Over a month ago, I had my first visitor, Nick. After spending a few days in Barcelona, Nick and I took a week long trip from Amsterdam to Paris. This will be the first of three blog posts about our spring break adventures through Europe.
Our week of traveling started out early Thursday morning with a flight from Barcelona to Amsterdam. After arriving at the airport we took a train into the city before heading to our Airbnb. Now I’ve only used Airbnb a handful of times (and I’ve had some pretty interesting experiences) but I had the best experience in Amsterdam. Our hosts, Eva and Kobe, not only offered to pick us up from the airport (unfortunately, we didn’t receive their message until we were on wifi) but they also had a few Heineken’s, cookies and bottled water waiting for us upon arrival; not to mention that the apartment had a balcony that overlooked one of the canals.
After settling into the apartment, we headed towards the city center, about a 15 minute walk from the apartment, to get ready for a walking tour. We met our guide, Sergio from Freedam Walking Tours, in the heart of the Red Light District, where we began our tour.
We learned that prostitution is legal in Amsterdam and has been built around a long tradition of tolerance (a common theme in Amsterdam, that I’ll mention several times throughout this post.) As we continued our tour, we were surprised to see that in the middle of the Red Light District, there was a church. Sergio explained that back in the 1500s, the Catholic Church saw the Red Light District as a place of profit. The Church would open its doors at certain times of the week and offer penance in exchange for a small donation. Tolerance. The Church and the city both tolerated the prostitution because they saw it as a source of revenue. Even today, the city profits from the Red Light District because the women in the windows pay taxes to the city for the space they rent; and believe it or not, the windows on the main streets are cheaper than those on the side streets.
After leaving the Red Light District, Sergio took a moment to explain more of the tolerance that is the foundation of Amsterdam. This time he explained that marijuana is not actually legal in Amsterdam, even though it is full of the notorious “coffee shops.” The association of marijuana with Amsterdam actually started when the city was full of heroin junkies. The city decided that in order to combat the heroin junkies they would turn a blind eye to the use of other “safer” drugs in hopes to dilute the problem. Therefore, in order to get rid of one drug problem, the city decided to ignore another drug problem. Like I said… Tolerance.
On our walk to our next destination, Sergio talked to us a little about the canals. He explained that the canals are actually very dirty and unsafe for swimming. This is because thousands and thousands of bikes, as well as a handful of cars, are pulled from the canals each year. He said there are so many bikes in the canals for two reasons: 1. the bikes happen to fall in, whether due to wind or poor placement and 2. drunk idiots stumble home from the bars and look for unchained bikes they can throw in the canals. Because of this, it is strongly discouraged to swim in the canals.
Our tour continued to the old entrance of the city (now a restaurant) and headed to the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company at the Oostindisch Huis. Again because Amsterdam was a major port city, it made it a prime area for the trade of spices, herbs, silks, and many other things. Sergio explained that the Dutch East India Company became the world’s first stock exchange by trading its own shares, which further helped the financial standings of the city.
Unfortunately, we had to cut our tour early in order to make our 5 p.m. canal tour with Those Dam Boat Guys. We chose this tour not only because of its boasted tolerance but also because it had been highly recommended by several friends and family. We really enjoyed the canal cruise to finish our day, not only because we’d had a long day of travel and walking, but also because our captain, Marc, further explained a lot of what we had learned previously on our walking tour. We finished up our cruise just before sunset and headed back to the apartment completely exhausted.
The next day, we got an early start before our 11:45 a.m. bike tour of the Dutch countryside. Before heading to our meeting point, we stopped at Bagels&Beans (a must if you’re ever in Amsterdam — it’s so good we ate there twice.)
We met our guides and the rest of our group from Mike’s Bike Tours before journeying out to the countryside. We were grateful to be riding our bikes through the countryside rather than the city because those Dutch people sure take their biking seriously, as we were frequently reminded every time we heard a bell. Our guide even said, “Hear a bell, run like hell!” Even the locals commented on how serious the Dutch get about their bikes, going as far as saying, “we become different people as soon as we sit on our bikes.” And man, they weren’t kidding.
The Dutch country side was much calmer than the hectic city (keep in mind at this point the wind was blowing in our favor.) We followed the Alster River out through pastures and fields. It was very picturesque, as my selfies prove (Nick only yelled at me every time I tried to maneuver a bike and take a selfie.) We passed several farms and saw countless farm animals, before stopping to admire a windmill. We continued along the river for a few more miles before crossing to the other side… and this is when things got tough. For some reason, I was at the head of the pack, directly behind our guide, and it felt like we were climbing a never ending mountain. We weren’t. The land was as flat as can be. But we were going against the wind, which made things extremely difficult.
