My blog has morphed over the past two years that is for sure. I feel myself gradually moving away from documenting as many of my fitness adventures (although they are sprinkled in here and there). I had such a great time on a recent trip to Wales, England and Amsterdam that I wanted to document my trip.
Most of my close friends and family know that my parents immigrated to the US shortly before I was born. My Dad and Mom came to the States to pursue their education. All of my family is still in Great Britain though (my Mom’s side is in England and my Dad’s side is in Wales). I usually try about once a year to go over to visit family when I can squeeze the time off work and the expense of the flight.
I decided this year to go the week of Labor Day since we had Monday off work and Labor Day being an American holiday often makes it easier to travel in the other direction (outside of the US versus traveling domestically to see family). The journey over seems to get harder the older I get. I almost never get sleep on the flight over the Atlantic but I always challenge myself to hit the ground running the minute I land in London so I can get on the schedule quickly and use my time wisely.
During this most recent trip, I got to visit Amsterdam for the first time. I enjoyed it so much that I chose to blog about it for selfish reasons so I could remember the trip but also to share some experiences and tips that others may find helpful if they visit this great city.
Wednesday, Sept 4 LHR to Schipol
My Aunt and Cousin had booked the flights on British Airways from London Heathrow (LHR) to the Amsterdam airport (Schipol). The flight is a very quick 40 minute flight. We flew out on a Wednesday evening so it was mostly business professionals and was definitely a packed flight. I was lucky my family got us first class seats so we were able to sit down pretty quickly and even enjoy a glass of champagne on the quick flight.
When you arrive into Schipol (at least where we landed), you have quite a long walk to get to the customs area. I am a pretty quick walker but would say even with my speedwalking and the automated walkways, that it took 10-15 minutes. Customs was very quick and organized. Most passengers were citizens of the EU so the line I went through for ‘other’ passports was not very long. Once you get out of customs (we only did carry on bags), the next step was to find the kiosk to get our tickets for the train that takes you from the airport to the Central station in Amsterdam. The platforms for the train are actually in the airport. Some tricky parts here (that I discovered) was most of the kiosks do not take cards (credit or debit) and some do not even take bills so you have to have coins. It seemed very random so come prepared with all 3 (card, coins, bills). One big change since last year for me is that American credit/debit cards have not embraced the security chip yet, we still have the magnetic stripe only. Most of the places I encountered would not accept my debit or Amex (since no chip). I could use it at the ATM or the Travelex but many other places since it did not have a chip. Note, one café we went to in Amsterdam ONLY accepted cards with chips (not even cash). It is very inconsistent and fickle as to what to prepare for and I would suggest working out a prepaid card with a chip (I think that is possible) if you travel to any countries in the EU from the US.
Back to the train. It is very easy to get from the customs/baggage claim area over to the train platforms. Signage is everywhere and almost everything is in English and Dutch. Our biggest challenge was deciphering which platform to get on but luckily a nice man asked if we needed help and directed us to the correct platform (if you looked at the ticker board you could quickly make out Central station in the quick rolling description under the train we had to catch. Within a few minutes, the train pulled up (only about 4-5 cars so watch where you stand on the platform) and we hopped on. We only had about 3 stops before we arrived at Central Station. When you step out of the station, there is a huge cab line to your right. We were warned by a lady at the airport to not get ripped off. We had no issues at all actually. We went to the lead guy (he had on a yellow uniform shirt) and he got us in a cab and we made it to our hotel for under 15 euros. Our cab driver was super nice. The funny thing about arriving in the city late at night is the station is literally right at the red light district. It was interesting especially as a newbie to look out the cab windows and see the women in the windows with the red lights and not really know what to expect or see as we weaved through the traffic (mostly bikes/pedestrians of course).
Our hotel was situated in a perfect, central location (off Nordestraat). It was called the Mercure – Amsterdam. Smaller hotel but definitely kept the Dutch cultural vibe going. The bathroom had delft style sink and tiles on the walls (yet modern, clean lines). In the bedroom, there was a huge Rembrandt-esque print over the bed.
The staff at the hotel were very courteous and the rooms were clean. The beds were comfortable. The hotel was walking distance from everywhere we planned to visit during our few days yet did not feel touristy (there were residential homes near us) and plenty of really good restaurants and cafes nearby.
