Destination

Amsterdam, Netherlands

TL;DR (Amsterdam)

  • Stay
    • Airbnb: Modern Apartment in Leidseplein
      • Great location, but there’s about 40 steps between the ground level and the apartment. And then you have to go up a second stairwell of ~25 steps to get to the bedroom. A funky bathroom layout too, but otherwise comfortable.
  • Eat
    • De Hallen, Hannie Dankbaarpassage 47, 1053 RT Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • A modern, chic food hall with traditional Dutch, Vietnamese, American, Indian, and other ethnic flavors. Don’t miss the Gin and Tonic bar.
    • Winkel, Noordermarkt 43, 1015 NA Amsterdam
      • The Apple Pie is renowned here…and for good reason. Grab a cute table outside if you can
    • Kantjil & de Tijger, Spuistraat 291-293, 1012 VS Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • THE place to try rijsteffel – the famed, elaborate Dutch meal that combines Dutch culture and the Dutch East Indies into an 18-dish affair that usually lasts a fewhours
    • Pancakes Amsterdam, Prinsengracht 277, 1016 GW, Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • This location of the famed Pancakes Amsterdam franchise is right next to the Anne Frank House, so if you plan to visit the museum, you can come here for a meal either before or after your tour.
    • Tomaz, Begijnensteeg 6-8, 1012 PN Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • A piece of herring and a boeren spiegelei (an open-faced ham, cheese, and fried egg sandwich)
    • Moeders, Rozengracht 251, 1016 SX Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • This charming Dutch restaurant has photos inside of customers and their mothers…hence the name. Try the carpaccio and the Hotchpotch – a fort of potatoes with a moat of gravy inside the fort walls, with a meatball, sausage, and piece of ham on the outside. Prepare for a wait without a reservation
    • De Vier Pilaren, Stadhouderskade 11, 1054 ES Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • Come for poffertjes – silver dollar-sized pancakes – and get them however you like. I preferred strawberries and cream
    • De Kaaskamer, Runstraat 7, 1016 GJ Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • Fantastic cheese shop with a great variety
    • Lombardo’s, Nieuwe spiegelstraat 50, 1017 DG Amsterdam
      • Tasty, American style hamburgers if you’re hankering for a taste of home
  • See
    • Keukenhof, Bezoekadres, Stationsweg 166A, 2161 AM Lisse
      • A stunning botanical garden that is only open from the end of March til the end of May every year. Featuring tulips…and tulips…and more tulips. Vibrant colors and much beauty to be seen here.
    • Zaanse Schans
      • Famed windmill town. Touristy, for sure, but the sights provide a nice getaway from the urban feel of Amsterdam. Drop in for the cheese making presentation but don’t be wooed on the premises by the cheese – you can get it anywhere in downtown Amsterdam
    • House of Bols, Paulus Potterstraat 14, 1071 CZ Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • Self-guided tour through the history of genever includes several multi-sensory experiences (a flashing booth that might simulate Willa Wonka’s factory, spritzers with the scents of various flavors, and naturally a cocktail at the end)
    • Anne Frank House, Prinsengracht 263-267, 1016 GV Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • A sobering reminder of the horrors of war, the resilience of hope, and the story of a precocious young writer whose legacy should inspire all of us to appreciate our time in this world
    • Nieuws Innoventions, Prinsengracht 297, 1016 GX Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • Super charming little shop dedicated to sassy pop culture toys, collectibles, and entertaining gifts.
    • Begjinhof
      • This delightful courtyard is a sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam. Step in, be respectful of the folks who live here, and enjoy the serenity for a few minutes
    • Cornelis Schuystraat
      • If looking for a respite from the hubbub of the museums and the tourist activities, walk to this lovely street, find a café, and take a seat.
    • Van Gogh Museum, Museumplein 6, 1071 DJ Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • The world’s largest collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings illuminate the details of a painter who was both troubled – and brilliant.
    • Boat Tour
      • You can literally take a boat tour from any place along one of the many canals. You can also buy a ticket at one of the tourist stands.
    • Albert Cuyp Market, Albert Cuypstraat, 1073 BD Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • Lovely open air market with stands peddling music boxes and apparel and food stands. Free wifi if you have not opted to activate an international data plan. Try the herring sandwich or a stroopwafel
    • Dutch Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum), Plantage Kerklaan 61A, 1018 CX Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • Learn about the German occupation of Holland during the second World War and the difficult choices Dutch residents had to make as a result. If you’re in Nazi-occupied Holland, do you A.) adapt, B.) collaborate, or C.) resist?
    • Cheese Museum, Prinsengracht 112, 1015 EA Amsterdam, Netherlands
      • The museum is downstairs and a rather short affair, but the true treasure on display is the plethora of cheese awaiting you in the main shop on the ground level
    • De Negen Straatjes (The Nine Streets)
      • This famed neighborhood is a shopper’s paradise, with boutiques and small merchants selling apparel, accessories, chocolate, and much much more

Trip Introduction

If you’re reading this post without any context, read my post on Brussels and Bruges, Belgium, so you know how we got to Europe!

There are some cities you visit. There are some you detest. And there are some cities you visit, fall in love with, and resolve to eventually live there.

For me, I’ve only felt this way about two cities in the world. The first was New York City, seen through the eyes of my 10-year old self, a kid who had never seen daunting skyscrapers towering over a concrete jungle. The second was Amsterdam…and it was based on a couple hours of walking around the city.

The Dutch capital (technically The Hague is where the government sits) is one part charming canals, one part free-wheeling open society, and one part historical gem, glued together by culinary treats and a warmth and friendliness that I’ve only seen in places like Havana and Rio. Don’t let stereotype malign the Venice of the north – Amsterdam may still have the Red Light District and the smell of marijuana certainly does make itself present, but this city provides a rich tapestry of acceptance and a generous spirit of life. And most certainly, stroopwafels, herring sandwiches, pancakes, poffertjes, and some of the best cheese in the world make it a pretty fantastic place.

Day 4 (May 15, 2017): Modern surprises for dinner

Because our train unexpectedly terminated at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, we took an Uber from the airport straight to our Airbnb flat. The ride was a quick 20 minutes and when we arrived, we were introduced to our first foreign concept: dutch staircases. Most of Amsterdam’s buildings tend to be narrow and tall and I never questioned why that was, until I saw our entry staircase. For a deeply amusing post on this topic from the website “Stuff Dutch People Like,” see this link.

What had to be at least 40-50 shallow steps that left my heel protruding off the back edge got our hearts racing…literally. Suffice it to say, it was a terrifyingly steep ascent just to get to the second floor so our host could let us into his unit. We were lugging at least 20 pounds of beer bottles and chocolate (each), so I wound up leaving my rolling suitcase inside the front door just so I could get up the stairs with my heavy backpack. Once inside the 2nd floor unit door, we found a second, even steeper stairwell.

Once we got settled into our place, a modern and comfortable room gave us a chance to decompress. The view was also quite nice:

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The view from our Airbnb

After a quick nap and shower, we decided to set out in search of food. We had a number of people recommend we check out De Hallen, a modern food and arts hall built into a large former tram station.

This place had virtually every popular cuisine you can imagine – from Vietnamese banh mi to the Dutch staple Bitterballen (savory balls of cheese, meat, or both, breaded, and then deep fried). We decided to try at least one small dish from several different places and wound up having a pork belly banh mi, chicken spring rolls, chicken tikka masala, a bitterballen variety plate, and a ginormous gin and tonic.

As we wandered to and from De Hallen, we quickly realized how fun and lively Amsterdam’s shopping scene is as well. Most of the shops were closed since it was nearly 9 PM, but we knew we would find some great curios as soon as they reopened.

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Amsterdam has a wonderful shopping scene

Day 5 (May 16, 2017): Tulips, Windmills, and a Whole Lot of Amazing Surprises

Our first full day in Amsterdam was dedicated to leaving the city itself and seeing flowers and windmills. Our first stop was Keukenhof, the famous tulip garden. But to get there, we first had to escape the stairwell gauntlet in our building.

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The stairs descending to the second floor of our Airbnb

I thought I needed a carabiner and a line to rappel down these stairs, but thankfully that was just my hyperbolic self talking. We took an Uber to the airport and were pleasantly surprised to find most of the Uber drivers in Amsterdam drive nice Mercedes and wear Rolexes. Clearly the idea of Priuses and cell phones stuck to the windows is purely a San Francisco Uber trend. A quick ride later, we arrived at Schiphol Airport and found our way to the outdoor waiting area for public bus 858 to Keukenhof.

