous coffeeshops, decorated with photos of almost a hundred celebrities that have passed through its doors. From the usual suspects like Snoop Dogg, Eminem and 50 Cent to pop icons Lady Gaga and Rihanna to more surprising film stars such as Susan Sarandon! Not to mention London Lifestyle blogger Miss Portmanteau!
Guts & Glory
With an endless array of choices, there was a lot of pressure to find ‘the one’ restaurant for our Saturday night dinner. We also wanted to choose something Dutch. Something unique to Amsterdam. I did some research and discovered Guts & Glory while reading Hand Luggage Only’s Lazy Guide to a Weekend in Amsterdam. I also found it on the recommended restaurants list by my favourite Dutch Blogger Your Little Black Book. The restaurant is owned by two young Dutch chefs, Guillaume de Beer and Freek de Noortwijk, which now have 3 restaurants in the city, Breda and Maris Piper.
It’s exactly the type of restaurant I love: a surprise tasting menu where all you choose is the number of courses. The theme changes every 3 months under a new ‘chapter’. We were in luck, as the current chapter is called ‘Best of, a selection of the best dishes from the previous 12 chapters’. We went for 6 courses and an additional “add some glory” dish of smoked eel, a Dutch delicacy. They offer a wine pairing by the glass, however, we got a little carried away and ended up consuming 7 (small!) glasses each. Two sparkling whites to start, followed by a crisp white, a shot of sake, a Syrah, a Burgundy, and dessert wine – over 3 hours in case you’re wondering.
Due to all the wine, my memory of the dish descriptions is a bit hazy. According to my photos, we started with focaccia and olive butter, an Asian lemongrass side soup and crunchy hors-d’oeuvre. Followed by incredible smoked eel with samphire, melt-in-your-mouth sliced cod in an umami beef broth. A vegetarian course of asparagus, a bowl of ramen. Two tacos, a plate of sumptuous sliced beef with a side of little onion balls and potatoes. And finally, the desert, which I appear to have inhaled before taking a decent photo. Our booking was at 9 pm and we found ourselves the last to leave around midnight. Would I return? In a heartbeat. The food and wine was excellent value for money and we could not have been more satisfied customers.
De Kroon club
Guts & Glory is located just off Rembrandtplein square, which we walked towards with the aim of catching a tram back to the hotel. Instead, we somehow found ourselves drawn to the blue neon lights of De Kroon nightclub. Before it could register what we were doing we had already checked in our coats and were sipping G&Ts on the dance floor.
De Kroon is the worst kind of the best night out. It’s not a great club. I probably shouldn’t even be including it in here. But this is the type of club of my childhood and I’m a real sucker for nostalgia. It’s the perfect mix of tourist and sleaze that makes it more entertaining than any trendy nightclub especially if you arrive at the opposite of sober. The music, to my hazy recollection, was great though. Hip hop, I think, and after a second attempt at taking the tram home, a taxi magically appeared before us and we got inside, making it back safe and sound to the hotel.
Sunday morning, I was reminded once again that alcohol is never a good idea after a 7-course wine pairing. Amazing how one forgets these things. Fortunately, I always pack breakfast bars in my luggage for emergencies like when your mouth is so dry that eating chocolate oats feels like chewing on paper. A bottle of water later, we packed and checked out at noon, leaving our bags with the hotel. In the sleep vs breakfast hotel championships, sleep is like Muhammed Ali, 56 wins to 5 losses.
The Lebanese Sajeria
My all-time favourite Dutch snack is kroket met frites en mayonaise. You can easily find it at any FEBO or chip shop. However, for a healthier (and vegetarian) alternative, try the Lebanese Sajeria. We stumbled upon it as we turned the corner from our hotel towards the Anne Frank Museum. It was attracting big curious crowds outside, getting a look in through the window as the chef pours batter over a large hot plate to make manoushe, a Lebanese flatbread. Once the manoushe starts to bubble, he then spreads a za’atar sesame mixture over the wrap, which is then ready to be filled. I looked it up on TripAdvisor and to my surprise, there is not a single negative review, which is pretty remarkable. 85% say it’s excellent and 12% say it’s very good, making me wish I had a larger stomach to enjoy more of Amsterdam’s amazing food.
Anne Frank House
Most people have been or will go to the Anne Frank House during a visit to Amsterdam. So it was odd that neither I nor my friend had ever been. We booked tickets in advance for Sunday at 12.30. I wasn’t sure what the museum would be like, having only read her diary when I was young, too young to understand it as I do now.
I’m sure you’re already familiar with the story. Anne Frank and her family hid for two years inside a secret annex in the building where her father worked during the Nazi occupation. As you move through the rooms in the house, it tells the story of how things developed and escalated. From wearing the yellow badge to restrictions on going out after a certain hour, to separate schools for the children. When you reach the secret annex where they hid, you can really feel the claustrophobia and fear they endured as time slipped away.
I had also forgotten that Anne Frank’s father was the only one to survive. He had known his daughter Anne kept a diary but never read it until he published her work. In the museum, we see a short video of him explaining how the girl in the diary was so different from the one he had known. This led him to conclude that as parents, we can never really know our children.
Café de Klos
I never come to Amsterdam without eating at Cafe de Klos, ever! Our original plan was to have dinner here on Friday, but since that was not possible, we decided to come for lunch on Sunday instead. It opens at 2 pm on weekends, and I was pleasantly surprised to see people already waiting outside. Once the doors opened at 2 pm sharp, the small brown bar filled up in an instant. It’s normally very busy at night, but I haven’t seen it busy like this in the daytime before. I convinced myself that it must be because my blog post World Famous Grilled Ribs in Amsterdam is getting around.
We ordered a plate of spare ribs (unsmoked, always) and a jacket potato to share. Since we were hungry but also just two girls with hangovers, the portion size turned out to be perfect. Each main also comes with bread and garlic butter, which I am apparently highly addicted to. I’ve been coming to this place for 21 years now and the place hasn’t changed one bit. The interior is exactly the same and the quality of ribs has never faltered.
The Avocado Show
This article was written by Lara Olivia and originally appeared on MissPortmanteau.com. Follow her adventures on Instagram. Club Elsewhere publishes travel and lifestyle design guides. Work with us here.
Lara Olivia is a Norwegian and Portuguese writer sharing all she knows about the good life on her blog, MissPortmanteau.com. Follow her @miss.portmanteau on Instagram.