The Jordaan district is a trendy, charming area in Amsterdam full of boutiques, cafes and cobblestone streets. Built in 1612 to house the working class, the neighbourhood now has a gentrified population of creatives and professionals.
The peaceful streets and canals transport you to a completely different world away from the noise and crowds of the area around Central Station. Yet, the Jordaan is only about a 10 minute walk from tourist central, Dam Square.
Exploring the Jordaan
1. Find the hidden playgrounds and quiet inner courtyards
Behind the pretty facades of the houses, there were beautiful not-so-secret inner courtyards for the benefit of the locals (and nosy tourists). For example, across from the Noorderspeltuin (a large playground) was the courtyard of the buildings on the Karthuizerstreet. Amsterdam has 47 such courtyards and most of them are in the Jordaan.
The playgrounds are sprinkled throughout the streets. One of the playgrounds we saw had chickens and a rabbit. The building residents had left scooters and bicycles around as well which our children enjoyed borrowing.
2. If you are feeling brave, you can rent boats of the Jordaan canals. You will have to share canal space with other ‘real’ boats going about their everyday business so make sure you know what you are doing! You can rent electric boats from Sloepdelen and pedal boats from Canelbike.
3. Rent a bike from Workcycle or Bike City and pedal around the charming streets.
4. Go hunting for stone tablets that grace the buildings of the Jordaan. In the old days, these tablets would indicate the profession of the people inside. In the 16th century, these tablets were used as signs instead of wooden gables that blocked the little streets.
Foodies in the Jordaan
5. Hang out in sunshine at one of the local cafes and watch life go by. We liked eating crepes on the Prinsengracht across from the Anne Frank House.
6. Try the best apple pie in Amsterdam at Cafe Winkel right near the Noordermarkt.
7. Not feeling in the mood for apple pie? Other cafes to try are Cafe Finch also near the Noordermarkt and Moods Coffee Corner (at Lindengracht 249) for coffee and cake.
8. Sometimes only ice-cream will do. For a high-value and yummy treat, check out Monte Pelmo which has been voted the best ice cream in Amsterdam.
9. If you want something more substantial, check out Caffe de Curtis (Italian food), Manger Maintenant (French food to take away) and Toscanini (more Italian food).
Culture in the Jordaan
10. Have a snoop around some of the beautifully decorated houseboats especially on the Prinsengracht.
11. The Houseboat Museum on Prinsengracht as well is really fascinating for a glimpse into how people live on houseboats. An added bonus for children is that it is not very big.
12. On the Jordaan border because of its location on the Prinsengracht, the Anne Frank House is a must-visit in the area. As most people know, the Anne Frank House is where a Jewish teenage girl wrote her famous diary when she and her family were hiding from the Nazis.
13. Next door to the Anne Frank House is the Westerkerk which is still a working church. Rembrandt is buried here. From the tower, you have great views over the city.
14. The Amsterdam Tulip Museum is interesting if you really like tulips but a browse through their store (free of charge) is probably enough for most children.
Shopping in the Jordaan
15. There are lots of quirky little stores and boutiques to explore. My kids were fascinated with all the Japanese items at Roppongi as well as the truly kitschy Kitsch Kitchen both on Rozengracht.
16. The antiques market on Elandsgracht is open every day but there are other markets open as well on other days as well such as the Noordermarkt (a farmers’ market and flea market) on Saturdays. Our kids love looking for random things in street markets.
There is plenty to do in Jordaan that you can while away the hours in this neighbourhood. I’ve kept the suggested activities to what I consider the most interesting part of the Jordaan. We stayed in this part of the Jordaan north of Rozengracht because there’s a lot of walking involved otherwise. We still used a carrot on a stick approach with the children (a bit of sightseeing or shopping mixed in with playgrounds and snack breaks) to see the neighbourhood.
Have you been to the Jordaan? Do you have any suggestions for family-friendly activities that I have missed?
If you were a 19th century American pioneer woman, would you go to a town that was nicknamed “Hell on Wheels”? Unless you were a hell raiser yourself, most respectable women would not. The city of Cheyenne faced this problem in the 19th century when they were trying to get the capital city of the territory of Wyoming admitted as a state into the United States.
