Thursday, June 11th
The morning was spent hunting down the perfect Belgian waffle for breakfast and making our way to the train station at the south end of the city. Another early afternoon train meant we didn’t arrive in Amsterdam until fairly late in the afternoon. Decided to purchase an “I amsterdam” card because it included a lot of attractions around the city and public transport. The latter point was especially important because our hostel was two and a half miles from the central train station. It was very hard to find a decent hostel in Amsterdam but the place we stayed at in Brussels was a chain and had a couple of open rooms listed on their website. The side of Amsterdam where the hostel was located felt suburban compared to everywhere else we stayed. A few large office towers were around the area along with the first large parking lot I had seen in Europe. We were also located just a couple hundred feet from another one of Amsterdam’s train stations, but it wasn’t one that offered any international service. The hostel was also much larger than the one in Brussels. Someone said there were 800 people staying there, which would make sense because they had a plaque up for an award as one of the best “extra-large” hostels in the world.
Most of the attractions in Amsterdam closed at 5pm, so there as not much to do the first night besides walking around town and finding a place for dinner. At first, we wandered around Vondelpark. We would later see a sign somewhere saying it gets 10 million visitors a year. About 9 million of those must be under 25 and at least 15,000 of them were in the park that afternoon. Nearly every grassy area of the park was packed with young people and their bikes, usually sitting in small groups.
It also became pretty easy to find central station since all of the roads lead towards it, and all of the canals make concentric circles, so as long as you keep on passing over canals along a road, you can be sure that you are on the correct road.
Amsterdam felt as small as Brussels, but was also far more dense. In the rings around canals, almost all of the buildings were 3 stories tall. Amsterdam and a good portion of the Netherlands is on ground that is not quite solid. They have to drive wood piles down to a firmer layer of earth and build on top of those, which I guess limited building height for a long time. Many older buildings are leaning in any direction due to the settling of their piles. Forwards, backwards, left, right. It felt like an optical illusion at first because some buildings do it so dramatically but there is absolutely no space between the buildings. I noticed reinforcement rods inserted into some buildings much like the ones you can see all around Philadelphia. They have figured out the foundation issues because a lot of the newer developments around the edge of town or directly on the coast in the center of town are very tall like modern skyscrapers.
Traffic was probably the worst in Paris, but it is definitely the craziest in Amsterdam. First, they claim to have more bikes than people. That means lots of bikes, almost every road has a dedicated bike lane, bikes get their own traffic signals, and of course tourists rent bikes so they also add to bike traffic. The bike lanes also include motorized bikes so sometimes you have to watch out for really fast moving bikes. The city even has a four level bike garage near central station because there aren’t enough places to put bikes on the ground.
Of course, there are plenty of cars in Amsterdam. Thanks to the bikes, car traffic is only the occasional gridlock. There are probably about the same number of busses as London (which was a lot). There is also an extensive tram network. Then there are pedestrians. Everywhere. Certain parts of the city were (technically) closed to cars and bikes in the afternoon and evenings because there was not enough room for everyone. We found out that if a car taps on one of the pop up barriers, it will go down to let the car through, at least to get out of an area.
Water traffic was also an issue with boats of all sizes and people of all levels of boating expertise operating them. A fair number seemed to be party boats, which probably did not help things on the water. The canal bridges (or at least a majority of the 1200 around the city) light up at night which looks awesome.
Friday, June 12th
Taking advantage of the iamsterdam pass, we headed for the Van Gogh Museum early in the morning. I don’t think I’ve been to a museum dedicated to just one artist before this one. I would say about 90% of the artwork was Van Gogh’s with the remainder coming from his friends. There was also a few inserted here and there from something the museum was trying to do where they had digital artists respond to letters Van Gogh had written. It did not really make too much sense. Having the whole museum dedicated to one artist meant that it was possible to see how his work developed over time. I think it was also at this museum where I realized how silly it was that people were taking pictures of the paintings. Besides the fact that almost all of those pictures had to be turning out poorly in a rather dimly lit, crowded gallery, couldn’t they just go home and find a nice picture of the painting online or at least in a book?
After the museum, we headed up to central station to meet up with one of Brock’s friends, Ruth, who was an exchange student at LSN when we were in high school. We set out to find a Dutch lunch and made it entire block from the station before stopping in a Dutch fast food joint called FEBO. It seemed like a hybrid between vending machine and fast food counter. There was the counter where you could order things like fries and milk shakes and then there were these mailbox like things that you put coins into so you could get the food out of them. I got something resembling a fried loaf of cheese from one of the mailboxes. It tasted pretty good. Like a mozzarella stick, but in a loaf.
That wasn’t an entire lunch, of course. We eventually found a place that served real Dutch food: Dutch pancakes. Kind of like a flat crepe but thicker and topped with whatever you want. I had Nutella and bananas on my pancake and it was delicious. I guess I didn’t quite master the art of rolling the pancake up because I noticed the waitress laughing at my eating technique part way through the meal. Also, I guess I should mention I only got one pancake because the thing was absolutely massive! One pancake easily took up the entire dinner plate.