Thursday, Sept 5
The next morning we got up and tried to squeeze in as much as possible. We started by heading to a cafe (remember coffee shops are where folks go to smoke marijuana and cafe is where you get coffee). This cafe looked quite popular, folks were reading papers, drinking coffee and relaxing with a nearby view of the canal. Ironically, it was a Dutch chain with quite an American name “Bagels and Beans”. The service and breakfast was excellent and we went there the next morning also. I actually found it by searching the Yelp app on my phone. After we finished our breakfast, we headed out on a walk towards the Muntplein which is a city square literally in the center of Amsterdam where quite a few of the internationally recognized galleries and museums are located. We came across a service that provided canal cruises (roughly 90 minute long cruise) and decided to take one of those.
The canal cruise was very interesting. You do have a headset (available for free with over 10 languages) that provides some history to the points you pass by. Seeing the city from the water is a totally unique perspective. I was completely fascinated by the house boats.
It was only 15 Euros. I would highly recommend doing one of these quick and informative cruises if the weather is favorable when you visit Amsterdam. Here is the link to the company that provides the cruises http://www.amsterdamcitytours.com/boat-tours.html?gclid=CI3n0OmY37kCFYhAMgod8HkAeg
Some sites from the cruise
Lunch at Rijks garden area
After the canal cruise we decided to have lunch in the garden area of the Rijksmuseum. There is a great spot right near the iamsterdam sign and the people watching is wonderful. You can dine inside or outside for a very reasonable price.
Van Gogh Museum
We then headed to the Van Gogh Museum. I would put this museum up there as one of the top 3 I have ever visited. It was evident to me that the curator of this museum had invested tremendous amounts of effort into telling the story of Van Gogh and helping visitors understand the method to his art. I did not feel bored at all as we toured the galleries.
My Aunt bought the tickets online for a certain time (note that you can not just arrive and buy a ticket and walk in). You can either pre order online or you can go up a few hours early and buy for a slot later in the day. The good thing about this is you are not in the galleries with unlimited amounts of people. You can enjoy the art without being trampled. The museum has 4 floors and each floor walks you through a period of Van Gogh’s art and life with the 4th floor being the period right before he killed himself. This museum is an absolute MUST visit while in the city. It also has a top notch museum cafe with excellent food, coffee and desert (of course I had some macorons and cappuccino).
After we finished the museum, we walked back to our hotel to take a quick break before we headed out to dinner.
Coffee and Jazz Restaurant
My Aunt and I decided to try this tiny restaurant that was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. How can you resist trying a restaurant that has no set menu and is described as being owned by an eccentric Dutch man and his Indonesian wife.
When we walked up on the restaurant it was hard to tell if it was the right place. Outside you could see two people (it ended up being the owners) sitting by a barbecue grill. When you walked in (huge open window in the front), there were maybe 10 tables and it was set up like a tiny, narrow shotgun home. We sat by the front window. Started with a glass of wine and the owners let us know what was available to start with which was one item, satay. It was a chicken satay literally grilled right behind us on the grill outside. Had a coconut type sauce with a slight spice and was excellent!
For dinner, you had options of different types of meat and vegetables along with rice. We decided to try the beef and the green beans. It came out with enough for two people to share. The rice that accompanied it had peanuts and coconut in it. Was extremely tasty! I would eat here again but don’t come here for fast service or a varied menu. You definitely are eating on the owners’ terms but that adds to the fun of the experience. That and there is a huge piano about two feet from the front door that people can just sit and play and sometimes the owner will just walk by and hit the keys as he brings you your food.
Friday, Sept 6
Flower Market (Bloemenmarkt)
Of course the Dutch are known for their flowers (tulips in particular). Our next morning, we decided after breakfast to walk towards the flower market. I had high expectations of the market (expecting to see wholesale fresh flowers) but it appeared a bit more touristy than I expected. There were tons of bulbs for sale but very few fresh flowers.
A few fresh and beautiful flowers I had never seen before
My Aunt was able to get some special bulbs she needed for her garden back home. Of note, ensure if you get bulbs that you get the ones that are marked for export. In the EU, it is easier to get them from country to country but I didn’t risk bringing any back to the US.
