Embarrassingly, my knowledge of the Netherlands consisted of the stereotypical legal drugs, red light district, windmills, tulips, wooden shoes and Anne Frank.
Amsterdam was the first stop on our two month trip to Europe and Africa. It was our first overseas trip together. I was excited, but I had some nerves on alert too. On top of that, we were staying with a high school friend of mine, we will call her G. I hadn’t seen G for years. Not only was I nervous about seeing her and meeting her family, but I was nervous about intertwining Matt into the mix while renewing my old friendship.
Looking back Amsterdam was a bit of a blur, I vividly remember visiting the Anne Frank house, Zaandijk and spending time with a great family on their houseboat. I am not usually an emotional traveler. This is only one of less than a handful of trips where I felt overcome by nervous emotions rather than my general excitement to travel. With all that said, it was one of my most memorable trips because it was so emotionally driven.
Not all trips are destined only to teach you about the location. If you are lucky, serendipity plays a part and lights a spark in your mind and heart. Our trip started at a train station Starbucks. We waited for G to come and pick us up in her new city, Amsterdam. I wasn’t sure I would recognize her, but as soon as she walked in, I knew it was her. It had been so long since we had seen each other, and she hadn’t aged a bit. My nerves subsided, and it was time for introductions.
“This is Matthew. My, ummmm, well this is Matthew.” It was in that instance I had realized I had met, quit my job, up and left, and moved with this guy I had known for three months. It was one of those “Oh Geez?” and “Hell Yeah!” moments all in one. I remember looking at him, locking eyes and super confidently saying, “Let’s go!”
We walked through the streets along the canals in downtown Amsterdam to their houseboat. It was so cool. And when I say so cool, I mean a houseboat in Amsterdam couldn’t be more perfect. Their houseboat, in particular, was really fricken cool. It was spacious and so comfortable right in the middle of the city. She and her family made us feel right at home. Dank u wel G!
Anne Frank House:
As a kid, quite a few of us read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank in school. For those of you that have read the book, you know it is a horrific true story account of a young girl and her family hiding in an Amsterdam home during WWII. If you haven’t read it, I recommend you do. To see in person what this young girl described so vividly in her diary left everyone visiting speechless. The museum is beautiful, and I believe a must-see for everyone who visits Amsterdam. To avoid the line the museum website offers pre-purchase tickets. I highly recommend purchasing your ticket in advance. When we exited, the line was down the street and around the corner. Check their website for updates and hours.
Zaandijk is exactly what I thought of when I thought of the Netherlands. Windmills, flowers, wooden shoes and farm animals. It is a perfect day trip about 20 kilometers north of Amsterdam. We found the train to be the cheapest and easiest way to get there. From the train take a short walk over the bridge over the Zaan River to Zaanse Schans. This is where my cheesiest of cheesy tourist side came out. Amsterdam is wonderful and fun, but this place is as close to my perfect image of Holland I could ever imagine.
Not only do you get to tour inside some of the windmills, talk to locals, eat cheese and chocolate, pet domestic farm animals, admire beautiful grassy and floral landscapes, but you get to play with, in and around wooden shoes. I am sorry to every Dutch person I just offended, but come on; this place is the perfect tourist haven. I mean that in a good way. Keep in mind we were there in the fall, and the tourist season was almost over. The day we went it was overcast, windy and cold. Even with the crappy weather I enjoyed it. If you go on a sunny day, get your food to go and take a picnic by the water.
Amsterdam has a variety of restaurants available from every cuisine in the world. I can’t say we had a bad meal while we were there. Ask the locals where to eat. The restaurants we found off the beaten path were the ones we liked the best. We seemed to get hung up on pancakes and beer while we there.
Our favorite meal was at Eeetcafe Van Beeren at Koningsstrat 54, 1011 EW Amsterdam. Unfortunately, we don’t have any photos of that meal but let me tell you it was delicious. I had a beef stew, and Matt had some schnitzel. Go you will love it!
Our not what we expected meal was Cafe de Doelen located at Kloveniersburgwal 125, 1011 KC Amsterdam. I asked for the most ethnic item on the menu, and the waitress brought me out an ossenworst sandwich. It wasn’t quite what I was looking for, but ossenworst and cured meats are very popular Dutch foods. This particular sandwich was a slightly salt-cured raw beef burger with pickles, lettuce, and cucumbers. I am not sure I will ever order ossenworst again, but I did like the restaurant and would recommend it.
Things to do:
I know it may sound obvious, but if you are into Dutch painting masters, you couldn’t be in a better place. The Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum both reside in Amsterdam; actually, they happen to be only a few hundred yards from each other. These two museums will satisfy all your Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals and Steen aspirations among others on display at these institutions.
My other two recommendations are simple ones. Amsterdam is a very walkable city, it is very flat, and there are interesting things waiting to be discovered all over the city. Walking the streets or canals is an excellent way to pass the time. Keep your eye out for some of Amsterdam’s colorful street art.
After your stroll through the city, or while on your stroll drop by the Flower Market. It is located off of Singel Canal between Koningsplein and Muntplein. An excellent outdoor market that offers more than just flowers to enjoy.
Red Light District:
I guess you can’t write a travel article about Amsterdam without at least mentioning the Red Light District. For starters, it makes up a minuscule area of the city. Essentially it is two parallel main streets each a few blocks long with two alleys that interconnect. Also, while in the district the business only makes up the ground floor, with most buildings having at least four levels total. Sometimes you can see traces of the business going to the sub-street level floors, but it is rare. Homes make up the remainder of the building floors, so you can quite literally be walking down one of the streets and see a lady working in one window and a family sitting down to dinner in the window above. There are two things to note about the district. 1) The ladies initiate all the events via a wink. If you are walking the streets and a woman winks at you through her window, and you are interested you wink back, then she may open her door to begin negotiations. Again, to lay it out for those over eager fellows, the women are in control of the whole process, and she also has security guards to help enforce the rules. 2) The more narrow the street or alley you are on, the higher the price is going to be. For clarification, the main drag will be the cheapest, but as you wind down some of the alleys where there is only enough room for one person to walk at a time, that will be the most expensive. *Also No Photography is allowed inside the Red Light District, this is enforced.
Language: Dutch and English
- Hello – Hallo (Hah-low)
- Goodbye – Dag (dakh)
- Please – Alstublieft (alst-oo-bleeft)
- Thank you – Dank u wel (dahnk oo vel)
- Where is the restroom? – Waar is het toilet (Heren = Men; Dames = Women)
Arrival: By Train – This couldn’t be easier, Amsterdam Central Station, is right at the northern point of the center of the city. At this stage, it is easy for you to get anywhere within the city. If you have a distance to travel taxis, buses and trams are waiting for you right outside the station doors.
By Plane – The most popular airport to arrive at is Schiphol. A 20-minute train ride will get you to Amsterdam Central for about €4, 4-6 trains leave per hour depending on the time of day.
The Netherlands uses the Euro. I would recommend doing your conversions at the ATM. Be aware that your bank may charge you an out of network fee plus a conversion fee; check with your financial institution before leaving.
Tipping – If you get food at a takeaway counter, don’t worry about tipping. If you sit down in a restaurant table service will be included in your bill. It is considered polite to give an additional 5-10%. Taxis usually get a 5-10% tip. It is not necessary to tip at hotels, but it is a nice gesture to give a Euro to helpful attendants.
Recommendable: Yes! The Netherlands is especially a great place for new travelers, single travelers, and families. Yes, families. The legal drugs and red light district are only one small area of Amsterdam. It is super easy to walk Amsterdam, but, even more, fun – Rent a bike and peddle around the city at your leisure.