Hotel: Swissotel, Dam Square
My dilemma every festive season is how to fill my time off between Christmas Eve and New Year. I don’t celebrate Christmas but most of my friends do, which means that I often end up ‘wasting’ my compulsory time off by not being able to travel anywhere. So, this year I decided that it was finally time to take my first ever solo trip!
After extensive googling on the best places for a short city break with good transport and a generally safe vibe for solo female travellers, I settled on Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
I watched a lot of travel vlogs on YouTube before heading to Amsterdam but the best one I saw was by Matt’s Travel Tips – make more videos, Matt! This blog post is going to be a weed/space cake free zone because that’s not really my cup of tea, but there’s loads of helpful info about Amsterdam’s weed culture online for you to peruse 🙂
I arrived at Schipol Airport and took the short train journey to Amsterdam Centraal Station, which cost €5,20 and was really simple to figure out. NB: the ticket machines are all in English but only accept cards and coins, not notes.
The walk from the station to the hotel was very short and direct – I would definitely stay in this hotel again because the location was so central, right in the middle of the shopping district and around the corner from Dam Square.
After I had checked in and freshened up, I went out to forage for some brunch. On Matt’s recommendation, I took the short walk to the Pancake Bakery on Prinsengracht (on the same road as the Anne Frank House).
There were so many options but I decided to go for a Dutch classic called poffertjes. These are tiny, puffier versions of the classic pancake, covered in butter, icing sugar and chocolate sauce. The weirdest thing about travelling alone is that you can’t really express your emotions without looking crazy. However, after I put that first bite in my mouth, I slapped the table and sent my best friend a Snapchat saying “I just flew up to heaven and back”.
After brunch, I took a walk towards the pretty district of Jordaan and Westerkerk. Amsterdam is known as the ‘Venice of the North’ because it is the most watery city in the world, with 165 canals and over 1,500 bridges. The canal belt is so iconic that it was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2011.
Boxing Day in the Netherlands is known as a second Christmas Day, where everything is open but most people spend time going to church and having another day of food and family. Dam Square was certainly keeping up with the Christmas spirit so, even if you aren’t staying in the area, it’s worth visiting for the lights!
The Royal Palace of Amsterdam (or Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam) is still used as one of the official residences of the Dutch royal family but when they’re at one of their other homes, it’s open to visitors (tickets cost €10 with a free audio guide).
Originally used as the town hall, this building was converted into a palace by King Louis Napoleon in the early 1800s. The current interior is a mixture of styles brought by each resident over the years, from empire style furnishings to touches of classical antiquity.
The main feature is the central hall, headed up with a massive sculpture of the Greek God Atlas, carrying the globe on his shoulders. The marble floor has two world maps on it, which were a nod to Dutch colonial history.
The audio guide provides loads of information on the different aspects of each room and the uses of them throughout history, so while it doesn’t take very long to walk around the entire floor, you can examine things in as much or little detail as you want.
Wherever you are, department stores and shopping centres seem to be better when it’s Christmas. Magna Plaza is just behind the Palace and had everything from twinkling lights to a levitating Christmas tree.
Now that I’d worked off my poffertjes, it was time for another Dutch classic – a cone of chips/fries covered in mayo, peanut sauce and onions! It sounds weird and I’m not sure how I feel about raw onions but it made for a really tasty snack.
There are plenty of places selling these all over Amsterdam but I would recommend Mannekenpis, Vlaams Fritehuis or anywhere else with a massive queue of people outside.
The Amsterdam Light Festival returns every winter to illuminate the canal belt with art installations and add to the festive vibe in the city. You can walk along the canals to see all of these installations but the best way to see the illuminations is from the water.
I booked a canal cruise with Stromma which lasted for around 90 minutes and provided an explanation on each of the installations we passed. Some of the installations were kind of underwhelming to look at but had interesting political background, once explained.
My favourite was called the ‘Whole Hole‘ by Sandra de Wolf and Paul Vendel because it wasn’t just pretty to look at, it turned into an interactive experience as the boat passed through it.
