Amsterdam Walking Tour – Why It’s Epic and Controversial?

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It’s time to be real honest with yourselves! What is the first thing that springs to mind when you think about Amsterdam? Depending on your age, perhaps you will say Anne Frank or the stereotypical canals and bicycles that are literally everywhere in the city. But I am sure there are a few of you out there that would think about the Red Light district or the freedom of cannabis throughout the city. Regardless of your stance on any of these issues, the reality is that Amsterdam exudes freedom and we were excited to visit the Dutch capital to learn more. What better way to do this than by an Amsterdam walking tour!

amsterdam walking tour

Sandemans Amsterdam Walking Tour

Amsterdam is a beautiful city and it didn’t take us long to fall in love with the perfectly dubbed ‘Venice of the North’. After arriving late at night and experiencing first hand the awesome FREE ferry service that takes locals and visitors alike to various parts of the city, we headed back to the central part of Amsterdam to take another of Sandemans free walking tours.

venice of the north

The previous day we experienced the Brussels walking tour which was an excellent way to take in the main attractions, along with a few hidden gems that our tour guide introduced to us. We were excited and prepared to go along with the Amsterdam version as we now considered ourselves to be seasoned pros of the free walking tour.

From the wild history of prostitution and drug decriminalization, to the tragedy of Anne Frank’s story and Nazi occupation, we aim to give you a perfect introduction to Amsterdam.

Having read the above quote on Sandemans website prior to taking the tour, this was going to be…as the title of this post goes…an epic yet potentially controversial walking tour. But we all love a bit of controversy right? Arriving at the National Monument at Dam Square meeting point just before 10:00AM, we met a variety of visitors from all corners of the world.

national monument dam square

We were introduced to our tour guide for the day, Katjalisa who immediately asked us if we were all ready to stick with her for the full 2.5 hours despite the cold weather and potential for heavy rain. A little inclement weather wasn’t going to stop any of us from experiencing the city of Amsterdam!

sandemans amsterdam walking tour

Red Light District

***PLEASE NOTE, PICTURES WERE NOT ALLOWED IN THIS PART OF THE CITY AS ADVISED BY OUR TOUR GUIDE***

If any members of the tour were thinking that this was going to be all about history and modern art in Amsterdam, they quickly realized this was far from the truth as we immediately headed for one of the most controversial neighborhoods of the city – the Red Light District. Visiting this part of the city during the morning is clearly a very different experience than at night, with very few people on the streets and the windows/buildings all covered up.

Walking through the district, Katjalisa began explaining that she is actually working on a research project ‘behind the scenes’ of the Red Light District. I am sure certain members of the group were a little uncomfortable as our tour guide shared more information on ‘costs’ and ‘expectations’ of individuals visiting this neighborhood, but the reality is this is what takes place here and it is an accepted industry. Katjalisa emphasized that the females participating in prostitution here are some of the most confident individuals she has met, it is a very different industry to the stereotype that most cities associate with this.

How does the government, city of Amsterdam and locals feel about this? Just like we later discovered with the topic of cannabis and ‘coffee shops’, it is a topic that is rarely discussed. However, it is clearly apparent that the type of tourists and visitors to the city are for the most part not what Amsterdam would like to attract.

Oude Kerk Square

As we stood in the Oude Kerk square listening to Katjalisa’s stories, a group of ‘typical’ juveniles strolled through the district, and she immediately frowned indicating that this is exactly the type of people that are frequently seen here and unfortunately, it has a negative reflection on the city. We also noticed a small, bronze statue of a woman representing a prostitute waiting at the door for a potential client. You can see how proud she looks and this is a perfect representation of all the prostitutes in this part of the city.

oude kerk square

We also noticed a small, bronze statue of a woman representing a prostitute waiting at the door for a potential client. You can see how proud she looks and this is a perfect representation of all the prostitutes in this part of the city.

oude kerk red light district

I mentioned the Oude Kerk square, well after listening to the controversial stories related to the Red Light district, we then switched to the historic church that towers above this district. It’s kind of ironic that this church is located here but it’s believed that throughout history, devout protestants would have enjoyed the Red Light district the previous night before crawling into the church to beg for forgiveness after their sins!

