This post is long overdue. For us, the month of March began with a five-night trip to Amsterdam, thanks to LivingSocial Escapes. We had been talking about doing a two-week trip to Egypt in the fall, but decided we should wait a year or two for things to stabilize there before making that trip. Erin was looking at the Escapes one day, wishing we could do all of them, and sent me an IM—something along the lines of “Want to go to Amsterdam for a week instead of Egypt?”
I said “Sure!” because I’ve never really been anywhere, so I’m willing to go everywhere, and I was pretty sure it was just wishful thinking. But then she got home that night and started asking me what week would be best to take time off work, and it turned out it hadn’t been wishful thinking, and in no time we had vacation time approved and a trip to Amsterdam booked. The LivingSocial deal was for five nights in a hotel downtown, and we were able to use airline miles to get the flights pretty cheap, so all told it was a surprisingly affordable trip.
The short version: it’s awesome and you should go to there. I didn’t know what to expect, exactly, but I was imaginging a city—you know, like the cities we have here. But, Amsterdam is old and built on marshy land, so the entire thing is short and compact. The buildings are moslty four to seven stories high, give or take, and the roads are narrow. There are some major streets around the outside of the downtown area, but there are spots where even the tram lines narrow down to single-track through some tighter streets.
There are bikes everywhere. Everyone knows that, but the reality of it didn’t sink in for at least a day: there are bikes everywhere. You have to look both ways everywhere you go because there are bikes coming from every direction, sidewalks are clogged with locked-up bikes, and since every available pole and rack is already overloaded, there are bikes propped up on kickstands and locked only to themselves, sometimes leaned against one another five or six deep. There are cars downtown, but they mostly stick to those larger roads, and go really slow in the tighter streets because there are so many bikes and pedestrians that they can’t really go faster anyway. It was awesome.
Halfway down almost every block, an even narrower alleyway cuts over to the next street, and most of these are lined with even more bars and cafes and coffee shops and regular shops. There was just so much packed into this little city. It was incredible to compare that to even DC, which is itself a pretty short and pretty busy city by US standards.
We landed in Amsterdam bright and early. Thankfully, our hotel was a short walk from the Amsterdam Central station, so we hopped on a train (and then another train, after going one stop, when we realized we were on the wrong one) and made it to the hotel in no time. I think we got to the hotel by 9 in the morning, and lucky for us, they had a room ready to go so we could crash for a couple hours: Erin has no trouble sleeping on planes, but I had been awake all night and needed to lie down for a bit before venturing out.
Next, we went right next door to the Nieuwe Kerk (“New Church”) and saw the Judaism: A World of Stories museum exhibit there. We didn’t get to see much of the church, but the exhibit was really interesting.
After that, we wandered around for a while, had some dinner at a little cafe, and that was about it.
We started our first full day in Amsterdam by sleeping in a bit, and then got lost. The city is small though (or at least, the part we explored was), and it never took us more than 20 minutes to walk between any two points on our map, so it was a brief and scenic detour. We went through the Begijnhof to take some photos, then visited the Amsterdam Museum. The route through the museum began with a really interesting exhibit, Amsterdam DNA, which was really about the city itself and how it came to be the sort of hands-off liberal city it is today. This section included some really well-produced short videos, which I quite enjoyed. Most of what we saw of the rest of the museum was artwork. Unfortunately, they closed an hour earlier than we thought they did, so we only made it up through the mid-1800’s or so. Our debate for the rest of the week centered around the piles holding the city up out of the marsh, and whether the buildings were sitting above muddy ground or mostly water (I guess the exhibit describing this was was ambiguous enough that we came away with completely different understandings).
We had dinner at a restaurant Erin had found in the Time Out guide. After dinner we flipped through the book to find something to do that evening, and found Boom Chicago, a comedy club featuring and run by American ex-pats, so we went there and saw their Can’t Dutch This improv show.
Like the one before it, day 3 began with a bit of wandering around, but we eventually found the Anne Frank House. The museum was fascinating to see, and the house that the families hid in was bigger than I imagined it back when I read her diary. I don’t know what else to say about it; it was an emotional place to be, and it remains hard to believe what was allowed to happen so recently in our history.
The rest of the afternoon, thankfully, was a bit less depressing. We found an Indonesian place for lunch, and since I didn’t really know what I was ordering, I finally tried liver for the first time (pretty good, it turns out). Then we went to the Oude Kerk (“Old Church”), which was incredible to see. How often do you stand in a 700 year-old building, in the middle of a red light district? It was weird to walk around on numbered gravestones, knowing how many bodies were buried there over the centuries.
After that, we took a long walk around the west part of downtown, got some dinner and hit a couple of bars. We ended the night wandering around the red light district in the rain, munching on fries from Chipsy King.
We both woke up pretty sore: the bed in the hotel sucked, and walking around non-stop for the previous three days (including the jaunt in the rain) probably hadn’t helped. Once we got up and moving, we headed south to the Rijksmuseum. The museum was under renovation, so we only saw part of it—we figure they just kept out the most important pieces and saved us some time. I didn’t know anything about The Night Watch, since I don’t know squat about art, but that sure was interesting to see. They had information there about it, thankfully, because I probably would have walked right by it if not for the big group of people and handouts highlighting different aspects of the piece.
We had planned to go to the Van Gogh Museum next, but decided we needed a bit of a break. The LivingSocial deal included a 90-minute canal boat tour, which started right near the Rijksmuseum, so we did that instead. By that time, we had explored much of the city on foot, and it was neat to see landmarks and buildings that we recognized from a different perspective. I hadn’t even noticed before then how many houseboats line the canals; I was so busy watching out for bikes and other people when we walked around that I hadn’t paid much attention to the boats. We also got to see the harbor, which was furhter north than we had explored.
The rest of the day was pretty mellow. We wound up at an Argentinian grill for dinner, and did some more wandering around in the evening.
Our last day in the city. We visited the Portuguese Synagogue, then did the Van Gogh Museum since we hadn’t got to it the day before. I wasn’t blown away: I’ve never been much for art, and never got the appeal of Van Gogh.
We spent the rest of the day just wandering around the city. We had lunch at one cafe, got drinks at another, and waffles for dessert, with lots of walking around in between. Back at the hotel, we stopped into the sky lounge for one last drink and to take in the view of the city at night.
Day 6 barely even counts: we had breakfast at the hotel, then walked back to the train station to head to the airport.
It was a short trip, but we got a lot in and really enjoyed it. Amsterdam is one of the cities being considered for the European DrupalCon next summer, and I’m really hoping that it’s picked so I’ll have an excuse to go back.