I spent the long Easter weekend in Amsterdam, a city that I’d heard a lot about (good, bad, and crazy), but not yet managed to visit. My friend Julie was an au pair in Amsterdam last year, so she gave me a list of places to check out/things to do (which was so helpful!) but I didn’t have a ton of specific plans. Turns out, you don’t really need any. Amsterdam is an attraction in itself.
I arrived early in the morning (I flew from Vienna), and immediately went from the airport to Centraal Station. The fact that the airport close to the city and cheap to access is a really huge convenience. I hate spending the extra money to fly somewhere (I’m definitely a bus/train kind of person, when time permits), just to realize that you still have to pay a ton for an airport shuttle. For less than four euros, and minutes after getting off my flight, I was speeding towards the city center.
Of course, it was raining. Amsterdam only gets something like 25 days a year with no precipitation. All in all, it’s a watery place–laced with canals and built on land reclaimed from the sea. But I zipped up my rain jacket and headed immediately to Dam Square, where I started on a three hour free walking tour of Amsterdam.
Now, I have taken quite a few of these tours (they’re ostensibly free, but the guide makes their living from tips). They can vary wildly in quality, but this one was by far the best I’ve ever taken.
The tour guide was excellent at her job, keeping a group of thirty people together and unharmed by bicycles or mopeds (which they can drive in the bicycle lanes with no helmets) for three hours in the middle of one of the busiest tourist times of the year. But beyond that, she was entertaining, funny, and extremely knowledgeable about Dutch history. She even talked a little about the implications of colonialism, and the Indonesian struggle for independence. This was not your typical free tour, and I adored it.
We visited the Begijnhof, a community for women and a quiet oasis in the middle of the city, as well as the headquarters of the East India Trading Company, the narrowest house in Amsterdam, and lots of other sights that were made significant to me by our guide’s excellent commentary (including a detour through the red light district, which I found startling, not really because of the naked women, but more because you’re walking along and all of a sudden there’s a face in a dark window six inches away. I’m a very jumpy person.).
Basically, this tour is a must-do. I did it in three hours of intermittent pouring rain, and I still think it was a perfect choice.
I spent the rest of the day wandering around the city, enjoying the beautiful canals, the architecture, the cute little shops (there’s an area called the “nine streets” with more amazing vintage clothing than I could handle). I briefly visited the flea market at Waterlooplein, but it was unfortunately closing for the day, so I didn’t get to sift through all the promising piles of clothing. Guess I’ll have to come back! (But really, I didn’t get to the Albert Cuyp market or the Anne Frank House, so Amsterdam is staying on my future travel list).
One place that I really enjoyed was the Singel Flower Market. Even though the market itself was pretty lame (I wasn’t in the market for bulbs, and the “floating” market is too permanent/too touristy to be picturesque), I was thrilled by all the cheese shops along the way–and all of their free samples. I tried every imaginable type of aged Gouda, from spicy chili to pest, to asparagus and bacon flavored. I ate my way around at least five shops (but I bought my cheese for dinner at a grocery store on the way home for a third of the price!).
After this rainy day of exploration, I was ready to check out my hostel. I chose Hostelle because it was the cheapest option, and because I had a great experience with an all-female hostel in Rome, so I was excited to try Amsterdam’s version. It was lovely. I stayed there for three nights, and I felt like I made a little home in my cute 6-bed dorm room. There was a clean, nice kitchen to use, free wifi, a big common space, and a free clothing exchange. Plus, the owner is an entrepreneurial woman, so, bonus.
Hostelle is not centrally located, but it is extremely close to Amsterdam’s big arena, which has its own train station with trains direct to the airport. This was perfect for my big Saturday adventure to Keukenhof, a massive garden complex outside the city. The gardens are only open for eight weeks of the year–tulip season.
Keukenhof was absolutely the highlight of my trip. I knew flowers were beautiful–I mean, everyone knows that. But I’ve never been so overwhelmed by flowers, by their colors, their smells, the brightness they bring…oh my goodness. I can’t describe it without sounding like Wordsworth. Just know that tulip season is not (and could not be) overrated. Well, maybe when tulips cost 6 million guilders each, back in the day (you know, when the entire island of Manhattan was purchased by the Dutch for around 50).
I was living out my Holland dreams that I didn’t even know I had. There was even a windmill, y’all.
And yes, the weather was perfect all day. I met a cool woman named Monika at the airport in line to buy my ticket (it was a long line, so we had a chance to chat) and we experienced the gardens together. I love traveling solo, in part because it opens you up to the world so much more. You start to realize that there are people everywhere, and you can break down the artificial walls we build–like pretending that we don’t see the people in line with us.
Anyway, one more Keukenhof picture. I took about 200, so I’m definitely trying to be discerning.
I really intended to go back into Amsterdam after my garden adventure, but I was super tired from all the walking, and my hostel was just so welcoming. Anyway, I went back to the hostel for a relaxing evening of wine & cheese, chatting with the girls in my dorm, and reading Game of Thrones. I’m not knocking it.
The next day, Easter Sunday, I headed straight for the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam’s biggest and best (I mean, according to me) art museum. Housing many Dutch masters like, you know, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Van Gogh, it was a must-see for me. I got there right at opening time, beating a lot of the crowds, and then I spent the morning soaking in all the art.
When I left the museum, I was starving. I had specific orders from my friend Julie to visit Albert Heijn, a grocery store chain in the Netherlands, and to have a picnic in Vondel Park (near Museumplein). It was a perfect idea, and a great way to enjoy a sunny Easter afternoon. I also found all the Dutch people! (Before this, I was pretty sure that Amsterdam was inhabited only by tourists.) They were lying on blankets, using disposable bar-be-ques, and, of course, riding their bicycles, in the park.
After a couple of hours there, I relocated to another park, because you can’t have too much of a good thing. Rembrandtplein is right in the middle of the city, so there was some great people watching, and also this fun “Night Watch” statue.
I sat for a long time in one of the cafes lining the square, drinking a beer and enjoying a Dutch cheese plate. (Have I made it clear that I would visit Amsterdam just for the cheese? Because I would). I spent the evening having one last walk around the canal belt, before heading back to my hostel.
I’m sure there are more exciting (and certainly more illicit) tales of Amsterdam, but my little weekend of history, art, parks, cheese, and tulips was a lovely way to experience a place that has something for everyone. A unique city where, as my tour guide pointed out, people have been flocking for hundreds of years.