Vicki Notaro goes native in the Dutch city, and finds that travelling around on two wheels only adds to the adventure.
Walking out of Central Station in Amsterdam, you immediately get the sense of a compact city lying before you.
A blur of trams, bikes, barges and buses surrounds the Stationsplein, weaving through the roads and canals off the Amstel River into the heart of things. It doesn't feel chaotic, though - more efficient and relaxed. In particular, I'm struck by the sheer amount of bicycles - there are thousands of the things parked by the station; hundreds more in motion around us.
Because that's what we're here in Amsterdam to do: travel on two wheels.
We collect our bright red bikes from Mac's rental (macbike.nl, €11 for 3 hours, €14.75 for 24 hours), barely a minute's walk from the station entrance. At first, I'm nervous about cycling in a new city. Some Dutch bikes have back-pedal brakes, (although I choose the standard handlebar variety), and the traffic that creates such a sense of va-va-voom around the Stationsplein seems treacherous from the saddle.
Also, there aren't many helmets in the crowds... nor on my head.
Once I'm actually cycling though, the fear disappears. Sure, the streets are crowded and there are pedestrians everywhere, but the sheer volume of bikes and cyclists means you blend right in. There are loads of cycle lanes, and the tingling of bells is constant. Thanks to that, and the fact that there are relatively few cars, it feels almost like the other road users are the odd ones out.
Tulip season in Amsterdam
The first day, my boyfriend Joe and I take it relatively easy on the cycling front, breaking things up with a canal boat tour to get our bearings. It's a rainy evening in spring, so this seems like the safest option. Plus, it's included in our iAmsterdam City Cards - a handy tourist office initiative that includes public transport, entry to museums and discounts off various attractions in one chipped card (the 72 hour option is the best value at €69).
Admittedly, we have to use a squeegee to see through the boat's steamed-up windows, but we're instantly smitten with the city.
This isn't my first time in Amsterdam. I visited 10 years previously, the first stop on an inter-railing tour of mainland Europe. At 19, I'd been surprised to find the city wasn't the hub of iniquity that I'd imagined, but a picturesque, cultural nucleus. Now, I'm marvelling once again at how pretty it all is from my canal boat. As a New York aficionado, the tall, flat buildings surrounding the three main canals (Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht) remind me of East Village brownstones. An eager tourist nearby jumps in to share the fact that New York was once called New Amsterdam, and the two cities share many similarities in appearance and vibe.
The next morning, we're up bright and early and ready to pedal. Our hotel is right next to the Bloemenmarkt, a gorgeous floating flower market (right now, Amsterdam is in the thick of tulip season), but we decide to loop around some quieter canals and make our way towards the Heineken Experience (heinekenexperience.com), the former native brewery site.
Here, we park outside, have a blast inside and restrain ourselves when it comes to the beer… as we're due to hop back on our bikes and go adventuring for the afternoon.
Van Gogh museum, Amsterdam
We explore as much of the city as possible, ranging from historic Dam Square to the more hipster outskirts of the Nine Streets (theninestreets.com), a tightknit shopping area reminiscent of Soho in New York. Spread over nine intimate streets, as its name suggests, this is a real antidote to the city's malls and department stores… chocabloc with funky restaurants, cafes, boutiques, bookshops and other random temptations. It's the perfect spot to lock up the bike and get lost for a couple of hours.
Afterwards, we cycle through the infamous Red Light district - not as seedy as it was on my inter-railing visit, thanks to an ongoing effort to diversify the businesses there. Stag parties do spill messily onto sidewalks, while women in underwear pose in windows - but the vibe isn't menacing or frightening, just not family-friendly (or my cup of tea).
From there, it's down to the Museumsplein that houses the Vincent Van Gogh museum (vangoghmuseum.nl/en; €17) and the Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl/en; €17.50). If at all possible, book these in advance online - the queues at peak time can be horrendous.
On our last day, slightly saddle sore, we return our bikes to take in a final bit of sightseeing on foot. From a pedestrian position, I notice more and more similarities with New York - the ever-changing neighbourhoods, the eclectic food scene, cool boutiques and trendy bars, all surrounded by culture and excess.
Our last night brings us full circle, back near Stationsplein eating dim sum in an enormous floating Chinese restaurant, The Sea Palace (seapalace.nl; set menu from €35) - a slightly smaller version of the famous Jumbo Kingdom in Hong Kong.
An enticing and extraordinary little city, it seems an apt ending to a wonderful trip.
Albus Hotel, Amsterdam
An empty(ish) suitcase. Amsterdam has plenty of very cool boutiques. Check out the Nine Streets (theninestreets.com), a quarter between the Blumenmarkt and the Royal Palace filled with small shops made for browsing and buying, with a sprinkling of bars and cafes throughout.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Amsterdam several times a day, with fares in June starting from €47.99 each way we go to press. Transport from Schiphol Airport to the city centre takes less than 15 minutes by train and costs €4.10pp each way.
See iamsterdam.com for more info on the city.
We checked into the four-star Hotel Albus (albushotel.com; rates from €159), a stylish design hotel with friendly service and incredibly comfortable beds. With flat-screen TVs, Nespresso machines and a super location, it's a great base for exploring (and you can park your bike across the street).
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