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Pedaling along the bike lane in Amsterdam

A memorable experience exploring Amsterdam by bike for the first time

by Russ Lowthian, HaveFunBiking.com

On the front end of a bike/barge trip in the Netherlands last year, I added three days to explore Amsterdam by bike. Taking the extra time was a great choice, and using a bike as
my mode of transportation was by far the best way to see the city. This allowed me many opportunities to sample the fare this bike-friendly mecca had to offer. Winging it a bit, I rented one of the locally popular trekking bikes to roam alongside the canals like a true ‘Amsterdammer,’ even though I stuck out a bit wearing a bicycle helmet. I was comfortable navigating the bike lanes, even with motor scooters buzzing up from behind and pedestrians
stepping out in front of me. As bikes are an important part of Amsterdam, I felt like I was a part of the city.

Amsterdam is a bike-friendly place to ride, if?

Pedaling into one of Amsterdam's parks over the canal.

Pedaling into one of Amsterdam’s parks over the canal.

The cool thing about using a bike to get around this city is that you can easily get anywhere quickly. Amsterdam is perfect for bicycles. The city has generous bike paths throughout; some even have specialized traffic lights, with the bicycle symbol illuminated. It seems Amsterdammers go everywhere on their bikes. They attach wagons and load them with cargo – sometimes their children. They also like to chat on their cell phones, run red lights, daringly weave in and out of traffic, and the vast majority of them do not wear helmets. Most of
the Dutch bikes all have the same basic look. Old fashion looking, reminiscent of bikes you would see in movies from the 1950s, with wide-set handlebars

Need a bike? Rental shop options are endless

One of the bike rental shops working on their fleet of bikes.

One of the bike rental shops working on their fleet of bikes.

Looking on the web for a rental bike, there seemed to be an ample supply of bikes available around the city. I assumed that I could wait until midmorning to go out and rent a bike for the next couple of days, my mistake. Even though it was a midweek day, the best bikes in two shops I stopped at had most of their fleet checked-out. Only a few of their older, well used bikes remained. Luckily a bike was being returned that fit me well. So I was on my way, taking with me a valuable lesson in renting bikes in a popular tourist area. Unless you can reserve a bike ahead of time, get there early to get a pick of their best.

Navigating Amsterdam and what you can see

Pedaling along the bike friendly streets in Amsterdam

Pedaling along the bike-friendly streets in Amsterdam

Handy bike maps are available, free, at most hotels, and bike rental shops. With a couple of versions in my pocket for occasional review, they worked well for me. Pedaling the streets along the canals, there is way too much for the eye to see, from gorgeous architecture, charming flower boxes, crowded cafés, etc. So forget your iPod; your ride will have its own soundtrack.

Passing through the Red Light District in Amsterdam

Passing through the Red Light District in Amsterdam

Some of the sounds you may hear include the whirring of a canal boat’s motor, the peal of church chimes, the hum of motor scooters as they zip up behind you, triggering your brain to move over to the right to let them by, and the tinkle of a bike’s bell, maybe yours? I found that my right hand stayed pretty close to the bell on the bike’s handlebar, warning sightseers to move out of the bike lane.

My first day riding in Amsterdam

The City Center is packed full designated bicycle parking lots.

The City Center is packed with full designated bicycle parking lots.

As I mentioned above, I started late checking out a rental bike. Then getting acclimated to the designated bike lanes and tourists walking out in front of me. It was amazing how much I experienced in such a short time. I had no planned route; it was fun to get lost in the city with its maze of streets (straats) and canals (grachts). Of course, those maps in my pocket helped find my way back to my hotel. In the first few hours, I rode through Amsterdam’s finest sections, including the Jordaan District, which could be referred to as the city’s heart. Then I rode past the Anne Frank House, where I had a tour scheduled the following day. Next, I passed the house of Rembrandt and then by the awesome architecture of the Rijksmuseum. Finding my way back, I wandered through China Town and then the Red Light District before meeting friends for dinner.

Overcoming the intimidation

Locking your bike to a bridge in Amsterdam can be a hazard.

Locking your bike to a bridge in Amsterdam can be a hazard.

In just a few hours riding my bike around Amsterdam, my confidence was high … and so was my thirst. Meeting friends for a beer, several of who just arrived in town for the bike/barge cruise, there was some envy as I pulled up on my rental bike. Several asked as I walked in with my helmet still on, “where have you been?” I replied with an accomplished grin, “I’ve biked all over town!” As I shared with them my first day’s adventures in Amsterdam, touring the city by bike.

A full day to explore Amsterdam

Riding along the street Cafes in Amsterdam

Riding along with the street Cafes in Amsterdam

With a loose itinerary, only the Anne Frank Tour scheduled mid-afternoon and dinner plans in the evening, I was off. First, I found myself at Amsterdam’s bustling flower market, where crowds come to buy or just admire a wide array of flowers. After enjoying a cup of coffee and the fragrance of the market, I pedaled across a series of canals to one of the city’s street markets. Here, I found another Dutch treat, a herring stand. In warmer weather, vendor stands tend to spring up around the city, offering this delicacy. If you appreciate sushi or at least pickled herring, give it a try! You can order herring in a bread roll and eat it like a sandwich. Though “the Amsterdam way” is to eat the herring cold, with only diced onions and pickles as a garnish. It was delicious, and one of my favorite must-have snacks on the trip.

Enjoying Amsterdam's street markets

Enjoying Amsterdam’s street markets

Now pointing my bike towards the Central Station, up through the city center at the river’s edge, I took a ferry across Amsterdam’s north side. Following the designated bike route several kilometers, I found this part of the city was newer with many parks.

Another perspective of the city

Take the ferry across the river into North Amsterdam

Take the ferry across the river into North Amsterdam

After the Anne Frank tour, which was well worth the extra time of waiting in line, I was off to the east side of Amsterdam. With several blocks of modern architecture in-between canals, this area gave me another perspective of the city. I planned to take in a few more tours, but I ended up spending more time on the bike. On my way back through the inner city of canals, as late afternoon turned into happy hour along the way, the activities along the sidewalk cafés were entertaining to see.

Sure, you could see Amsterdam in other ways. But, in a city with roughly 250 miles of cycle lanes, over 140 bicycle rental shops, and estimated million-plus miles collectively pedaled by
bicyclists each day, why would you want to waste carbon fuel?

So, in my opinion, assuming you survive the pedestrians wandering out in front of you, biking here is the best. A half-million Amsterdammer’s can’t be wrong. Just be sure to look both
ways before heading out into traffic, and don’t be afraid to ring your bell!