It felt like someone didn't want us to go to Amsterdam!
You see, planning our transfer from Hamburg was tricky. Construction work obstructed the most direct routes and flights were prohibitively expensive. I had to plan a connection through the out-of-the-way Düsseldorf to guarantee our passage, nearly doubling our length of travel. However, the strategy was panning out when the journey into Amsterdam was stalled by an on-board emergency.
Still, with impressive efficiency, the NS rail service was ready with a second train in the next Dutch station. We all stampeded towards it, only to find that our new carriages weren’t built for luggage. We spent the next 45 minutes passing romantic windmill-views while crouched on top our bags. Finally, after delays arriving at the Amsterdam Central Station, confusion on how to exit through the station’s high-tech barricades, and long queues for purchasing Metro fare from laggy machines, we were on a subway train to our hotel. At first glance, Amsterdam seemed hardly worth the hassle; our views would soon change.
We arrived at our swanky, youth-oriented hotel (goodness, I sound old just saying that) nearly 8 hours after our travel day began, feeling frazzled, sweaty, and a million years older than the kids running the joint. It was already check-in time, so we ditched our bags in our room and went out in search of food. We arrived at a pizza joint on the Amstel River at DEAFCON 1 for hanger. The pizza was just what the doctor ordered.
With food in our bellies and caffeine in our brains, we returned to the subway finally ready to explore. We rumbled back into the city center and emerged lost (got off a stop too early). However, we figured in a city webbed by canals, walk towards the water wasn’t a bad idea. It wasn’t.
We arrived downriver at the Amstel, the primary artery feeding the city’s watery capillaries, and strolled along its banks. With nothing but a general direction in mind we wandered across a bridge, marveling at sights like charming Wes Anderson-house boats and buildings that don’t quite stand straight. We crossed another bridge and treaded up the Kloveniersburgwal canal towards an outdoor farmers market.
It was at this point that we stumbled upon the indulgences that this charming, historic city is also known for. It began with the unmistakeable, smoky perfume of weed wafting out of competing “coffee shops” and into the clean city air. Half a block further we passed our first sex shop and soon after, we reached the epicenter of Amsterdam’s sex industry, the Red Light District.
Columns of single-lite French doors, saturated in glowing red neon, lined the alleys and lanes which criss-crossed the neighborhood. As it was still early, most doors stood empty, but there were still plenty containing underwear-clad women posing in advertisement of—well—of themselves. With their attractive bodies and bored faces, I found myself overcome with intimidation and, slowly retreating to my high-school sense of self confidence, thought it best to not make eye contact. I clamped down on Cindy’s hand and pointed out the charming De Oude Kerk, a 13th century church that anchors the entire Red Light district.
I’m admittedly embellishing on this memory, happy to have an excuse to practice my wooden creative writing skills. However, regardless of your stance on vice, and for better or for worse, both the weed dispensing “coffee shops” and the sight of prostitution grew remarkably matter of fact within about 10 minutes of strolling through the area. By the end of our passage through the district, it felt no more shocking than walking past a bar or a Victoria’s Secret. And as we weren’t in the market for either service, we continued on to Dam Square.
Perhaps the greatest name for a city plaza, Dam Square was bustling with coffee shops (real ones! As in, cafes!), restaurants, and public performers vying for your attention and euros. We slipped through unbothered and trekked across the bridges of the Grachtengordel-West canals, dodging bikes, trams, cars, and other people.
We soon arrived at a long queue of people stretched out from a contemporary-looking corner building. My heart sank because I immediately knew what it was for.
Reviews, testimonials, and the vicarious excited-anticipation of my friends made it clear that we would need to see the Anne Frank House, the museum/actual house where Anne Frank stowed away and penned her famous diary during World War II. But when I looked into tickets a month before our trip, I was shattered to learn that they were already picked clean. Now, the museum only books advance tickets through 3:30 PM and they offer walk-up tickets for the rest of the evening. Unfortunately, as I feared, by the time we arrived the line had ballooned to nearly 3 hours. No matter my devotion to the experience, with just a day and a half in town, I wasn’t prepared to queue.
