Amsterdam is like a fairy tale city- cobblestone streets, bridges that arch over the gentle canals bustling with a never ending stream of passenger boats, and row upon rows of canal houses, straight out of Hans Christian Andersen’s imagination.
After hitting up Dublin and Paris on my husband, Justin’s and my exploration of Europe, Amsterdam was our last stop. While I had minimal expectations for Amsterdam heading into our journey across Europe, this city full of charm, history, and oh so many bicycles ended up totally stealing the show.
With arguably the best vegan food of our entire trip and all sorts of fun to be had, ranging from frat boy shenanigans of the Red Light District to taking a romantic boat ride under the twinkling fairy lights of the city, here is my guide of what to eat, see, and do in Amsterdam.
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How to Get There
You’ll fly into Amsterdam Schipol Airport, a reasonably easy airport to navigate. To get into Amsterdam’s city center, we took the train, which departs from a station directly below Schipol Plaza, the central hall of the terminal. Make sure to buy a ticket at one of the yellow machines prior to taking the escalator downstairs to the station (you may want to make sure to have some cash on hand as none of the machines accepted our credit cards for some reason). A one-way ticket will run you about €4.50 and will take you to Amsterdam Centraal, the city’s centrally located main train station, in about 15-20 minutes.
How to Get Around
I really had my heart set on riding bikes around Amsterdam, but Justin (affectionately referred to in our household as Mr. Safety) put the kibosh on that by showing me one too many blog posts written by locals recommending against it if you’re a tourist visiting for a short while (check out this article for some pretty level-headed advice).
Amsterdammers pretty much exclusively get around via bike, so this mode of transportation has become a finely refined science, from complicated hand signals to a full blown set of traffic laws and regulations. After watching cyclists for a couple of days, I feel like we could have figured it out. However, public transit here makes the hassle of carrying around a helmet, locking up your bike, learning complicated hand signals, etc. seem kind of pointless. For only €12.50, you can pick up a 2 day unlimited pass for all public transit options, including trams, buses, and ferries.
Our experience with public transit was flawless, with every destination being a quick five to ten minute walk to or from a tram stop. Unless you’re already reasonably confident on a bike or going to be in Amsterdam for several days, I’d probably recommend sticking with public transit.
Protip #1– When using public transit, you will have to scan your card both when you get on and off the bus. If you forget to scan your card when you get off, your card will allegedly become invalid. I did not scan my card on my way out the entire first day we were there, and my card seemed to work fine, so if you forget, don’t panic. That being said, it takes zero effort to swipe your card, so why risk it?
Protip #2– Feeling lost? While Dutch is the native language spoken by Amsterdammers, seemingly everyone, almost to a comical level, speaks perfect English. As with any city, you should make your best efforts to learn a few key phrases in the native tongue, but if you’re in a pinch, you’ll have no trouble communicating with locals here (who are, by and large, extremely friendly and nice).
Protip #3– Are you planning on going to several museums? Maybe a canal ride? Do a cost-benefit analysis on whether you should pick up an I Amsterdam card, which covers admission to 60 museums (including the van Gogh, the Rijksmuseum, and the National Maritime Museum; note that the Anne Frank house is NOT included!), unlimited public transit, and a canal boat cruise. A 48 hour card costs €74- because we only went to one museum, purchasing the card for us would have wound up being a wash, but if you’re hitting up more of the included attractions, this could offer a pretty significant value!
Where to Stay
Our Airbnb was located in the Jordaan neighborhood, a picture perfect area with rows of crooked canal houses, dotted with trendy art galleries, coffee shops full of yuppies, and homey pubs. Located a five minute walk from Dam Square, a bustling city center in front of the Royal Palace and within walking distance to many of the city’s attractions, I would highly recommend this area as a homebase during your stay in Amsterdam. If you’re looking for a slightly less touristy experience, check out the Rembrandtplein neighborhood, a more residential area near the city’s center.
What to Eat
Rosmarijnsteeg 12, 1012 RP Amsterdam; 9:00-18:00 Monday through Saturday; 10:00-18:00 Sunday
When in the Netherlands, you basically need to eat Dutch pancakes, right? Pannenkoeken, a thinner version than the fluffy American kind, can be served savory, traditionally with meats, veggies, or cheese, or sweet, with stroop (molasses), fruit, and powdered sugar. The Happy Pig’s claim to fame is their “rolled” pancakes, the thin batter enveloping the delicious stuffings, like plump mushrooms or gooey chocolate-hazelnut sauce and sliced up into bite size chunks.
