Whenever someone mentions Amsterdam, there’s one thing that springs to mind… Yes, canals. Oh come on, for those of you who thought I was referring to weed, shame on you. Every seasoned traveller knows you should buy it from Groningen instead. It’s much cheaper.
The best way to explore this UNESCO World Heritage Site – the canals – is by pedal power. No wait, scratch that. It’s actually by boat. Wrong post. (Note to self: Quit green coffee bean extract). The point is that cycling in Amsterdam is a way of life as there are more bikes than people and, with everyone from children to policemen hopping on their bicycles for transport, the city runs on two wheels.
There’s no finer way to discover Amsterdam than by bike. As you cycle along its streets, canals, and attractions, you get a first-row seat to soak up the atmosphere of the city. Stick with me till the end and I’ll show you how to make the most of your cycling tour of the city.
Ugly tourists, party of one
On my fist day in Amsterdam, I met a Canadian backpacker who told me what she loved most about Amsterdam was cycling around the city. She did warn me, however, that due to the large volume of cyclists and the advanced Dutch bike culture, locals are the two-wheel version of the Schumacher Brothers. At some point, she stopped at an intersection and a Dutchie yelled at her “Tourist!” – which can be translated into English as “Moron!”
Although I understand tourist phobia – I used to live in London – I feel it is my duty to defend travellers. Some Dutchies might think that most visitors had never hopped on a bike before attempting to cycle in Amsterdam, but that is not accurate. I’m compelled to say proudly that of course we know how to ride a bicycle. The reason why you might think we suck at it is not due to a lack of experience. No! We are just stupid.
So just because my new Canadian friend almost had an accident while cycling, it doesn’t mean that I will. Flashback: I rode my bike into a moving car in Sydney; I smashed myself against the pavement in Chile. Ehem… yeah, I think the odds are in my favour. Given my dramatic precedents, I walked around the city first to get my bearings and boost my self-confidence. Seeing a cyclist getting hit by a car in front of Dam Square, however, did nothing to that effect. Of course I don’t have a photo of the guy lying on the ground under the car as he got up before I could snap one. He probably had some experience doing this… standing up, that is.
At this point, my chances of survival were pretty slim, but then I had one of those emotional film moments when the main character gives a pep talk and inspires everyone to be a hero. In this case, I was both the audience and the one giving the speech. “Let’s face it, Claudia, walking down the street is dangerous for you. Every corner is a noisy scene from Apocalypse Now. If you’ve survived this far, there’s nothing you can’t do. ” Motivated and inspired, I thought to myself that if I can endure walking, I can easily ride those streets. Damned if I will let my survival instincts keep me from cycling around the coolest city in the world.
“Damned if I will!” – *quickly steps back to miss a biker*
“Phew that was close!” – *gets run over by a truck*
Granted, I was inspired, but I don’t like pain, so I decided to go for a safer option and thus I booked a bike tour. Boom! Plot twist. I bet you didn’t see that one coming. For €21.50 I went on a 3-hour guided bike tour of Historical Amsterdam with AmsterBike. I would tell you some of the amazing facts I learnt about the city but… spoilers. What I will tell you, though, is that it was a wonderful experience you don’t want to miss out on.
Halfway through the tour, we headed to Cafe Winkel 43, where we ordered what the tour guide sold as the best apple pie in the city. I would highly recommend it and if you don’t like it, you should get a shrink to talk to your inner child because any kid will tell you that apple pie is supremely scrumptious.
One of the highlights of the tour was witnessing a near miss. When we neared an intersection, one biker almost crashed into a Dutch cyclist riding alongside us. The biker – a tourist a.k.a. moron – said grinning: “This is Amsterdam!” and the middle-aged Dutch lady he almost ran into said calmly but annoyed: “Yeah… wrong way.”
And rightly so… We were riding down an one-way street and he was coming from the opposite direction. Way to be stupid. The best of it all, however, was the Dutch lady’s tone – it was a cross between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone while uncrossing her legs. I mean… if looks could kill… hasta la vista, baby.
One of the people taking the tour spotted a graffiti that stated: “No bikes for tourists.” Although I was a bit upset I missed the sign, it was lucky I didn’t as I would have stopped on the spot and what if something had happened to my iPhone? No, my friend, that’s not just graffiti. That’s street art. Somebody should showcase it on a city tour. Smash cut to the future: a tour guide points at the graffiti wall which is not street art at all but some black letters scribbled on a white wall. The line between art and vandalism is quite thin.