Venice of the North

The Red Light District may be the most famous neighborhood throughout Amsterdam, but for those of you less interested in hearing about that perhaps you will be more interested in what I now believe to be the best stereotype of the Dutch capital.

amsterdam canals

The canals that run through the city reinforce the similarity with a fellow European city, but it’s also intriguing to see how this city is pretty much revolved around bicycles.

amsterdam walking tour

The Jordaan District is a perfect example of a Dutch neighborhood in Amsterdam as it was initially created by the working class and immigrants moving into the city. Today, Amsterdam is one of the most multi-culturally diverse cities with migrants from a myriad of nations finding residence here.

An oasis of peace with a labyrinth of narrow streets and little canals

Having experienced all of the bicycles in Copenhagen, I never imagined we would visit a city with more two-wheeled forms of transportation.

amsterdam walking tour

But Amsterdam has a network designed for bicycles that make this by far the best way to get around. In fact, as you walk around the city it’s apparent that bicycles are the norm rather than cars!

amsterdam walking tour

We took a short break before continuing our tour and this gave us an opportunity to experience some of Amsterdam’s fine cuisine.

amsterdam walking tour

The Coffee Shops

Our tour of Amsterdam continued through courtyards, cobblestone alleys and of course by the iconic canals. Katjalisa pointed out a few of Amsterdam’s most iconic ‘coffee shops’ including Dampkring Amsterdam, most famous for being the location in the movie Ocean’s 12 with Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

Locals suggest this is not one of the better coffee shops around, so if you are interested in sampling some of Amsterdam’s finest cannabis, perhaps you need to ask a local for their recommendation!

coffee shop amsterdam

The topic of cannabis is again another ‘controversial’ matter and one that Katjalisa was a little hesitant to discuss, primarily because this is another tour offered by Sandemans.

amsterdam walking tour

By the way, if you haven’t already figured it out…the term ‘coffee shop’ in Amsterdam refers to a spot where you can grab a menu with all varieties of cannabis/joints etc. available for purchase!

amsterdam walking tour

Where does all the cannabis come from? Well, that’s the million dollar question that in reality no one knows. Is it legal? Technically no, rather it is ‘tolerated’ by the government. Our guide indicated that if the police caught you with a beer and a joint, they would ask you to get rid of the beer but say nothing about the cannabis. An individual may carry a maximum of 5 grams of cannabis without risk of prosecution.

The Begijnhof Convent

If you are looking for a spot around Amsterdam to head away from the hustle and bustle of city life, in particular, those bicycles that are difficult to avoid unless you are a local, head over to the Begijnhof Convent which is an enclosed courtyard dating back to the 14th century.

begijnhof convent

It’s crazy to think that over the last 600 years, this location has maintained such a quiet ambiance and sanctuary feel yet everything surrounding it has developed into the modern city.

amsterdam walking tour

Today, people are still living inside the Begijnhof so visitors are encouraged to maintain the silence and pay respects to the gorgeous architecture that is preserved throughout this courtyard. The well-maintained garden is a central focal point alongside the English Reformed church which still maintains the original medieval tower dating back to the 15th century.

Begijnhof convent

Quirky Architecture

Walking around Amsterdam, you can’t help but notice all of the quirky architecture. For example, during our tour, we noticed both the widest bridge and narrowest house.

amsterdam widest house

Let me tell you, I can’t imagine moving much furniture around in the narrow house! Regardless of whether this is ‘officially’ the narrowest house in Amsterdam, it is a little over 2 meters wide proving that it’s not that much wider than the actual doorway.

narrowest house amsterdam

The Torensluis Bridge is the widest bridge in the city and was initially constructed in the 17th century. It was originally constructed to serve as a prison and today the barred windows under the bridge serve as a reminder of the original purpose.

amsterdam walking tour

The iconic figure of Multatuli is also present here through a statue that depicts this author who was most famous for his satirical novel, Max Havelaar.

multatuli

Anne Frank House

Our tour of Amsterdam culminated at probably the most iconic of all attractions, the Anne Frank House. Have you read the ‘Diary of Anne Frank’? I have to admit that none of the tour group members had but by all accounts it’s definitely a worthwhile read.