Amongst its many offerings include several vegan options- we picked one with banana and lemon and another called the pancake stroganoff, stuffed with bell peppers, onions, garlic, parsley, and mushrooms. The pancakes are almost crepe-like and serve as the perfect vehicle of delivering the flavorful fillings. The stroganoff pancake’s fillings were cooked to juicy perfection, and the banana, with a hint of the lemon’s brightness, was sweet without putting me into a post-breakfast sugar coma.
This casual eatery, like most in Amsterdam, has a small footprint and was full by the time Justin and I showed up to get breakfast, so after ordering at the counter, we happily ate our trays of pancakes on the store’s sidewalk. While this would have been quite challenging with a regular pannenkoeken, the rolled format makes this breakfast totally easy to pop into your mouth and eat on the go.
De Clercqstraat 48, 1052 NH Amsterdam
In a city bursting with cheese shops at every corner, there’s no reason for a vegan to feel left out in Amsterdam, thanks to Vegabond, a completely plant-based market and cafe. While the back half of the store peddles vegan specialty groceries, ranging from cheese and sausages to cork wallets, the front half of the clean and modern space is dedicated to serve up light fare, like baked goods, smoothie bowls, and sandwiches, as well as coffee-based drinks.
While sitting at one of the shop’s outdoor tables overlooking a canal lined with cobblestone streets, Justin and I split a piece of Dutch apple pie. Its buttery streusel crust gave the pastry almost a cake-like texture, with a subtle enough flavor to let the thick chunks of cinammony apples shine. Pair a latte with this storybook setting for an absolutely lovely way to start your day.
Be sure to check out the market portion of the store once you’re finished with your breakfast. I was particularly excited to pick up a package of stroopwafel, a ubiquitous type of Dutch cookie, made from a caramel-y sauce sandwiched between two waffle-like wafers -soft, gooey, and ever so Dutch.
LUNCH AND DINNER
Staringplein 22, 1054 VL Amsterdam, Netherlands; 12:00-22:00 daily
No list of Amsterdam vegan spots would be complete without the Holy Grail for lovers of all foods fried and comforting. This restaurant, which has fully embraced its name and specializes in creating comfort food dishes that toe the line between glutinous and glorious, now has three locations throughout the city- we checked out the original eatery tucked away in a quieter, residential area to the east of city center or a twenty minute stroll from the Van Gogh Museum through the city’s famous park, Vondelpark.
The interior of the restaurant is minimal and modern- white subway tiled walls with punchy graphics of plant-based junk food scattered about. We instead opted to sit at one of the many low picnic tables outside, basking in the sunlight and watching local kids bicycling about as we waited for our food.
Having caught an early morning flight from Paris and not having eaten anything in what seemed like an eternity, Justin and I wholly embraced the gluttonous approach here. For an appetizer, we ordered the Amsterdam bitterballen, a Dutch specialty, typically a fried ball containing a mixture of beef or veal and butter. The restaurant’s take on a bitterballen has a crunchy fried exterior encasing a velvety, sausage-like filling. Dipped into a tangy mustard sauce, this stereotypical Dutch bar food would be perfect after a night of one too many beers in the Red Light District.
For our entrees, we shared an Original VJFB burger- a beef patty, topped with cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, a fried onion mix, and creamy VJFB sauce (somewhere between an aioli and Big Mac sauce) and a Notorious Sumo, which essentially was the Original VJFB on steroids, adding an extra patty, fried onion rings, and spicy jalapenos to the mix.
To put the cherry on top of our voracious sundae, we ordered a side of the Kapsalon loaded fries, topped with schwarma, grated cheese, jalapenos, and a spicy sauce. Let me be clear- the portions here are more than generous so this was almost a comical amount of food for two people- but being the champs we are, we plowed through it all.
