48 hours in Amsterdam with no social media • First trip post-Brexit and final trip pre-COVID • The best coffee shops, where to stay and where to eat.
A racist holiday that has gone on for too long. Time to expose and eradicate.
The Weeknd’s After Hours. An introspective album of guilt and remorse released in the midst of a global pandemic.
For me, Amsterdam is a city of escape. At just a 50-minute flight across the North Sea from London, it is more accessible than many locations within the UK. I am aware of the privilege I have living in Europe and being able to visit such a huge variety of different places in under three hours. Having that privilege suddenly taken away in light of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a surreal experience to say the least, and I will appreciate my freedom to roam in a new way once all this is over. The Dutch capital, known as “the Venice of the North” is one of the few places I could return to time and again without getting bored. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been, but each visit is a relaxed informal getaway from normal life and serves as a mental reset. For a few days away with friends, Amsterdam has everything you could need and there is nowhere else comparable in Europe. My latest trip was my first time there alone. At the start of March 2020, now an infamous month, I booked a spontaneous two nights at The Student Hotel in Amsterdam West. With both personal and work pressures building up, I knew that I had to get on a flight and disconnect. I’d decided to cut out social media for a while, and there was something comforting about going somewhere “under the radar” and not telling everyone about it or feeling pressured to show off what a great time I was having. At this stage the pandemic had yet to gain real traction in Europe outside Italy, making it the last time for a while I would take a flight trouble free. At Luton I treated myself to a pair of AirPods (my earphones were on the blink and there was no way I could do a solo trip without music) and for the entirety of the trip I became obsessed with After Hours, a promotional single from The Weeknd’s fourth studio album of the same name due to be released later in the month. Now listening to the album and thinking back on the trip as I write this, the restless urgency of his voice seems to tie in well with the feeling of uncertainty that stretched across the whole month.
Having first visited Amsterdam with a group of friends back in 2014, I am now a seasoned guest and feel completely at ease being there alone. That trip had been a chaotic expedition with a motley crew of students, inexperienced in coffeeshop culture and giggling hysterically at the liberal attitudes to sex on display throughout the city centre. A novice to marijuana consumption, I of course embarrassed myself and had to make a speedy exit from our first coffeeshop, crashing blindly into the outdoor seating at a restaurant in Leidseplein and needing to have a sit down for a good 15 minutes. Visits with my friends nowadays are a more organised affair. We know where to go, we know our limits, and we travel there for the enjoyment rather than the novelty. If you arrive by plane you will most likely take a short train ride from Schipol Airport to the ornate Amsterdam Centraal Station, a central hub from which the rest of the city fans out in a series of canals. Arriving here ignites the same excitement as turning up at a theme park. The core of the city arose during the Dutch Golden Age of the 16th and 17th centuries when Amsterdam was lauded as one of the most influential places in Europe, with the Netherlands making great leaps in science, military and the arts. Its design makes it one of the greenest cities in the world today, with bikes, boats and trams being far more popular modes of transport than cars. This creates the unique “village atmosphere” which the Dutch are extremely proud of. To bewildered outsiders, the complex road systems can be daunting, but spend some time getting to grips with the rules and you will see how well everything has been carefully constructed to cater for cyclists, pedestrians and public transport.
You are never lost for things to do in Amsterdam, and the beauty of it is the wide range of interests it facilitates. The choice is always yours, and as a first-time visitor what you do depends on the type of day you wish to have and the people you’re with. Some spend a morning in the world famous Rijksmuseum followed by a brisk cycle round Vondelpark or a stroll through the stylish Jordaan disctrict to the Anne Frank House. Others will head straight to the Venustempel Sex Museum (if you don’t have a photo next to the two giant penises, did you even go to Amsterdam?), followed by a steady stream of Heineken in Rembrandtplein and a peruse of the infamous De Wallen red-light district. Many make a beeline for one of the iconic coffeeshops, where the purchase and consumption of cannabis is completely legal, before exploring the canals and winding passageways in a state of euphoria and ending up at New York Pizza down Damstraat. My first visit there in 2014 was a healthy mix of all three, but now our trips tend to centre around the coffeeshops, restaurants, parks and espresso bars, avoiding the tourist traps and just relaxing, joking and laughing for a prolonged period of time. It wasn’t until 2018 when it fully hit me how great this city is, and how it’s the laid-back attitudes here that make it so favourable and easy-going compared with London.
