Amsterdam Photography: Empty Streets of Amsterdam

Amsterdam Photography: Photos of Empty Streets in Amsterdam

It took a long time for me to fully appreciate what the current global situation would mean for tourism in Amsterdam. Of course, it meant it was going to slow down, but did I really think it was going to put something of a stop - a near complete stop - to it? No, I honestly didn't.

Tourism - and over-tourism - has long been such a big (loaded, problematic, fascinating) part of Amsterdam's daily life that the whole time I've been living here, it's been almost impossible to imagine what the city would look like with no tourists. (And if you're one such tourist missing out on your visit to Amsterdam, here's a round-up of the best virtual tours, museums online exhibits and other virtual Amsterdam travel experiences.)

But that's sort of what has happened over the last two months, and for those of us fortunate enough to have made bike rides, runs or walks into the centre of town, as part of our daily exercise during these times of lockdown and quarantine, have witnessed this with our own eyes.

As I was in having the realisation that no tourists in Amsterdam would mean no tourists on the city's best known streets and iconic canals, I was also a little slow in getting myself organised to go on a bike ride to see it for myself. I could blame my young children (two boys aged 4 and 1) and how much more exhausting time we have all been spending together, but that would be unfair to them. I mean, they're to blame for a lot these days - extra grey hairs, a permanently sticky floor, toothpaste smeared all over my bathroom sink every morning and evening - but they're not to be blamed for my lack of oomph in wanting to set my alarm for 5-something when on many days a week they wake me up at this time anyway.

But after a run of 6-something starts, decent (enough) sleep, and warm weather, finally, last weekend, I set my alarm for 5:30am, and within a few minutes of waking up I was dressed, and on my wa,y, cycling into the centre of Amsterdam, across a near empty Museumplein (Museum Square) and into the famous Red Light District.

By the time 8:30 rolled around, I was on the other side of the city having cycled along my favourite canal, Brouwersgracht, criss-crossed Jordaan's village-like narrow avenues and the normally very busy Nine Streets, and I had marvelled at the sheer empty size of Dam Square, where there are normally crowds of tourists waiting for walking tours or pouring in and out of bustling shops.

I was rewarded for my early morning efforts and exercise with yes, the most beautiful, gentle light, and almost eerily empty streets, but I was also treated to things I don't think I've seen before in Amsterdam, especially its busy centre.

Firstly, the noise, or lack thereof.

Coming from London, I've never thought of Amsterdam as a noisy city, but it is still a city, and often one that has more concentrations of people making loud noises than its low-rising gabled houses can absorb.

However, that morning when I stopped on Damrak or in the middle of Museumplein, I couldn't hear much of the usual background noise that is so synonymous with Amsterdam, I rarely notice it at all; no clanking of bike chains being released from or attached to wheels, no taxis roaring too fast down the middle of the road, no tourists squealing and laughing as they stumbled perilously close to a canal or bike path, and no bells on bikes ringing out "tring-trings" which can either mean "Excuse me, I'm coming past you," or "Get out the way, tourist!".

There wasn't also the regular rumbele of trams. They're currently running a limited service in line with less demand, and were yet to get up to full service at that time in the morning, but when they did trundle past me or on a nearby street, they were the loudest noise by a long way.

That was, until I noticed the birdsong.

Who knew that birds could giggle? Or at least that's what it sounded like as more and more chirps, tweets, squeaks and chortles joined in a chorus that I heard in nearly all of Amsterdam's most urban corners.

In one of the oldest parts of the city - at the end of Oudezijds Voorburgwal in the heart of the Red Light District - I saw a silver-haired couple wearing brown Barbour jackets pointing into the water, the woman raised her camera, but whatever it was they noticed was too quick for her and for me watching on; all I saw was ripples left behind on the water.

Later on I saw them on a quieter canal in the Jordaan neighbourhood where he was looking through binoculars and she smiled again at me. Could it be that they were on a bird-watching tour, in central Amsterdam, at 8am on a Saturday morning? 

