Five Days in Amsterdam

Last year, a trip to Amsterdam kicked off my three-month stay in Europe. I spent the long Easter weekend in the city, staying at a hostel near the canals. This year, I recently revisited the city with two colleagues from the States. We were there two days and stayed at an Airbnb. I'm mixing the two visits for blog-purposes. Here's my Amsterdam! All info comes from Wikipedia, Lonely Planet books, or my own discoveries.

Amsterdam Centraal

Amsterdam Centraal

The city's main railway station was built in the 1880s and is the prettiest train station I've seen in Europe. It was designed by the same guy who designed the Rijksmuseum, which makes sense. It's also a national heritage site.

On my second visit to the city, I discovered Amsterdam's coat of arms includes three vertical 'x's' and is used as a shorthand for the city. Once I realized this, I saw the thing everywhere. Also, this sign, placed on a large bicycle garage, is accurate. The Dutch do, indeed, love their bikes. It was not uncommon to see entire families on a bike, Mom or Dad pedaling away while the kiddos clung to some other structure of the cycle or hung out on an attached cart. Bikes, bikes, everywhere!

Get ready for lots of pictures of canals and other waterways. This is right outside the central station.

Acknowledgement: this is a terrible picture, of me but also just in general. I want to take a moment to mention that, last year, this was my first trip in Europe. Aside from a few business trips, it was also my first solo trip anywhere. And I thought a selfie stick was a good idea. Yes, this is taken via selfie stick. I brought it out for my first couple of weekend jaunts last year only to abandon it entirely by the end of my three-month stay. The stick was just not for me - it was a pain in the ass to put the phone on the stick, to take it off, and to store it. The other option was to walk around with the phone/camera permanently attached to the stick, which several tourists opt for. Wanting to minimize the time I looked like a total jackass, I did not do this. One afternoon in Amsterdam, taking a selfie stick picture, some other tourist stopped by and suggest we just take turns taking pictures of each other. And then I knew my selfie stick was not long for the world.

Other photo thing I tried, temporarily: having a separate camera. A friend gave me her camera to use while I'm in Europe. It's kind of a fish-eye thing that I do not like and after a couple of trips, I abandoned it as well. I just prefer to use my phone. Going back and forth between the phone and the camera was just not worth it.

Basically, I'm lazy and just use my  phone and take normal selfies.

More canals and time for another digression. Amsterdam was my first trip in Europe and one of the first on my own. To sum up - I did not know what the hell I was doing. I didn't do any research ahead of time. I just kind of showed up, bought a map, and hoped I found something good. Therefore, my time wasn't super efficient. Now, when visiting a city as a tourist, here's my routine:

- Check out a few sites ahead of time. Wikitravel, Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor, etc. I've also got a Lonely Planet Europe book. Additionally, through Kindle Unlimited, most of the Lonely Planet books are available for free. Grab it and download it on both the table and the phone. I did this for Spain and Amsterdam and it was really useful. I had all the information on the major sites without having to cart a book around (or buy one). Sure, you can Google the site later, but you may not have WiFi and, without the information on hand, you might miss something. If it wasn't for the Lonely Planet Spain book on hand, I would have missed the grape-eating bear in Madrid, for example.

- Make a list of the things you want to see. I rarely see everything on the list and usually end up stopping by places that aren't on the list, but it's good to have something to structure your visit around.

- Figure out what to book ahead of time. Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet are usually pretty good prognosticators on this one. You might be able to avoid a big queue for some sites if you get there before it opens or wait until right before a site closes, but sometimes it really is worth booking a ticket ahead of time. The site's website might be able to help you out or there's always Viator.

- As soon as you get to the city, grab a map. The smaller the better, for easy management. Yes, the Lonely Planet books have maps, but they're difficult to navigate on the Kindle and you can't add notations to the map directly. Also, you may want to hold off spending money on a map until you get settled in, as many hotels and Airbnbs provide a map for free. In general, I would recommend stopping at the hotel or Airbnb, if possible, before making too many plans. The host may have suggestions as well.

- Once you've got your map, your list, and a general understanding of your location within the city, grab a coffee or a beer and have a seat at a nearby cafe. Take out your list and your map. Mark up all the spots you want to see. Then organize your visit, based on scheduled plans, priorities, and general location in the city.

- Assess the plan frequently. Mine always changes, whether it's a quick weekend in Amsterdam or five days in Barcelona. Something takes longer than expected or you have time to go have a quick peak at that church that you weren't dying to see. In Madrid, I had planned one day to visit the major museums. Nope. After the first one, I was museum-ed out and saved the other, smaller museums for a different day. Be flexible!

Last time I was in Amsterdam, I saw cats everywhere. This guy was a resident at the pub I had lunch in. Let me pet him and everything! I didn't see as many felines around town this recent visit. Maybe it's the time of year?

The Amsterdam museum has been around since 1926 and offers a history of the city. Full disclosure: I had just done the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh, so I was museum-ed out and honestly don't remember much of this one, but a colleague and fellow traveler whose opinion I trust ensures me it's an excellent museum and very insightful. I remember there was some opportunity for interactions?

As for museums, I really enjoy history and art museums. That being said, museum-ed out is a very real thing. You get to a certain point where you cannot be bothered to read the placard or listen to the full audio guide. Your brain is done taking in new information or really appreciating the exhibit. Where possible, it's best to split big museums up over a period of days (though not all tickets, or schedules, will allow you to do this) or to spread the museums out over your visit.

More canals...

The Royal Concertgebouw, a concert hall, is just to the left of the photo. Mostly, I wanted to show the open green space in front of the hall. Between the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Concertgebous is a lovely open space with lots of place to hang out or play.

For most cities, my favorite things to check out are famous landmarks/buildings, art museums, and parks. My favorite parks are the Tiergarten in Berlin, Central Park in NYC, and the Englischer Garten in Munich, but mainly for the beer garden. This one is nice as well, with an open air theater and several restaurants. It was built in 1865 and receives around ten million visitors a year.

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More canals, panorama courtesy of Google Awesome.

I'm going to get hokey for a moment. I left Amsterdam on Monday morning, last year. As I was walking from my hostel to the train station, I randomly stopped and snapped this picture. It quickly became my work laptop's background and stayed there for about nine months. I was going through pictures to include in this entry and this one jumped out at me. It's become famous and recognizable to me, having seen it so often while it was my background. Even more so since it was my work background - it was a topic of discussion of many meetings when it appeared on the projection before I started presenting whatever, the chit chat before a meeting starts. Where is this from? Did you take this? Ah, what else did you do in Amsterdam, etc. Lots of jokes about marijuana.

It's interesting the pictures that become known. Since I've gotten a smartphone I've taken thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands, of digital photos. Some get deleted, others filed away in my external hard drive never to be seen again. Or maybe they get added to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Used as cover photos and profile pictures. Personally, I like to set the profile photo to me, the cover photo to a landscape of some kind. Currently, mine's set to the lake in Geneva.

And others get set to your work background and discussed by colleagues across all of Europe and the States.

Amsterdam knows what's up: cheese delivery! The cheese was everywhere and it was awesome. My travel buddies and I did our best European imitation - bought fancy cheese and wine in Amsterdam, ate it on the train back to Germany with some crackers Sunday night.

Full abandonment of the selfie stick and embrace of the over-the-shoulder selfie.

St. Nicolasskerk; the first church built after Catholicism became legal again in the 1800s. Named after St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seafarers. 

More canals, cause why not. According to my tour I took last year, Hamburg has more canals than Amsterdam. Bruges has its share as well. Still, neither is as picturesque as the waterways of Amsterdam. Every turn, there's something to snap an image of.

Moveable bridge, which is what this called according to Wikipedia.

Bloemenmarket. A great place for souvenirs and lots of pretty flowers, especially tulips.

