Amsterdam is a fine city for a cultural trip, but when you've had your fill of galleries, do as the Dutch do: take to two wheels and head out of town. Bike rental is easy and so is the cycling
Almost everywhere in Amsterdam can be reached without having to mix with cars. Hire a bike to get around, and you may just get a lightbulb moment: if it's easy to travel around Amsterdam by bike, it'll be easy to cycle out of Amsterdam into the surrounding countryside. After less than an hour of easy pedalling, you can be freewheeling beside pristine polders. The Netherlands may be densely populated, but on a bike you can escape to birdsong.
That Amsterdam is bike-friendly is a given but it's still surprising to see the levels of bike love, taking in the whole spread of ages from tots to grannies. Dutch kids think it's weird to be driven to school. Bank managers in suits ride their bikes to work. When in Rome do as the Romans do...
Bike parking in Amsterdam – as in the rest of the Netherlands – isn't a token Sheffield stand; it is row after row of stands, packed with 'Dutch roadsters': heavy, black, practical bikes with a rack, mudguards and a dynamo-powered light. Supermarkets, bakers, butchers, cafes, pubs... all have bike racks.
It's possible to rent bikes from many outlets but perhaps the most tourist-friendly is MacBike, with three locations in Amsterdam, including one at Centraal Station. A standard town bike costs €9.50 a day, with a luxury town bike (it has gears) costing €14.25 a day. Got little kids? Rent a bakfiets box-bike for €25 a day. Three little 'uns will fit in the box but don't expect to take any long trips out to the countryside. MacBike also runs bike-borne tours of Amsterdam.
CHOOSING A ROUTE
Point your bike and go: with so many cycle paths, whichever route you choose will land you somewhere interesting, and most of it totally traffic-free (which makes even dull districts that little bit more bearable). However, south of Amsterdam is dominated by Schiphol airport, and east and west by docks, so north is best. Edam would make a good day trip from Amsterdam. You could take the coastal route via Durgerdam, Waterland and Monnickendam; and return via Broek-in-Waterland. Depending on which route you choose, this is up to a 40-mile round trip. That might sound a lot but, with a fair wind, it's surprisingly do-able.
On its website, MacBike suggests the classic Waterland route but also features urban bicycle explorations: the Architecture Route, the Amstel Route, Jewish Amsterdam and the Gay Route ("This unique gay cycle route is the only one of its kind in the world").
There are 5,500 fibreglass mushrooms dotted around the Netherlands. They've been there for years, but if you're not a cyclist you might never have noticed. Paddestoel (it means toadstool in English) are small white markers that give directions and distances (in kilometres) to destinations. They're placed on cycle path junctions by ANWB, the Dutch equivalent of the RAC. Each paddestoel has a unique five-digit number on top; these numbers are on the ANWB cycle touring maps, so you can easily fix your exact location.
Such ground-level markers have been a feature of the Dutch countryside – especially in nature reserves and forests – since 1918. Knooppuntroutes are cycle routes designated with numbers, with each route intersection also given a unique number. Note the numbers from trailside maps and then follow.
Some bicycle paths - fietspads - are obligatory to use: they're marked with solid blue circles and a bike icon. In Amsterdam, there are well-marked fietspads pretty much everywhere.
The countyside, too, is veined with traffic-free bike paths. The Netherlands has 26 long-distance LF-routes: landelijke fietsroutes. Local routes join up with the LF-Routes. All are marked on maps produced by ANWB. The 1:300 000 map is useful in planning a long-distance tour; there are also 1:100,000 regional maps.
Stanfords of London usually has an up-to-date collection of ANWB maps. If you try to buy maps from Dutch websites, you'll find that most sites don't accept credit cards. In the Netherlands, maps of cycle routes can be found in local tourist offices (VVV) and ANWB shops.
Mopeds and scooters (known as brommers) are allowed on some fietspads. Look out for the sign telling you this. Brommers are no slouches; don't get in their way.
The Netherlands is mostly pancake-flat, yes - but it does have hills. The Dutch call them Bergs (ie: mountains) and they can all be found on this Google Maps mash-up website: http://tinyurl.com/ypbt7x. Of course, what the Netherlands lacks in altitude it makes up for in 'horizontal hills': the wind can be fearsome.
ONLINE ROUTE PLANNERS
The Netherlands is blessed with some wonderful web-based route planners, for bikes, pedestrians, public transport and cars.
- Plan your bus journeys with http://journeyplanner.9292.nl.
- The Fietsersbond (Dutch Cyclists' Union) has an all-Netherlands route planner called Fietsrouteplanner: http://bit.ly/2lJaMO.
- Routecraft has a Flash-based routeplanner of Amsterdam at http://www.routecraft.com/fietsplanner and even has an iPhone app: http://www.routecraft.com/iphone.
- NS Rail has rail and bike-to-the-station planners at http://www.ns.nl
There is no shortage of campsites in the Netherlands but the best (ie: quietest, most scenic, most friendly) are those listed in the Green Book. Staatsbosbeheer, the Dutch equivalent of English Nature, operates scenic campsites throughout the Netherlands, some of which are members of Stichting Natuurkampeerterreinen, the foundation for natural camping sites. This is an exclusive club, with very quiet campsites tucked away in often lovely locations. These 140 campsites aren't generally listed on ANWB or tourist maps. Instead they are listed in Het Groene Boekje, the Green Book, a €9 purchase from www.natuurkampeerterreinen.nl. As well as providing regional listings of campsites, this Green Book is your membership ticket, without which you can't camp at these sites. The book isn't in English but the addresses and amenity icons are obvious.
HOTELS EN ROUTE
If you prefer to stay outside Amsterdam, De Oude Taveerne in Durgerdam is a wooden house built in 1760. It has just seven rooms, with antique beds and furniture. Take breakfast on the terrace; or moor your yacht on the hotel's wharf. Don't have a yacht? Take the no 30 bus from downtown Amsterdam; it stops right outside the hotel.
Despite being a mega bike-friendly country, Dutch trains can't accomodate too many bikes, and they're forbidden on most rush-hour trains (except in July and August). This is deliberate: with so many bikes in the Netherlands, there would be no room on the trains. Instead, Dutch railway stations have lots of bike parking. NS rail owns and operates a chain of bike shops at railway stations, called FietsPoint. These offer rental bikes, sell bike accessories and have huge cycle parking facilities, storing thousands of bikes.
There's a big cycle touring section on the official website of the Netherlands tourist office. http://www.holland.com/uk/
To get a flavour of Amsterdam's bike love, visit http://amsterdamize.com. This is "100% Lycra-Free, Guaranteed."