Travel writer Caoimhe O'Connell brings us all the essential places every student should see in Amsterdam, how to buy a bike at 4am from outside a nightclub, and why you shouldn't get a job in a cheese shop...

As our first month in Amsterdam draws to a close, I thought I’d share a few pearls of wisdom - that we’ve learned the hard way - for anyone still half tempted to impulsively book a flight and up and leave for a summer in the Dam.

Culture

We came over with big ideas of spending every spare moment in a museum, on a tour - or in No.1’s case, on a boat – or at least doing something new and cultured and fun. However, the stress of the first couple of weeks – moving, job hunting, mind-numbing administrative stuff etc. – meant that we actually spent every spare moment either sleeping or drowning our sorrows or sometimes, both. Also, a lot of these things cost serious cash; which was something we were trying our best to clutch onto, as there wasn’t a whole lot of bacon being brought home in the beginning.

We didn’t give culture the complete bum’s rush, though, in spite of our near-impoverished situation early on. Something we stumbled across while we were dithering around Amstel trying to get our SOFI numbers was the Waterlooplein market. Picture the kind of market you would have gone to on holidays in Spain as a kid, except less fake leather and gimmicky trinkets you insist on buying ten of “for your friends”, and more a wide range of good-quality products that you will actually use. This place is the ALT (or Indie – I don’t know which is the current term) kid’s paradise. Here, you’ll find vintage clothes stalls with suede coats going for 30 quid, Indonesian hand-crafted jewellery, unlimited vinyls, war-time love letters, beautiful  old black & white snapshots of the city, decent bikes, quirky furniture, and – at the risk of sounding like a Harvey Norman ad – MORE. Best of all, everything is cheap or at least fairly priced.

Museums here are expensive – about €12 if not more - and us Irish don’t get away with a cheeky student discount because we either don’t know of or don’t have the coveted “Cultural Youth Pass”. There are ways around this, however. If you intend on hitting up all of the heavies;  Anne Frank’s house, the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum and The museum of Sex & Torture, it’s probably worth your while investing in a Museumkaart. These are little cards for which you pay a once-off 54 beans that allow you entry into 99% of the museums in Amsterdam (we’re still investigating which one is the bastard that won’t accept it) as many times as you like. They last for a year so even if you’re only here yourself for a few days and you know of someone venturing over later on, you could go halves as we did with the first one we bought.

An absolute gem of a place located in Museumplein is the Steidlijk. If, like myself, you “appreciate” classical art, but feel as though there are only so many times you can stare at a portrait of a 17th-century man holding a cane with his fat rolls edited out, the Steidlijk will be a welcome relief. Intrinsic to the post-war Cobra movement, this is a museum of contemporary art with a regular turnover of exhibitions, and permanent fixtures ranging from expressionism to pop-art to things you would have had nightmares about as a child to random sticks and draping lights jutting out of the wall just “because”. Whether the meaning behind a piece is of utmost or minimal importance to you, the sheer aesthetics of this place will certainly be of some, if not huge interest.

Nightlife

With nightlife, we haven’t been incredibly lucky thus far. We have found ourselves somewhat married to the touristy areas of Rembrandtplein, Leidseplein and Dam Square – a cycle we intend to break in the coming few weeks. As I’ve mentioned before, Bourbon Street in Leidseplein is a really worthwhile jazz bar, although we feel we may have exhausted our presence there as of late.

Casual drinks in Leidesquare have proven good banter in the linked terrace bars – Hoopmans, Reynders and Hole in the Wall – particularly at the moment what with the World Cup. We have fallen victim on a couple of occasions, after a few too many in Hoopmans, to the predatory reps on Leidsegraacht who lure us into the grotty Magaluf-esque clubs by chanting about free shots and happy hour. These clubs play the kind of cheesy music you love to have a good bop to, but when you head bar-ward after some intense twerking and take a look around, you notice that the place is actually smaller and grimier than your flat, and you recognise all of the middle aged Hispanic men from their attempts at pulling you into their restaurant earlier that evening. As this was dawning on me, I felt something on the back of my neck and found that one of said men was licking it. Needless to say, we haven’t been back.

Apparently, Amsterdam’s proper nightclubs are forces to be reckoned with, and for some reason they all seem to be located in unlikely buildings – old dairy factories, an abandoned printing house, old churches and art galleries. I’ve heard excellent reviews from Trouw and Melkweg – hopefully we’ll avoid the hypnosis of the PR guys and make it to one of these spots the next night.

Food

My dad is very unimpressed that we have yet to try proper Dutch food. Dutch food, from what I can see, is something that I can equate only with the food challenges on “I’m a Celebrity”. Day in, day out on my travels I pass several kiosks selling the traditional Dutch herring, which, served raw, looks like a chunk of your intestine diced up on a hotdog bun garnished with a bit of pickle. No, thank-you.

The farthest we’ve gotten in Dutch cuisine is the fast food version of the kroket – which I have to say is delicious, and highly addictive. No.2 has developed a bit of a Febo problem. Febo is probably the most efficient and honestly disgusting dirty night-out food you can get. Small Febo alcoves dot the city and consist of columns of chicken burgers, beef burgers, chicken krokets and beef krokets contained in a warmed vending-machine like structure. You slot in a 2euro coin, and out pops your deep fried heart attack.

