On Friday morning I woke up at 4:00am to take my first trip out of Spain since I arrived a month and a half ago. Madrid’s metro rail doesn’t run at that hour, but luckily there’s a 24 hour shuttle service to the airport that only costs €5. It leaves from the night bus hub at the Plaza de Cibeles, which is much cheaper than the flat fee of about €35 for a taxi ride to the airport and pretty convenient despite it requiring a 30 minute walk in the rain. Although I was initially hesitant to go to Amsterdam because I had already visited the city with my family before, it turned out to be completely worth it. Our weekend trip was awesome, and I got to see and experience many things that I missed out on the first time.
This blog post is a little long, but it covers three whole days and we definitely did a lot during those three days. Plus, I know it’s been a while since I’ve blogged, so I want to make sure you get your fill with this one. 🙂
The good thing about a taking an early flight is that we landed at Schiphol at around 10:00 in the morning with almost a full day ahead of us. The airport has a very convenient train service that brings you right to Amsterdam Centraal Station in about 20 minutes for €4. Even better, our hostel, the St. Christopher’s Inn, turned out to be only a 10 minute walk from the station. It took us a little to get our bearings and find it, but the hostel was in a great location right next to the night life center and the red light district, De Wallen, and 5 minutes from Dam Square. I know it sounds a little scary to be staying right next to there, but with all the tourists and the police presence, the red light district is actually one of the safest parts of the city!
One of the people I was traveling with, Haley, picked the hostel and we definitely have to give props to her for a great choice. Though it was a little pricey at €70 per person for two nights, the 8 of us traveling together had our own private room, giving us our own bathroom and shower and also the comfort and safety that comes from knowing everyone sleeping in your room with you. The hostel’s location was also great, and it was attached to a night club, bar, and restaurant that we had good discounts on, such as 25% off the food and free breakfast service. Staying in the middle of the night life area also saved us money on transportation back home at the end of the night. 😉
After dropping our stuff off at the hotel, we went to grab lunch, explored a little bit around our neighborhood, and then made our way to the Museumplein, home to Amsterdam’s major museums, the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk, as well as the famous I amsterdam sign. Unfortunately we didn’t make it into the Rijksmuseum, their State Museum, but we did pay the €15 to go into the Van Gogh Museum dedicated, of course, to Vincent Van Gogh, but also to other impressionist and post-impressionist artists from the same time period. The entrance fee was a little pricey, especially considering we could not take pictures inside the museum, but it was worth it to see some famous works by Van Gogh that we recognized from school and learn more about him as an artist. I definitely like his style and art more now. Van Gogh painted with many colors, sometimes deliberately selected to clash, and you can really see the details and texture of each brushstroke when you see the pieces in person. I’m definitely gaining a deeper appreciation for art from all of the museum visits we’ve been doing during study abroad.
The best part of our visit to the Museumplein, however, was what we did after we left the Van Gogh Museum: bought fresh stroopwafels! Though they are originally from Gouda in the western part of the Netherlands–yes, that’s the same place famous for its cheese–they have since become a popular snack throughout the country. A stroopwafel is basically a waffle split into two halves when its still hot so that warm caramel or syrup (stroop) can be put in the middle. My family and I searched and searched for fresh ones last time we were here but were unable to find them, so this was on my list of must-do’s while in Amsterdam this time. I have to say that I, and the others in my group that I convinced to try it, was definitely not disappointed.
After we finished up our stroopwafels, we started to make our way back to our hostel. We hadn’t officially gotten into our rooms yet because we arrived before check-in, so we had to do that and enjoy some rest before the rest of the day. We also had to be there to greet two more people coming later that evening who had later flights, Christy from our Madrid program and Olivia from Copenhagen. Most of our phones didn’t work consistently (or cheaply) in the Netherlands, so it was a bit of an adventure trying to navigate around and we had to make sure we were there when our friends got in. Of course, we were also pretty tired after getting up so early in the morning, so the idea of rest sounded great to all of us.
