Amsterdam was the first stop. This was a trip long in the making. To celebrate my retirement, we wanted to gather our four children and their families for a relaxing week in a warm place. We choose July, and Mallorca was the gathering place. But before that and since we’d already be in Europe, our daughter Katie and I planned a pre trip which I dubbed our blitz through Scandinavia. Amsterdam isn't part of Scandinavia, but it's close. Paul has been to Amsterdam and opted to stay home for this part of the trip, so he joined us in Mallorca.
Since we normally fly Delta, Schiphol airport is usually where we connect in Europe. We’ve connected in Schiphol so many times that I once recognized the store pictured in a friend’s photo as she was between flights! So it was time to finally leave the airport and explore Amsterdam.
As usual, the flight from Detroit landed in the morning and I took the train into town from the airport. It’s just under a 30 minute ride and costs about €5. Buy your ticket from the yellow machines or from the ticket booth. The machines don’t take bills; only cards and coins. It’s an easy and stress-free trip into town on the train.
The signs are plentiful and easy to follow.
The Amsterdam central train station is an impressive and imposing structure at the north end of the central part of the city. It's huge and very busy, but easy to navigate. Since the weather was nice, I was able to walk the 10 minutes or so to our hotel, Il Fiore, with the help of Google maps. What hit me were the bikes parked at the station. I had been warned about the bikes in Amsterdam, but you really don't get the full effect until you see them and attempt not to be run over by them. How can their owners remember where they parked them?
Since our room wasn’t yet ready, I stored my luggage at the front desk and set out on foot. I walked around the corner and down the Prinsengracht canal, the outermost of the ring of canals, and stopped for breakfast at the Pancake Bakery which I had read about. What a disappointment; it was dark, the service was slow, and my crepe wasn’t special. Live and learn.
I had bought tickets to both the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum and wanted to visit a couple other museums so I left a day earlier than Katie who was content to join me after my museum binge. It started to rain mid-morning - a perfect day for museum-going!
I made a quick stop at the Cheese Museum and the Tulip Museum on the way, although admittedly, didn’t actually get past the shops in front.
As it started to rain, I found the Houseboat Museum which had intrigued me while researching Amsterdam. After WWII, housing in Amsterdam was hard to find, so people began living in houseboats. 2,500 permits were granted and that number hasn’t increased since then. The Houseboat Museum is also on the Prinsengracht canal and gives an interesting glimpse into the world of houseboats in Amsterdam. It's a bit of a time capsule to the 1950's. At the cost of only €4.50, it was definitely worth the visit. Notice the compact sleeping arrangement below.
I had bought a timed ticket to the Van Gogh museum for 1:30 for €19. I had also bought the Rijksmuseum ticket online, although that one wasn’t timed. It started to pour so I lost myself in Van Gogh. As a lover of impressionism, this was a dream come true. It’s well-curated with a lot of information on Van Gogh’s career, his brother Theo and his entire family. And of course, there's his incredible art work! I spent almost two hours engrossed in his life and works. Unfortunately, photos aren't allowed inside the Van Gogh Museum.
I walked the short distance across the green to the Rijksmuseum and was able to enter immediately with my pre-purchased ticket which also cost €19 (a savings of €1 if bought beforehand).
The Rijksmuseum is on a par with museums such as the Met and the Louvre, and it’s one that I’ve wanted to visit for many years. I made a beeline to the Gallery of Honour which is home to Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, one of his most famous if not THE most famous of his paintings. It’s being restored, but fortunately remains on view. The Gallery of Honour is also home to the Northern Dutch painters such as Vermeer and Jan Steen, both of whose paintings I've loved for many years. I had to pinch myself that I was finally able to see in person some of my favorite works of art that I had studied so long ago in college. What an afternoon! Fortunately, photos are allowed in the Rijksmuseum.
The conservator was working on The Night Watch while I was there. Part of the machine was slowly moving back and forth across the painting.
Detailed images from The Merry Family
By this time, I was beginning to feel the effects of only a couple of hours of sleep on the flight and I wanted to check in. The rain had subsided, so I walked back to the hotel, enjoying the lovely flowers on the bridges over the canals and successfully surviving the onslaught of bike traffic. I checked into our room, had a light dinner at the cafe across the street and collapsed into bed!
The next day was lovely. Katie was arriving in the early afternoon and there were a few things I wanted to see before her arrival. I had breakfast at Piqniq, recommended by the front desk person. It’s a charming cafe and breakfast was delicious. For my fellow cat lovers, it also has a resident kitty which sealed the deal for me.
