Exploring the Netherlands

We’ve arrived in Rome after a fabulous three-week stay in the Netherlands, using Amsterdam as our home base. This is the longest we’ve been in Amsterdam (or any one city for that matter), and we weren’t sure how it would go… would we be bored? Would we be homesick? The good news is that neither of those things occurred. Because we had so much time, we moved at a slower pace than a normal vacation, and felt no rush to cram in all the sights. We were able to settle in to our apartment and really felt like we lived there, albeit briefly, and wander the city with a different perspective. Our extended time in Amsterdam also allowed us to get out of the city to explore other towns in the Netherlands (and beyond).


Another bonus for us this trip was having friends in town. Our friends Mark and Eric recently moved to Amsterdam from Menton, France, and it was a lot of fun to connect with them and hang out. It really makes you feel like a local when you’re meeting up with friends who live there, or going to their home for dinner. Mark and Eric hosted us three times during our trip, and treated us to three amazing meals (we are still talking about the osso Bucco and carrot cake, OMG).

Since we’ve been to Amsterdam numerous times, I’ll refrain from providing a detailed day-by-day description of our visit and instead focus on observations, some less typical things to do in Amsterdam and some of the towns we visited during our day trips.

Observations, things to note, and other random thoughts:
• The main supermarket is called Albert Heijn (AH for short). They are everywhere but some are only convenience stores, some don’t take cash and others only take cash. We located a full supermarket and an express mart closest to us the first week so we didn’t have to play the “how to pay” guessing game each time. Also, in Amsterdam (and most of Europe) bring your own bags or be prepared to buy bags.

• As much as it pained us, we decided to try Indonesian restaurants other than Tempo Doeloe. We still think TD is best, but it’s really expensive. We found a place called Kartika that’s as good and 1/5 of the price of TD! We also ate at Mama Makan, which was more like Indian & Thai but still good.

• Finding half & half for coffee is always like a scavenger hunt in Europe because many cartons of “cream” contain oil or sugar as they are predominately used for cooking. In Amsterdam we finally decided that “slagroom” (heavy whipping cream) was as close as we were going to get, and we added milk to make half/half. Make sure you download Dutch in Google Translate to help with translations in the supermarket and elsewhere. Although everyone speaks English, the products & a lot of signage is in Dutch.

• The trams are incredibly easy to use and make getting around a breeze, but the process of buying a ticket isn’t clear cut.  Each journey is about €3 unless you have an OV Chipkart, then the journey is about €1. We got ours at the De Pijp Metro station and found that €30 was adequate for a three week stay. Unless you’re a resident you’ll need an anonymous card. Hourly tickets can be purchased on the tram with Visa.

• Speaking of trams, they are a great way to sightsee if you only have a day or two. From Centraal take the #2 or #12 tram and grab a window seat. You’ll ride through the heart of the city and can hop on and off at the major attractions such as Dam Square, Keisersgracht, Prinsengracht, Leidseplein, Rijksmuseum, etc. Chipkarts can be purchased by the hour or day, or you can get an anonymous card and reload it as needed.

• When sight-seeing, note that the further away you get from Centraal the less tourists and crowds you’ll deal with (of course you’ll still have that factor at Rijksmuseum and Leidseplein but less so). In my opinion, the least appealing area of the city is near the city center (Dam Square and Neuwmarkt) and across from the train station. If that’s where you hang out, you may be disappointed.

• Don’t be concerned with prostitutes and marijuana. Prostitutes are mainly confined to the red light district and are not out on the street. You will likely walk right by a prostitute’s window and not even know it. And although coffeeshops are everywhere, they are not rowdy drug dens. You might smell pot but that will be the extent of it. FYI, although you can buy coffee in a coffeeshop, they are primarily for buying and smoking pot. If you just want a coffee, go to a café. Coffeeshops do not sell alcohol.

• Location is everything, but of course, everyone’s needs and desires differ. We found being close to the tram and the market the most convenient for us and saved us time and wear and tear on our feet. Our apartment was between Leidseplein and Speigelgracht which gave us access to numerous tram lines. Despite our proximity to Leidseplein, which has a lot of bars and restaurants, our apartment on Ziesenseskade was quiet and very residential.

• Ignore the weather forecasts in the Netherlands. They were never right. When it was supposed to rain, it was sunny; when it was supposed to be sunny, it rained. We ended up carrying our umbrellas everywhere just in case.

Things to do in Amsterdam:
Obviously there are lots of museums, parks, restaurants and shops to occupy your hours in Amsterdam, and any guide book or website can give you the “must do” things. Walking the canal rings alone can take up a couple of days. For first timers, definitely hit all the main sites such as the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh museum, Vondelpark, Dam Square, Anne Frank Huis and the canal rings (do yourself a favor and buy tickets online so you can skip the lines. You can thank me later). We found the Heineken Experience to be a rip off, but if you are intent to do it, get tickets online to save some money and time. Once you’ve checked those boxes, some other things I would recommend are:

• Biking and picnic through Vondelpark. This park is at the southern end of town and is massive. In addition to miles of paths, there are tons of fountains, streams, bridges, and cafes. If your bike has a basket, pick up some sandwiches and a bottle of wine and have a picnic.