The Notorious Sumo was one of the best burgers I’ve had- a glorious cacophony of tastes and textures, from the umami flavor and beefy mouthfeel of the patty to the satisfying crunch of the onion rings and the tangy kick of the spicy sauce. The Kapsalon fries were equally as epic- each forkful packed with jalapenos and spicy schwarma, dripping with creamy sauce, was accompanied by a sensation of pure ecstasy (and a mild inkling of underlying guilt). No food shame here- only complete and unadulterated indulgence.
Protip- If you’re looking for a lowkey spot to spend a few hours for an evening group outing, check out Kebabi, a sister ping-pong bar of VJFB and the Netherland’s first (and only) vegan doner kebab joint (right around the corner from the original restaurant). While the original eatery does not serve alcohol, you can wash down your bitterballen at Kebabi with brews from Two Chefs Brewing, a fun Amsterdam microbrewery, all while playing a raucous game of ping pong.
Linnaeuskade 3h, 1098 BC Amsterdam, Netherlands; 11:30-23:00 Tuesday through Sunday
This upscale restaurant screams date night, with its cozy bistro tables and its modern design, from the bold, graphic wallpaper to the sleek, uplit bar. If it’s a glorious day out, like the one we had, you can also snag one of the street side tables, overlooking a canal and a sidewalk crowded with Dutch business men and women.
Justin and I split a vegetable croquette sandwich (yet another Dutch specialty, typically of meat ragout covered in fried breadcrumbs)- I loved the croquette’s texture- the crispy exterior juxtaposed with the creamy filling.
We also split the tosti pepperjack, a kind of grown up grilled sandwich with homemade pepperjack cream, caramelized onion, and a tomato and garlic sauce. As stated, Mr. and Mrs. Watson’s cheese can do no wrong, so while simple, the smoky, creamy flavor of the pepperjack cheese shone through. Cheese addicts and enthusiasts alike: run, do not walk, here.
Reguliersdwarsstraat 51, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Sunday through Wednesday 17:00-1:00; Thursday 17:00-3:00; Friday 17:00-4:00
Amsterdam is famous for its nightlife, especially the debaucherous Red Light District. So, in a city where most of the restaurants close before 22:00, where is a hungry vegan supposed to get some late night grub? Say hello to my friend, Pizza Heart.
Pizza Heart, located a few blocks from the Red Light District, is the perfect place to stop after you’ve had a few late night beers. The restaurant is simple, consisting of a small walk-up counter with a few stools and some outdoor tables for you to wait for your pie (and then devour). The service is friendly, quick, and accompanied by passionate exchanges in Italian between the owners cranking out pizzas from the clay oven. If you’re feeling extra lazy, delivery is also available!
With two clearly marked vegan options (and the ability to change whatever toppings you want), the streamlined, but flexible menu lends to the speedy service. Pizza Heart does its city proud- the cheese here is INSANE, perfectly gooey and stringy (again, the best cheese I’ve ever had on a pizza) and the clay oven creates a heavenly blistered crust. In a pub-heavy neighborhood, it was a perfect way to wind down for the night, watching bar patrons stumble home and happily chowing down on a comforting slice.
Nicolaas Beetsstraat 47, 1053 RJ Amsterdam, Netherlands; 12-21:30 Wednesday through Sunday
Originating from a food truck, this fast casual restaurant is on a rather unique mission- to create indulgent fast food out of completely sustainable Dutch-raised seaweed, which is naturally dense with protein, omega acids, and minerals. The modern interior of the restaurant focuses on plucky plays of the “weed” schtick (e.g. “Eat Weed, Live Long”), which the friendly and enthusiastic staff play along with.
We ordered an original Dutch Weed Burger, made with beans, enriched with seaweed, and a bun, which is (you guessed it) also seaweed-based, served with crispy fried onions and a creamy, tartar-like sauce. We opted to, as the menu states “Go insane!”, which means adding a punch of kimchi and an “umami bomb of miso” to the burger, as well.
The menu proclaims the sandwich is so rich in nutrients, it will give you an “instant natural high” (get it?!)- while I can’t attest to any hallucinogenic effects, the burger was great, with the soft patty eerily replicating the fatty, fresh-from-the-ocean taste of a tuna burger.
We also ordered a Seawharma, with grilled seitan, infused with seaweed, wrapped in a pita with flavor-enhancing accoutrements like pickled red cabbage and fresh red pepper, and drenched in tahini sauce. The seafood taste is undetectable in this dish (rightfully so), with the most prominent flavor, instead, being the earthy notes of Arabic spices.