I headed east, to Dam Square. As large squares go, I guess it fit the bill, but it didn't do much for me. The Royal Palace occupies the northern side of the square and next to it is Mme. Tussaud’s. I opted not to visit either, although I was tempted to go into the palace.
A panoramic view of Dam Square. The Royal Palace is the large building center right.
In the interest of time and knowing that Katie was arriving, I walked up to the Oude Kerk, or Old Church. Built in 1213, it is the oldest building in Amsterdam. At 12 Euros, I felt it was somewhat overpriced, but a decent visit nevertheless. What I found most interesting about it is that it was built on a cemetery and citizens of Amsterdam continued to be buried there until 1865. There are 2,500 graves which include 10,000 people.
Upon leaving the church, I walked around the back and imagine my surprise when I looked up and spotted a well-endowed, scantily-clad lady plastered to a window. Yes, I was in the Red Light district! The juxtaposition of the church and the ladies seemed ironic and funny. Note: the Dutch are very strict about photos of the sex workers as they're called in the Red Light District. Don't even try. I found this to be an interesting article that sheds some light on the subject of photos.
The next stop was a museum that had intrigued me for a long time; Our Lord in the Attic. In the mid to late 1600’s, the city banned worship for Catholics, among others . A wealthy linen tradesman owned a canal house and created a Catholic church on the top three floors. This was one of many "schuilkerks" or clandestine house churches that existed during this time. The city knew about them, but turned a blind eye. It served as a house of worship for many years and was converted to a museum in the late 1800's. I spent about an hour and a half there. It’s very well curated and labeled and the audio guide was very informative. I recommend that you visit it while in Amsterdam.
This is the priest who served the church for many years and his "bedroom".
Some of the original stairs in the house; they were VERY steep!
This was the kitchen. The tiles are children at play and are so much fun.
The view from one of the top floors
By this time it was noon so I had lunch and met Katie. We spent the afternoon strolling the lovely canals until it was time for our canal cruise. This was Katie's first meal after arriving (yes there was food, too)!
Not surprisingly, there are a number of canal cruises to choose from. I had purchased tickets for Flagship Amsterdam. located at the Anne Frank House. It was an hour-long cruise through the canals and onto the Amstel River, and the cost was €16 per person. It was well worth the ticket price!
We learned a lot and even had a refreshment in the process!
Notice the hooks on the buildings below. They're on many buildings in Amsterdam and serve an important purpose. Because most of the buildings have so many stories, the pulley system and hooks were created to hoist objects to the uppermost floors that were too heavy or impossible to be carried up the flights of steps. They're still in operation today. Some of the buildings lean forward a bit so as to avoid a run-in with the objects being hoisted. The photo at the bottom is the pulley system in the Our Lord in the Attic church house. When I first saw it, not knowing about the pulley system, I thought it was a noose, but quickly figured that having a noose in a church is pretty counter-intuitive!
This is the Magere Burg, or "Skinny Bridge" across the Amstel River. Its width only accommodates bikers and walkers. Legend has it that two sisters lived on either side of the river and wanted a way to see each other easily. They commissioned the bridge, but weren't quite wealthy enough to make it wider. Who knows if it's true, but it's a fun tale!
This row of buildings is also on the Amstel River. Notice that most of them are crooked. Our skipper told us that the only one that's not crooked is the Irish pub!
Amsterdam's symbol is three St. Andrew's crosses as pictured below. Our skipper told us that they stand for plague, fire and flood, all of which Amsterdam has experienced in its history. I guess that's called acknowledging your past! He also said that residents would paint their house black when the plague hit them to let everyone know. There are a number of black houses today, but I imagine that's coincidental, or carried over from many centuries ago. Does anyone know?
We saw a variety of houseboats while on the canals. As I mention above, there are a maximum of only 2,500 permits for houseboats which the city doesn't anticipate increasing, so canal and river real estate sells for a premium. Some were old, some were plain, many had pretty plants and flower even growing on their roofs, and others were just plain over the top. Many are rented through Airbnb although laws prohibit rentals over 30 days. They're all moored, connected to water, gas and electricity, and all are connected to the Amsterdam sewer system.
This one deserves honorable mention. The skipper said that the person who bought it got a bargain because it's so run down. His plans were to make it into a lovely house, but discovered after he purchased it that it's on the register of historical places and nothing can be done with it. We found it strange that he wouldn't have been told that in the process of buying it, but it's a good story!
That night we were craving Italian food. There seem to be many Italian restaurants in Amsterdam and we lucked out with one just down the street from our hotel, Capri. It was full of local diners which is always a good sign. The food was fresh and delicious, the service was excellent as was the Italian wine.