• Rent a canal boat for the afternoon. This is not the same as doing a canal cruise with 30+ other tourists. There are a couple of boat rental companies that will rent you an electric canal boat by the hour and you can have a boat all to yourself. They are easy to navigate and don’t go fast. Just pay attention to the direction of the canal (some are one-way) and be considerate of faster moving vessels. We used Sloepdelen which has two docks in Amsterdam. The boats were clean and easy to operate and 2.5 hours was €150. We took snacks and wine on the boat and had a grand time. Of course, taking a canal boat cruise is fun too.

• Outdoor markets and the Foodhallen. Amsterdam is literally flush with outdoor markets that sell food, produce, crafts, antiques and other goods. The Foodhallen is an upscale food hall with a lot of options for food of all kinds, including dim sum, tacos, burgers, tapas, fish and chips, ribs, pastries, etc. We went for dinner one night and ate small dishes from 4-5 different stands. I had the best fish and chips of my life there, outdoing Leo Burdock’s in Dublin and everywhere in London. I think we could have gone 2-3 more times and still not sampled all the food.

• Speaking of food, Amsterdam is a haven for great ethnic food. Be sure to try Indonesian Rijsttafel, which will give you a large selection of delicious foods served with rice. We ate a ton of great Vietnamese food (O Mai was a favorite) and found a German restaurant called Wurst and Schnitzelhaus to get our schnitzel fix (the chicken schnitzel is to die for). For good Dutch food, check out The Pantry.

• Visit the Amsterdam Zoo. This is an interesting zoo… it’s the oldest in the Netherlands, and not super well kept, but the animals looked healthy and happy, and the zoo itself is more like a park. The animals were really engaging and seemed interested in the people who came to see them. We had a great time, and you can take the tram.

• Take a day trip out of the city… see below!

Beyond Amsterdam:

The Netherlands has a fantastic and convenient heavy rail system that is affordable and will get you almost everywhere in the country (and Belgium) in about 2 hours. Some of our experiences:

Haarlem:
Thirty minutes from Amsterdam by train, Haarlem is an easy day trip and offers a more peaceful view of Dutch life. Similar to Amsterdam but less crowded, it’s much more conducive to biking. Everyone and their brother has a bike in the Netherlands, but biking in Amsterdam can be intimidating and dangerous if you’re not really careful. If you want to ride a bike, consider Haarlem. The cathedral is breathtaking and inside there is a spectacular organ that has been played by Mozart and Handel.

Marken & Volendam:
Sleepy, small fishing village that was loaded with charm but not much else. We rented a car for the 30-minute drive and after about an hour, we had seen everything Marken had to offer. Since we had more time, we drove to Volendam. Another fishing village but much more touristy and more to see and do, Volendam has a boardwalk that reminded us a lot of an old-timey American beach town (think Cape May). There are lots of restaurants and souvenir shops and a small beach. Combining Marken and Volendam was a good call. Also to note, Volendam is supposedly THE place to get seafood near Amsterdam, although we didn’t eat there.


Groningen:
Vibrant college town with a nice little shopping street and pretty cafes. This was just over 2 hours from Amsterdam and was recommended to us by a local. We liked it but probably would not add it to our list of places to return. It’s quite small and we were pretty much ready to leave after 2 hours.


Leiden & Delft:
Leiden was about 30 minutes from Centraal and has a charming city center that is split by a busy canal. We sat at a café overlooking one section of the canal and watched the private canal boats parade by, as a choir sang in the bandstand a few yards beyond. It was very relaxing and provided its share of cobblestone alleys and pretty churches. Delft was 30 minutes from Leiden and was our favorite city. It’s so charming and picturesque you can almost get a sense of what an old Dutch town looked like back in the day. It’s small enough to see in an hour or two, but provides many, many photo opportunities. We ate at an unusual restaurant called Hills and Mills that was advertised as Indian fusion but was like nothing we have ever had. The highlight of that meal was a platter of smoked lamb that resembled cold cuts. It was amazing and unique. All the food here is organic and fresh, but don’t expect traditional Indian dishes.


Antwerp:
Although not in the Netherlands, it’s actually further north than some of the Netherland’s more southern towns, such as Maastricht, and is an easy 2-hour train ride. We decided to make an overnight trip for Dave’s birthday and were not disappointed. We stayed at the Hotel Rubens close to Grote Markt, which was a great spot. The hotel is clean and modern and just a 2 minute walk to the Markt. From Antwerpen Centraal we took the tram into the Old Town and walked to our hotel. We stayed in the Old Town for our visit and spent our time strolling and people watching at cafes, our favorite pastime. For dinner, we ate at a unique place called Pelgrom that’s in a cellar underground. They serve Belgian food and have an extensive beer collection (don’t get the wine).


Amsterdam is a lovely, lively city that will keep a traveler busy for days on end. However, the Netherlands has hundreds of beautiful towns with a lot to offer. If you have the chance, take a moment to explore this amazing country, you’ll be glad you did!

Up Next: Rome!

Steph

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