Amsterdam is a great many things. It is a city with vice, but it is not a city of vice. There’s a difference there. Cities of vice like to plaster their wares everywhere. They write it in neon on the skyline, they shout it from the street corners. Amsterdam, in its old European way, is a bit more subdued about it. But that doesn’t stop people from talking.
“When you mention you’ll be making a stopover in Amsterdam, you get a reaction I can only describe as semi-collegiate. A knowing look… as if there can really only be two reasons you’d go to this lovely little city of canals.”
I feel like I need to get this out of the way immediately. Bourdain was right, mentioning Amsterdam draws all manner of looks and questions. That means diving into Kari-Lise and my trip without discussing Amsterdam’s reputation is difficult. The most significant difference between the Dutch capital and your hometown, is the Dutch are pure capitalists. They organize their vice neatly so it can be taxed and generate money for the state. That’s preferable to the American practice of outlawing it, sweeping it under the rug, and pretending it doesn’t exist until it becomes a problem. The truth is that Amsterdam, for all the illicit happenings, happens to be a diverse, lively, and beautiful little city with a fantastic food scene, tons of culture, and incredible architecture.
On this trip, we were once again joined by our expat compatriots Kelcey Rushing and Jim Rushing. It was Kari-Lise and Kelcey’s birthdays, so we were able to celebrate as we went on a whirlwind exploration of the city. Since this vacation was very city-focused, I’ll share some of the more memorable experiences and hit on the different places we visited throughout our eight-day trip.
Our canal-side apartment was in Jordaan on the northwest side of the city. It was a twenty-minute walk from nearly everything, and we discovered that it was easy to put six or seven miles behind us throughout the day. Amsterdam—to put it mildly—is beautiful, even in winter. Canals are everywhere. They crisscross the city, cutting beneath roads and emerging between buildings. Amsterdam is extremely walkable, but if you want to get out of the rain, you’ll usually find a tram that passes by your destination. I could spend days walking in the city — each corner offers a new vista, and discovering the nooks and crannies was enticing.
Amsterdamers are diverse, friendly, and welcoming. The food culture is fantastic, with a ton of street food, from the traditional cone-of-frites with hefty helpings of mayonnaise to automats tucked away on the street level of four-hundred-year-old buildings. If you want something fancier, you can find plenty of that as well: I’d recommend checking out Lion Noir on the south side of the canal belt or Springaren toward the north.
Make sure you swing through an Indonesian restaurant or two — due to the Dutch East India Company’s colonization in the 1800s, there’s a significant presence of Indonesian and Surinamese people within the city. This influx brought Southeast Asian cuisine to the Dutch, which led to the creation of Rijsttafel—a large family-style meal consisting of small spicy dishes served with rice. It’s a delicious experience and well worth trying.
Over the next several days, we hit up a few of the more traditional museums to fill our quota of Dutch art. (Those Rembrandts aren’t going to view themselves!) But, since we’re Atlas Obscura disciples, we also tend to seek out the strange. Before our trip, I quickly assessed the weirder side of Amsterdam. You tend to find a lot of odd little bits in a city this old, and Amsterdam is packed full of curiosities. We explored a museum of cat art, had high tea in the smallest house in Amsterdam, visited a collection of odd and esoteric books, found a Catholic “house church” hiding in the upper levels of a 17th century canal home, and we took a morning to spend some time looking through a collection of anatomical anatomy and congenital defects on the outskirts of the city. Even with all of that, I felt like we had only scratched the surface.
It’s easy to see how there are whole swaths of the city we missed. Which means there are so many more places to explore. Amsterdam will be a perfect pit stop for a few days whenever we return to the Continent.
Bruges & Haarlem
The last three days of our trip was spent outside of Amsterdam. On the Rushing’s suggestion, we rented a car and made the two-and-a-half-hour drive down to Belgium, with Bruges as our destination. The Netherland and Belgian landscapes are vast and flat; huge windmills turn in the distance and hydroponic farms line the ancient canals, open fields, and miles upon miles of greenhouses. The Netherlands have become agricultural giants, and you can see it in the countryside.