Cindy and I took sad photos of the building’s exterior and moved on, strolling among a few more canals. With our daylight fading and the need to lick our FOMO-wounds, we made our way to a tram station to cross the city with the hopes of one more adventure.
The tram dumped us off on the east-side of town, across a canal from the De Gooyer windmill. Housed in the shadow of a wooden windmill (the tallest in the country and only one in Amsterdam city limits!) is the local brewery Brouwerij ’t IJ. In a sense, a structure that once milled grains, today ferments them. Har, har, har!
The brewery’s pub was bustling, offering a full complement of beer styles for a decent price. I picked up the IPA and the Zatte (tripel) and thoroughly enjoyed sipping the brews among river views.
After our beers, it was time to return to our hotel. We chose to walk the distance, a 25 minute stroll along a canal and through a park. We made it back to our hotel with daylight still winking in the sky. We found a grocery store across the street and loaded up on a few bottles of water and beers to take home. It was a long day of travel and trekking and we were ready for bed.
While laying in bed, I surfed through reviews of the Anne Frank House on TripAdvisor in a half-desperate, half-asleep search for tips on how to get in to the museum. With one more day in Amsterdam, we had one more chance to see the famous landmark.
Good morning from Amsterdam! Hoping to make the most of our short visit to the city, we were up early and out on the town. Clearly awake before most were on this foggy, Sunday morning, it was a bit tricky finding a place to eat.
We ended up finding a bougy cafe and bakery. Grabbing some coffees and pastries, we sat and waited for the day’s first attraction to open. One more tram ride and a brisk morning stroll would take us under the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national museum. While clearly fascinating in its own right, we passed on this enormous building to arrive at the museum of our choice: The Van Gogh Museum.
The Van Gogh Museum is a space-ship of a structure docked on the grassy stretch in front of the Rijksmuseum. Like most of the museums in Amsterdam, it was a pretty-penny to get in but we figured it would be more relatable to visit the collection of a famous artist we were familiar with.
Now, the museum didn’t permit photos inside (apart from common areas a few approved “selfie walls”), so I have no art to share with you. But I can tell you that we enjoyed our experience greatly. By focusing on Van Gogh, the museum was able to outline a single individual’s talent and artistic growth chronologically. ‘High-tech’ displays (like the x-rayed layers of paintings) gave an insight to Van Gogh’s process and an explanation of his personal history gave insight to his inspiration. Finally, the museum included the works of his friends and contemporaries as a means of understanding where art was in the context of his time.
As a history fan, what fascinated me most about Van Gogh was the era he was painting in. He created his art nearly entirely in the 1880’s, a time on the cusp of great change. My favorite piece was The Zouave, depicting a soldier from 1888 staring with a bored face (if I’m remembering correctly, he didn’t actually care to have his portrait drawn but was ordered to) and in an ornamental jacket and red cap. Aware that a soldier’s uniform would change drastically in 30 years time (by the end of World War I), I felt like I was witness to the end of an era through Van Gogh’s work. Knowing the innovations that were just around the corner, along with all of the tremendous hardships—I felt the strangest sense of excitement and dread for the people depicted in Van Gogh’s portraits. The contextualization provided by the museum helped really seal an introductory understanding of Vincent Van Gogh at his moment in history. It is for that reason that I reflect on the Van Gogh Museum fondly as my second-favorite museum of the trip.
Which brings me to this next bit.
Say what you want about review-aggregation sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp, but they really help me put together the trip-of-my-hopes. And their assistance continued onto the trip because, as I was searching for ways into the Anne Frank House the previous night, I stumbled upon a TripAdvisor tip: Even if faced with a sold-out message, check the museum’s ticket page the night before your travel; occasionally, unsold “travel agent” ticket stock will suddenly appear for the general public.
Sure enough, at 8:00pm on that night, 32 tickets for the next day’s 11:45am time slot appeared out of nowhere.
I snatched up two.
