The first time we came to Amsterdam was in 2004. We’d known each other about a year. The first of many travel adventures to come, we were visiting Carol’s brother and his family in Brussels, where he was serving at the American Embassy to NATO. It was an important trip. The true test of any relationship is how well you can travel together. Happily for us, we hit our stride quickly. The key was, and has continued to be, careful advanced research, followed by doing whatever the heck we feel like once we get there.
As part of that trip, we took several short excursions to surrounding countries, including a train trip to Amsterdam just for a quick day and a half. In that time we managed to visit the Anne Frank House, Rembrandt’s house, as well as take a canal tour. We loved the city with its walkable streets along the many canals and beautiful houses, and have long been saying we wanted to come back.
As we explored options for getting to the festival in Sankt Goar, Germany, we decided to skip the obvious route of flying through Frankfurt and instead to take advantage of the opportunity to go back to Amsterdam and spend a few more days. From there, it’s an easy train ride to Cologne and on to Sankt Goar.
United 946 brought us in right on time on Saturday morning, a little after 7am. The airport was easy to navigate and we caught the train into Amsterdam Centraal, getting into the city not much past 9. The weather was as perfect as we could have hoped for with sunny skies and a cool breeze. As we made out way towards our Airbnb, the city felt joyful and alive. People having coffee at sidewalk cafes, little markets opening up for the day.
The three things that are most immediately noticeable in Amsterdam are the canals, the bicycles and the unmistakable sweet smoky smell of marijuana. Contrary to popular believe, cannabis is not technically legal in Amsterdam. But possession under 5 grams was decriminalized in the 1970s and the city obviously tolerates its use. We passed multiple “coffeeshops” where you can purchase and consume cannabis, as well as people openly smoking on the street. It’s a very grey legal area, as the city enjoys the tax benefits of the industry while not quite condoning it.
As for the bicycles….. they are everywhere. With narrow cobbled streets, Amsterdam is not suited for vehicular traffic (although there are some cars). Most people use bikes. Pedestrians need to be vigilant as bikes rule the streets and even the sidewalks. Bike racks take on a whole new meaning here. At the train station there are easily thousands of bikes locked up outside. No evidence of a car park anywhere.
And then, there are the canals. Amsterdam, it is said, has over 100 kilometers of canals. In the 17th century, as Holland was entering the Dutch Golden Age, and the city of Amsterdam began to grow, the town elders decided to reclaim the swampy land around the city and construct a series of canals. Organized in concentric circles crossing the Amstel river, and with smaller canals connecting them, they are the heart and soul of central Amsterdam. Three and four-storey canal houses, dating to the 17th and 18th century, stand crookedly alongside the canals and are still primarily residential. The canals themselves are host to houseboats, tour boats, and all manner of private craft used for getting around the city.
Our lodging for our stay, booked through Airbnb, was a spacious room in the bottom floor of one of the canal houses, along the Keisergracht (“Emperor’s Canal). Beautiful and airy, we couldn’t have asked for anything better.
Our home away from home.
We spent most of the first two days just walking the city. Having done many of the museums and “must dos” on our first trip here, we focused more on just wandering and getting to know the city. We explored the canals, visited the botanical garden, and enjoyed some amazing meals, including a six course tasting menu at MOS, a Michelin starred restaurant overlooking the IJ, the main waterway that links Amsterdam to the sea. (We always try to plan one big expensive meal when we’re in a new place.) The food and view were fabulous. Amsterdam is a great place for international food, with excellent Thai, Nepalese, Argentinian, Indian and Indonesian food for starters. We squeezed in as much as we could, hoping that our miles of walking might counteract a few of the excess calories we were ingesting! And of course, good wine and beer are to be had as well. Being summertime in northern Europe, the sun doesn’t set until after 10, and many of the wine bars stay open until midnight, so it’s easy to stay up late lingering over a nice glass of Spanish Tempranillo or a good French Sauvignon Blanc.
Scenes from Amsterdam
Wining and Dining
Monday, our third day in the Netherlands, we decided to leave Amsterdam for a short excursion to Haarlem. An easy 15 minute train ride (we so wish the US could do trains the way Europe does trains), Haarlem dates back to the 13th Century and was once a major sea port. (The borough in New York was named for it, back when New York was first settled by the Dutch and was still New Amsterdam.) It still retains much of its medieval character and architecture, having been overtaken economically by Amsterdam after the 15th Century. It was devastated during the Second World War with most of the Jewish population deported, and the rest of the population suffering from starvation. There is a statue in town commemorating the execution by firing squad of 15 victims chosen randomly during the German occupation.
The city today is a bedroom community and tourist destination. Many people who live in Haarlem commute into Amsterdam for work. We visited the magnificent Grote Kerk, or Church of St. Bavo, which dates to the 13th Century, and then wandered around the Grote Markt, or main plaza before settling down for a glass of wine. The plaza was full of market stalls and people walking through… some tourists like us… others just locals going about their business.
Tomorrow we catch the train to Cologne, Germany. Coming back to Amsterdam we like it as much as we remembered and could easily see coming again. It’s an easy city to be in and it’s easy to see why so many are attracted to it. The history of the Netherlands has long been characterized by religious tolerance and it’s easy to see how that translates today into an easier of acceptance of diversity than you’ll find in much of the world today. Call it “anything goes” if you like (and certainly after only three days, we’ve only scratched the very outside of the surface), but there is a relaxed atmosphere here that seems to say that it’s okay to be whoever you are, dress however you like. No one makes an issue of it one way or another. Would love to see more of that.