It’s a relatively quick 20 minute ride outside the city from the airport to the Keukenhof gardens and if you get there early like we did, you may need breakfast. There is a café just inside the main gate with moving portraits a la Harry Potter.

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Moving portraits at Keukenhof

We decided to navigate the park in a counter-clockwise circle, starting by walking to the path to the right and then looping back to the left and ending back at the park entrance. The first surprising sight was a petting-zoo-like enclosure (please note I think you’re not allowed to pet the animals, so please don’t do that). A nearby peacock strutted around before emitting a shrill sound that I could swear was the character Kevin from the movie Up:

As you continue through the park, there are numerous small exhibits including a garden dedicated to the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian as well as consistent wildlife throughout the park.

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The Mondrian Garden

 

Keukenhof is only open from the end of March til the end of May so if you’ve booked your trip for any time outside of this two month range, you will miss all of the gorgeous tulips.

Beyond all of the stunning natural beauty, there is one amusing man-made element: the old time musical cart. From a distance, Anna and I thought we heard the Grease soundtrack and when we arrived at a clearing, our suspicions were confirmed!

After we had seen most of  Keukenhof and had a quick lunch at the cafeteria, we boarded a bus and returned to Schiphol Airport. We didn’t know exactly how to get to our next destination (the windmill village of Zaanse Schans) but thankfully some airport employees directed us to a bus stop and we got to Zaanse Schans within an hour. The village itself isn’t all that big and is composed of a number of small workshops and tourist traps. The Catharina Hoeve cheese making demonstration is fun but as far the other shops are concerned, it’s mostly about the novelty vs. any historical insight.

I wound up dropping ~$80 on cheese in this shop, which may have been a bit of overkill. If you feel like buying cheese here, you can, but there are dozens of cheese shops throughout Amsterdam — so don’t feel compelled to go hogwild like I did! We also decided to take the “tour” at one of the windmills, which basically lets you see the inner workings of the windmill. Each has a different function or story and the one we entered was a logging facility. Seeing how the tides helped Dutchmen saw huge trees into planks was interesting…but not *that* interesting.

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A cute home in the Zaanse Schans village

Following our time in the village, we returned to Amsterdam and sought out Winkel – a small café famous for its apple pie. Almost everyone I talked to encouraged us to come here and the pie was delicious. Thick and crusty with sweet filling and a dollop of light cream on top. Do not miss this place!

We continued to walk around De Negen Straatjes (The Nine Streets), which is full of cute shopping boutiques and dining options. Our pre- and post-dinner sights included the following

For dinner, we decided to do a proper Dutch experience and headed to Kantjil & de Tijger for rijsteffel – the famed, elaborate Dutch meal that combines Dutch culture and the Dutch East Indies into an 18-dish affair that usually lasts a few hours. White rice, vegetables in coconut stock, stir fried tofu and tempeh, and many other side dishes flanked a main course of grilled chicken in sweet soy sauce, mackerel, beef rendang, and prawns (the Kantjil menu in the image below).

By 9:30 PM, we were exhausted – mostly from food coma. We ended our evening early and returned to our Airbnb to drink a beer and then head off to sleep.

Day 6 (May 17, 2017): Lots of Dutch things (food, art, sights, and history)

Day 6 of our journey was oriented around one activity: a pre-scheduled tour of the Anne Frank House. If you plan to visit this museum, you should try and reserve tickets for a scheduled tour two months in advance of the date you’re planning to go – this will make your experience much easier.

We arrived at the museum about 45 minutes before our tour and starving. Thankfully there is an outpost of the Pancakes Amsterdam franchise next door. We stepped inside and hurriedly ordered coffee and pancakes – to our delight, they brought them out quickly and we crushed the breakfast before scampering next door.

 

We waited in a line outside for a few minutes and then progress through the house at our own pace. They provide you a small playback device and I would recommend bringing a pair of corded headphones.

