Friday, April 1, 2016: Amsterdam, Netherlands
I started a two and a half weekish springtime trip through Europe and Morocco with a day in Amsterdam. It was a manic and fast-paced day in a bustling and sometimes chaotic city. Amsterdam, a low slung town webbed extensively with canals, has a lot to see, and while you can’t see all of it in a day, you can get to a lot if you hustle. Below is what I experienced.
Summary of the Below Verbosity
Getting There and Getting Around
- Amsterdam Schiphol: Major international airport on the outskirts of Amsterdam
- Intercity Direct: Quick train trip from the airport into Amsterdam Centraal. Cheap trains from the airport to Amsterdam Centraal leave regularly (I don’t recall the exact hours). One note: a lot of the automatic ticket machines are designed for credit cards that use pin only, so if your credit card is a signature one, which I think is the norm in the US, you might have to go to the counter
- Buiksloterweg ferry: Crossing from Amsterdam Centraal to North Amsterdam
- TIP Noord: Tourism Information Point’s bike rental in North Amsterdam; a wide selection of functioning bikes. It’s located between the ferry and ClinkNoord hostel
- Noord: Just across the water from Centraal, features the Eye Film Institute and is a good gateway
- Jordaan: Seems like a trendier part of town. To be honest, I got lost so much I’m not 100% sure I went here; it’s also possible that I spent twoish hours zig-zagging through it on my rented bike
- Museum Quarter: Where the main art museums are. The Museumplein is an attractive public space in its own right
- Red Light District: An interesting if disconcerting place
- ClinkNoord: A great hostel across the water from Amsterdam Centraal; clean, well-run, with bike rentals; featuring planned group activities for the socially inclined but plenty of quiet for other. It’s right across the water from Amsterdam Centraal; you take the free Buiksloterweg ferry, which runs 24 hours and drops you right by the hostel. The hostel has what you need at its price level: It’s clean and well-maintained, fairly efficiently run, has staff that are able and willing to advise you on what to do and where to go, and, if this interests you, has some event or other at the bar just about every night, but isn’t a noisy and neverending party (unlike some of Amsterdam’s more famous budget accommodations, the Flying Pigs). If you have several days in the Amsterdam area, this hostel is also ideally situated for venturing north
- KingCoffee en Catunambu: (Not sure if this is the right website.) There was a stand right by the ferry on the Noord side. It was the first place I went after renting the bike. The coffee was thick and served in a small cup, which seemed typical of coffee in Amsterdam
- Spui: A square in Amsterdam, this is the spot to shop for books, especially those in English. Athenaeum and ABC are both here, and apparently they have a book market on Fridays
- Athenaeum: Famous bookstore on the Spui; the narrator mentions this place in Rituals by Cees Nooteboom. The book selection is a mix of English and Dutch (maybe other languages, too) and the staff was really helpful. I gave my standard request for “best national books translated into English, in your opinion” and the guy hooked me up with The Latecomer by Dimitri Verhuilst, which is both a funny and a poigant look at ageing through the eyes of an old guy who either loses his marbles or goes to a nursing home to escape his family; and Max Havelaar by Multatuli, which I haven’t read yet but is a novel examining Dutch colonial policy. Open till 7ish, so you can stop in after a day of sightseeing
- American Book Center: Also on the Spui nowadays, well-known Dutch English-language bookstore. I didn’t find the staff as friendly, present, or eager to help as at Athenaeum, but that might be because I stopped closeish to close. Same request as at Athenaeum; I got The Dinner by Herman Koch, which is a troubling and relatively well-done examination of a very complicated moral question that conjures that Kanye quote off of Family Business – “And look, you tell me you ain’t did it, you ain’t did it// and if you did, then that’s family business”; and The Assault by Harry Mulisch, from which I got a very disturbing look into the Netherlands under Nazi occupation about which I’d previously known less than I should have. Roughly the same hours as Athenaeum
- Antiquarian bookshops: Amsterdam’s are supposed to be pretty good, but I only passed one, and I rang its doorbell, and nobody answered
- Bagels & Beans: I had heard this place had good breakfast, and I needed breakfast. I got the omelet bagel and a coffee. Both were good and restored my strength
- Food Crib: The meal at Food Crib was the first time I sat down since getting to Amsterdam. Dutch street food is supposed to be pretty good, and this stand by Museumplein did not disappoint. They have outdoor seating set up. I had the Double Dutch burger and a coffee. The burger especially was nourishing and delicious
- Del Gelato: I stopped here for a bite on my way out for the night and to try Fanta. The Fanta is a subject for another post, but the food – a waffle with gelato on it, I believe – was good. I like this combination
- Vondelpark: This park is maybe the best city park I’ve seen. It has large fields, ponds and other waterways, bridges, ducks, mini-forests, and both open spaces and nice paths for biking and walking. The houses lining its perimeters have a hell of a backyard
- Bloemenmarkt: A floating flower market (I think the world’s largest floating flower market, if there’s much competition?) on a canal. I was underwhelmed. I expected some a world of exotic flora for sale accessible only by boat or a rickety footbridge, but Bolemenmarkt is realistically a sidewalk flower market with the stores’ extra stock kept on little floating docks behind the sidewalk
- Anne Frank Museum: To be honest, I’m not a big fan of museums at which the main thing to do is read – it feels like an exercise I could complete at home. This museum has pages of Anne’s diary on display – mostly images of the pages – along with a few primary artifacts and videos. There is something sacred, though, about visiting the site where a story as horrific as hers took place. You can get tickets to this museum in advance on online, but they sell out days or weeks in advance. If you know for sure when you’ll visit, it’s a good idea: the line takes over an hour
- Rijksmuseum: Prominent art museum at Museumplein, it is impressively architected and designed and perhaps best-known for displaying Rembrandt’s original Nachtwacht (Night Watch). Come here for the classics. The art on display when I was there told much about Dutch history and also featured some interesting ship models
- Magna Plaza: I did not make it inside, but this building is magnificent. The old post office was converted into a shopping mall
- Dam Square: A large square in the city center with beautiful architecture. I don’t have much else to say
- Stedelijk Museum: On Museumplein near Rijksmuseum, come here for modern art. It’s open late on Friday nights, and they have events/entertainment that’s open to the public!