Although half a day would never be enough time, we decided to spend our afternoon at the Rijks. The Rijksmuseum is the state museum of Amsterdam and the Netherlands. It had just undergone a massive renovation over the past 10 years and reopened in April of this year.
You could literally spend days in this museum but since we did not have a tremendous amount of time, we decided to visit the must see pieces of art. Before we got started, we decided to have lunch at the museum cafe. Absolutely top notch food and it is in an open cafe on the bottom floor so you can see the people walking in to the museum and the site as you look up to the roof is like a artistic metal installation that seemed to provide acoustic properties (just my perception of it). It was dramatic and enjoyable. The seating is very social and we sat next to a Canadian couple and chatted with them about their trip.
Our main goal was to see Rembrandt’s Night Watch. I am not sure I could ever write the experience as you walk into the section of the gallery that displays this piece as well as many other Rembrandts. It is breathtaking. The use of natural light in the museum to showcase the piece is something you just have to stand and then again sit down to take in. Seeing this painting in person must be on your bucket list. My Aunt was the one who really wanted to see it and I was okay about it but it surpassed my expectations upon entering the hallway that leads up to it.
Piet the Lion steakhouse
For dinner that night, we decided to eat at a pub that was very close to our hotel (literally 500 feet away). My cousin had flown in that afternoon from London and joined us for the rest of our trip so we met him back at the hotel and then walked down to Piet the Lion. Piet means ‘Peter’. This was a tiny pub and upon walking in we were asked if we had reservations which of course we did not. The waiter was kind of enough to squeeze us in to the tiny restaurant behind a table of about 10 men who were clearly celebrating something. He proceeded to tell us that several of them were available and sorry that they were ugly (all in good humor). We squeezed ourselves in and ordered a beer each. Once I looked at the menu…I noticed a few things with the largest one being HORSE and then Reindeer. I know those are more commonly eaten in parts of Europe but thank goodness they spelled it out. I am sure some English or Americans had tripped themselves up on a bad interpretation of the Dutch name of the dish a few times. For our appetizer, we had the herring on toast (a traditional Dutch dish). It was pretty good.
I ordered the pork and it came with chips (french fries) and I obligated myself to try the fries with mayo (Dutch way of eating them). Not bad but not great. I don’t even like ketchup so I definitely was not up for the mayo. The pork was excellent. We all thoroughly enjoyed our meals. Would definitely return to this restaurant (and yes, there was a huge taxidermied Lion head right next to the barrels of wine on the restaurant wall).
Saturday, Sept 7
We only had part of the day on Saturday and I had read that the Albert Cuypmarket was pretty interesting. We walked over after breakfast to check it out. Just like the description said…they sell everything…fresh fish, lingerie, bicycles, leather bags, fruit…you name it – they have it. Over 300 stalls selling goods.
Red Light District
After the market, we had to do the tour of the Red Light District.
We did it during the day which is a different vibe to the night (my guess). It was pretty interesting and you have to check it off the list when in the city. I did not take too many photos as it just felt strange taking photos there.
The craziest thing I saw was a woman of at least 60 years of age standing in one of the brothel windows in her lingerie. I was gobsmacked!
Overall, I would not describe it as anything too insane but you have to walk through it to see it. It seems like it was 50% folks in coffee shops and the other half was brothels or something of that nature.
Almost everyone out and about appeared to be a tourist. From what I read, this is not where the locals go and most of the money made in this area is from European tourists patronizing it. The irony is that a massive church sits right along the side of it.
This was our last day in Amsterdam before the flight back to London and then my flight back home to the US the following day.
I had to share a small collage I made of the bike culture there. I heard that there are over 500,000 bicycles in Amsterdam. The infrastructure for them is the best I have ever seen. Not only their own lanes, but their own traffic lights. Everyone rides a bike…even with 2-3 children hanging on to them.
I saw a surfboard, massive flower bouquets and even another bike being held by a cyclist while they rode. It is a way of life. I would describe the people in Amsterdam as very friendly but most importantly, happy. I can’t say that any other city I have visited has felt a genuine sense of light heartedness. I think coming back home it made me compare my daily life and think about what we do differently here. The hustle/bustle…the go go go go…the must make more money, have a bigger house, have a better title. Is that what really makes you happy? Amsterdam left me something to think about.