We then went to Media Markt, the European version of a Best Buy looking for Dutch music for Brock to buy, since he’s trying to get a CD from every country. It was a pretty big store in one of the new coastal towers. I bought a couple of flash drives because they seemed really cheap (and were a decent brand) to back up pictures on and possibly send a flash drive home when we planned on sending other stuff home.
Then came the zoo, mostly because we were getting tired of museums and it was a decent day to be outside. We thought about going to the Anne Frank house but decided against it after seeing the line outside and the fact it looked like they had tried to make the house look a lot more modern.
It was a pretty typical zoo. Some parts had cages like I remember the KC zoo used to have, where animals had boxes with bars. There was a little island with monkeys on it where you could let them get kind of close to you with the watch of the zookeepers. That was fun. There were also a couple of unusual animals. First, something most Americans probably haven’t seen: a raccoon. Yeah. They also had something that I hadn’t seen in a zoo: African hunting dogs. They looked a lot like German Shepherds, but they had very short hair and lighter fur.
Dinner was at some strange restaurant with some strange decor. We went with Ruth back to the train station and decided it was a good time to take advantage of the boat tour included in our i amsterdam cards. I think we had the 8:00 cruise so the sun was just starting to set a bit. We had already seen a lot of the streets around the center of Amsterdam, but it was nice to get some background on certain places and see the city from a different perspective. There were a couple of points where we had to wait on amateur boat tourists to turn around or move out of the way before we could move our much larger boat down the canal. At one point we did scrape the boat on the side of a bridge because it was so narrow. One thing that I hadn’t noticed but was pretty common and pointed out on the boat tour was the hoists at the top of many houses. It made a lot of sense because a lot of the buildings are 3 or 4 stories and would have far too narrow staircases (many probably just have spiral staircases) to move things normally.
We returned to the hostel that night to find out that our room set up for two people the night before could actually hold three people. We had a couch the day before, which with the removal of the end pillows and addition of sheets becomes a single size bed. I forget the guy’s name, but he was traveling around Europe for a while this summer before starting medical school somewhere in Michigan.
Saturday, June 13th
It had been a few days since we had been to an oversized museum so we decided to tackle the Rijksmuseum, the national museum for Holland. It definitely gave a good overview of Dutch history and even had a few stray Van Goghs that weren’t at his museum.
The Rijks took up most of the morning so I was getting pretty hungry. After walking down a main street for a long time, we decided to turn around, but to go over a couple of blocks before doing so. There, we quickly found lunch at a burger place serving beef from happy Dutch meadow cows, according to the menu.
Then we headed towards Heineken to be tourists and tour the brewery. The line was really long, but we were close enough to get the free WiFi. Our i amsterdam cards would have saved us a couple of bucks on the tickets, but I caught on that the smart lady in front of us was using the WiFi to buy online tickets for the tour. A couple of minutes later, I had done the same thing and we probably saved about 30 minutes of standing in line. The tour was terrible by brewery tour standards. It was a bunch of gimmicky displays and the only really interesting part was the old brewery room. As in the old room where they no longer brew anything. It wasn’t a complete ripoff as we did get two and a half very fresh Heinekens as part of the tour along with a souvenir glass about half the size of a normal glass. I would still recommend that it should be skipped and it would be much better to tour pretty much any American brewery. The tours of Coors, Miller, and even Boulevard were great compared to this tour.
The underwhelming Heineken tour left some time in the day before dinner. There was a modern art museum included in the i amsterdam card, so we figured why not visit it. It had some name that I don’t remember, except I know that it was very hard to spell. The museum was only about a ten minute walk from the brewery near the area where the Rijks and Van Gogh museums were also located. While the Tate Modern in London had its fair share of strange things, this museum seemed stranger overall. It was definitely dedicated to modern art. I guess one redeemable thing about the museum is that it had a really oversized map of Amsterdam in one room as an art piece that made a good spot for posing for a picture.
The hunt for dinner eventually wound up at a pizza place. That may seem boring, but this was what I believe is called a Neapolitan pizza place. They have really hot ovens that can cook pizzas really quick. Since the weather was a bit cold, it was nice to have the oven out in the open part of the restaurant. It was also a bit different to see your food being prepared right next to your table, since we did wind up at the table next to the prep and oven area. The place was called Sotto, which I am only mentioning in case I want to look up their website sometime.
I headed back to the hostel to get some rest before the next day’s long journey to Copenhagen. This turned out to be a great idea because I woke up to someone speaking Dutch at 5:00 am. The Dutch announcement was soon followed by an English announcement telling you to leave the building and a loud alarm. There was no fire, but it managed to get everyone awake and out of the building for about 15 minutes.