Cheyenne in Wyoming was settled in 1867 when General Dodge and his crew chose a site for a terminus for the Union Pacific Railroad. The Union Pacific was one of the two railroad companies building the transcontinental railroad across the United States in the 1860’s. Pretty soon there were 3000 railroad workers who rolled into Cheyenne as workers for the Union Pacific. The railroad men brought along their usual followers – saloons, brothels, gambling dens, dancing girls and all the vice any Wild West town could need. The Cheyenne local paper had a daily column entitled “Last Night’s Shootings” which only goes to show how rough and tumble the town was.
photo credit: Atomic Hot Links
The trains brought along prefab buildings which could be easily constructed to provide venues. For example, in the plaza right outside the railroad depot there were 80 saloons alone. As you can see in the photo below, the Depot plaza is not that big!
Iron Horse Sculpture in Depot Plaza today
photo credit: Larry Jacobsen
Apparently, the dancing girls were dancing even before some of the roofs were put on the buildings. The red light district was so-called because the railroad workers would take a red lantern with them when they left the job. They would leave the lantern outside of whichever house of ill-repute they chose for the night. In the morning, the bosses would round up their workers by looking for the red lanterns. The Union Pacific railroad and its tracks are still a significant part of the city today.
The city, which had been named after the mighty Cheyenne Native American tribe, soon became one of the towns nicknamed “Hell on Wheels”. These towns were so-called because of the vice and violence that followed the Union Pacific Railroad as it worked its way westward in the building of the transcontinental railroad. Interestingly, the Central Pacific Railroad which was working its way eastward from California had no such Hell on Wheels towns. Historians attribute this difference to the type of workers each company hired. The Union Pacific hired European immigrants (mostly Irish) who drank and gambled away their money whereas the Central Pacific hired Chinese workers who preferred to drink tea to whiskey.
Cheyenne had a serious bad reputation which did not make the more sedate citizens happy. So how did the citizens of Cheyenne build the respectable town that you have today? They made the town family-friendly.
Eventually the railroad workers moved onto the next stage of track building in Utah and so the rougher elements found another city to terrorise. Moreover, the area became wealthy with the raising of cattle and the gold rush. The residents of Cheyenne started building large and comfortable family homes.
Millionaire’s Row was the site of the grand homes of the cattle barons who only used their homes for a couple weeks of the year when they were in town. Still, the homes were a status symbol and no one was allowed to build on the street unless they owned at least 1000 head of cattle. If you had made your money from some other source such as supplying liquor to the saloons, you had to somehow get yourself a ranch and the requisite number of cattle.
photo credit: Reba Bear
The Victorian painted ladies were houses that had 3 or more different colours on their outsides. They were a favourite of George D. Rainsford, a New York architect, who came to Wyoming to be a horse breeder but continued to practice architecture on the side. His hobby produced so many houses that the Rainsford Historical District is named after him.
A Rainsford Painted Lady
A lot of churches were built in the city. St. Mary’s Cathedral, the Roman Catholic church, for example, bought its land from the Union Pacific for a $1. The Union Pacific figured churches were a good way to bring the lawless crowd to heel. The men could stumble out of a tavern or a brothel straight into a church on Sunday morning.
St. Mary’s Church in Cheyenne
The first Cheyenne publicly-funded primary school, made with extensively intricate brickwork and marble, is now government offices. The city clearly had money to throw around in those days.
Cheyenne’s first primary school
When Cheyenne started out, there were only 12 trees in the city limits. The women of Cheyenne took it upon themselves to change the landscaping. They rode the trains out to places where there were trees, dug up the trees and brought them back to plant in their city. To provide water for the trees, the women would save up household water and give a bucket to schoolchildren to water a tree on the way to school. They would leave the bucket by the tree and so others would know it had been watered. It’s a completely different landscape today!
Remnants of the city’s hard-living past are still visible today but overall Cheyenne is a model of respectability. We were charmed by the city which was an unexpected and welcome surprise! Have you ever been to a place which you found better than you would expect it to be?
Christiania is an 84 acre self-governing zone within Copenhagen which refuses to concede it is part of the E.U., or for that matter, Denmark.
Technically, the commune is only about 10 minutes away from central Copenhagen. Christiania recognises no law other than its own. The rules are fairly broad as you would expect – for example, no guns or hard drugs.
Once you are through this unprepossessing gate, you are in Christiania. It’s sort of like going into Narnia – something magical but with an undercurrent of violence. I’ve read that there have been issues with serious crime (a biker gang called Bullshit, a drugs shoot-out etc) in the past. I didn’t feel unsafe but you never know, right?
