waffles

Amsterdam, the Land of Canals and Pancakes

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

  1. Walk along the picturesque canals. They will not disappoint, I promise.
  2. Take a picture in a huge yellow Dutch clog in Dam Square. 'Nuff said.
  3. 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.
  4. Visit old, working windmills like those found at Kinderdijk or Zaanse Schans, both places accessible by bus and/or train. A real Dutch treat.
  5. 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 :)

The beautiful canals

The beautiful canals

Being silly with the fishes at Lucius

Being silly with the fishes at Lucius

Dam Square

Dam Square

There's More Than Beer in Bruges

Okay well it’s a big part of it, of being in Belgium for that matter, but Bruges is a gorgeous, romantic city and is perfect for a couple days to escape the hustle bustle of a major city like London, Paris, or even Amsterdam. Today I’ve got Bruges on my mind because it is the 2-year anniversary that my husband proposed to me there. It happened along a picturesque canal and we celebrated afterwards as any Belgian would do with many strong beers. Let’s just say it was an early night. Bruges is located a little over an hour northwest of Brussels, the capital of Belgium, and only about 2 hours on the train from London or Paris (3 from Amsterdam) which makes it an easy weekend destination if you’re visiting one of those cities. It is pretty small so you don’t need more than a couple of days there to get a real feel for the culture. The local language is actually a dialect of Dutch (Flemish) but most people know English. French is not really spoken here despite it being the language in Brussels and other parts of Belgium.

In addition to wandering the quaint, cobblestoned streets and getting lost along its many picturesque canals, here’s a list of 5 things you should do in Bruges, most involving food and/or beer. Don't say I didn't warn you.

  1. Have an authentic Belgian beer at Staminee de Garre. Tucked away down a small alley off the main square, this tavern is quite hidden and tough to find but well worth searching for. The atmosphere is cozy yet lively and is filled with a good mix of locals and visitors alike. Most notably, this watering hole serves up its own Belgian tripel on draught and is the only place on the planet that you can have it. It is delicious but packs a punch at 11% abv, so expect to be cut off after 3. You can thank the bartender later for that. (Staminee de Garre, de Garre 1)
  2. Check out the scenic main square, Markt. Despite being very touristy, this square is still a must see with its Dutch step-gabled buildings, horse-drawn carriages and dramatic medieval facades. If you've seen the Colin Farrell movie In Bruges, this is where the famed belfry resides. As with any main square, there is no shortage of cafes, restaurants and shops. Bruges tends to clear out in the evenings so come back here at night when the buildings are beautifully floodlit for a quieter, more romantic experience.
  3. Indulge in a true Belgian waffle. When many people think of Belgium, the first thought that comes to mind is waffles and rightfully so. You can almost always smell the sweetness in the air with street vendors selling the doughy delight on practically every corner you turn. What we know as a Belgian waffle in the States doesn't really exist here although some places try to appease the tourists by offering the decadent toppings. You can expect the real thing, also known as a Liège waffle, to be about a quarter the size, slightly crisp and sticky on the outside, warm and gooey on the inside and best eaten plain or simply topped with powdered sugar. No maple syrup. No whipped cream, ice cream or fruit. Make sure you stop at Chez Albert to get one (or two, or three...) and don't be surprised if you find yourself searching for a Liège waffle maker when you return home. Note: I later learned that other types of waffles can be found in Belgium, like the Brussels waffle, which is closer to what we Americans know. But I did not come across this type at all on my trip, just the lovely Liège variety. (Chez Albert, Breidelstraat 16)
  4. Order Mosselen-friet (or Moules Frites) for dinner. Considered the national dish of Belgium, this meal consisting of mussels and fries is easy to find in these parts. The mussels are plucked locally from the Flemish coast and come served in the pot in which they were steamed. There are a variety of broths they can be prepared in—from basic and buttery to garlicky to one of white wine—but no matter what you choose you cannot go wrong especially when paired with fries made the Belgian way—double-fried in duck fat. Sounds intimidating but tastes amazing. And don’t worry, you can always get a side salad to help balance out your meal. A great place to enjoy mosselen-friet is at Brasserie Chagall, a small candlelit restaurant with a cozy fireplace that makes you feel like you're having dinner at a friend's home. Reservations recommended. (Brasserie Chagall, Sint-Amandsstraat 40)
  5. Take a load off at Café Rose Red. Adorned with red roses hanging from the ceiling, this bar is one of the best to sample a wide variety of Belgian brews. Yes, I'm encouraging you to have more beer because I mean why not? When in Rome... Anyway the atmosphere is casual, rustic and cozy making it easy to spend hours in. It's a perfect place to escape from the cold or wet weather and they have a great patio for when it's nice. The charcuterie plates are on point and are the perfect snack to balance out all the beers you will have. If the long beer list has you mixing up your saisons with your sours, the bartenders know their stuff so don't be afraid to ask them what you should order. (Café Rose Red, Cordoeaniersstraat 16)

Proposal or not, Bruges is a memorable place. I had no idea what to expect as far as Belgian culture goes and I was pleasantly surprised. Delicious food, friendly people, and pretty surroundings. Belgium easily went from being a place lower on my list of travel priorities to one that I cannot wait to visit again. In the meantime, I've picked out a liège waffle iron at Sur La Table. Wish me luck...

step-gabled houses
step-gabled houses
alley in bruges

alley in bruges

belgian beer
belgian beer
Some new bling makes for a great souvenir ;-D

Some new bling makes for a great souvenir ;-D