On our way back we stopped in one of Amsterdam’s many famous markets, the Bloemenmarkt, which is the world’s only floating flower market. There were some cool souvenirs there and lots of flowers to look at, plus stopping at a flower market is a pretty important part of experiencing Amsterdam because of the importance of tulips, bulbs, and other cut plants to Dutch culture and agricultural exports.
Of course, we also had to make one more stop before going back to the hostel: one of Amsterdam’s famous coffeeshops. Amsterdam is known for its liberal drug policy where small amounts of marijuana can be sold in licensed coffeeshops. In actuality, the legality of these shops is a big grey area where the sale and use is more “tolerated” (gedoogbeleid) than actually “legal”. The coffeeshops are major tourist attractions worth a visit whether you plan to consume cannabis or, like me, choose not to. They have menus describing different strains of marijuana and their effects for you to choose from and, ironically, have signs up noting that while cannabis smoking is perfectly okay inside the shops, no tobacco smoking or spliffs are tolerated due to the Netherlands’ ban on smoking indoors except in specified areas. The situation is very different in Amsterdam compared with the United States!
After we got back at the hostel and met up with the rest of our friends, we hung out around our hostel, got some french fries and mayonnaise, ate pizza in our hotel, and then went out for a little bit. A few of us came back pretty early, and no one really stayed out that late, because we had such a long day and wanted to get up early tomorrow to try to make it to Anne Frank’s House. The line typically gets very long, and breakfast is only available in our hostel until 10:00, so we decided to get up at 8:00am the next day to give it a try.
Anne Frank’s House, the museum dedicated to Anne Frank and the others who hid in the Secret Annex, is one of Amsterdam’s most famous and most popular tourist attractions. The museum surrounds the actual house that Anne Frank hid inside from the Nazis, so it always has a huge a line of tourists waiting to enter. This was the other thing on my Amsterdam must-do list because the wait was too long for us to go last time. I’m glad we planned to get there early, because the wait was doable and we were able to pay the €9 to enter. They did not allow pictures here either, but I played dumb at first and was able to get a few pictures. All in all, the museum was very cool and I can see why there is always a huge line. Seeing the actual secret back house that we have always learned about was very cool. At the same time, it was a sobering experience that depresses you like whenever you visit anything related to the Holocaust, such as the concentration camps all over Europe or the Homomonument we saw on our way to Anne Frank’s House. The amount of trouble these people had to go through, just because they were different, is so astounding — even more depressing was that the exhibits mentioned a few times how excited she was to get out eventually, how she kept rewriting and revising her diary so she could publish it one day, and that she only died a month before the camp she was in was liberated.
After visiting Anne Frank’s House, the nine of us actually ended up splitting up into two groups. A few of us wanted to go on a canal tour, but not everyone did. As it’s the “Venice of the North”, checking out Amsterdam’s canals is an important part of any visit there. We figured it would be perfect to go on a hop on hop off canal bus so we could not only see the canals and the city from a different angle, but also use it as transportation to get to our next stop and learn some more about Amsterdam with a guided tour along the way. Because our phones did not work and we did not know how long the tour would take, we figured it would be better to just split up for the whole day and meet up with the other group later that night at the hostel.
Though it sucked that we had to split up, I’m very glad we decided to do the canal tour. We boarded at the stop for Dam Square and the Anne Frank House and took the red line around to the Heineken Experience about two-thirds of the way through the loop. (The map on their website shows our route and how prevalent Amsterdam’s canals really are.) During our hour canal ride, we saw many houseboats and picturesque buildings and passed by some big sights like Amsterdam Centraal, the more open passenger terminal in the IJ, the Nemo Science Center, the Hermitage of Saint Petersburg’s Amsterdam branch museum, the Hortus botanical garden, the skinny bridge, and the Stopera building which strangely houses both the city hall and the opera. It was a relaxing trip, but we passed by a lot of important buildings that we would not have seen otherwise and gained a new perspective on the city from the canals.