If you have never read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank in school, I suggest borrowing a copy or purchasing one from Amazon. The story is as powerful a narrative as any you’ll ever discover and seeing the building will be all the more powerful if you’ve read it. Being here was a moving experience. When I was thirteen, I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and I wasn’t totally able to process the magnitude of the holocaust. But as an adult, reading the stories, hearing the words, and seeing the rooms puts a lot of life into perspective.

They ask you not to take photos inside the Anne Frank House and I honored this. But after you leave the house, there’s a small gallery with a video and a number of photographs – and one photo on display was so powerful that I needed to share it with people. This is a sheet of Anne’s passport photos, with each frame revealing a different moment of the precocious young writer’s flair for life. In the next room is a video with comments by visitors from all over the world, and there’s a line from that video that resonated with me: “All her would haves are our opportunities.”

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“All her would haves are our opportunities.”

After we left the museum, we decided to let our feet take us wandering. The first place we stopped as we walked was Nieuws, a super charming little shop dedicated to sassy pop culture toys, collectibles, and entertaining gifts. This shop had captured our attention the previous day with this storefront display:

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Sassy shops in Amsterdam

After we perused the clever knick knacks, our wandering feet took us to Begjinhof, which you’ll recognize as soon as you arrive. It’s as if someone carved out an idyllic little grass courtyard out of a busy city, and for a few minutes you can catch your breath and take in the quaint, adorable energy. Make sure you don’t dilly dally here though – and don’t go hog-wild taking photos as people live here and you should respect their privacy.

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Begjinhof

By now we were a little hungry and we needed a little lunch. In an alleyway near Begjinhof is Tomaz, a charming restaurant where we decided to try some legitimate Dutch cuisine. We opted for a piece of the herring and a boeren spiegelei (an open-faced ham, cheese, and fried egg sandwich) – and were pleasantly surprised by the herring! My first comparison was to the sashimi you might get in a good Japanese restaurant, but that would take something unique away from both cultures. You just need to try it. And if you’re looking for more insight, have a look at the website “Stuff Dutch People Like” for their article on herring.

As the afternoon sun warmed our walk, we shifted plans and went to the House of Bols, a museum that takes you through the history of genever, which is a predecessor of the modern gin many have come to love. The self-paced tour  includes several multi-sensory experiences: a flashing booth that might simulate Willa Wonka’s factory, spritzers with the scents of various flavors, and naturally a cocktail at the end.

By now it was around 2 PM and we decided to search for some ice cream to cool down. We asked some folks at a nearby hotel for suggestions and the pointed us to Cornelis Schuystraat, a charming neighborhood a few blocks from the main group of museums. We never did find the ice cream but instead took a half hour for a coffee and a croissant.

Around 4 PM as the sun started baking us, we returned to the air conditioned comfort of the Van Gogh Museum, which displays the world’s largest collection of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. The famed painter who cut off his own ear was clearly troubled – and clearly a brilliant painter. Although some of his more noteworthy works like the Starry Night might not be here, you can still see an impressive cross section of his life’s work, including the Yellow House.

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The only pic I was able to capture before getting called out by museum staff: “Wheatfield with a Reaper”

If the weather is nice when you visit, take a Canal Tour. There’s no difference in most of the tour companies and you can get onboard in a number of locations. We bought tickets at a stand near the museums, boarded our boat with a dozen other foreigners and spent the better part of an hour puttering along the canals next to boats full of young people drinking and businessmen partying, and dozens of kids with their legs hanging off the road just chilling by the water.

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The Canals of Amsterdam

The end of day 6 brought us to Moeders, a restaurant that served traditional Dutch cuisine. The name means “mothers” and has photos lining the walls of customers and their mothers. We arrived without a reservation and had to wait about 30 minutes, which got us really hungry – so if you go, try and make a reservation in advance. Try the carpaccio and the Hotchpotch – a fort of potatoes with a moat of gravy inside the fort walls, with a meatball, sausage, and piece of ham on the outside. I guarantee you’ll have a nice healthy food baby afterward.

 

Day 7 (May 18, 2017): Wandering around the city

Anna and I decided for our last full day in Amsterdam, we would split up and explore the city on our own. I walked away from the Airbnb and went to De Vier Pilaren, a place known for poffertjes (silver dollar-sized pancakes). You can get them however you like and I opted for strawberries and cream.

