I got a lot of funny looks from people when I told them that I was going to Amsterdam in December. “Why Amsterdam?” “What’s in Amsterdam?” “Why now instead of the summer?” Well, it’s hard to say why I was so drawn to Amsterdam when I was planning what trip to take for my 21st birthday. Perhaps it’s because of my Dutch heritage, or perhaps because the Netherlands is a socialist haven, or even more likely because it’s a canal city. Whatever the reason for this Dutch holiday to Amsterdam, it was an unforgettable trip that I could not wait to share with my friends and family when I returned home.

The first thing that blew my mind upon setting foot in the city of Amsterdam was the bike infrastructure! I was impressed at every turn! The streets of Amsterdam, and frankly all over the Netherlands, have designated bike lanes that are separated from vehicle traffic. These bike lanes are equipped with their own traffic lights. Even more bizarre to North Americans, drivers learn to respect cyclists and their allotted space on the road. Oh! Did I mention the bike parking lots? It’s not hard to find one of these two story lots, bursting with bicycles of all shapes, sizes and colors. Renting a bicycle is a cheap and convenient way to see Amsterdam like the locals do.

Bikes line the canals of Amsterdam

After the initial shock of discovering this cyclists paradise, I strolled along the canals to breathe in this Dutch gem. It doesn’t take long to realize that all the houses in Amsterdam are different. In fact, before addresses, homes used to be identified by their distinctive roofs, window frames, brick color, and other architectural features. What a delightful treat to walk down the streets of Amsterdam, feasting on the unique architecture of each and every home.

Speaking of feasting, the absolute best gastronomical jackpot that I found in Amsterdam was something called a tosti. This deluxe grilled cheese street food can be served in several different ways. At Jan 19 (a café, not a coffee shop), they serve tostis on rye with aged cheddar cheese, chorizo sausage, roasted red peppers and caramelized onions; whole wheat bread with sourkrout on the inside and wrapped in bacon; or my favorite, a thick slice of sourdough bread with chunks of stewed meat and cheddar cheese. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. Other Dutch delicacies include herring, oliebollens, broodje kroket (crockets) and surprisingly Indonesian food. This is due to the fact that the Dutch colonized Indonesia and have enjoyed strong economic trade ever since, particularly importing spices and pacific tropical fruit.

A traditional Dutch tosti

After indulging in far too much delicious food, I walked through Vondelpark on my way to the Rijksmuseum in the Museum Quarter.  Before strolling inside, I savoured the Christmas spirit outside from a wooden bridge that overlooks a seasonal ice rink in front of the castle-like building that soars high into the air. The letters, Iamsterdam, are a friendly reminder of the city’s motto and way of life. Like a giddy school girl, I hopped down to the museum and walked for hours pasts paintings and tableaus depicting Dutch life, epic naval scenes and peaceful windmills. The museum includes some works from Van Gogh and Rembrandt, two Dutch painters who also have their own museums in the city to rightfully honour their works.

Finally, a trip to Amsterdam would not be complete without a visit to the Anne Frank House. It’s generally advised to purchase your tickets to the Anne Frank House online before your visit, or at the Iamsterdam office in front of Centraal Station, because lines can extend upwards of 4 hours in length at the door! Once inside, I felt overwhelmed that I was going to be in the same place, in the same Secret Annex, that Anne Frank had lived in while writing her infamous diary. The experience was eerie but irreplaceable. Hearing the floors creak in the Secret Annex and seeing hash marks on the wall recording Anne and Margot’s heights gave me goose-bumps. However, this grim diary is also a sober reminder of the dangers of prejudice, discrimination and ethnic cleansing.

A collage of photos featured in the Anne Frank Museum

The “winter weather” didn’t discourage me at all from exploring and enjoying the city. For a Canadian girl whose survived -40*C winters in Ottawa, the crisp December air felt more like an extended fall. In fact, traveling during the off season allowed me to save money on airfare, accommodations, and time spent waiting in line or trudging through crowds of tourists.

Suffice to say, it was the best birthday of my 21 years. I would board a plane back to the Netherlands in a heart beat. This certainly won’t be my last trip to Amsterdam.