- Blue Boat: One of several companies offering canal tours of Amsterdam. A canal tour is definitiely worth doing – you get to see the city from slightly below street level and traverse a congested place via less congested means. Blue Boat’s tour left from a dock by the Park Hotel, which was a convenient place to get to from Museumplein, and they had night tours, which was what I was looking for as I didn’t have time for a cruise in the day. Seeing the red lights in the so-named district from the water under the cover of night is haunting and unnerving
First Stops Next Time I’m In Town
- Westerkerk Tower: Amsterdam does not have many tall buildings. This one is the tallest in the inner city. It has limited hours and you can only enter on a guided tour, which makes it difficult to visit
- Van Gogh Museum: The third in the trio of famous art museums at Museumplein. Like Stedelijk, it’s open late on Fridays
- NEMO: Science museum; it’s a really cool-looking building
- EYE Film Museum: If you’re staying at ClinkNoord and have some spare time, this building is right there and should have some cool film stuff to check out. They have screenings through 10pm!
- Mannekin Pis: Supposedly really good French fries – Belgian-style, I believe
- Heineken Experience: I’m not a beer guy these days, but it’s always cool to see where popular stuff is made
- Bikes and Barges tour: On the train, I sat next to an older American woman, an avid cyclist who was with some friends and joining a rather adventurous group tour of the bikes and barges variety: They would travel through Holland by biking all day, then throwing their bikes on a barge and sleeping on that same barge as it brought them onward to a new destination and new paths for biking. I am not sure if I have the physical fortitude for such a grueling test of will, but this does seem like an exciting way to see a place
- Try herring and licorice drops
Notes and Photos
Amsterdam made a convenient beginning to my journey from northern Europe down to Tarifa to catch the ferry to Tangier. Delta/Air France/KLM offers two primary stopovers for New York-Casablanca flights: Paris and Amsterdam. I secured a 24-hour layover in Paris on the way home; it made sense to spend a day in Amsterdam on the way to Morocco. I had planned twenty-four hours – 7am-7am – to take in the city, and they ended up becoming 21. For advance research, I leaned heavily on these articles. The plane touched down at 10 on Friday and I tried to pack in as much as I could till I had to leave. I took the train to the Centraal station and caught the ferry to drop my bag at ClinkNoord. The ferry makes a great beginning to a day in Amsterdam:
From there, I grabbed a rental bike at TIP Noord, which is right by the ferry. The slightly dazed gentleman at the desk was very nice but also probably very drunk: He fell over when he was giving me my bike and generally seemed disoriented. Impaired faculties or not, he was plenty knowledgable: To the girls in front of me in line, he recommended what sounded like an excellent loop north of the city to see some windmills and what not. When I told him how long I had to explore, he explained what I needed to focus on in the main tourist areas and nixed my idea of also seeing windmills. Trying to follow his advice, I zipped around the city on the bike without knowing exactly where I was going. The bike didn’t really afford me the option of stopping: it had a lock, but the lock’s key didn’t come out once you locked it, and a lock with the key in it isn’t much of a lock. Nor is a lock without the key in it that isn’t locked. My only extended absence from the bike was the couple of minutes I nervously stood in line Bagels & Beans waiting for some nourishment. I wolfed down my sandwich while walking out and got to work on the coffee.
I then spilled a bunch of coffee on my sleeve. Coffee stains are an unwelcome presence on your only sweater on the first day of a seventeen-day trip. I had to think fast and was feeling bashful about going back to the coffee shop wearing its coffee, so I hustled into the grocery store next door, which was very kind to provide napkins without me purchasing anything. Off I went on my bike.
Frankly, I was lost the whole time I biked through Amsterdam. It didn’t matter – I was going to use the whole rental I’d paid for, and I couldn’t very well leave the unlocked bike outside a museum for two hours while I got my tourist on, so I just pedaled as fast as I could and stopped whenever something struck me as photograph-worthy. Amsterdam’s a fun city to bike through – you criss-cross canals, cars are friendly, and trains are, too. I am not going to say here that I almost got hit by two different rains while biking, but I certainly feel fortunate that the conductors of Amsterdam’s trains, which run at street level, have both the capability and the willingness to stop quickly for errant pedestrians and bikes lurching into intersections against the signal. It’s a cyclist’s town, for sure: tons of people get around by bike, and moped/scooter, too. There are cute girls on mopeds! You rarely see that in the states. They do not want to race you on your bicycle but they will give you directions when you are lost. The last major stop on my biking excursion was the Vondelpark, which is an enormous, beautiful park in the heart of the city next to Museumplein.
For the afternoon, I returned the bike to TIP Noord and toured the city more methodically. I went to the Anne Frank Museum and then the Rijksmuseum, rested my weary legs at Food Crib, and did some book shopping at the Spui. A bit later than I’d planned, I returned to ClinkNoord to check out the solo travelers’ meet-up at the bar there. They have a happy hour every Friday evening, which is nice if you are visting Amsterdam alone. I showed up maybe a half hour or an hour late and waltzed into the bar. I had not showered yet that day. My strategy was this: I would pop in for a minute, get a respite from sightseeing, and see if there were any interesting people with whom I could join up for a night out. If there weren’t, I still wanted to see the Stedelijk and Van Gogh museums, get in a canal cruise, and maybe grab food somewhere delicious, so I was good either way.
The solo travelers’ meet-up did not offer much in the way of solo travelers looking to meet up. I saw a couple of larger groups hanging out and felt characteristically nervous about mixing in with them, and saw a couple of people working diligently on laptops at tables. I didn’t know what they were working on but I figured they didn’t want to meet up with me. From the bar, I ordered a Fanta (they have Fanta in the bar guns in Holland!), and it was good. There were two British guys at the bar chatting. Maybe they wanted to go out on the town with me. I said hello. They were cordial but not friendly. Museums and canal cruise it was.
Both the Stedelijk and Van Gogh museums are open late on Friday nights – till ten, I think. Especially since many tourist attractions close early, these hours really help you maximize your sightseeing. I started at Stedelijk. Before I got to any modern art, I came across a room full of people sitting and laughing at a man doing something that felt something like stand-up comedy, only it seemed that he was reading the jokes out of a book and he wasn’t standing. Turns out it was a book reading (artist David Bernstein for some reason reading the jokes out of Seth Siegelaub’s The Joke Book, even those Siegelaub was hosting the event)! Attendance was free with your admission to the museum, and Stedelijk does these events fairly often. For me, this is a great replacement for nightlife if you’re traveling in Amsterdam alone and not keen on going to the bar solo (also just a nice offering even if you live there or are with friends). I listened to some somewhat robotically recited jokes, giggled a bit, and then checked out the museum. By the time I left, I didn’t have time for Van Gogh, but fortunately had seem some Van Goghs earlier in the day.
My last major event of the night was a Blue Boat Canal Cruise, for which I’d purchased tickets on the way to the museums. It was a nice trip, and I got to see a lot of the city, though I did find the narration insufficiently precise – sometimes I couldn’t tell which building or street was being described. Probably the tour guide could have been more precise, but the confusion likely also stemmed from my own mental inefficacy – I think the waiter serving me delicious Fantas in glass bottles may have had to tap me a couple of times after I nodded off. By the time the cruise finished, I was ready to go home.
For the walk back, I charted a course through the famed Red Light District. I first saw this area’s red lights from below on the canal cruise. The establishments shown by the cruise tour guide were discrete – red lights over the door and nothing more. I expected maybe a seedy area, maybe shadowy figures lurking, mostly lonely patrons sneaking into and out of secretive doors. On foot in the neighborhood’s interior, what I encountered instead: throngs of tourists milling past, gaping at naked or barely clothed young women standing or sitting on display in huge windows (also marked by red lights) presumably waiting for passersby to express interest. A few passersby exchanged glances, hand signals, and mouthed words with a few workers, but I only saw one guy actually come or go through a door, and he did look embarrassed. What was most surprising but should have been least: many of the girls – who, remember, were sitting naked in windows, in theory soliciting prospective customers – were completely ignoring the prospective customers and scrolling through their phones. I guess bored sex workers in Amsterdam are like bored people anywhere else. One definitely positive part of my vaguely depressing pass through the Red Light District was that I was really hungry and it was late and I found a great doner kebab-type place. I regrettably forgot to mark down its name, but it was delicious and perfect for a famished and slightly delirious tourist. I wolfed down the food while walking through the streets and retired to the hostel for a few hours of sleep. In the morning, I took the train to the airport and flew to Stockholm.