A city on sticks, and other attractions


Beautiful, historical, and replete with fascinating culture on every corner, Amsterdam is above all a testament to how far humanity will push a ridiculous idea, out of sheer stubbornness. The Dutch capital’s origin story is every bit as fantastical as Romulus and Remus: back in the 12th century, a group of young adventurers made their way down the Amstel River in hollowed-out logs, before settling in a swamp, where they dug dams and dykes to regulate the water levels. This turned into a modest fishing village and, in time, into one of the most economically powerful cities of its time.

The fabulous wealth that accumulated in Amsterdam, primarily during its golden age of the 17th century, allowed the creation of the impossible city we see today. Even with its dams, dykes, canals and windmills, Amsterdam is in a constant battle against water and gravity; the entire city is supported on a field of subterranean poles, reaching down through around 11 metres of water, clay and peat to find purchase on the bedrock below. There are estimated to be around 11 million of these poles supporting the city, and its impressive central train station alone rests on by some 9000 of them.

Naturally, time and swamp water haven’t been kind to the old-timey wooden poles (they’re concrete now), as stout as they were. With slowly rotting legs, many of Amsterdam’s iconic narrow houses are gradually lilting and sliding against each other, like an English stag party staggering through De Wallen. It’s possible to fix them, but hugely disruptive and can cost more than €100,000, so most Amsterdammers leave it to future inhabitants. 

What to do

Amsterdam has an embarrassment of riches, for visitors of all ages and interests. There’s obviously the famous Red Light District, which caters for most vices you could conceive of, though most locals see it as a gaudy tourist trap. Which, of course, it is.

Equally touristy, though rather more wholesome, are the city’s many canalboat tour companies. There are several large providers vying for your custom, though we were pointed toward the much smaller Rederij P. Kooij, whose two-hour candle-lit cruise takes you through the city, out into the Amstel and back, complete with wine and nibbles. It’s a great experience, and surprisingly educational.

Culture-wise, there’s the unforgettable Anne Frank’s House, and the van Gogh Museum, both of which are absolutely mandatory, but need to be booked well in advance. There’s also the spectacular Rijksmuseum, home of the Dutch masters; the building alone is worth the price of admission, even if you’re not fussed about van Goghs, Vermeers, and a wee painting called the Night Watch.

If you’re dragging small people around, you can bribe them through the museums with a promise to visit Amsterdam’s Artis zoo. It’s not huge, being a city centre zoo, but has a great selection of animals, an epic adventure playground and – this is Holland – a wonderful restaurant. You can then pop next door for some gross-out thrills (and covert education) at the Micropia microbe museum – a discounted ticket for both attractions is available.

Finally, hire a bike. Cyclists are at the top of the food chain in Amsterdam, with cars venturing onto the roads purely as guests. It’s a fast and fun way to get around, and you’ll feel like a local within the first five minutes. Seriously, hire a bike.

Where to stay

SWEETS hotel bills itself as “a radically different way to experience Amsterdam,” and it certainly is that. Most of its rooms are repurposed ‘bridge houses’ – essentially the former control rooms for Amsterdam’s many mechanised bridges. These rooms range from quaint stone huts to brutalist watchtowers, all lovingly converted into unique, luxury accommodation at reasonable prices.


I stayed in a house suspended above the bridge at Westerdoksbrug, with the bedroom elevated several meters into the air, and a pretty spiral staircase leading down to a river-level bathroom. Many of the original features had been kept intact, including the impressive control panel, converted to a glass-topped table.

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