As for something on the sweeter side, Justin ordered a “Badass Banana” milkshake, with an oat milk base, chunks of banana and hints of vanilla bean, topped with whipped cream and (why not?) mermaid-esque sprinkles, a veritable banana cream pie in a glass.
As for one of my favorite culinary experiences in Europe, we also split a tompouce for dessert, the Netherlands’ answer to a Napoleon. With two layers of firm puff pastry, stuffed with thick cream, the tompouce is both enjoying and challenging to eat; after attempting to figure out how to eat this dessert without suffering from the explosive whipped cream side effects, we learned that it is tradition to say “Hoe eet je een tompoes?” (which translates to “How do you eat a tompouce?’) when a person serves you the dessert.
Places I wanted to check out but didn’t get a chance:
Restaurant Long Pura (Rozengracht 46-48, 1016 ND Amsterdam, Netherlands)- Due to Dutch colonialism, Amsterdam is a total melting pot, which is reflected in the thriving and diverse food scene. I was dying to try Indonesian food (did you know Indonesia was a colony of the Netherlands for over two hundred years?) while we were there and Long Pura was consistently ranked as one of the best and most vegan friendly options.
LATE NIGHT SNACK
Stationsplein 31, 1012 AB Amsterdam, Netherlands (multiple locations; time varies)
The Dutch have figured it all out, especially when it comes to fried carbs. Case in point- what makes the deliciousness that is French fries even better? If you were thinking “being totally smothered in mayonnaise”, then yes- you are correct, my friend!
There are a couple places around Amsterdam that serve vegan mayo until the wee hours of the morning- Smullers, conveniently located in station Amsterdam Centraal, is open until 6 in the morning Thursday through Saturday.
If you’re looking for someplace closer to the Red Light District, Manneken Pis (Damrak 41, 1012 LK Amsterdam, Netherlands) is open until 1:45 am Friday through Saturday, with tons of fun sauce options, ranging from vegan mayo to curry and chili sauce. Prepare your arteries, folks.
WHERE TO PLAY
Sint Olofspoort 1, 1012 AJ Amsterdam, Netherlands; 12:00-0:00
If you want to soak up some real old-school Amsterdam vibes, stop in this 18th-century bar (housed in a charming and crooked building from 1605) and try one of their traditional Dutch house made liquors, like the chocolatey “Brides’ Tears” (made with real gold leaf and traditionally served to guests at a wedding) and “Lift Up Your Shirt” (a liquor distilled from lemon, which has an AMAZING name, but warning, may contain honey).
If you want to go real old-school Dutchmen, order up a jenever, a clear (STRONG!) liquor, distilled from juniper and similar tasting to gin. Jenever is traditionally served in a tulip glass, filled alllll the way up to the brim, so if you try to pick it up, you’ll spill all over yourself and look like a total noob. Instead, play it off like a suave Amsterdammer, lean over that glass, and slurp some of that jenever down.
Funenkade 7, 1018 AL Amsterdam, Netherlands; 14-20:00 daily
What’s more Dutch than jenever, you ask? Drinking beer…. on a canal… UNDER A WINDMILL.
If the very Instagrammable windmill wasn’t reason enough to visit (one of the only ones in Amsterdam city proper), this brewery makes a variety of tasty beers, all brewed with organic ingredients and the glorious patio, packed with attractive locals and tourists alike on one of those rare days the sun decides to peek out of the clouds, is basically begging you to veg out and bond with a stranger over your shared love of well-crafted beers (during our time at the brewery, I learned from an Amsterdammer how strange they think Americans affinity for tattoos is. The more you know!).
If you’re one of those nervous balls of energy people who need something to do besides sit and drink beer in Amsterdam (*raises hand self-consciously*), there is a short 20-minute tour every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 15:30 offered in English (€6 will get you a tour and a beer of your choice).
WHERE NOT TO PLAY
I am totally and utterly smitten with Amsterdam. The flowers, the bicycles… just over-the-top charming. After a romantic sunset boat ride around the canals, Justin and I decided to stroll around the Red Light District to find a fun bar to have a beer and people-watch. Around 23:00, we walked to a bustling neighborhood (the area between Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal) that seemed to be the perfect spot… and I proceeded to have one of the top five most uncomfortable experience of my life.