I myself have been a bit wary of Febo, and prefer the more familiar McDonald’s slant on the kroket. The McKroket is probably in the top five most delicious things I’ve ever eaten. Disguising itself as a hamburger, the McKroket is a breaded patty of chunks of beef – or veal, we’re not too sure – mixed with this kind of cheesy gloop and slathered in grainy mustard. It doesn’t need any advertising.

Accommodation

As I’ve said before, accommodation in Amsterdam is expensive. Until the 11th of July, I’m staying in The Student Hotel, which is mostly long-term accommodation for students in Amsterdam, akin to Trinity Hall. I’ve been lucky in that it’s clean, safe, comfortable and only a 20 minute cycle from the city. However, it’s very expensive, and I don’t think I’ll know what hit me when I move into my much more “affordable” flat in Leidseplein in three weeks.

My reasoning behind staying here was that while No.1 &2 had organised their accommodation before I thought of joining them -meaning there was no space for me in the flat - I’d have to sort something for myself. The idea of living with strangers didn’t daunt me too much until I saw the kind of responses I was getting from AirBnB – two 50 year old brothers looking for a flatmate, extra costs for guests etc. I reckoned I’d know what I was getting in the Student Hotel, and could spend my few weeks there looking for a flat in person rather than over the internet, which seemed to me more practical. With Jumanji, No.1&2 certainly fell victim to the fish-eye camera and a touch of photoshop.

Something you’re just going to have to build up a tolerance to in Amsterdam apartments is mice. The buildings are old, and I reckon the mice feel as though they have some kind of squatters’ rights over them. From what I gather, their presence is unavoidable, and as one comrade said,

“Hey – at least if you have mice, you haven’t got rats.”

When No.1 & 2 expressed dissatisfaction with the mouse situation to their current landlord, his response was: “Get a cat.”

Working

Compared with Dublin, it’s shocking how many jobs are available for young people here in the service industry. Bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and cheese shops are all happy to hire – even if they’re already fully staffed it seems. The only requirement is the pesky SOFI/BSN number, which is a half-hearted necessity at most. Payment appears to be cash in hand, which saves you the laborious process of setting up a Dutch bank account, and contact with employers is done through Whatsapp, meaning you don’t need to buy copious amounts of credit or a Dutch phone as Wifi is available everywhere.

Thankfully, we’re all settled into full time jobs in Irish pubs – I left the restaurant because they weren’t giving me enough hours – but it took some trial and error. Lucky number 3 has prevailed in most of our cases, with each of our first and second jobs being absolute flops. No.1 & 2 were really taken advantage of the first time around. Apparently, there is a certain Egyptian community running Argentinean restaurants in Amsterdam with a particularly bad reputation for hiring young ex-pats for a couple of days, never calling them back, and never paying them. No.1 & 2 channelled their inner strong independent women and demanded their due payment for working cruelly long hours and succeeded in the end.

I almost landed myself in a cheese shop job. There are numerous cheese shops in every tourist haunt; the best part about them being the free samples which are particularly handy if you’re broke and can’t afford to eat that day – a trip to four or five cheese shops will leave you uncomfortably full.  Anyway, I was being sucked into a cheese shop job by a very lovely woman, when the job front was looking bleak, however after a half an hour long lecture about how to cut cheese, which I can only compare to watching yourself slowly bleed to death, I decided that nothing was worth that level of boredom.

Day-to-day life

Albert Heijn is the most prevalent supermarket which is comparable price-wise to Dunnes or Supervalu. Warning; the €3 wine… You get what you pay for, in this case, an apocalyptic hangover. Something something Dirk (still haven’t completely mastered the Dutch) is a “dirk cheap” – couldn’t resist. There’s a supermarket on Jan van Galenstraat where you can get €2 wine (see €3 wine) and other odd bits of food for a fraction of the regular price. Be careful not to go too mad on your first food shop in Dirk and attempt to cycle home with heavy plastic bags swinging out of your handlebars. Some jar will undoubtedly smash off your wheel and send your spokes flying off onto the road or even worse, gauging into your leg. You will then be forced to cycle back to Dirk on your now bockety bike and buy another one of those jars, antiseptic and plasters.

As I’ve said before, bikes are the handiest means of transport – even faster than the trams. If you arrive to Amsterdam bike-less, you can either rent one for the day or buy one from Waterlooplein or from one of the homeless people waiting outside nightclubs at 4 in the morning. You’d think with there being so many of them around the city, bikes would hold as much appeal to thieves and nay-doers as a pair of socks; but this is not the case. Bikes are stolen all the time, and even if you’ve locked yours up, people will still steal the wheels – particularly from the prettier vintage ones. There are also certain places where you cannot lock your bike or cycle it without being handed a hefty fine – my attitude being, they’ll have to catch me first.

If you find yourself with a couple of hours to spare, the cinema in Rembrandtplein is up there with the Gaiety. The main screen room is lined with opera boxes, with red velvet and gilt stretching as far as the eye can see, and the screen itself is draped with curtains which pull apart at the beginning of the performance – something I found very exciting. For some reason, absolutely everything seems to be in 3D meaning that it’s quite expensive – about €14 – so if you’re broke and prone to sea-sickness maybe you’re better off wandering into Vondelpark for the afternoon, which is actually hosting free live gigs ranging from theatre to opera to jazz to house etc. every Friday, Saturday and Sunday until the end of July.

Follow Caoimhe's adventures in the 'Dam here: @OconnellCaoimhe