I always knew I wanted to go on a year abroad, even before I came to uni. I applied to far flung cities all over the world and so was grateful but a little underwhelmed when I eventually got placed in my fifth choice of neighbouring Amsterdam. However, it absolutely was the best place I could possibly have been given, and I ended up having an incredible year – if cut a little short due to miss rona. For those thinking of going on a year abroad in the Netherlands, here are my top tips: from city guides to student life, the lowdown on UvA and top tricks for getting used to Dutch living.
Amsterdam – a Guide to the City
Amsterdam is, to my mind, the perfect city. Balancing historic architecture with modern infrastructure, this complex grid of canals and bridges is designed with quality of life in mind. Everything is beautiful and despite it being huge, it feels more like a small town. Of course, the main element is cycling. I will never forget the rush of cycling back from a night out along the canals, when the whole town was peaceful, and the iconic narrow houses glinted in the reflection of the water. A year is hardly enough time to explore the countless museums, galleries and “cool spaces” this city is renowned for, such as the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh and my personal favourite, the Tropenmuseum.
Every other weekend, everyone piles onto the ferry by central station to cross the river to NDSM, where several kilometres of land is converted into the biggest outdoor market I’ve ever seen (IJ-Hallen Market). Next to the Roeterseiland campus, you’re always bumping into friends in the cafe-bars of Crea or Kriterion (I basically lived in Crea), to grab a Jupiler and make evening plans, before all piling onto your bikes and heading into town.
The best bars across the city during the warmer months are Waterkant and Hannekes Boon, both with beautiful terraces overlooking the canals. Norderlicht and de Tulp both have long lists of cocktails and live music, and for those loving swanky drinks, Canvas, in Volkshotel, has incredible panoramic views of the city from their rooftop bar (bonus points if you can find the rooftop hot tubs hidden within this hotel).
If you’re a fan of clubbing, Amsterdam is up there as one of the biggest techno capitals of the world, with its famous ADE dance festival every year. Shelter, De School and de Marktkantine were the biggest clubs (possibly victims of the pandemic), but for a perfect Friday night I would head down to the gay village of Reguliersdwarstraat to catch a screening of Ru Paul’s Drag Race UK and party to cheesy hits in Bar Soho – one of the only free late-night-bars in the whole city. As an international student, the IENA network looks after you by organising international student events throughout the year, including an international student ‘fresher’s week’ (which saw me on a beer-bike during a silent disco on a man-made island-turned-club, only accessible by boat). They also host weekly socials at the infamous ‘Coco’s Outback’ (think the Dutch version of Hive).
For food lovers, the city has so many great places to eat, from the Vegan Junk Food Bar, Winkel 43 (apple pie and hot chocolate!), the delis in the picturesque Jordaan, Kartika (Indonesian tapas) and the warming goodness of Hummus D&A (think fresh warm bread and huge bowls of yummy handmade hummus).
Tips for Finding Accommodation:
Student accommodation in Amsterdam is a hot commodity and they don’t have enough rooms for every international student. For this reason, I recommend being extremely proactive about your housing application, getting it in early and getting to know the exact date that selection opens. I clicked the link in the email the second it arrived, so was lucky enough to get free choice of anywhere in the city. In the end, I chose a room for €440 a month overlooking the main Prinsengracht canal! I know it can be tempting to go private (who wants to be a fresher again?) but I don’t recommend it, because it can be far more expensive and much harder to arrange. Other good accommodation options are the ones directly next to the Roeterseiland campus and Prins Hendrikkade. Fraijlemaborg and Maassluisstraat are both popular options (and they had fun parties) but they’re very far out.
Tips for Getting a Bike:
Even if you’ve never cycled before in your life, you have to cycle in Amsterdam. The whole city is built around cycling infrastructure and public transport is very limited (sometimes slower than walking). To be a pedestrian in Amsterdam means taking your life into your hands with bikes flying everywhere. A car is literally out of the question – they’re not even allowed to drive down half the roads in the city centre. All of us were nervous about cycling when we first arrived, but it just takes a few days to find your feet and I promise that you’ll be yelling at tourists to get out of the road in no time! The best options for buying a bike are to look on Facebook Marketplace or the market in Westerstraat (be confident in haggling and check over the bike thoroughly before making a purchase). However, I would recommend getting your bike through Swapfiets. They are very common in Amsterdam, even for locals, and take all the pain out of looking after a bike for you. For €16 a month you get a shiny bike, double locking system, insurance and free repairs. Just make sure you double lock your bike! I forgot to lock my first bike ONCE and came back to find it stolen. I then switched to Swapfiets and never looked back. It also means you don’t have the fuss of selling your bike at the end of the year. Finally, my most important tip for cycling in the city is to be aware of tram tracks – get your bike caught in them and you’ll go flying! Always cross them perpendicularly.
UvA compared to UofE
There are several universities in Amsterdam, but I went to Universiteit van Amsterdam. I found their teaching really good (I did social sciences) and loved all my courses. One of the best things about studying abroad is getting a different perspective on your discipline and it can be quite satisfying seeing how things differ. I found the approaches in Amsterdam slightly more creative and was able to take modules in anthropological photography and filmmaking! For my final projects I ended up making a short film and a photo series, which really allowed me to try something new. I will warn any psychology students however, that several of my friends found the psychology department to be much more intense than at Edinburgh.
One thing that I found different to Edinburgh is that in the Netherlands, they don’t have ‘student societies’ in the same way as we do, so those who couldn’t go without their sport or cultural activities for a year might feel disappointed. That being said, the CREA building offered several creative evening courses, such as photography and performance, which is a great way to meet new people. The university of course also had several gyms and sports facilities to do classes and keep fit, although cycling will do that for you anyway!
Skip the Heineken Experience and do the Brouwerit-IJ tour instead – it’s much cheaper and you get a free drink at the end! Apply for a student Chipkaart early on, as this will save you a lot of money on trams. Rather than doing a canal boat tour (save that for when your parents visit), rent your own boat and take friends and a picnic out onto the canals for the day! Finally (and I know this is cheesy) but have fun! Don’t get too bogged down with work because this is your last year where grades don’t count. Instead, focus on saying ‘yes’ to as many things as possible, meeting people from all over the world and having new experiences. In your first week, add as many other international students as possible on Facebook, stick them in a group chat and be proactive about organising fun activities – everyone’s looking for someone to do it, so why not make it be you? The term begins early in the Netherlands (August) so get to know your new friends by taking them out on bike rides to city beaches and day trips out to neighbouring cities (Utrecht, Haarlem, Leiden etc).
If anyone has any more questions about the Netherlands or years abroad in general, send me a message! And I hope you all have the best year of your lives – you deserve it after 2020 🙂