First of all, with alleyways full of red-lit brothel windows with barely legal looking women posing and preening for their next customer, it is impossible to NOT look at the prostitutes. While I completely respect and support that some women enjoy sex work and the Dutch government has cracked down in recent years to improve their working conditions (they even have a union!), sex trafficking and drug addictions are still RAMPANT in the industry and my inner mom/Captain Social Justice had a hard time disconnecting from the sad bevy of Eastern European ladies selling their bodies to the night mere feet from where I was sipping my beer.
Another upsetting part of the experience was the neighborhood’s palpable vibe- imagine an entire frat house of sexually repressed bros who had been fed copious amounts of grain alcohol and hallucinogens throughout the day. Multiply that by a thousand and you have a vague idea of how the area felt (to be clear, all of these guys were tourists; every local we met was absolutely fantastic and appeared to be reasonably sober). It’s not an exaggeration to say that when we went, the crowd had to be about 98% men- so the air is just thick with testosterone, alcohol, and pure machismo energy. As a woman, it made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and borderline unsafe (although the latter emotion is likely unfounded) and as a traveler, it made me feel hyper-anxious that I was going to be pickpocketed or worse.
If you’re a bit on the cautious side like me, I’d avoid the center of the Red Light District after 23:00 or so (the area seemed perfectly pleasant during the day and afternoon), the negative energy exponentially dissipates the closer to the outskirts of the neighborhood you get (I’d say around the Sex Palace Peep Show seemed to be the nucleus of the Mega Bad Juju).
If a mob of frat boy tourists sounds like your idea of a good time (there is certainly a younger version of myself when this was the case), head on over to the Red Light District, but here are some simple rules of the road:
- Don’t take pictures of prostitutes. They are real people with real feelings, not caged monkeys. Beyond that, the prostitutes’ managers are known to regularly confiscate or destroy cameras or cell phones taking photos of the women, so seriously, don’t. do. it.
- Don’t buy drugs on the street. A man casually approached Justin and I mid-stroll and cheerily asked if we were interested in buying cocaine. I have been to many, many music festivals and hippie-esque activities and have never experienced such brazen drug hustling. We later found out from our Uber driver that people had died a few years ago from drugs purchased on the street and undercover cops have started a pretty tough crackdown on it by soliciting unsuspecting tourists. When your options are possible death or Dutch imprisonment, just say no.
- Don’t be a drunken hot mess. Amsterdam, in general, seemed like a hyper safe, clean, and friendly city. If you want to be a hot mess, do it in another neighborhood (for example, Leidseplein or Rembrandtplein), while in the hands of a sober buddy. If you feel the need to get crunk in the Red Light District, leave the important stuff (i.e. your passport) at home and steel yourself for a night of epic bro-iness.
WHAT TO DO
Rozengracht 117, 1016 LV Amsterdam, Netherlands; showtimes vary
With alumni ranging from Seth Myers to Jordan Peele and Jason Sudeikis, this improv shop is a veritable factory of comedic prowess. Shows (provided in English) are available on an almost nightly basis and while varying in in theme and improv style, seem to have a universal theme of lambasting Dutch, American, and other European culture and politics and finding the humor and silliness in serious deep situations. We saw a show called “Bango!”, with the cast touching on stories regarding the feminism, American policitics, and family tension, which, despite the heavy topics, had me crying with laughter.
The theater itself is pretty cool and is housed in a converted church, so make sure to drop by a few minutes before the show to grab a beer, play a round of pinball, and marvel at the gorgeous stained glass. The tickets were a bit on the pricey side (ticket fees vary per show but ours were about €22), but keep a look out for special deals on Groupon (I saw one for Boom Chicago right after I bought our tickets- doh!). That being said, I have zero regrets about spending the money we did on a thoughtful and hilarious perspective on our world.
Museumplein 6, 1071 DJ Amsterdam, Netherlands; Sunday through Thursday- 9:00-19:00; Friday and Saturday- 9:00-21:00
This museum, housed in a modern glass and steel structure, boasts the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world and is definitely one of my top three favorite art museums. Starting from van Gogh’s earliest art education through his death, this museum artfully arranges his works to tell the story of his mental illness, his friendships, his family, and his ever-changing perception of himself.
