Oh, Amsterdam. You’re like that friend in college that was always asking me to hang out, but I was always busy for one reason or another. I had a feeling we’d get along; it was just that glitzier cities like Rome and Hong Kong were calling my name more loudly. When I finally came to visit you, however, I couldn’t believe we hadn’t been together sooner.
I fell in love with you, Amsterdam. Hard. Yes, you helped me to understand my Dutch heritage a bit better, but you also surprised me in the most unexpected ways. Your picture-perfect canals. Your relaxed, blue jeans attitude. Even your damn maddening bike lanes won me over in the end.
Though I was uncertain at first, after three days together, I can officially say I’m enamored. This is the true saga of how I fell in love with the capital of the Netherlands in 72 hours, and how you will, too.
Passing Amsterdam Bicycle Etiquette 101
Within seconds of exiting our taxi in front of our hotel in Amsterdam, we were nearly mowed down by cyclists. Or, rather, I was nearly hit by speeding bikes; as a trapeze enthusiast, Ashley — my fellow travel blogger companion — gracefully jumped out of the way with the dexterity of a ninja. Girl has reflexes fast as lightning.
Granted, I was suffering from jet lag, but that’s really no excuse. I had been warned that bikes rule the road here; my mother texted me multiple times saying, “Beware of those bike lanes!” (However, I may have only half paid attention. She also told me to beware of gum as a kid because if I swallowed it, I’d grow a gum tree in my stomach. Gullible me didn’t realize this was a joke at age seven.)
In Amsterdam, you learn the rules of the road fast. It’s do-or-freakin’-die here. Once you’re on alert, it’ll become easier to look multiple times before crossing — especially during rush hour and in busier areas. By the end of our trip, I had enough caffeine to successfully avoid collisions with these metal monsters… and even found them kind of endearing.
Anne Frank House
In retrospect, the decision to head immediately to the Anne Frank House after an eight hour flight was maaaaaybe not the best idea. I knew that it was going to be an emotional experience, so with the additional effects of lack of sleep, you can guess what state of mind I was in.
It’s impossible not to have a visceral reaction when you’re confronted with the cramped quarters eight people shared; when you have to stoop down to enter the Secret Annex behind the bookcase; when every stair you climb creaks loudly and you imagine how quiet Anne and her family had to be to avoid discovery. You could see the solemn looks on museum goers’ faces as they paused to read the informative plaques on the walls, or as their eyes lingered on the diary pages with thirteen-year-old Anne’s handwriting.
Like many American students, The Diary of Anne Frank was required reading for me in junior high. At a time when my greatest worry was studying for a geometry exam, Anne was writing about her time as a Jew in hiding during World War II with candor and grace. I’m haunted by the fact that Anne and the others were discovered and arrested on August 4 — the same date I married a Jewish man. Despite her life’s tragic ending, though, visiting the Anne Frank House renewed my commitment to the power of the written word — and to the hope that all who visit this important place will leave as more compassionate, tolerant citizens of the world.
Anne Frank House, Prinsengracht 263-267, 1016 GV Amsterdam, Netherlands
Visit their website for more information on hours and ticket prices.
Connect with the Anne Frank House on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Indulging in a Pint at a Brown Café
After the emotional intensity of the Anne Frank House, Ashley and I needed a cold pint, and quickly. We wandered into a spot close to the Anne Frank House called Café Kalkhoven and ordered some early evening beers.
Café Kalkhoven, it turned out, is what the Dutch call a brown café. Also called bruin cafés, a brown café is a traditional Dutch pub, so named because of their hardwood decor and nicotine-stained walls. This particular brown café has been going strong since 1670 — that’s nearly 350 years old!
Here, we had our first taste of beer from Brouwerij t’IJ, a microbrewery located next to a windmill. Their IPA (7% ABV) had a great hoppy flavor, complete with aromas of flowers and grapefruit. The gezellig (cozy) atmosphere, coupled with delicious beer, was the perfect space to reflect on our Amsterdam experience without hurry.
Café Kalkhoven, Prinsengracht 283, 1016 GW Amsterdam, Netherlands
Strolling around the Jordaan
One of the first inklings that we were falling in love with Amsterdam was the frequency with which we emphatically yelled, “Oh my God, this is so @#$!ing beautiful!” when stumbling upon another canal. This happened roughly every ten seconds, the amount of time it took to round a corner and gaze up from our cameras’ viewfinders.
Perhaps nowhere was this more apparent than while we were strolling through the Jordaan (sounds like “YOR-DAHN”). It’s hard to put into words the sheer joy and sense of freedom we felt while walking in this neighborhood, so I’m going to let this picture speak for itself.
Late Night Cocktails
After a mouthwatering meal of tapas at La Oliva, we headed over to Bar Oldenhof, which was recommended to us by the couple sitting next to us at dinner. It was a little tricky to find — in fact, we walked past the entrance the first time — but we were rewarded once we walked inside.
Bar Oldenhof has a great list of gin and tonics that really whet my appetite. A particular standout here featured Monkey 47 gin, Thomas Henry Elderflower tonic, vanilla, and lime; it was perfectly balanced in simplicity and complexity. (In my notes, I see that Ashley remarked that the cocktail “smells like I’m baking cookies.” No, we weren’t high — Ashley just really likes cookies.)
Bar Oldenhof exudes the typical sophisticated speakeasy vibe, and service is classy. In short, these craft cocktails are worth the effort you’ll make to find them.
Bar Oldenhof, Elandsgracht 84, 1016 TZ Amsterdam, Netherlands
Van Gogh Museum
You’ve heard the stories: Dutch painter goes mad, cuts off his ear, and eventually kills himself at age 37 in 1890.
Yet the Van Gogh Museum does an excellent job at balancing the story behind the man with his artwork. As it turned out, we visited the museum on March 30 — Vincent’s birthday — and thus focused on his vibrant creations pulsating with life instead of his tragic demise.
Museum goers were in a celebratory mood during our visit: two of the artist’s paintings, the Congregation Leaving the Reformed Church in Nuenen and View of the Sea at Scheveningen, were on display after having gone missing for 14 years.
You’ll find plenty of mopey self portraits here, interspersed with more well-known pieces like The Bedroom (1888). My personal favorite, Almond Blossom (1890), turned out to be a gift to celebrate the birth of his nephew. Also, fun fact: Vincent Van Gogh didn’t find his true calling as an artist until age 27, which should give all you Millenials out there some relief.
It’s true that Van Gogh was a tortured artist, but he created some of the most beautiful paintings in existence today. The Van Gogh Museum will always be required viewing on any Amsterdam itinerary.
Van Gogh Museum, Museumplein 6, 1071 DJ Amsterdam, Netherlands
Visit their website for more information on hours and ticket prices.
Connect with the Van Gogh Museum on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
The Rijksmuseum houses the best collection of the Dutch Masters — from Rembrandt to Vermeer — in an absolutely stunning setting. Confused about how to pronounce its name? In true Dutch fashion, “rijks” rhymes with bikes, which is fitting as there’s a bicycle-only path underneath the museum!
Now is a better time than ever to visit the Rijksmuseum, as it recently reopened in April 2013 after a decade of renovations and refurbishing. One of its major highlights is Rembrandt’s most famous painting, Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck Cocq (1642). Us normal, Earthly peons who have trouble memorizing the names of paintings, though, more commonly refer to it as The Night Watch.
I’m an art history dodo (Ashley, I’m picking up your slang!), so I genuinely appreciated the large laminated cards located close to some of the paintings. These cards were instrumental in helping art neophytes like me to interpret what was going on in the scenes before us. (As an aside, the folks at the Rijksmuseum are legitimately the nicest, most passionate and patient museum staff I’ve ever met. Kudos to them for answering dozens of our pesky questions!)
My two favorite pieces in the museum, however, weren’t by Rembrandt or Vermeer. I was sharply drawn in to the dramatic movement of The Threatened Swan (below) — likely because I’m way more into Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne compared to still life fruit baskets.
As a travel and booze writer, it probably won’t surprise you that my other favorite piece was located in the “Drinking Games” section of the museum.