While most of the streets of Amsterdam I cycled along were indeed empty, I was far from alone in being a spectator of this.

More than a handful other photographers crossed my (cycle) path, and there was an odd moment at the shallow oval pond of water that lies in front of the Rijksmuseum, when I was at the far end of it trying to capture the museum's reflection in the water, and another photographer cycled up and took centre stage in my shot, photographing the seagulls that were bathing in the same water. 

And all across the city were signs of normal early morning life.

Bakeries doors were flung wide open in the mild morning air, blasting that deliciously promising smell of fresh bread out into the street. Dog walkers with eyes still more shut than open followed their eager pets who bounced along the streets. The most committed runners and cyclists flew past me, lycra on, muscles straining, no time for the smiles or pleasantries that my fellow photographers nodded my way, as did the handful of people of all ages I saw who seemed to be out for a walk alone, or maybe on their way to work, or heading home from a shift.

When I stopped to take photos of the brilliant Flower Bike Man bikes, a man wobbled past me on a bike that squeaked, a bottle of Heineken in his hand, and he said something to me that made him laugh but I thankfully couldn't hear because I had my headphones on.

On my way home, just outside De Pijp, near where I used to live, I saw a woman of a similar age to me, wearing the same trainers I was, wandering along behind a toddler who had found a stick and was stopping every few footsteps. I couldn't catch her eye as I cycled past her from behind, but I wanted to call out "I see you! Up so early and already out of the house to keep her happy? I've been there!".

Further up this road, a number of mostly older-looking people stood facing the doors that were yet to open, empty shopping bags wafting by their sides, as they waited for their precious hour of early morning shopping reserved for those who are most vulnerable at this time.

I was emotional at many times during this bike ride photographing the near empty streets of Amsterdam. Sometimes because I was remembering what I had forgotten; how beautiful my city is, how lucky I am to live here, how much of a toll tourism has taken on the city (and one's senses), how different so many people's experience of this current way of life is. And sometimes it was because I was forgetting what I should always remember; how beautiful my city is, how lucky I am to live here, and how great a privilege it is that I can cycle around it on a Saturday morning watching the sun rise and listening to the birds giggle.

Now, here are the rest of my photos. I hope you like them as much as I enjoyed taking them.

How to Take Photos of Amsterdam's Empty Streets

I just thought it would be worth putting down a few words about how I took these photos of Amsterdam's empty streets. I took them between the hours of 6 and 8:30 in the morning on a Saturday in early May. It was also the last weekend of our strictest lockdown regulations so many businesses were closed, and perhaps most significantly, most nighttime establishments - pubs, clubs, and other late night hang-outs - were all closed to the public.

Had lockdown not been in place, I probably would have seen more late night "stragglers" heading home after a night out, especially in and around the Red Light District, and I also think that it's fair to say that many early morning businesses and shops were also closed, or opening later, so there was also less other kinds of traffic (foot and vehicle). As I mentioned above, there were also fewer trams and taxis around due to restricted public transport and with taxis, just less demand.

But if you're visiting Amsterdam and there is no lockdown in place, I would still say that you could have to get out before 7 o'clock in the morning to take photos of empty or near empty streets in the centre of Amsterdam. Because of the seasons and weather, you would only get decent light for photos at this time from April onwards, and of course in the summer, you could get up much earlier (4:30am even) and still have some soft dawn light to play with. So, definitely waiting for summer is worth it when it comes to taking photos of empty streets or popular places in Amsterdam. 

I have to say that I didn't really plan for this adventure to be the optimum time for taking photos in terms of light quality, but it really was. The light was utterly beautiful and timed in perfectly with the way the city slowly woke up and got a little busier. As I cycled back past Museumplein on my way home, I saw many more dog walkers, joggers and couples out walking than I had two hours previously, so it really is quite remarkable how much I gained from getting up so early!

And if you'd like to save or share this post, here are some images you can pin:

Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.

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