The museum is exquisitely designed and better yet, no photography is allowed in the museum (so you can actually enjoy the artwork instead of looking at the paintings through a million other tourists’ cell phone screens)! I’d likely recommend buying tickets ahead of time online (as the museum frequently sells out), but be mindful of the time you select, as you are only guaranteed entry up to half an hour before and after your ticketed time.
Also, be sure to spring for the extra €5 to get an audio walking tour (in the kiosk to your left right before you enter the actual exhibits)- it provides an excellent and incredibly informative tour around the museum; I think I would have enjoyed the experience half as much had I not gotten the audioguide.
Canal Boat Tour
Times and locations vary
This is obviously hyper touristy, but was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. A long, glass topped boat will whisk you through the canals of Amsterdam, past historic sites like the Anne Frank house, to super modern architecture like the spaceship looking Eye Film Institute, all while you sit and chat with a loved one, the cool Amsterdam breeze whipping through your hair.
There are a ton of different tour companies, ranging from 60-minute daytime affairs to full blown dinner and dancing extravaganzas.
We took an evening cruise with Blue Boat Tours, which cost around € 17 for a 90 minute tour and a drink. While you can sit under the glass top roof and listen to the warbly recorded tour, we sat on the back deck and instead, listened to the bartender, a lifelong Amsterdammer, point out her favorite sites and regale us with stories of her beloved city, while the sunset turned the city into a golden lit paradise. Pure magic.
Free Walking Tour
Times and locations vary
Also super touristy, but one of the best (and cheapest!) ways to get to know a city. We originally signed up for another tour company (Free Walking Tours Amsterdam, which offers both a “traditional” tour, covering more of the history and culture of Amsterdam or an “alternative” tour, covering prostitution, drugs, and squatting), but missed our time slot due to our love affair with the Mr. and Mrs. Watson’s cheese platter.
We hopped on a last minute tour through Free Dam Tours (protip- make sure you book ahead of time; tours are limited to about 25 people and they will not let you join if they’re full!). This two and a half hour tour weaved through a huge portion of Amsterdam, starting in the Red Light District, heading to Chinatown, the Old Jewish Quarter, Rembrandtplein, and the Royal Palace.
Our tour guide, Fleur, was a defunct teacher and native Amsterdammer and was SO engaging and enthusiastic during our tour, even with old school visual guides to illustrate her stories. On a free walking tour, you don’t pay upfront, but instead, are expected to give a tip (average is €12,00 per person) to the guide at the end of your tour. Even if you give a really awesome tip, it’s usually way cheaper than a regularly ticketed tour and in my experience, the guides do a way better job.
Make sure you bring water, wear comfy shoes, and bring along your learning cap.
Places I wanted to check out but didn’t get a chance
Prinsengracht 263-267, 1016 GV Amsterdam, Netherlands; 9:00-22:00
I had read the Diary of Anne Frank in elementary school and I recall having a visceral connection with this gregarious, boy-crazy girl born halfway across the world, sixty years before me. I knew it would be an incredible and moving experience, walking through the house where the Frank family hid from the Nazis for two years until they were discovered and taken to concentration camps.
I was so determined to buy tickets that I tried purchasing them about six months before we were supposed to go and since you can pretty much exclusively buy tickets online exactly two months before the date of your visit, I set an alarm on my phone to buy tickets when they came available. I logged on a couple of hours after the tickets went on sale and boom, they were already all gone.
So protip, if you’re dedicated to going here, make sure you are DILIGENT about buying tickets on time. A few tickets become available the day of, so if you miss out the first round of ticket release, you have another opportunity to visit this harrowing place.
Singel 38 G • 1015 AB Amsterdam; Monday, Tuesday, Thursday through Saturday 13-15:00
The world’s only floating cat sanctuary! Stray kittens finding love on a houseboat while they wait for a forever home? Sounds like the purr-fect way to spend an afternoon to me. FYI, I’ve read conflicting reports about whether visitors are allowed to touch the felines, so be prepared to love on the kittens from afar.
There you have it- a weekend guide to Amsterdam. Have you been? Did you have a similar experience in the Red Light District or does the cheese stand alone on this one (it is Amsterdam after all)? Let me know in the comments below!