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A fresh stroopwafel - Netherlands specialty that consists of two thin layers of dough and a sweet syrup thing in the middle. Basically crack.

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Dam square, where Amsterdam was founded around 1270. It's the spot to see and be seen in Amsterdam. Lots of tourist activities - street performers and whatever Holland's equivalent of 'Minnie Mouse' is. Random side note: A lot of the churches in Amsterdam required an entrance fee of ten Euros. For churches, this is honestly a lot of money. Not cool. These churches were skipped. I'm all for giving donations but ten Euros just to see the inside? Nope! What I'm saying is, I did not see the church at the Dam square.

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The National Monument, built in 1956 to commemorate the losses of WWII. On a much lighter note, we had dinner at a restaurant next door to the statue and it was excellent.

Anne Frank house. I visited this place on both visits. It continues to be a reminder of what can never happen again but also a monument to the impact and importance of a single voice. It's overwhelming to be in the place itself, to stand in the rooms that eight people were forced to exist in for two years. It's absolutely a must-see. Additionally, the museum does a great job of providing information on the Franks - their lives before and after the hiding and the war (only Otto, Anne's father, survived). It's heartbreaking to hear of their hopes for what would happen once they finally got out of hiding - the children continued to work on their school so they wouldn't be behind in their studies. I appreciate that Anne Frank mentions several times in her work that she wanted to publish it. Not only was she a budding writer who would be astonished at the impact of her words, but she wanted people to know. We aren't prying into the private thoughts of a teenage girl but seeing a documentation of the suffering. Also something that really struck me - after going through the house and the secret annex, there's a video on others speaking about Anne Frank. Here are the ones I really remember:

- Emma Thompson, from a speech at the Anne Frank House: "The only thing we have to remember is: all her would-haves are our real possibilities. All her would-haves are our opportunities. And the book's a flame, a torch, we can light our own candles and take them and illuminate our hearts with the incandescence of her spirit."

- A modern Jewish writer, who spoke of the "Anne Frank Game" he and other Jewish kids would play growing up - if this happens again, who would hide us? Where would we hide? We Southern Baptists kids definitely didn't have a game like that.

- John Green read the story from The Fault in Our Stars, the passage where Hazel looks at the book listing all those who died and being struck by the four Aron Franks that follow Anne's name in the book. Four Arons who don't have a museum, who don't have a book. This is one way to look at, be overwhelmed by the size of the loss. That being said, TFiOS was bullshit. First, the museum is not set up as it is in the movie. Second, and more importantly, visiting the Anne Frank house is a very personal experience. For all I know, there were other people in the museum with me who lost family members in the Holocaust or who were the children of survivors. The last thing I would do, or any other respectful human being, would be to intrude upon these personal, thoughtful moments by making out with and groping my boyfriend. Seriously.

As for visiting the Anne Frank house, the travel sites highly recommended to book a tour. I didn't the two times I saw it. The first time, I got in line an hour before it opened and was in half an hour after hours started. This may not work any more - it looks like they may have changed their policy and set internet-ticket hours to the beginning of the day. The second time, I got in line around 6:30 (it closes at 10) and was in by 8. So, whatever works. Either book the tickets way in advance (like, a couple of months) or plan on spending some time in line. Neither time was my wait awful (around 1.5 hrs both times) but I had travelers tell me of waits upwards of four hours.

The Red Light District when the sun goes down. The Prostitution Information center gives a tour every Saturday at 5 pm. We participated in the tour this weekend and it was a wealth of information and perspective on sex workers. Highly recommend taking the tour - the tour is given by former sex workers and they have a very different perspective than the prudes from the States.

Around the corner from this weekend's Airbnb - Europe's Bud Light. Heineken isn't that great but at least it's reliable and European. Also available at literally every restaurant in Amsterdam. My brother lives in St. Louis, where Bud is based, and apparently some trendy, hipster bars refuse to sell the stuff. Not a problem in Amsterdam! There are tours of this place available that include booze, so if that's a thing for you, go nuts.

