Keith Jenkins' Amsterdam

Keith Jenkins was born in Kuala Lumpur, but quite quickly made his way to Amsterdam, where he's been living for the past 20 years. Not content with this exotic combination of home towns, Keith has notched up an impressive list of more than 60 countries on six continents on his travels, so is well placed to view his adopted home town of Amsterdam though a visitors eyes for our series of Questionnaires for Experts, Bloggers and other Travel Knowledgeables.

 Of course, he's not just a traveller though, he's also found time to share stories of his travels on his blog, Velvet Escape.  

Where's your home town, and what's the main reason people visit?

I’m originally from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia but I’ve been living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, for almost 20 years. Amsterdam’s ‘sex, drugs and rock & roll’ image still draws sizeable numbers of visitors every year (unfortunately). However, many visitors also come here for the gorgeous canals and centuries-old buildings as well as the city’s world-class museums.

What's the main reason you think people SHOULD be visiting?

I feel privileged to live in Amsterdam. It has an unmistakable cosmopolitan buzz that’s unique for a city that counts hardly a million inhabitants (but almost 200 different nationalities). This diversity combined with the city’s rich and colourful history (that’s evident in the stunning architecture and its museums) make it a destination in its own right.

If you had to recommend to the friend of a friend one unmissable thing to do in your home town what would it be?

Pack a picnic basket and hire a boat for a leisurely cruise around the canals. This is my favourite thing to do in the summer, especially in the evenings when it’s cool and quiet. It truly is a magical experience.

If they had a whole day in town what would you recommend they do?

WALK! Amsterdam’s city centre is very compact, making it perfect for a stroll. I recommend exploring the Jordaan neighbourhood, with its distinct atmosphere (it even has its own dialect!). Then continue towards the Nine Streets neighbourhood. You’ll find designer boutiques alongside vintage shops, beautiful cafés and excellent restaurants.

Continue further via the Spui Square and the gorgeous Begijnhof (the old nunnery) to the Dam Square for a tour of the Palace. Then head towards Chinatown (the area around the Zeedijk and Nieuwmarkt) and the red light district. From here, walk in the direction of the Rembrandt Square (passing the picturesque Groenburgwal canal and the Amstel river) and continue past the magnificent Tuschinski cinema to the Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt). From here, find the Spiegelstraat and walk down this lovely street, with its upmarket antique stores, to the Rijksmuseum, and further to the Van Gogh museum. This itinerary is more than sufficient to fill a whole day!

 What if they had three days?

Day 1: see walking tour above.

Day 2: explore other neighbourhoods such as the Pijp and its Albert Cuyp market. In the spring and summer months, head to the Vondelpark in the late-afternoons and people-watch. If you’re not hiring a boat (see my recommendation in my answer to question 3), join any one of the canal cruises. It’s a very touristy thing to do but it remains the best way to truly admire the canals and the canalside buildings. Another thing you could do, if you love architecture and Art Deco interiors, is get tickets for a movie that’s showing at the Tuschinski cinema (Hall 1). The hall is simply awe-inspiring. Watching a movie in this hall is an experience you won’t easily forget. The cinema also organises guided tours.

Day 3: visit some of the historic towns around Amsterdam. Utrecht and Haarlem are a 30 minute train ride away. The lovely town of Zaanse Schans is nearby – it’s very touristy but the beautiful heritage houses and windmills are absolutely worth seeing. You can also opt to visit the historic towns of Monnickendam, Edam, Marken and Hoorn north of Amsterdam. Some of these towns flourished during Holland’s Golden Century (16-17th centuries), functioning as trading posts for the shiploads of spices, porcelain, precious metals and silk from around the world. Nowadays, they’re quiet, wonderfully atmospheric towns, steeped in history and traditions, and make for a fascinating day-trip from Amsterdam.

If you love castles, head to the medieval Muiderslot, east of Amsterdam, or the stunning De Haar castle just south of Amsterdam.

What will you never catch a local doing?

I had to think hard about this one. One thing locals won’t do is hail a taxi on the street. There are taxi stands at dedicated areas and you’ll see locals queueing for taxis at these stands. Another thing you (probably) won’t catch locals doing is smoking a joint in the middle of Dam Square. That’s something only certain tourists would do.

What WILL you catch a local doing?

Downing raw herring covered with finely-chopped onions at a fish stall. There’s only one way to eat it: grab a herring by its tail, tilt your head backwards and slowly lower it into your mouth! It’s an ancient Dutch tradition.

And what local delicacies would visitors be fools not to try while they're there?

The raw herring for sure! And while you’re at the fish stand, get a helping of my favourite: ‘kibbeling’ (deep-fried fish) with remoulade sauce. You should also try Dutch fries, known as ‘frites’, with Dutch mayonnaise. The best place in my book for fries is Fleminckx in the Voetboogstraat 31. If you fancy a cheap and tasty snack on-the-go, look for the FEBO, a Dutch fast-food chain where visitors insert coins into glass cases in a wall and take out the food item that’s behind the glass door. I love seeing the looks on tourists’ faces when they discover the FEBO. My FEBO recommendations include the veal/beef- or spicy rice/noodle croquettes.

In 140 characters, how would you sum up your home town as a great destination?

A cosmopolitan city with a rich history, stunning architecture, diverse arts/culinary scene & nightlife in a romantic, village-like setting.

Anything else you want to add!?

Amsterdam is a great city to visit all year round. However, there are various events which I can absolutely recommend. If you can, try to plan your trip to coincide with any of these events.

  1. Queen’s Day (30th April) – the day the Queen’s birthday is celebrated throughout the country. Amsterdam turns into one big flea market with street parties and concerts.

  2. Open Garden Days (June) – this is the perfect opportunity to visit the private gardens of the historic mansions that line the canals.

  3. Holland Festival (June) – cultural organisations from around the world descend upon Amsterdam to showcase their latest productions. There’s something for everyone: dance, theatre, music, opera, etc…

  4. Gay Pride (first weekend of August) – Amsterdam welcomes roughly 1 million visitors each year for its Gay Pride festivities. There are street parties and concerts, as well as gay-related performing arts and theatre. The main attraction however, is the Canal Parade (held on the Saturday). More than half a million people lined the Prinsengracht (Prinses canal) this year to cheer on the 80-odd boats that passed by. It’s a hugely popular event for everyone, gay, straight, young and elderly.

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