Christiania was established in 1971 by a group of hippies and artists who took over an old, disused military base. There was a lack of affordable housing in Copenhagen and they wanted to set up a community where people lived by the rules of freedom and tolerance. They also wanted to be economically self-sufficient. Today, the commune is thriving with approximately 1000 people. These people have gone to a lot of effort to make their home simple but charming.
With no cars, the preferred mode of transportation are cargo bikes. These bikes are so popular that they are sold elsewhere under the moniker Christiania Bikes because they are really handy to transport goods (and children).
Photography is not allowed on the main drag, aptly named Pusher Street, because drugs are sold openly. Also known as the Green Light District, the sweet smell of pot wafts through the air. Drugs, including marijuana, are illegal in Denmark even if Christiania thinks it beyond the reach of that law.
In 2011, a fund set up by the inhabitants of Christiania bought the land from Copenhagen for DKK 76 million making the whole venture more legal. As this sign shows, you can still buy shares in Christiania if you would like to contribute to the world’s longest lasting social experiment.
There are lots of artists who live here and they have left their mark on the buildings. Of course, the fairies are unclothed, blonde, buxom and have full Brazilians. Even counter-culture types like their stereotypes.
Christiania is actually one of the most-visited tourist sites in Copenhagen. Slightly puzzled looking tourists wander around the area inhaling second-hand pot smoke. The locals are either going about their business or chilling in their own happy buzz. Apparently, Christiania has its own currency but I was able to purchase a Pepsi with Danish Kroner. Christiania also has its own website as well as its own Facebook page. Christiania appears to set itself apart from Copenhagen and, yet, is sensible enough to still be a part of it.
Bayeux is a beautiful town in Normandy which we visited during our recent road trip around the Battle of Normandy sites. It is famous for the Bayeux Tapestry which depicts the Norman conquest of England. Having escaped relatively unscathed from World War II, the town is full of medieval buildings. The River Aure flows through the centre of Bayeux and adds to its charm.
Although the Bayeux Tapestry was supposedly woven by William the Conqueror’s wife, Matilda and her ladies-in-waiting at the end of 11th century, in all likelihood the needlework was done by monks in England. William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Bishop Odo, commissioned it for the Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame de Bayeux which dominates the centre of town.
The Bayeux Tapestry would originally have been displayed in the town’s cathedral but now is in a museum in the centre of town. Listed as a UNESCO world heritage item, the Bayeux tapestry is 70 meters long and 50 centimetres high with 58 separate scenes. Its depictions of the battle scenes are understandably favourable towards the Normans. It was almost destroyed during the French Revolution when it was used as a wagon cover!
I thought the tapestry was amazing. The amount of detail is astounding. It’s easy to tell that war in any century was a gruesome event. The colours, moreover, are still vibrant, especially for embroidery that is over 900 years old. You are given an audio guide which explains the scenes of the tapestry very well. You are rushed through the visit, however, because the commentary is fairly speedy and there is no pause button on the audio guide. Presumably, they need to keep people moving in periods of heavy visitor numbers.
Consecrated in 1077, the Bayeux cathedral was meant as a place of worship for religious people, such as the priests and monks. As such, the cathedral has very few stained glass windows. In the Middle Ages, stained glass was used as a teaching mechanism for the masses to understand the teachings of the Catholic Church. The religious, however, should presumably know their catechism and, therefore, stained glass was not needed.
This giant bell, named Therese-Benedict, was on display in the nave of the Bayeux Cathedral when I visited last month. Being installed on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy, this bell has special significance because it has been 156 years since a bell has been replaced. It will be run for the first time on the 14th of June during the height of the 70th anniversary celebrations.
The town of Bayeux is very pretty with cobblestone streets, half-timbered houses and mellowed stone buildings. Its buildings survived the carnage inflicted on other towns during World War II because it was the first big town to be liberated by the Allied Forces on the morning of the 7th June 1944. Bayeux served as the provisional capital of France in 1944.
The Bayeux war cemetery is the largest British Commonwealth cemetery from World War II in Europe.
Although there was little fighting in Bayeux itself, the cemetery is the resting place of many who died in the region. Located just outside of the town, the cemetery has had a major facelift with brand new tombstones and landscaped grounds. It is a fitting tribute to the brave men who sacrificed their lives for the greater good.
We really enjoyed our visit to Bayeux and wished we had more time to wander its cobblestone streets. You can easily combine a trip to Bayeux with visits to the D-Day landing beaches.