Amsterdam: A beautiful city with a dark undercurrent

Updated: Sep 30, 2020

Amsterdam was a funny experience for me. I was there a couple of weeks ago for the Kings Day celebrations, which to us Irish would be the equivalent of St Patricks Day, so I caught the city at its most intense time of the year. Although I had fun and met some lovely people during my stay I also found out what it’s like to feel the other side of solo travel, a vulnerability I hadn’t felt before. This is my honest review of a solo trip in Amsterdam.

The city centre is extremely easy to get to from the airport, a one way ticket to Central Station is just €5.20 – and takes less than 20 minutes. I arrived at my hostel, ‘Durty Nellys’, around mid-morning on my first day. The girl who checked me in was absolutely lovely and I was so impressed with how central the place was – right behind the Red Light district and just off Dam Square where the Royal Palace is – the area is perfect for groups who are in the city to party. I booked a mixed dorm (for men & women) as I have found in the past that it’s a really nice way to meet a mixed bunch of people when travelling alone. I was the only woman in the room for my entire stay and this definitely put me on edge right from the beginning. My roommates were men in their 60s, and now don’t get me wrong, I’m all about sisters doing it for themselves and being independent but I felt exposed in this situation. I did ask if I could switch dorms but because I was there during their national holiday weekend they were fully booked so I had to stay where I was. There’s a simple solution to this going forward though – I’m going to go back to staying in female-only dorms when I am travelling alone. Lesson well and truely learnt!!

On my first night I walked into Players, a large bar down the road from my hostel, where there was an organized pub crawl about to start. They asked if I wanted to join (for €25!), and since I was by myself and my hostel didn’t really have a communal area where I could mingle or meet people I decided I would give it a go. It was the first time I had gone on something like this and I had such a fun night! There were about 30 people on the crawl and straight away I made friends with two lovely guys, who were Brazilian & Peruvian, they were also traveling alone and had that typical friendly solo traveller vibe. The Red Light district heaves with people after dark and there is a real party atmosphere. We were brought to five or six bars on the party district and I danced with my new friends until the early hours of Kings Day.

I have a bad habit of not really planning my trips too far ahead – I like to ask people who have been there before if they have any tips and I’ll do a small bit of googling a day or two before I leave, but I am not one to overly plan an itinerary. I did the bus tour on my first afternoon there – something I do to find my feet in every city that I visit – but other than that I had no major plans in advance. I knew Kings Day was happening while I was there but again I hadn’t planned what to do for it. For the first half of the day I walked around the city by myself, eating street food and just taking in the sights. The entire city was a sea of orange – most people had some sort of orange clothing on them to mark Kings Day and there were parties and raves on every corner. Along the canal, boats were bursting with music and people. I was tired from the night before but you couldn’t help but feed off the excitement in the air – the Dutch really know how to party! In the afternoon I heard from Wuilian, my new Peruvian friend, he was on a walking tour with a group from the website CouchSurfing. I decided to join them around five o’clock and see where the evening would take me. Again I had a brilliant night – we were such a mixed bunch; Irish, English, Italian, Ozzy, American, Russian, German, Austrian.. To name a few! Everyone was so nice and we really made the most of Kings Day together! We spent the evening around Rembrandtplein (Rembrandt Square) – there are lots of lovely bars and restaurants around here and if I ever go back I would stay around this area as it is a lot less intense when compared to the Red Light district.

I decided to hang up my party shoes for my last two days and instead I visited museums and galleries and did a lot of walking around the city. The Van Gogh museum is such a wonderful experience – I love art and galleries in general but I have never had such a moving experience in a gallery before. Obviously before I went I knew who he was and was familiar with some of his work but I didn’t have majorly high expectations, if anything I expected to be underwhelmed because he is so well known – but that wasn’t the case. I did the audio tour, you pay an extra €5 and get a little electronic head set which talks you through the museum. By the time I got to the end of the tour I felt like I had gotten to know him – it was so bizarre. The final few paintings in the exhibition actually made me feel quite emotional, I won’t spoil the story but if you ever get a chance to visit then you have to do this tour. Heads up; book your ticket online beforehand or you will have to que for 2 or 3 hours depending how busy it is.

The MOCO museum is right beside Van Gogh and has an amazing collection of Banksy originals – before I saw this I thought his work was purely street art but the huge collection of canvas work in this gallery proved otherwise. In the same building there is also a Salvador Dali exhibition – this wasn’t as impressive to me, it seems like a lot of left over pieces that didn’t make it into other galleries if I am honest, but it was still awesome to be in the presence of greatness all the same. Not one to miss out on!

I visited the flower market (Bloemenmarkt) one of the afternoons and it was as lovely as I had imagined. My Mum went to Amsterdam before I was born and she told me how she had brought my Nana home a packet of bulbs that were meant to be black Tulips. When they grew they turned out to be yellow – much to my Grandmothers disgust! So I decided to go back and pick up some for my Mum while I was there, a new tradition amongst Taylor women perhaps? I wasn’t sure if you could travel through the airport with them but it turns out that you can – so we’ll see when these ones grow if they actually turn out black this time!

The city centre has an extremely heightened vibe – the sex shops, brothels & drugs really can’t be avoided. I knew going over to ‘the Dam’ (that’s what the cool kids call it guys!) that these things were part of the city’s appeal for lots of its visitors but I was not expecting just how normalised that side of it would be. Walking along the small lanes in and behind the red light district the working women in the windows would lick their lips at me as I passed, you do get used to it after a couple of times but it is such a strange experience at first. The lip-licking is something they do to make passer-by’s feel wanted and special. I learnt this when I visited ‘Red Light Secrets’, the museum of prostitution. The museum is eye opening, I learnt a lot about the industry; its history and the women who work in it, and it made the whole district seem a little less chilling if I’m honest. You are brought through each room by a sex worker who still works in the area, via an audio tour. The museum is actually an old brothel so you get to see what a typical room on the district looks like as well as a ‘high end’ boudoir and SNM chamber. You can even sit in a window and give it a go yourself if you are brave enough!

Amsterdam is laid out like an onion; circled with layers of beautiful canals. The huge park (Vondelpark) beside the Rijks museum is gorgeous and in the nice weather you can sit outside one of the many rustic cafes and enjoy a coffee and pastry in one of the most visually stunning cities in Europe. But it does have another side to it. For me, the open drug policy in the city wasn’t my scene, but it is a very distinctive part of the culture. I personally can’t report on the quality of the ‘legal’ highs you can easily purchase over there, however, I will say that there is no shortage of ‘coffee shops ‘ (aka NOT A coffee shop!) around the city. It is perfectly normal for people to walk along the street smoking a joint and the smell is really strong everywhere you go. To my amusement, I was given drug advice during my check in at the Hostel – by advice I mean I was told that if I want to take hallucinogens then I should do so in one of the city’s parks as it’s a really nice experience – far from the usual ‘the lifts are located at the end of the hallway’ advice I normally hear! 🙂

While I enjoyed Amsterdam and could clearly see that it is a beautiful city, there is a darker undercurrent that I haven’t experienced in other places that I have been to and as a female solo traveller I didn’t feel like I was in the safest place in the world. A friend, who I made over there, was mugged on Kings Day when she got separated from the group so I know the uneasy feelings I had throughout my trip were not unwarranted. With all that said I would definitely love to go back in the future, but next time I would bring a friend or two along for the adventure!

Written with love,

Rachael Victoria

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