So this is my mini guide to Amsterdam. Well, sort of. If you want to know about vegan food, a cat shelter on a houseboat and my now favourite flea market, skip to halfway down this post. Ignore the other stuff.
You’re still here? Ok, well, this is the bit where I have a who am I moment while looking at a crooked house. I entirely blame (and thank) Elizabeth Gilbert for that.
Or at the very least, I blame/thank her book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear for that moment.
My sister mentioned this book to me first. She’s an actress, so creative living is her bread and butter. Dealing with fear (her tales of auditions give me the shivers) is all part of the job. While she was telling me about this book, we were sitting on the Overground train in London and a stranger – a Londoner even – came up to say that she had also loved this book. It’s some book that can break the first rule of London travel: do not speak to strangers.
Then at Blook Club, the wonderful Jo mentioned Big Magic too (and later wrote this fab post). Everyone should read it, she said. The first chapters are a bit hard going but then there’s so many ah-ha moments, it really changes how you see things. (I’m badly paraphrasing here as she said it much more eloquently, passionately and succinctly than this.)
After two hardcore recommendations, I decided I’d listen to the Audiobook. I had a credit on my Audible account so why not…
And yes, the first chapters weren’t my thing but they were interesting. And sort of infuriating.
But then, I reached the chapters about fear. How everyone has fears, and why fear is boring. Oh so very boring. And I did a sharp intake of breath listening to all this (probably freaking out my fellow commuters) because, oh boy, did I identify. Weird how sometimes it takes someone else’s words to identify the things you’ve been thinking.
So here’s my confession – I used to write stories, screenplays and novels (I’ve even shot a short film with the BBC, had a TV show I wrote turned into an experiential play and been published by Penguin). Since moving to London, I stopped doing that. Why? Because it’s scary. Scary to invest the time. Scary to find the time. Scary to try. Scary not to try. Scary to fail. You get the idea… and she’s right, it’s kind of boring when you write it all down.
So Big Magic really struck a chord. A big loud ping of a chord. A sometimes high-pitched, teeth-clenching chord but heard all the same. Especially when I reached a chapter called In Praise of Crooked Houses. I can summarise the whole chapter as ‘done is better than perfect’ or ‘no-one will die if you create something that’s meh’.
And wandering down the canals of Amsterdam – yes, there is a connection I promise – another thought hit me. That crooked houses are not just imperfect, they’re somewhat magical.
I mean, how on earth are they still standing? They defy every logic going, which is why they’re so wonderful.
And looking at them, I had a moment of recognition.
It turns out that I have of late been thinking of myself and the things I want to do as a crooked house, focusing on imperfections and that falling or failing feeling. It’s a tiring thing to do.
So scary or not, I’m going to get writing again. It feels a little wonky, a little lop-sided right now, but hopefully there’s crazy logic-defying beauty in there too. We’ll see.
Back to Amsterdam… I think any city that can make you see things differently will always win a place in your heart. It might not be so transformative for you but any place that helps you to give a damn about things again is pretty special.
So here’s my 5 damn good reasons to visit Amsterdam…
Any city where you can stay on a cosy, cool boat is all good by me. We booked this gorgeous houseboat not far from the train station… and were smitten with it. Even in early March, it was properly snug (I can promise it really was as I’m totally adverse to being cold) and had some of the best sleeps we’d had in ages.
Forget the obvious ‘attractions’ of Amsterdam, you come here for the shopping. In particular, you come here for IJ Hallen – the biggest flea market in Europe. If the houseboat hadn’t already got us contemplating a move to Amsterdam, this place certainly did. We took the early morning ferry to the flea market – which was also a great way to get a very different view of Amsterdam. And then we wandered from stall to stall, trying not to fall for something we couldn’t get home. In the end, we of course found something that was tricky to travel with – a vintage school map of Denmark. (Which caused some confusion at the airport as to whether we could use a roll-up map as a weapon or not… Luckily, they decided not!).
Another favourite was Kitsch Kitchen. Again had me wishing we lived here just so I could visit this shop more often. It’s possibly the happiest shop I’ve ever been in – selling bright coloured oil cloths, every kind of pinata you could ever want, Mexican cooking supplies, pencil sharpeners shaped like tiny irons, and vibrant blankets. It was here we found our Mexican blanket that we nearly had to fight someone to get. (Fight is a bit of an exaggeration – but someone did try to take the blanket out of my hands, and then looked super annoyed when it was clear that we were buying it!)
Other shops we loved were: Wildernis (one of the best plant shops I have ever been in), All The Luck in the World (super accessories and homeware in an utterly Instagrammable shop), Blond Amsterdam (for modern twists on Dutch pottery), Anna + Nina (beautiful jewellery and pants, yes pants!), and the amazing A Space Oddity (essentially your inner child will lose its shit in here as there’s every sort of collectable toy, from Star Wars originals to Transformers to She-Ra).
Amsterdam is a pleasantly vegan-friendly city. Our first night, we visited the super friendly Terra Zen where we had the vegan plate and the Jamaican plate – and forgot to take any pics as we tucked in, so we have no visual evidence of it being good but it was. For our first lunch, we hit up De Bolhoed where the other half had a croissant stuffed with tofu curry! Sounds strange but was amazing. This place also got bonus points from us for having a resident big fluffy ginger cat.
Other favourites included: Sharp Sharp vegan treats from Mastino Pizza (which also does vegan cheese pizzas), Soup en Zo for amazing vegan soups with a huge chunk of bread (there’s a few of these in Amsterdam so they’re good for a quick lunch), Vegabond for smoothies and dairy-free treats, and breakfast at CT coffee & coconuts.
And a special shout-out to the It’s Not a Dog popcorn hummus vegan hotdog at Bulls and Dogs because it was a thing of ridiculousness but in a good way.
If you’re a cat fan, then Amsterdam has a few special attractions just for you – De Poezen Boot (a cat shelter on a boat) and De Kattenkabinet (a museum dedicated entirely to cats, yes really). The cat shelter is a lovely place that’s only open for a few hours a day when you can go in and meet the residents – or watch them get argy bargy with the swans outside. (A cat hissing at a swan while the swan hisses back is certainly nothing I’d seen before!)
And the Cat Cabinet museum… well, this is possibly the weirdest place I have ever been in my life. It’s debatable if it’s worth the entry fee but inside you’ll find an old Dutch house, decorating in framed pictures of cat photos, cat advertising, cat posters, cat signs, cat statues, even a really creepy cat costume. It’s supremely weird. It feels like you’re in Miss Havisham’s house, if she really, really liked cats. In the shop downstairs, they sell replicas of the best stuff, with thankfully no replica creepy costume.
You can’t visit Amsterdam without a mention of the craziness that is Amsterdam.
– There’s more bikes than cars and you really feel like you might get run over any moment being a pedestrian. (I think the pecking order is: bikes, cars, then pedestrians.). You even see people cycling while texting, holding flowers or even children.
– You can visit a floating flower market – which although very touristy is still lots of fun. (If you’ve read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, it totally reminded me of the floating market in that with a little bit less craziness.)
– They have a car park that looks like the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Yes, a car park. We see your world class museum and raise you a car park.
– The Vincent Van Gogh museum which has a portrait of the artist as Donald Duck. It’s also an amazing, informative and well-curated museum but one that doesn’t take itself too seriously.