This was the day Katie had been waiting for.
That morning we again had breakfast at Piqniq joined by our kitty friend. We learned that she actually belongs to a family who lives across the street, but she enjoys hanging out on the sunny ledge during the day. Oh, and that's my waffle with strawberries!
Katie’s main desire was to visit the Anne Frank House . Again, I bought the tickets online. We chose 8:30, the first time slot and we were glad we did. It’s necessary to purchase tickets as soon as they go on sale which is two months prior. They sell out very quickly. Not surprisingly, it was a somber visit. The museum was thoughtfully laid out and we were given an audio guide as we entered. You climb up until you reach the rooms where the Franks lived. At that point the audio guide stops. The labels are thoughtfully written and you’re transported to the early 1940’s. I was glad I had reread The Diary of Anne Frank before I left. One of the most compelling things for me was was to see the bookcase that hid the entrance to their apartments. We spent about an hour there. Photos weren't allowed inside the museum. It's centrally located on the Prinsengracht canal and the Westkerk which Anne Frank referred to so often in her diary is next door. I had hoped to visit it and climb to the top for a view of Amsterdam, but we ran out of time.
Don't even try to pronounce it unless you know Dutch!
I honestly didn't feel it would be right to be in the Netherlands and not see a windmill, and Zaanse Schans fit the bill. It's located just north of central Amsterdam and is described as a unique living and working community which gives a picture of what it was like to live and work in the Zaan district in the 17th and 18th centuries. There are working windmills, shops, cafes and a museum. There are a number of ways to get there; train, bus, hop-on, hop-off bus or organized tour. We took the train which was a short 30-minute ride. The walk from the train station to the village takes about 15 minutes.
It was fun to enter the windmills, see their operation and learn about what their purpose was. We spent about an hour and a half walking around the village and visiting the shops and windmills.
We found a great restaurant - more of a pub, actually - for lunch. Proeflokall de Kruis is located just across the river from the windmills, before you cross the bridge. It had a good variety of Dutch food. We had been told to try bitterballen, a Dutch specialty. If you haven't had them, they're a breaded ball, usually made of beef or veal, broth, and a roux to thicken it. They also have a vegetarian option. With a spicy mustard, they're very tasty! I also had Dutch pea soup which was rich and good.
Back in central Amsterdam, it was our last evening. Paul and our sons had gone to a restaurant when they were in Amsterdam that they loved and recommended we try it. Stout is located just south of the central train station, about a 5-minute walk from our hotel. It describes itself as eclectic which is accurate. It's small and modern and offers a large variety of small plates. It was the best meal we had during our 18 days of travel. If you're in Amsterdam, don't miss it!
A Word about our Hotel - Il Fiore
I had booked Paul and our sons in Sebastian's, on the Keizersgracht, the next canal over from ours when they were in Amsterdam several months prior to our visit. They loved it and highly recommended it. When I looked at it for our July dates, it was more than I wanted to spend, so I chose Il Fiore. It was fine for us; clean, very centrally located just around the corner from the Prinsengracht canal and across from a charming park. The rate through Expedia was $190 per night. The room was a decent size and even had a small balcony. The front desk isn't manned during the night, but that wasn't a problem for us. They don't serve breakfast, but there's an Italian restaurant by the same name on the ground floor. We didn't try it, but it looked good and was busy each night. I considered renting a houseboat through Airbnb, but for my first time in a city, I tend to like having a concierge or front desk person to ask advice of.
Here are a few photos including the view from our balcony.
A Few Parting Thoughts
I'm so glad to finally have seen Amsterdam! It's relatively compact and easily walkable, despite the cobblestones and bikes. They also have a good tram system which I didn't try. I thought I would fall in love with it. I liked it very much, but didn't fall in love. Maybe that was due to constantly ensuring that I wasn't hit by a bike. Paul and I compared the bikes to the scooters in Naples. At least you can hear the scooters. The people are exceedingly friendly and they speak English better than I do! The history is rich and in three days I didn't do everything I wanted to. The architecture is distinctive and the canals add to the beauty of the city. Now when we connect through Schiphol, I'll know what's outside!
Here are a few parting photos.
➜ Top Tips
Beware of the bikes! They come fast and don't make much noise, so look well before you cross the street.
Depending on your interest in museums, allow plenty of time to visit them and reserve your tickets online before you go to avoid long lines.
Wear comfortable walking shoes; Amsterdam is wonderfully walkable.
Give bitterballen a try!
Take a canal cruise; it's a great way to get a different perspective of the city.
Amsterdam's weather is fickle - be prepared!