Renting a bike
I didn’t do any research before I rented a bicycle *slaps hand* since I had planned to rent one straight from the hostel. Unfortunately, they were all booked because, apparently, cycling in Amsterdam is very popular – who knew? Therefore, I went straight to the city centre and made use of my best friend, the Internet. I ended up in Dam Square *Flashback. Chills*, went through an alleyway and found Green Budget Bikes. I entered the store and walked into an argument between a customer and a retailer, who was telling the cyclist that he had broken something and forfeited his deposit, while he kept repeating that was already broken. I’m not superstitious but that was a hell of a sign. I crossed the street and headed instead to Black Bikes City Centre or Het Zwarte Fietzenplan – yup, my thoughts exactly.
Whether it was global warming, the lack of air-con, those green-coffee-bean pills or that the retailer was steaming hot, I was suffocating. (Reminder: this blog is not a diary). In the least provocative manner, I stripped myself of my sweater in front of his desk while the hot guy (Reminder: gender politics) was writing down my card details. He looked up and joked I changed my outfit like Wonder Woman. As my cheeks were burning up, I thought to myself somebody should fix the ventilation, I should quit those pills and that guy should stop working out. Er… scratch that. (Note to self: edit this out. Save to diary). I started explaining why I was wearing it in the first place, something about the weather and the end of the world in the fastest speed you could imagine. That speech could only end one way.
“I haven’t taken any drugs,” I said.
“I hadn’t considered that possibility until you mentioned it.”
“No, no, I’m not under the effect of any psychedelic drug. Just something more sophisticated. Have you heard of weight-loss products?”
Although Black Bike Rental is not the cheapest option out there (€17 for 24 hours), it does include insurance and if you are anything like me, you’ll need it. Besides, the retailer is a good reason to go there – because he is so nice and friendly.
With its glorious canals, stunning architecture, enthralling history and unique culture, Amsterdam is a cyclist’s paradise. As the wind blew through my hair and I rode around that beautiful city, I felt like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. My life had its own soundtrack until I was greeted by a stream of expletives in Dutch. Although I don’t actually speak Dutch, the body language for “you are a bloody idiot” is pretty universal. Sometimes you meet someone and you think: “Blimey, that person could really use a yoga retreat.”
If you cycle down Nieuwe Spiegelstraat (street), you’ll come across the Rijsmuseum. You can’t miss it. Literally, you can’t. You’ll ride right through it. There’s a bicycle underpass that goes straight through the heart of the building and once you reach the other end, you’ll find the museum quarter – Museumplein – which houses not only the Rijsmuseum, but also the Van Gogh museum, the Stedelijk museum and the famous I amsterdam sign.
If you turn right at the end of the Museumplein, you’ll find Vondelpark, which is the most popular park in The Netherlands and large enough for you to spend some quality time cycling through it. Packed with English-style gardens, ponds, footbridges and lawns, Vondelpark is a lush green oasis in the heart of Amsterdam.
I was lucky enough to visit it on a sunny day as the colourful open-air atmosphere was idyllic. The park was packed with locals and tourists alike lying on the grass having a picnic or just sunbathing. Whether you cycle through shaded picturesque routes or walk through winding footpaths, the park won’t disappoint.
You might be acquainted with the famous postcard photo everyone gets with the view of a canal in the background. Each time we thought we had found the right canal, we kept running into another one that looked exactly the same. It feels like being trapped in one episode of Doctor Who or Star Trek, where alternative realities in parallel universes are all stacked up against each other. Unfortunately, Scotty didn’t bother to beam me up. I tried. The fact is that Amsterdam has 1281 bridges, three times as many as Venice. You might need the Doctor – yeah, Who – to find the right one. If you have found the right one, please comment below and I’ll tell NASA you are an alien.
I feel compelled to state that although I cycled in Amsterdam, Groningen and Rotterdam, I didn’t have any accidents. It turns out it is very easy to ride a bike in Amsterdam. After cycling all over Holland, I arrived home addicted to it, so I uncovered my rusty old bike, inflated the tires, rode into the sunset and then BANG! Final Destination caught up with me.