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Poffertjes with strawberries and cream

I also learned a vital difference between tipping in the United States and tipping in the Netherlands. The bill was something like €16, so I turned to the server and asked him, “Can you charge €18 to my card?” His response: “I’m the last one to stop you!”

So I’m not quite sure if the money got to him. Tipping is not an obligation in the Netherlands (similar to most of Europe), but if you feel so inclined, you would do best to leave coins or bills on the table.

As I walked home, I was reminded again about how much art is in the city – even the parking meter reminders are artfully etched into the pavement!

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Park here, pay here.

I then went on a nice, long walk through the city with the end goal of seeing a few different parts of the city. I passed the Heineken Brewery along the way, but I opted not to go in. Honestly nothing could have matched the experience we had at De Halve Maan Brewery in Bruges, Belgium, and I wanted to see some more unique sites.

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Heineken Brewery

My first destination was the Albert Cuyp Market – an open air market with stands peddling music boxes and apparel and food stands. The clothing stands are not that interesting but the food presents several options. I decided to partake in a Herring broodje (herring sandwich) topped with a giant pickle, but you can also get a freshly made stroopwafel if you’re in a sweet mood. A great thing about this place is that there is free wifi if you have not opted to activate an international data plan.

After an hour of wandering and snacking, I left the market and continued meandering through the city. I walked by a gorgeous building which I believe is connected to the Amsterdam Business School and a rather unusual café (which I chose NOT to go into):

My destination for the afternoon was the Dutch Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum), which is dedicated to the German occupation of Holland during the second World War and the difficult choices Dutch residents had to make as a result. The theme of the exhibits puts a tough question to you. Imagine you are a Dutch citizen in Nazi-occupied Holland. Do you A.) adapt, B.) collaborate, or C.) resist?

As the afternoon began to pass, I decided to continue my exploration around the city and wound up finding a few “gems.” Most notably, treats in a convenience store, another open air market with some oddities, De Kaaskamer (a renowned cheese shop with a great variety), the Cheese Museum (check out the bottom floor but focus on the cheeses available on the main level), and the Cow Museum (racks and racks of ceramic cow figurines):

To finish the evening, I met up with Anna in Chinatown and then we met my friend Vivian for dinner. Vivian had expatriated to Amsterdam for her company and she recommended we have burgers at Lombardo’s. I had the Hangover burger and it left me debilitated – ironically it almost gave me a hangover in the process.

After dinner we headed home to begin packing our souvenirs, the numerous beers we had purchased, and all of the clothing we’d brought with us.

Day 8 (May 19, 2017): Inevitable travel issues

Our final day was not without its drama. With the Amsterdam-Dallas route being new for American Airlines, we knew it would be a shakedown cruise but we didn’t expect a four hour delay. We took our time getting breakfast as a result and then headed to the airport where American provided us lunch certificate to offset the delay. But that was the last nice thing we got as our plane was clearly on the older side of American’s fleet…I mean look at the controls:

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AA’s older seats…a nostalgic throwback to crappy planes

After a brief layover in Dallas, we got home only a few hours late and proceeded to sleep off the adventure of the year.

 

Final Thoughts

Now that this trip is complete, I can take stock of our time in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Sometimes I learn more in a day of international travel than I do in weeks or months or my ordinary life in San Francisco. I am fortunate to live a good life and have a good job, both with plenty of variety on their own: movies, concerts, days in the park, working out, or different kinds of cuisine. But nothing really replicates being completely immersed in a world of perspectives, ideologies, and languages that are not your own.

What I learned from Brussels, Bruges, and Amsterdam is that there is an immense value to quality of life. The Belgian and Dutch cultures are quite possibly two of the most wonderful and charming I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.

Brussels is a big city, loaded with foreigners by virtue of its role as the capital of the EU.

Bruges is a charming respite from large cities that succeeds in making you feel welcome in spite of the hordes of tourists who have also heard great things about the place.

But Amsterdam is the gem of the three. A diverse city built on water with vibrant colors, food, and residents to stimulate the senses (and yes, I have chosen those words with care…choose to interpret as you wish).

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