After a breakfast of praline croissants and fruit in bed from Albert Heijn (one of the local supermarkets), I checked out of the hotel, dumped my baggage and headed for the Museum Quarter.
If you want to take public transport to Museumsplein, you need to take trams numbered 2 or 5. I decided to take the 30 minute walk from Dam Square so that I could see some more of the area, which is also a good idea if you’re looking to save money on a tram day pass and hit a couple of museums in one day.
Once you arrive at the Rijksmuseum, you’ll come face to face with the iconic ‘iamsterdam’ sign for a classic photo opportunity.
Museum prices in Amsterdam are a far cry from the amazing free entry we get in London – tickets are expensive! If I’d been staying longer, I would have got the Museum Card (for tourists not nationals), which pays your entry to the two museums I ended up visiting and gets you discounts on other museums around the city.
Entry into the Rijksmuseum costs €17,50 but I would recommend buying tickets in advance online or arriving very early, otherwise you could find yourself queuing for 1-2 hours. This museum houses the paintings of the Dutch masters, such as Rembrandt and Vermeer.
While I generally enjoyed my visit to the Rijksmuseum, the layout was slightly confusing and I was kind of overwhelmed by the amount of paintings on the walls. There was also a lack of information on the themes of each room or the stand out pieces, so I felt like I was just walking around looking at things aimlessly at points.
I already knew that I would be going to another museum that day so I decided to take the short walk to Albert Cuyp Market for some lunch to make sure that I was on top form for the next round.
This market has everything from souvenirs, clothes and flowers to fruits, fresh fish and a whole range of amazing street food. It opened in 1905 and is supposedly Europe’s biggest market. I walked from one end to the other to see what food items were on offer but ended up hitting quite a few different stands because it all looked so good.
I started with Vietnamese loempias filled with halal chicken and vegetables, which were fried fresh to order and covered with sweet/spicy sauce (€1,30). Next up, tender, halal chicken skewers covered in peanut sauce from the rotisserie stand (€3,50). I washed it down with some fresh orange juice (€1), followed by a plate of 10 poffertjes with nutella (€3,50) and a fresh stroopwaffle (not pictured).
If you only have time for one museum during your trip, I would recommend the Van Gogh Museum over the Rijksmuseum. After lunch, I queued for around 1.5 hours in the freezing cold and rain to get into the Van Gogh Museum (tickets cost €17 pp), which ended up being longer than the time I spent inside it, but it was definitely worth the wait.
This museum set out Van Gogh’s paintings, drawings and letters in chronological order, while explaining his humble beginnings, his development as an artist and his personal tragedies in a coherent and easily accessible way.
Somehow I had managed to spend the entire day in Museumsplein and the time to head to the airport was fast approaching. I took the walk back to Dam Square pondering on my short trip, my route now dusky and dimly lit with twinkling fairy lights.
My thoughts on the Netherlands were that I had barely scratched the surface. I would definitely like to come back during the warmer months to see Amsterdam in a different light, visit more museums, eat more amazing street food and take trips out to Rotterdam and Zaanse Schaans.
I have actually visited Amsterdam twice before as a child and during one of these trips, I went to the Anne Frank House. This is something you must do if you get the chance, but bear in mind that tickets can now only be booked online in advance. I had a look before my trip and it seemed as though tickets were sold out for the next few months, so this could be an issue if you book a trip last minute (as I did).
In terms of solo travel, I think this is a great city to start with if you want to ease yourself in gently. It’s really simple to navigate, the people are friendly, everyone speaks English and there’s loads to do! To be honest, I barely noticed that I was alone because most of the things I did weren’t necessarily social activities – I generally prefer going to museums by myself, even in London.
Although I didn’t, if you feel awkward about eating in restaurants by yourself, street food and cafés are a great alternative to a standard ‘sit down’ meal. The city also felt very safe and, despite its reputation as the weed and prostitution capital of Europe, it is actually very family friendly.
So, would I travel alone again in the future? Absolutely. It has its downsides, such as not being able to share in an experience with your travel companion or share their food; however, it means you can do exactly what you want to do, whenever you want to do it, which is quite a freeing feeling.
Thanks for reading,