A Photographer’s Guide to Amsterdam
A friend living in Amsterdam told me there is this saying: “God made the world and the Dutch made the Netherlands”. And that actually says a lot about this country and the inhabitants. It tells us bits about the maritime power that Amsterdam once was, about the huge effort people have put in building it and also the costs (to themselves and the rest of the world). The name of the Netherland’s capital, Amsterdam (former Amstelledam), actually comes from the river Amstel, the only natural water course in the city. It stands for the name of the river, Amstel, combined with the English word dam (a block against the waters).
A very brief history overview
The year 1275 stands for the birth of Amsterdam, thus the city celebrating its 735 years this October on the 27th. First founded as a fishing village, Amsterdam grew rapidly in the 14th and 15th centuries, evolving to the well known Golden Age, from 1585 to 1672, when the city expanded both in size and power. During this period of time, Amsterdam was the leading maritime force in the world. Then, from 1672 to 1795, Amsterdam reached a new age in its development, an age of gold and silver. So the city was faced with a huge decay from the former thriving period. And this was mainly due to the wars it had to bear with both the English and the French. Nevertheless, it managed to maintain its position as a maritime force and the centre of finance in Europe. One major characteristic of this period is the increase in the number of dwellings, many still to be found nowadays in the center of the city. From 1795 to 1813, Amsterdam was faced with a decline, due to the changes in the government, and also to the fact that the French occupied the country. An economic recession was felt in the entire city, both in the demographics and the construction of the buildings. And this period went as late as 1940, when the city recovered from the economic recession and it even expanded beyond one of the city’s canals, the Singelhraht. Nowadays, Amsterdam is a leading city in the IT industry, culture, tourism and entertainment.
Pointing out the attractions of Amsterdam is no easy task, because there are so many. From the amazing architecture, to the millions of bicycles and bike travelers, to the tenths of museums and, last but not least, the famous Red Light District, with its window girls and coffee shops, where the curious tourists comes to watch, taste and experience everything, with all the senses.
How to get to Amsterdam
There are 4 options to get to Amsterdam. By ferry (1), by train (2), by bus or car (3) and, of course, by plane (4). Option 1, by ferry, is available though only from those countries with a harbor, such as UK or the Scandinavian area. Option 2 is one of the most accessible and widely used by many travelers. The trains travel to Amsterdam from virtually any country in Europe, some with direct routes and other ones with lots of changes along the way. So do enquire before boarding. Option 3 is also recommended if you want more freedom to stop and visit different places. That is if you go there by car, of course. Remember thought that the parking in Amsterdam is expensive to very expensive. If you want to park your car in the center of the city, expect to pay even 7-10 euros per hour. And option 4, by plane, is obviously the fastest. And you can either arrive directly in Amsterdam or land on a nearby airport, and from there choose one of the first three options. So analyze your options ahead, because if you add the cost of all the trains and connections, you might find out that is actually cheaper by plane. Once you’re in Amsterdam, you might consider one of the best options to visit the city—the bicycle. And to help you get an idea about what the bike is for this city, there are an estimated 750.000 inhabitants in Amsterdam and some 600.000 bikes. And in the entire country, things get even better—some 18 million bikes for a population of around 16.5 million people. That means more than one bike per person. You do the math!
Interesting facts and numbers
Courtesy of iamsterdam.com, I found some interesting facts and numbers about Amsterdam that I think are worth mentioning. You already know about the huge number of bikes, outnumbering the population. Another known fact is the huge number of bridges (1281) connecting the 165 canals, compared to some 400 bridges in Venice. So there are only three times more.
There are 175 nationalities, thus making Amsterdam one of the most diverse and tolerant cities in the world. The 220.000 trees, along with the 600.000 flower bulbs in the 28 parks and many public gardens are a guarantee that your eyes (and cameras) will certainly have a green background.
And if you’re passionate about concerts and theatre shows, don’t worry! There are plenty to choose from. With 55 theaters and concert halls, over 60 cinemas, some 40 performances per day, and a grand total of around 16.000 concerts and performances a year, it is really the place to be. In fact, the Het Concert hall is the most occupied concert hall in the world, with almost 900 concerts a year.
In terms of culture, the 50 or so museums and the 140 art galleries (not to mention the temporary galleries in the streets), will certainly quench your thirst for knowledge and beauty. And speaking about cultural events, photography is also highly represented with at least 2 museums: FOAM (Photography Museum of Amsterdam) and the Huis Marseille Museum for Photography. Also, representative for photography is the Press Museum, a true national vault for journalistic heritage. Also worth mentioning, this year was the GRID 2010, the 4th International Photography Biennale in Amsterdam, from September 25 to November 7 (gridphotofestival.com/info.en.html).
In terms of photography, it is almost impossible to get a shot without a boat. Kind of obvious isn’t it, since you are surrounded by water. Yet the boats are not only commercial or for transportation. Most of them are floating houses. Amsterdam prides itself with a collection of 2500 floating houses, be them old barges or more modern houses. And for now, the city hall has limited the number of licenses to this number, in order to prevent overcrowding.
In terms of architecture, there are some 6800 buildings from the 16th, 17th & 18th centuries and over 300 sculptures and statues. And if you get hungry after all the sightseeing, there’s a plethora of restaurants and cafes and bars to choose from. There are 1250 restaurants and 1215 cafes and bars, to be more specific.
And last, a small tip. There are 6.000 and more shops that can be an excellent choice to lose your friends that are less passionate about photography, while you lose your self on the narrow streets of the city.
The equipment that is available to you will do. If possible though, a wide or even fisheye lens is highly recommended. For the streets are mostly narrow and the buildings quite tall. So you’ll make very good use of such special lenses. A telephoto lens is also a plus, because it gives you the possibility to shoot some interesting frames without much interference. And I’m not talking here about shooting in the Red Light District at night. Personally, I think what happens there is a matter of privacy and it should be respected, if possible. Others might see things different. Nevertheless, be aware that there might be consequences for shooting in that area. And, as one of the sites describing the life in the Red District warns, you might see your camera sinking in one of the canals, and you’ll certainly not be the only or last one. Instead, I am talking about the busy life in the city and in particular about the relentless bikers. A telephoto lens will certainly prove helpful if you want to catch them in action. Still, you’ll need a fast lens or high ISO settings, because they often drive faster than the cars. One moment you see them, the next moment they’re gone.
For shooting during the night, a tripod is certainly a must. You can either go with the classic large tripod, or choose a smaller one, such as a Gorilla Pod, which can be an excellent option for holding your camera steady on any of the 1281 bridges.
With over 350 hotels, 150 hostels and many other options such as floating houses and camps, accommodation is certainly something not missing in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing about the prices or the conditions. Because the prices are going from high to huge, and the conditions are, in many cases, not exactly what you might expect. As for the prices, expect to pay somewhere between 15 to 20 euros per person per night in a 20 beds room, and some 30 euros or more in a 4-8 beds room. Still, if you take your time and search thoroughly, you can find a decent and acceptable place to stay, either in a hotel, a hostel or a nice private apartment. But it takes time and patience to find something suitable. Personally, I managed to find such a place in one of the Stay Ok hostels, called Zeeburg. We paid some 30 euros per person per night, for a 4 persons room, with breakfast included. This hostel was said to be one of the cleanest in Amsterdam and indeed it was. Recently renovated and transformed from a former school, it looks really nice and it’s also very well positioned. To conclude, everyone’s choice in terms of accommodation may differ according to several factors, such as the location in the city, number of persons, self catering or not, price, ratings, etc. And for the best ratings according accommodation in Amsterdam, I highly recommend Trip Advisor.
Touring the City
Like I mentioned before, one great way to see the city is by bike. There are countless options for renting a bike, such as Mac Bike, Bike City, Star Bikes, Mike’s Bike or Work Bikes. A simple search on the net will point the location and address of each of these firms, as well as the rental cost. Nevertheless, the daily rates go starting from 8 euros (can be lower if you rent for more days), and in some cases a deposit (in cash and a document) is required to guarantee for the bike. Don’t be fooled by the thousands of bikers driving with one hand alone or even without hands. I even heard of bikers reading a book or the newspaper, talking on the phone or putting on makeup and looking in the mirror. I saw bikers carrying a child or more kids on the bikes (the record was 6 kids in some sort of a bike “trailer”, if I may call it like this). They do this every day, and some of them from very early ages. So, it comes natural to them. Nevertheless, bikers have a special place in Amsterdam and in Netherlands in general. Car drivers respect them and they have all the bicycle routes they need. So you’ll most certainly feel safe there.
Also, don’t be surprised if you don’t find your bike anymore. There are practically two options: it was either stolen or someone took it by mistake, thinking it was his/hers. That is why, when renting it, ask specifically what happens if it gets stolen. Most of them are ensured against stealing, but it better to be safe than sorry and later pay for it. Unfortunately, bikes are being stolen every day and later sold in places like the Flea market.
If you are in the city for more than 2 or 3 days, I recommend purchasing the I Amsterdam Card. It costs 58 euros for 72 hours, or 48 euros for 48 hours and it is worth it. You can see here what you can get with this card, so I won’t go in too much detail. Anyway, it is worth for a lot of reasons, the first being the public transport (in case you won’t rent a bike, as we did). With this card, you can travel with any public transport in Amsterdam (bus, tram, metro, etc). You just place the card next to a scanner in the public transport, and you’re done. No more tickets, no more hassle. Besides that, you get free entrance to some 30 museums (including the ones on photography I already mentioned), a canal cruise, and lots of discounts to restaurants, bars and cafes.
Like any major European city, Amsterdam can be seen in one of the following ways: in an organized way, following a guide and checking the objectives or, my personal favorite way, simply starting in a place and then losing your self on the streets and bridges. And allow your photographer eye to discover the unknown and the unpredictable. I found this way to be the best one and always finding at the end of the journey that I actually saw and experienced a lot more than the travel guides suggested. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, go see for your self.
On a more personal note, from the tenths of museums and places to visit, we saw only a few, mainly because they close at 5 or 6 PM and because the real Amsterdam can be seen rather on the streets. Yet, we managed to see a couple, and they were quite interesting and entertaining at the same time. The museum of history was one of them, because we wanted to find out more about the origins of the city. Nicely depicting the different periods in the rise and development of Amsterdam, it is a visual lesson in history, thus perfect for the photographer’s style.
We also saw the Begijnhof, a nicely inner courtyard dating from the 14th century, home and sanctuary for the Begijntjes, a group of Catholic sisterhood that lived like nuns, though they did not take their nun vows. Here you can see the oldest surviving house in Amsterdam, the Het Houten Huis, dating back to the year of 1400 (or so…). The visitors are kindly asked from the entrance to keep quiet (both in the garden and in the church), and also to respect the privacy of the women still living here. And although there is a text at the entrance of the sanctuary asking not to take pictures, people still do it and no one says anything about this, as long as you’re discreet and respect their privacy.
A very interesting place to visit was the Bags and Purses museum. I never thought that I would visit such a place. In fact, I never knew that such a museum existed. The exhibition is in an old canal house on Herengracht and it houses over 4000 bags displayed on 3 levels, which take you back in time, from the beginnings of these purses, in the times of the chatelaines of France and England and till our present days.
Not a museum, but definitely a place to visit, was the houseboat museum, situated on Prinsengraht canal, on the “Hendrika Maria” freighter, built in 1914. This visit helped us understand the way people used to live and still live. Also, we realized that there are practically no differences in terms of living space or conditions as compared to the apartments. These floating houses are equipped with everything one might need for a very modern living and they also have the benefit of being slightly different from the others. But unfortunately, there are no more available licenses for these kinds of houses unless, of course, you buy one. And in case you were wondering, the costs for these houses are very similar to the apartments in the constructed buildings. A regular 50 square meters boat is around 200.000 euros. Not cheap, indeed. But then again, nothing is cheap in Amsterdam.
We also took a visit to Nemo museum, the largest science centre in the Netherlands. This place is highly educative even for adults, although it is meant as a playground and educational centre for children. The view from the top of the museum is worth climbing on top, for you can see a large part of the city. Nearby the museum, there is an excellent replica of the Amsterdam, a Dutch East India Company ship from the 18th century. The replica was made in the years 1985-1990, and it was meant as a huge social project, offering a place to work to people who had none. The original ship started its maiden voyage in January 1749, but wrecked near Hastings just 18 days later. When the tide is low, the wreck can be seen and visited, but for a more accurate description, the replica near the Nemo museum is the perfect choice.
As for the restaurants, cafes and bars, the options are practically unlimited. Because during a short, 1 or 2 weeks visit, you won’t find the time to see them all. Personally, I tried some Argentinean restaurants and found them to be quite nice and the food acceptable. That is if you like French fries daily, because they come as a side dish with almost everything. And on the streets, French fries are kind of a specialty. With ketchup, mustard, mayo or garlic sauce, you’ll see them everywhere and in everyone’s hands. Back to the Argentinean restaurants, you must try the smoked ribs. They are excellent! And the beer is also very good. You can find such a restaurant in almost any place in Amsterdam, but if you want to go for sure, try the one called La Boca, in Dam Square, across Madame Tussaud’s museum. And for the ending of a long day, try sometimes in the evening one of Amsterdam’s famous crepes. I suggest a nice little place called The Pancake Bakery, on Prinsengracht 191, open till 9.30 PM. The crepes are excellent, the beer is cold and tasty and the atmosphere is as warm as it gets. And if you also take your friends there, then you’ll certainly be the last to leave the scene.
To conclude, Amsterdam is definitely worth visiting at least once. It has strengths and weaknesses, like any other major city in Europe. Among the minuses are the high prices and the lack of any cuisine (sandwiches don’t count in gastronomy), and the pluses are clearly the architecture, the atmosphere of the city (both during the day and the night), the bikes and the structure they create and, last but not least, the cultural diversity and tolerance. And with these being said, I can only invite you to go there and see for yourself. Enjoy!