Although our tour didn’t actually go inside of this building, the story of our Frank and her family lived in the annex here along with her father’s business. As Anne Frank was a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, she was kept in hiding in this location for quite some time. She used the time spent here to write her diary and portray her feelings and experiences throughout these difficult times.

anne frank house

Her secret location unfortunately didn’t last too long, as on August 4, 1944 she was captured by the Gestapo and taken to the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. She died there just a few months later in early 1945.

amsterdam walking tour

Today, the popularity of this attraction makes the waiting times quite lengthy but according to Katjalisa it’s well worth the wait. Quotations and artifacts from the infamous diary can be seen in the museum, and although we didn’t have time on this trip to head inside, we look forward to a return trip in the near future. Not that we need any excuses to return to Amsterdam!

Summary

Amsterdam is clearly an ‘epic and controversial’ city, but surely that’s the reason why it attracts so many visitors from all corners of the globe every year! Our Amsterdam walking tour was a real eye-opener but thanks to Katjalisa, she not only educated us in a number of ‘touchy’ topics but she introduced us to a city that oozes real character and uniqueness.

If you plan on visiting Amsterdam, I would strongly encourage you to consider taking a guided walking tour. You will appreciate the knowledgeable guides and leave with a wealth of knowledge about the destination we can now all associate as the ‘Venice of the North’!

Weekend Wanderlust


22 COMMENTS

  1. I love taking walking tours when I travel! You can learn so much more than just walking around on your own. And I loved Amsterdam – what a fun city!

  2. I definitely need to visit Amsterdam again! I have only spent a few days there in 2015 and there is so much more to see… A really interesting post too, funny that your #weekendwanderlust post is on Amsterdam too!

  3. Great post and fantastic photos! Like you, we’ve become fans of walking tours – there is just no better way of experiencing a city! The only thing that I don’t like about Amsterdam is the perversion of the venerable “coffee shop.” As a fan of actual coffee shops, it’s annoying that you can’t ask where the best one is without being labelled as “one of those tourists.”

  4. I really enjoyed the pictures you shared here! I’ve only visited Amsterdam briefly (roughly 12 hours or less) while on a layover from Uganda back home to the States. As we were a church group returning from a mission trip, we definitely did not go into the Red Light District! Another attraction worth seeing is the Corrie Ten Boom house in Amsterdam; she and her family saved many Jews during the Holocaust.
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    • Thanks Katrina for your kind words and for your recommendation on Corrie Ten Boom House. We will just add it to the list of spots we need to explore next time we head to Amsterdam which will hopefully be sooner rather than later 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your kind comments. I agree with you that those bicycles were hard to resist and next time we head to Amsterdam we are definitely hopping on one of those to get around. However, it seems like you need to be a seasoned pro to fit in with those experts moving around the city 🙂

    • It really is spectacular so hopefully you will have the opportunity to visit there sometime soon! Let us know if you plan on visiting and we will share more hints and tips with you from our experience.

  5. I’ve trotted through Amsterdam briefly. We breezed through the city and I didn’t fully indulge because of the time. It’s such a visually interesting city and I can’t wait to go again.

    • Amsterdam is a city that certainly captivates you the moment you set foot in and around those quaint streets and canals! I definitely agree with you that visually it is one of the most spectacular cities in Europe, maybe the world!

  6. Great summary of the walking tour Chris. I wish we had done it instead of just wandering aimlessly and learning almost nothing. We used Sandeman’s in Prague and it was excellent. Maybe the weather turned us off committing to 2.5 hours.

    • Thanks so much Dean! The weather forecast wasn’t great before we headed on our walking tour of Amsterdam so we were a little sceptical about committing 2.5 hours but it was well worth it. The weather held off but in reality, even if it had started raining, experiencing a city as beautiful as Amsterdam would have been worth it.

  7. Such a rich and complex city! I’ve heard about the cannibis cafes and red light district but there’s so much more to see. I’d rent a bike to explore and hit the museums too while filling up my phone card taking lots of pictures!!

  8. I love the story of Anne Frank, such an inspiring young lady. I would like to visit her house and this tour sounds like a good option. I am surprised that no-one on the tour had read the book, but I guess it depends on their native country and perhaps school curriculum.

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