Like the Van Gogh Museum, the Anne Frank House didn’t allow photos inside. I’m actually extremely grateful for that because the tiny, dimly lit rooms couldn’t accommodate hoards of tourists (like me) clamoring for photos. Furthermore, the choice to ban photos allowed us each to focus on the tour content, which was absolutely riveting. Provided with complimentary audio-devices that synced with our location in the house, we were offered a well told story about the circumstances and outcomes of Anne Frank’s hidden stay in the building.
I don’t know how to say this without sounding exaggerated but I mean every word of it: the Anne Frank House was the most important experience of the trip. I left the experience feeling like I took part in a great, necessary pilgrimage of our shared humanity. Though focused on the story of one small girl, you cant help but leave with some big thoughts about offering help to those in need, speaking out against hate, and standing up against evil. I mean it.
I cannot recommend the Anne Frank House experience enough. If you’re planning on a trip to Amsterdam, know that tickets open up 60 days in advance and book out fast. Plan around this!
Somber and reflective, we left the museum looking for a quiet place to sit with ourselves (and maybe grab a bite to eat). Vondelpark, the main city park in Amsterdam, was just 6 minutes away so we caught a tram over to it.
After lunch, we became aware that our time in Amsterdam was fleeting. With a mere afternoon left, we decided to experience a quintessential tourist attraction: an Amsterdam canal cruise.
We caught a tram to the central train station and walked across the street to a stretch of competing tour companies. With no advance planning, we were able to grab a great seat at the back of a long, wide cruiser complete with open windows and views in all directions. The cruise began with a quick sail out to the sea channel that divides Amsterdam before cutting left into its outermost canal ring. Once reaching the Amstel River, we zagged left and circled the outside the Red Light District before returning to our dock across from the central rail station. The whole cruise took about an hour and was pleasantly informative.
The canals were crazy-crowded. It wasn’t uncommon to be caught in line of boats waiting to pass through one of the tighter clearances and near-misses likely felt more common than they really were. With the crowds came the impression that you weren’t terribly unique for thinking of a river cruise. However, there was also a romantic notion that you’re now a participant in the frenzy that is a typical weekend day in Amsterdam. It was exciting. With the exception of the mid-cruise realization that we were seated next to the vessel’s bathroom, we loved everything about our canal cruise.
By the time we returned to the dock, our day was drawing to a close. It was time for dinner and I was already far over budget, so fast food it was. That’s not necessarily a punishment in my world—for those who know me, I actually get a great kick out of trying a McDonald’s in every country I visit and The Netherlands was no exception. It was actually a great case-study in the expectations of a local population because, there’s no way to avoid saying that it was great! With good ingredients used inventively (I had a burger with two patties, bacon, and an egg) and a uniquely shaped steak fry that was thick but remained crispy, it honestly was a great meal!
Clearly I love a burger and fries.
Ready to walk off our heavy dinners, we ended up strolling back through the Red Light District on a return trip to the subway station we began our journey at. The crowds were lighter but the District seemed to be a bit more active, again only jarring for the first minute or two. We popped into a few gift shops, hoping to furnish Cindy with a souvenir or two. To my shock, while joints are only sold at the previously mentioned “coffee shops”, weed edibles are sold freely in gift shops everywhere. Seriously! You would be perusing a shop and would view postcards, thimbles, magnets, and pot brownies all in the same aisle! I thought it might be a fun way to finish our stay in Amsterdam, but Cindy wasn’t having it and so I let it go.
Besides, it was time to return to the hotel and prepare for the next country on the itinerary!
Like most of the travel destinations I visit, I didn’t get enough time in Amsterdam but I got a great first glimpse. And let me tell you, I fell in love with it! Amsterdam is a large city and yet intensely personal. It is classic and historic and yet has a tremendously modern sensibility to it. It offers the highest and lowest of delights and does so while presenting you with one of the most beautiful backdrops imaginable.
Amsterdam was beyond worth the hassle.
For more from our trip to Amsterdam, please check out the gallery below!: