The next stop after Bruges, on my tour of Northern Europe was Amsterdam. The capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam tends to make people think of drugs and the red light district when in fact it's barely a part of its culture. The "coffee shops" tend to be filled with tourists anyway, doesn't that say something? But those things, if anything else, do signify how laid back this city is. Strolling along the canals I couldn't help but think how cool this place was and everyone seemed to be enjoying life beautifully. Even though I'm sure they have their problems just like anyone else, these people seemed to be so carefree, riding their cute little bikes along the picturesque canals with delicious groceries and colorful flowers in the basket, pretty blonde hair blowing in the wind. I had to wonder, is this place real? Yes, yes it is. Just a few comfortable hours on the train from Belgium and here I was, in never never land. Amsterdam is an easy city to visit. Just about everyone speaks English thankfully (I still can't figure out how to pronounce Dutch words), there are direct flights from the States, and there are so many public transportation options once you're there--the above-ground tram (think Boston's green line but way nicer), the subway/metro, and buses. It is also laid out in a unique way that helps you get your bearings. Think of Amsterdam Centraal train station being the starting point. From there, canals surround the train station in semi-concentric rings and streets and bridges intersect the rings like spokes on a bicycle.
Most of our time was spent walking around the streets and along the canals, stopping here and there for food and/or drink which was a great way to spend our 2 days. Here I leave you with my reccos.
5 THINGS TO SEE & DO
- Walk along the picturesque canals. They will not disappoint, I promise.
- Take a picture in a huge yellow Dutch clog in Dam Square. 'Nuff said.
- Browse the local offerings at Amsterdam's outdoor street market, Albert Cuypmarkt, located in a must-see neighborhood --De Pijp, which is the city's Latin Quarter.
- Visit old, working windmills like those found at Kinderdijk or Zaanse Schans, both places accessible by bus and/or train. A real Dutch treat.
- Admire the tulips in spring. Lonely Planet provides more info here.
With all the seeing and doing, one must eat. The Netherlands is not necessarily known for its cuisine but there are plenty of delights awaiting your arrival.
WHERE & WHAT TO EAT
Café Bern - Despite not being Dutch, fondue is the star of the menu here. This little place is very unassuming from the outside -- no sign and dark due to some unattractive curtains covering the windows -- but pleasantly cozy, warm and buzzing inside. Be sure to order the fondue, obviously, as well as the house steak (Entrecôte Café Bern) which arrives at the table raw with a burner and pan to cook at your own risk. Also, the garden salad tasted especially delicious and fresh, so get one to balance out all the meat, cheese and crusty bread you'll be eating. A carafe of red wine washes down the meal nicely. Inexpensive dinner but cash only. Reservations recommended. (Nieuwmarkt 9)
Lucius Visrestaurant - This is the place to go if you're looking for quality, fresh seafood in an informal yet tasteful setting. The huge fish tank made for an interesting addition to the decor but provided some entertainment for us as we ate right beside it. You really can't go wrong with what you decide for your meal. I opted for Mosselen-friet (those tasty mussels again) and they were cooked to perfection. Reservations recommended. (Spuistraat 247)
The Pancake Bakery - No trip to Amsterdam is complete without having delightful pannenkoeken, and this is the spot to have them. It is super casual, inexpensive, and open all day. The Dutch pancake is similar to a French crepe but slightly thicker and toppings are piled on like you would do with ingredients on a pizza. In this part of the world, they are ordered at any time of day and enjoyed sweet and/or savory. The menu also offers a special variety called poffertjes, which are like the silver dollar variety we Americans know but a little thicker and fluffier. Regardless, there is something for everyone here on the extensive yet authentic menu. (Prinsengracht 191)
Stroopwafels - Possibly the best cookie in all of Europe is the stroopwafel, which consists of two thin round wafers held together by ooey, gooey, syrupy caramel. They are the perfect size to rest on top of your cup of coffee to get warm and they come in a variety of flavors though the original caramel flavor is the best. You can find them in special bakeries around town like the famous Lanskroon Bakery (Singel 385), but honestly the best ones come from street vendors or, believe it or not, the grocery store. Bring home a stack or two, and you'll be glad you did, since the ones imported in the States taste rather unexciting.
A couple of days here was perfect for us although you will see that it is easy to spend more time. Just some words of wisdom before you go. LOOK BOTH WAYS before crossing the bike lanes. They come out of nowhere and are more dangerous than the cars, in my opinion. And lastly, if Amsterdam is your last stop before heading home, make sure to give yourself ample time at the gate and purchase any snacks and water BEFORE YOU GET TO THE GATE. For some reason, you have to go through a screening process to get to your gate which takes some time and there are no shops or restaurants on the other side. Happy traveling :)