The Rijskmuseum. Photo effect courtesy of Google Awesome - I didn't even notice it until I had already downloaded the photo. I spent a few hours here on my first visit, just stopped for pictures on my second. After all, it's on the way to the Van Gogh museum and is near the famous 'I am Amsterdam' sign. As for the museum itself, it was founded in 1808 and the building was designed in 1885. They've got a collection of one million objects, with around 8k on display, the most famous of which is probably Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch.' When I visited this place last year, it was my first art museum and I didn't know what the hell I was looking at. Luckily, the crowd and the museum's handout informed me all about the thing I was eye-balling. The museum itself is large and overwhelming. I visited first thing one morning. It's a beautiful building but there are so many pieces. I tried to pay attention but was over it so very soon. This is definitely a museum that should be consumed over multiple visits wherever possible.

And now we are on to the good stuff. The Van Gogh museum. Checked this place out both times. It continues to be one of my favorite art museums. A perfect combination of artist biography, artist impact, and just pure art. It's probably a little cliche, but I friggin' love Van Gogh. His story is heartbreaking, his talent undeniable. His work always seems to jump out of the page at me. Or canvas, whatever. I honestly can't pick a favorite - the sunflowers are warmth personified, his irises cool beauty. And there are the peasant life scenes and wheat fields. Starry nights and cafes in Paris. Portraits and self-portraits. I can't look away. Since Van Gogh, I've discovered other artists - Degas and Monet, Schiele and Klimt. But Van Gogh is always going to be it for me. In the incredible Goldfinch, the narrator talks bout how art can talk to a person across space and time, whether it's the actual piece or a reproduction or an image in the book. It's a whisper - hey you, look at me, I get you. For me, that's Van Gogh pieces. His crows flying across the field, the blossoms blowing in the wind. The lumps of paint that remind me continuously of the genius behind the work. It's never diminished, whether it's a post card I paste to my wall or a puzzle I hang over my fireplace.

One more Van Gogh tidbit. While I was living in Portland in 2010, I needed something to keep me busy, so I picked up a 2k puzzle piece. I ended up picking out Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night. I was 23, totally ignorant about art. I just knew I liked the painting and it was the right size and available at Target. I put the puzzle together, glued the pieces and stuck it in a frame. It's spent the last five years hanging out above my fireplace. It's become one of my favorite pieces. It's just home.

The Van Gogh museum doesn't let you take pictures of the exhibits but they do provide selfie opportunities. They also offer you plenty of opportunities to buy stuff. I picked up replicas of a few paintings. And then also a book on the museums exhibits. And then a bookmark. I don't even use bookmarks! And finally, a phone cover for my Samsung S5. It's of the Almond Blossoms painting and I love it. Other phone covers included the smoking skeleton, which David Sedaris stuck on one of his book covers. Two of my favorites, Sedaris and Van Gogh, coming together. Synergy!

Interested in visiting the Van Gogh Museum? You should be! Seriously, I've seen a lot of museums over the past year and a half and this one continues to take the cake. It's among my favorites, the others being Musee d'Orsay and Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris and the Met and MoMA in NYC. The Leopold in Vienna was pretty awesome also. Anyway! This is an excellent art museum, not to be missed. I highly recommend either being there when the thing opens or getting a timed ticket from the museum's website ahead of time. We booked ours just a few days ahead of time. Given the lines when we showed up at 9, the latter is probably more reliable.

The Museum of Contemporary Art had a Banksy and Warhol exhibit. Unfortunately, we didn't have a chance to check it out but we didn't miss our fun photo opportunity. I do want to catch a Banksy in the wild though...

Iconic Amsterdam signage. This is right outside the Rijksmuseum and was crowded with tourists who were literally climbing all over the thing. There was a handy sign in Dutch and English absolving the museum and the city from any tourist injuries. We attempted to climb on ourselves but remember we are not teenagers.

It's not a trip to Holland without some windmills.