Just about when I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep up any longer, we pulled off and stopped at a cheese farm. Before meeting the farmer, we met the ever friendly cows who are employed by the farm. We enjoyed taking several selfies and feeding the cows before heading into the cheese/clog factory. The website describes the farmer as “eccentric and entertaining” and trust me they aren’t wrong. As he described to us the different processes for the various cheeses, he kept us heavily entertained. We headed into the clog making room before completing our tour in the gift shop. Although we didn’t purchase real clogs (I know that’s surprising considering how fashionable they are,) we did walk away with mini-sized souvenir clogs before heading back out into the gusty wind.
We completed the final portion our 17 mile bike ride, but not without stopping at another (functioning) windmill, and then headed back into the city. Upon our arrival back into the city, we were greeted by Amsterdam rush hour traffic (and no, I am not talking about cars.) The streets were packed with bikes, and it made almost impossible to stay together as a group, just ask Nick! Yes, Nick almost managed to stray too far from the group, but luckily I saw him go flying by and yelled after him (after only slightly hesitating.) It made for a good laugh when he came flying back to the group, and almost took out a moped along the way.
We made our way back to the shop to drop off our bikes, and started off towards Heineken. I debated for a while before our trip whether or not we would do the Heineken Experience, but after being raised in St. Louis by two parents who worked at Anheuser-Busch Brewery, where I went on a handful of brewery tours, it only felt right. Especially since a few days before our trip, I found out that I had recently been hired for the 2017 Anheuser-Busch Gift Shop Team (yay!)
The Heineken Experience was a bit of a disappointment, to say the least, and I wouldn’t specifically recommend it to anyone visiting Amsterdam. The experience was very touristic and cheesy, and we didn’t learn much about the Heineken brewing process; we didn’t even get to see them brew anything! The Experience ended in a sort of “party room” where we were treated to two complimentary beers. We stayed for our beers (and then some… just trying to get our money’s worth!) and then headed home after a long day.
We were almost halfway back to the apartment, when we decided we wanted to see the Red Light District at night. We turned in that direction, without anticipating how far the journey would be (especially after that 17 mile bike ride.) We made a quick pit stop at a small bar on our way into the city, and we were so glad we did. Nick asked the bartender to pour him a glass of his favorite beer, and we sat down and chatted with him for a while. One thing we were so surprised to discover, is how friendly the people of Amsterdam are. We sat there for 30 minutes talking to the bartender about his favorite parts of Amsterdam (surprise! he loved the Heineken Experience… LOL!) before making our way towards the city center. We wandered up and down the streets of Red Light District like the American tourists that we are, before heading back to the apartment after yet another long day.
We started day 3 in Amsterdam with a trip to the Anne Frank House. I had waited too long to buy our tickets ahead of time, so the only tickets left were ones that included a 30 minute history introduction over the Frank family. Growing up, I had read The Diary of Anne Frank and had also seen a play based on the book, while Nick had a little less experience with Anne Frank; so I think the short introduction sharpened both our knowledge on the topic. After the lesson, we got to walk through the Anne Frank House. It was such a heavy and overwhelming experience to learn about what this family suffered and went through every day of hiding. It was particularly haunting to see some of the posters Anne had taped to the walls of her room, that remain in place today.
As we walked through the house, there were various artifacts from the family hung up in each room. One item in particular caught my eye: a classroom roster from Margot, Anne’s sister. During this time period, students were broken up into classrooms based on whether or not they were Jewish. Therefore, this specific list, was a list of all of Margot’s Jewish classmates. I was startled to see that on that list there was someone with the last name Santen. This in itself added to the overall haunting feeling of the Anne Frank House.
We wrapped up our morning with pancakes at The Pancake Bakery, that was highly recommended by our boat captain. It did not disappoint. Nick and I both had pancakes as big as a pizza before making our way to our next stop: the Rijksmuseum.
Before arriving in Amsterdam, I had read several threads on whether we should visit the Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh Museum. Many of the posts said you got to see more by visiting the Rijksmuseum, which housed works of art from all over Holland. We bought our tickets and completed a 90-minute free audio guide offered by the museum app, and by the end of it, we were exhausted. We were overwhelmed with knowledge about so many different pieces of art. Although we did get to see two of Van Gogh’s works, I do wish we had done the Van Gogh museum instead; I think we would have appreciated it more and recognized a few more pieces.
We ended our trip in Amsterdam with a traditional Dutch dinner at Bistro Bij Ons, where we made reservations. Side note: if you go to Amsterdam, definitely make reservations because I was disappointed that we could not try many of the other restaurants I had read about. Nick ordered the veal and I ordered a beef stew, and we both left uncomfortably but satisfyingly full. We tolerated the uncomfortablness and headed back to the apartment one last time.
Before going to Amsterdam, my dad had told me, “You don’t need to go to Amsterdam, it’s just sex, money and drugs.” I am so glad I didn’t listen to him because Amsterdam is so much more than that. I learned so much about this gorgeous city and I will definitely be back someday! And for those of you who know me, it says something when I want to repeat a city in Europe because I’m a firm believer in getting to see all that Europe has to offer while trying not to repeat anything.
So, Amsterdam, congratulations! I promise to return to you one day, and I can’t wait to uncover even more of what your city holds.