With so much on offer, Amsterdam has an equally good choice of places to stay. For a quick getaway with friends, my recommendation is the fantastic ClinkNOORD hostel, located in Amsterdam Noord just a five-minute shuttle ferry across from Centraal Station. This free service runs constantly 24/7, shipping commuters and tourists back and forth across the River Ij which separates the city. As a pedestrian there is an unspoken rule to let the bikes disembark first, otherwise you risk being run over by a stampede of bemused locals. Housed in an old laboratory building, ClinkNOORD boasts dorm rooms and en suite privates, with a quadruple room normally costing between €40 – €50 pppn. I would describe the theme as “cosy prison vibes”, with modern, simplistic décor and the facilities kept to a noticeably high level of cleanliness. As well as a bar, restaurant and self-catering kitchen, there are several chill-out zones including a sheltered AstroTurf courtyard which holds regular morning yoga sessions, none of which I’ve ever woken up in time to go to. On this solo trip I decided to try somewhere new, and booked myself two nights at The Student Hotel in Amsterdam West. Accessible via the metro and tram stops at Jan van Galenstraat just a 20-minute journey from the centre, this trendy new chain centres itself around the idea of bringing together work and play. There is a bar, a pool table and a TV area as you would expect from a hostel, but it also boasts meeting rooms and work spaces, making it an ideal creative retreat for young people. Other perks include self-check-in, super friendly staff and the fastest WiFi I have ever experienced in a hotel. For solo or couple travellers who wish to combine work with relaxation this is the perfect setting, and I’m looking forward to eventually checking out their other branches in Berlin, Paris and Florence once I’m allowed to leave the country again.
The timing of my visit fell just before the pandemic in Europe really started to escalate outside of Italy. A few plane passengers were wearing masks and paranoia was high, but shops were open and it was still deemed acceptable to be travelling abroad. Looking back, it seems strange to think that even then the virus didn’t feel like my problem. I was following all the guidelines but the real gravity of the situation didn’t fully hit until a few weeks later when precautions were ramped up in the UK. Now stuck at home writing this, I can’t believe how wrapped up in my own issues I was and how naïve I’d been not to predict what was about to happen. My main preoccupation at that point was the fact that this would be my first holiday since around 2009 that didn’t involve sharing everything on social media. Stepping off the plane knowing this was my trip to enjoy alone was a strangely exhilarating feeling. Following the direction of a few hastily-applied Union Jacks towards border control, I was also reminded that this was my first post-Brexit trip to the EU.
It was evening when I arrived, so after a speedy check-in and a quick refresh at the hotel, I took the No. 13 tram and headed straight for my favourite coffeeshop, the deliciously psychedelic Original Dampkring. This iconic institution is tucked away on Handboogstraat, bizarrely located in the main shopping district not far from the Flower Market. Entering Dampkring is like stepping out of a time machine into the 70s and diving straight into a lava lamp. I’m not someone who would typically use the word “funky”, but that’s the only way to describe the vibrant décor and permanently tranquil mood of the place. You can spend hours in this time capsule and forget about the outside world until you emerge blinking back onto the street. Expect a warm welcome from Bowie, their resident cat, and friendly, knowledgeable service from behind the well-stocked counter. The staff will help you choose from a wide range of sativa, indica and hashish depending on the experience you wish to have, and you can opt for either a bag or a pre-rolled joint. If you’re with a group, I’d recommend splitting a bag (you will save money and the ritual of rolling is part of the fun) but for a solo visit I prefer to avoid the faff and pick up a pre-roll for €7.50. As with all Amsterdam coffeeshops it is customary to buy a soft drink while you smoke – I tend to opt for a fresh mint tea. With Dampkring being so popular, be prepared to wait around by the bar before a table becomes free, and it’s worth knowing that hats are banned, so leave your fedoras at home. For a more modern coffeeshop that doesn’t care about hats and plays mainly hip-hop/R&B, catering to a generally younger crowd, head to Coffeeshop New Times on Spuistraat. I would say the theme here is “intergalactic” and its whole outlook is a refreshing new direction away from places like the Bulldog chain (the Wetherspoons of coffeeshops) and any of the tourist traps around Rembrandtplein. If you’re new to Amsterdam and want to avoid rowdy stag-dos, giggly first-timers and being ripped off, then New Times is your go-to. I’ve been a few times now, but it was a welcome surprise to stumble across it again during my most recent visit. As the weather was fine I sat in their outdoor seating area to get some fresh air, feeling a complete sense of calm, released from the compulsion to check the socials and just enjoying being where I was in my own company. It still hadn’t clicked that this would be one of the last moments in a while that I had the freedom to sit around in public without a purpose.