We got off the canal boat and ended up in the middle of the Albert Cuyp Market, a huge open air market with tons of food carts, clothes, carpets, and more. It turns out that this market is actually the busiest one in the Netherlands and maybe even the largest in Europe. Though it’s a big tourist attraction, it’s definitely also frequented by locals considering how much Dutch was spoken there. All markets are cool to walk around, but this one was especially so. We hadn’t eaten lunch yet, so naturally we decided to just pig out on the free samples and cart food, which turned out to be delicious and pretty cheap. While walking around we had waffles, spring rolls, and bread and feta, but we saw lots more that we didn’t get like the ubiquitous french fry stands, more stroopwafels, and even poffertjes, which are very similar to the Danish æbleskivers that my mom makes.
After gorging ourselves at the market, we made our way to the Heineken Experience, the former Heineken brewery that has since been turned into a tourist attraction and tour. Because the day we went, February 15, was actually Heineken’s 150th birthday, we received an awesome surprise: entrance was free for everyone! Not only did we get free entrance to the building, but we also got the two free Heineken beers and a free gift that normally comes with the €18 ticket. Even more ironic was the fact that it was my friend Sarah’s 21st birthday that day as well, so Heineken pretty much gave her the best birthday gift she could have asked for.
The Heineken Experience really is an experience. There are some exhibits that you walk around and read, but you also get to see the machines they use to make the beer, learn about the four different components (barley, hops, yeast, and water), go on a ride where “you are the beer”, and wander through some interactive exhibits practicing beer pouring, singing-along to a Dutch song, and taking pictures on bikes in front of a green screen. They also have free WiFi all over so you can post about your time on social media, which is a very smart business move. We were already having tons of fun, but then something even more amazing happened: we got invited to a private 150th anniversary party for Heineken employees! Someone was walking around the public areas and picking around 20 “party people” to invite to Heineken International’s VIP party celebrating their anniversary and we somehow got invited too.
At the event we got free dinner, unlimited Heineken at an open bar, received some special gifts, and got to attend the party. It was definitely a very cool experience, and all for free, though it was weird that we were just dressed in regular clothes while everyone else was dressed up, that we were some of the youngest people there who weren’t children, and that we did not speak Dutch at all. Our job was basically to make the event seem more fun for the people there, so we naturally started the dance floor and made all the older people dance. 😉 We made some new friends, listened to a Dutch folk singer we did not understand, danced tons of congo lines, did the limbo with the old Heineken mascot’s cane, pulled old people onto the dance floors and had a great time. It was definitely strange to feel like an outsider by not speaking the local language at all and not knowing any of the people at their work party, but it shows that you can make friends that you’ll probably never see again and that some things, like dancing and beer, are definitely international.
We ended up taking a cab home because some of the people I was with really enjoyed themselves and we didn’t want to attempt walking, but it was a good night. When we got home, the three girls with me went to sleep and I met up with the other group to explore the red light district in our neighborhood a little more. This post is already crazy long, so I won’t bore you with any explanations about them, but I did find a really fascinating an interesting FAQ about Amsterdam’s red light district online. Legalized prostitution is very interesting to me, especially the fact that many of these women choose that profession and that the “rent” they pay changes depending on the location and time of day. The FAQ has some information about it, including information about the “blue lights” that we saw in some of the windows.
We spent the next day shopping for the most part before we made our way back home. It was a long and eventful weekend, but was definitely very fun and worth the trip. We were really lucky to have gone with a great group of people with similar laid-back temperaments that liked to have fun, but realized that it was important to get up early and actually experience the culture and the city. We liked being together, but also knew when to split up and do our own things or go to bed early. With the free breakfast at the hostel, the cheap food for lunch on Saturday, and the free dinner at Heineken, we also successfully tackled Amsterdam on a budget. 🙂 We didn’t do everything there is do in Amsterdam, like try Dutch or Indonesian food, tour the city on a bike, hang out in the Vondelpark, or visit the Rijksmuseum, but you can’t do everything and it’s always important to leave something for the next trip!