Back in the days of yore, water was so polluted at the time that it was not fit to drink. Instead, people drank beer with low alcohol content, regardless of age. This also led the Dutch to devise amusing drinking games with elaborately detailed vessels.
One such drinking game from the 17th century, “Hansel in the Cellar,” involved a tiny baby named Hansel rising up when the dish was filled with drink. Apparently wealthy people were bored out of their gourds, because they announced the upcoming birth of a child to friends and family this way. I’m keeping an eye on you, Hansel…
Stroopwafel: Or, My Latest Food Obsession
By this time, Ashley and I were the living definition of hangry. We needed to grab some grub quicker than you can say “Proost!” Fortunately, experienced at eating on the go, Ashley spied a vendor selling stroopwafel in the courtyard near the Van Gogh Museum.
Guys, I’ve found my kryptonite. This piece of heaven is a waffle with two thin layers of dough with the nectar of the gods inside (I am told that this is a caramel-like syrup). God bless the baker who decided to use leftovers to make this exquisite creation. What a happy accident.
Lucky for me, I just found a local coffee shop that sells legit stroopwafel in Brooklyn. Guess somebody up there likes me…
House of Bols: Or, The Trippiest Experience I’ve Ever Had
Oh, House of Bols. This cocktail museum — located near the Van Gogh Museum — features a self-guided tour that culminates in one of the trippiest experiences I’ve ever had. Suffice it to say that I’m going to write a full-fledged article on this for your viewing pleasure, but basically you’ll experience cocktails with all five of your senses.
They do make some wickedly good cocktails though, so be sure to stop by their bar for a drink of your own design!
House of Bols: Cocktail & Genever Experience, Paulus Potterstraat 14, 1071 CZ Amsterdam, Netherlands
Finding Beer Nirvana at the Heineken Experience
The Heineken Experience is a veritable utopia for beer drinkers. ‘Nuff said.
The long version: in 1988, Heineken closed its first built brewery due to inability to meet the high demand for their beer. Being the clever folks that they are, however, they weren’t going to let the building go to waste. Instead, they turned the original brewery into an attraction… er, experience… where you can learn more about the history of Heineken, their brewing process, and (most importantly) taste their beer.
The VIP Tour is a splurge worth shelling out for. In fact, it was the best time we had in Amsterdam! Read my full length post on my rockin’ time at the Heineken Experience here.
Even if you don’t love tulips or have a green thumb, the colorful gardens of Keukenhof deserve at least a half day of exploration. Open since 1950, you’ll find upwards of seven million flowers and a bonafide working windmill here. Plus, it’s an easy bus ride from Schipol airport, so there’s no excuse for missing it if you have a long layover.
Keukenhof is 80 acres of ultimate photographer fantasy: everywhere you turn is pure, vibrant blazes of reds, oranges, and pinks. Stay tuned for an upcoming photo essay on Keukenhof!
Keukenhof, 2160 AB, Stationsweg 166, 2161 AM Lisse, Netherlands
Visit their website for more information on hours and ticket prices.
More Canal Admiration
Because we had fallen head over heels for Amsterdam by this point, we spent another hour gawking at the canals, as one does. It was twoo wuv, I tell you.
Red Light District
Even meandering through the Red Light District couldn’t stop our love affair with Amsterdam. Because the girls in the windows were staring with bored expressions on their phones, drunken men were starting to get rowdy, and it was getting dark, we then went to…
In Closing: The Best ‘Dam Meal in Amsterdam
By this time, the spell that Amsterdam had cast over us was complete.
Our final meal at Hemelse Modder was the perfect goodbye to an amazing trip. The warm tartlet with Jerusalem artichokes, poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, and radishes was pure, unadulterated bliss. With three courses priced at 36 euro, it’s a downright steal.
Amsterdam, you left me wanting more. Until next time!
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A huge thank you to the Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum, and Rijksmuseum for providing me with museum passes, and to the Heineken Experience for having me as a guest on their VIP Tour. While I thoroughly enjoyed my time at these places, all opinions are my own. Not even a delicious cold beer can change that.
Also, some of the above are affiliate links and I will earn a tiny percentage of the sale if you purchase through them at no extra cost to you. Thanks for supporting It’s Five O’Clock Here!