I personally prefer to wander and sightsee as I go, pretending to be a local and dipping into espresso bars and galleries that I happen upon, discovering new corners of the city’s canals every time. On our visit in 2018 my friend and I discovered Bocca Coffee Roasters, a wonderfully pretentious hipster coffee place with a 10/10 aesthetic (we’re talking cool grey furnishings and intermittent palm plants). Brunch at Coffee & Coconuts is also a must, this laid-back Pacific themed café set in an old theatre serves a wide range of coffees, fresh juices and Instagrammable eggs – but expect to wait a while for a seat. For rainy days, head to the Foodhallen in Kinkerbuurt for a worldwide selection of typically overpriced but tasty street food, followed by a movie at the adjacent Filmhallen. The best time to visit Amsterdam is spring, and hiring bikes to explore the city before whizzing under the arches of the Rijksmuseum and ending up in Vondelpark will always be a joyous experience. If you prefer a more carefully coordinated day out, I would recommend purchasing an “I amsterdam” City Card. I’m not sure why the tourist board decided to call itself “I amsterdam”, but it does a good job of promoting the city, with larger than life “I amsterdam” lettering in place outside the Rijksmuseum which everyone flocks to for photos, and “I amsterdam” keyrings for sale left right and centre. At €85 for 48 hours, the City Card includes access to over 70 museums and attractions including the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum and the NEMO Science Museum, as well as all public transport, bike rental and even a 1-hour canal cruise.
I don’t know any other European city which offers so much to tourists at such a great price, and in general when it comes to getting it right, the Dutch seem to do a much better job than the British, from the functionality of its public transport system to the pristine appearance of its Albert Heijn supermarkets. Their biggest setback, of course, is a blatantly racist holiday custom which involves the laughably dated act of donning blackface to dress up as Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), a Moorish companion of Saint Nicholas. As with foxhunting in the UK, bullfighting in Spain, or the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, something being “tradition” does not make it acceptable, and the fact that a large number of white people in the Netherlands are still embarrassing themselves by blacking up with painted lips and curly black wigs every Christmas is pretty astounding. This offensive ritual has been around since the 1800s, and partakers still insist it is harmless fun that children look forward to every Christmas. That may be the case, but we are now in the 21st century and based off the evidence, there is absolutely no doubt that this custom carries a deeply racist element at its core. Children are adaptable and there are plenty of other things to look forward to during the holidays, so let’s face it, this is about the adults not the kids.
Like most cities in Western Europe, Amsterdam is proudly multicultural, so I dread to think what it must be like for Dutch people of colour having to live through this every year. In November 2019, an article from Al Jazeera caught the eye of Kim Kardashian and was tweeted out to her 64.5 million followers, further fuelling the debate internationally. It seems baffling that we even need to be having this conversation in 2020, but, as with all cases of institutional racism, the problem is allowed to continue because not enough white people are vocal about it. What’s important now is that more people around the world are aware of what goes on, and that black people living in the Netherlands do not continue to feel their voices are unheard. Protests are growing year by year across the country, but these are met with intense counter-protesters who have been known to retaliate by throwing bananas and eggs, and even in some cases displaying Hitler salutes. Rather than reacting with hushed disapproval as is customary amongst white people, action needs to be taken. As long as the fight stays within the Netherlands, Zwarte Piet-ers are getting away with it, so the quickest way this can change is international pressure. The best thing we can do now is like the page Zwarte Piet is Racisme on Facebook, keeping an eye out for updates on petitions and sharing posts as much as possible before the holiday season starts in November. You can also write to the Dutch embassy in your country. There is a vein of racism that still runs deep throughout Europe, and the only way we can erase it is by speaking out.
I’m used to strolling around in a group, but walking alone at night through the streets of Amsterdam is a different experience. With so many narrow passageways and canal towpaths, I became distinctly more aware of safety, knowing that certain people would be alert and ready for anyone who looks a bit too drunk or stoned. There was also an inescapable feeling of unease based around the rapidly developing coronavirus, and the restless falsetto of The Weeknd naturally fell into place as an underlying soundtrack for my trip. This elusive Canadian singer, real name Abel Tesfaye, rarely gives interviews or emits much about his personal life, choosing instead to express himself through his music. He has risen in fame throughout the 10s to become one of the most recognisable voices in R&B, pop and hip-hop. I’m not sure when I first became aware of The Weeknd… probably around the time of his 2012 feature on Drake’s Crew Love, but it wasn’t until I heard his vocals on Kavinsky’s Odd Look around 2014 that I became a fan, and Beauty Behind the Madness ended up being one of my top albums of 2015. I still haven’t listened to his 2012 compilation album Trilogy, mainly in protest against all the people who got in there first and then harped on about how nothing he’s produced since is comparable. In reality, Abel Tesfaye’s growth and evolution over the years has made him one of the most compelling artists of modern times. In 2016 he lost his trademark dreads and released Starboy, enlisting the support of Daft Punk to bring out a more upbeat, electronic sounding album than before. Four years later and Tesfaye is older, wiser and slightly more twisted, unveiling a psychotic alter ego as the central focus to his fourth studio album, After Hours.
Following the breakup of two high-profile relationships since his last album – Selena Gomez in 2017 and then model Bella Hadid in 2019 – his remorse is now laid bare. In the video for the first single, Heartless, we see him wearing shades and suited up in red at a Las Vegas casino as he throws away money and gets steadily off his face. The first line “never need a bitch, I’m what a bitch needs” sets precedence for the rest of the album as he delves introspectively into his own fame, the impact this has on his personality and the way he treats those close to him. Escaping the casino, he runs rogue around Sin City, becoming more intoxicated and psychedelically tripping out as he sings the stripped back bridge “I lost my heart and my mind, I tried to always do right” before finding himself alone. The more material he released in the run-up to the album dropping, the more it became clear that this project was not a series of disconnected songs. Each single and its video fell into a cohesive narrative, giving the whole of After Hours a filmic quality and blurring the lines between music and cinema. The Weeknd is no stranger to this kind of storytelling – his deliciously violent video for 2016’s False Alarm is more exciting than half the movies on Netflix, and was perhaps a precursor to this new project. In the video for Blinding Lights we join him later on that same night in Vegas, now with blood around his mouth and an even more deranged look in his eyes as he continues to cause havoc in pursuit of his love interest. Tesfaye is showing us a side of him that we haven’t seen before – his struggle in dealing with his own success. The alter ego we see in the videos represents the points at which he is driven to insanity by money, fame and drugs, and the content in most of the songs is filled with angst at how much this damages his relationships. As the videos are released we are given more insight into his world of guilt and regret. While Blinding Lights, Heartless and In Your Eyes have become global hits, I would say the album tracks to listen out for are Scared to Live, Faith and Until I Bleed Out. My standout track will always be After Hours (the song) which was released as a promotional single and built my anticipation for the album while I was in Amsterdam. It quickly became my go-to for strolling round the city alone, the restless urgency of his voice befitting the general uncertainty at the time of my visit. At a satisfying six minutes long, this track is a brooding recollection of his failed relationships, his usual wistful falsetto paired with a sinister electro beat, the crux of which is an exhilarating drop after the first verse. Amsterdam 2020 was strictly speaking a working visit, but at times could have been described as a three-day bender. Listening to After Hours I couldn’t help but relate to The Weeknd’s debauchery in Las Vegas, because sometimes life really can drive you crazy.
The Weeknd is brave enough to explore the depths of his own psychosis, so it’s a bizarre coincidence that After Hours has been released in the midst of a global pandemic, with most of us forced to remain indoors in a state of extreme paranoia, left to grapple with our own levels of insanity. Blinding Lights, a megahit which has been on and off the No. 1 spot in the UK Singles Chart since February, is now enjoying extended success owing to its popularity on TikTok, with quarantined families and groups around the world losing their inhibitions to partake in the highly energetic #BlindingLightsChallenge. In the current climate of social distancing it’s impossible not to draw parallels with the line “the city’s cold and empty, no one’s around to judge me” which also cropped up a lot during Amsterdam. A month later, I’m pushing a trolley through an unsettlingly crowded Asda with Blinding Lights blaring through the Tannoy as I frantically look for flour and try not to get within two metres of anyone else. In years to come I think we might look back on this song as an underlying soundtrack to the COVID-19 crisis, it’s frantic beat and frenzied lyrics seeming to tie in naturally to the general feeling of doubt and anxiety that has taken hold. Now aged 30, The Weeknd is sounding more mature than ever, openly acknowledging his own setbacks and culpability for the collapse of his relationships. The production is slick and the ominous resonance in many of the songs pulls it away from the more conventional sounding Starboy and back towards his edgier routes. You can tell Abel Tesfaye is enjoying this album release, comfortable in his own artistic decisions and ability to tell a story through his music. Where The Weeknd goes from here during these troubled times is yet to be seen – his evolution as an artist is what makes him so fascinating.