We arrived in Bruges by mid-afternoon. The city, with its narrow streets and canals, is an Amsterdam in miniature. But where Amsterdam didn’t see life until the 13th Century, Bruges has been settled since the 9th Century. So its buildings tend to be older than those you’d find in Amsterdam, with a few dating from medieval periods.
Being a Belgian town, chocolates glisten from shop windows, waffles are available on street corners, and pommes frites served in paper cones are as ordinary here as they are in the Netherlands. Also with it being Belgian, it’s no surprise that Bruges has a great beer scene! Many beer cellars peddle Belgian ales beneath the ancient buildings. Kelcey and Jim had a few picks from their previous visits. My favorite was ‘t Poatersgat (The Monk’s Hole) who specialized in only independent Belgian brews—with a focus on Trappist beers—many of which are unavailable outside of the country. It’s located in the vast cellar of an old building and accessible by a tiny door that leads down into the hall. The place has a feeling of a cistern or catacomb. A great vibe with reasonable prices, and a friendly and helpful staff.
Sadly, we didn’t get to spend much time in Bruges. But I was glad I went: I could see the appeal, and I’d certainly make a return visit. We drove north to Haarlem on the final full day of our trip skirting the coast and seeing the vast Oosterscheldekering waterworks. It’s an impressive feat of engineering.
Haarlem is a small city to the northwest of Amsterdam, with a relaxed vibe. It’s a bit slower paced than the frenetic energy of the capital and quieter than the destination town of Bruges. It was a relaxing way to end a fast-paced trip such as this; and with easy access to Amsterdam, it’s not a bad place to stay if you want quiet nights away from the hustle and bustle. The following morning, after breakfast and a wander through a farmer’s market, we headed to Schipol and then made our way home.
Advice & Tips
If Amsterdam sounds like your sort of place, I do have a few bits of advice:
- Scope out the weirdness on Atlas Obscura. (Heck, do this for every trip you take.) It’s a great resource and is usually full of non-touristy stuff that is worth checking out.
- Get thyself an Amsterdam City Card. We didn’t do this, and it would have saved us some money on trams and museums. It also makes it even easier to get around.
- Hit up Eater’s recommendations for Amsterdam food. We found a lot of great restaurants this way, and mapped them out ahead of time. This made it simple to pull up ideas when we needed them.
- If you’re a hearty traveler who doesn’t mind chilly weather, you can score super cheap tickets to Europe in the offseason. It’s worth exploring prices in October/November to see what you can find in January/February. By all accounts, summer in Amsterdam is quite crowded. Our off-season travel meant finding tables and seats were easy. Something to consider.
Amsterdam was a wonderful experience, and I will certainly be going back. It should be a destination city for everyone. There is a massive amount of things to do, see, and eat. We could have easily spent another week among the canals and even with extra time, I doubt we’d have exhausted the city.
Thanks again to Kelcey and Jim for joining us on the trip, and being willing to bum around the town. Amsterdam is one of their favorites — they had been many times before, and are gracious enough to indulge our bright-eyed wonder. It was a lot of fun. (I told you after Scotland they’d show up on future trips!)
“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”
Travel is important. It’s important for understanding other cultures. It’s important for fully grasping the weight of history. It’s important for understanding others. We’re lucky to live in an era when traveling around the world is easy and reasonably accessible. It lets us experience how others live in a physical way. Losing oneself within another culture helps build empathy and open up new perspectives extending beyond our own narrow silos.
As a writer, it’s important to acknowledge that we live in a world of stories. Exploring the narrow alleyways or deep canals of a city can reveal ideas. We can find new characters lingering beneath street lamps on remote corners and hiding in doorways down tight alleys. It’s common to stumble across plots etched in architecture, history, or the twisting street plans of an ancient city. Ideas, concepts, and characters we might not have discovered sitting at home. So, get out there. Travel. Meet people. Listen to them. Be humble and get uncomfortable.
As I write this, it’s been over a week since our trip, and we’re getting back into our routine. I’ve settled back into work, and I’ve dived back into writing. The pages of Gleam Upon the Waves won’t write themselves, and there’s a specific caravan master who’s in a bit of a jam. Time to travel back to the Territories and see where his story leads.
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There is only one Amsterdam, lucky Dutch we are!
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…..and we ‘have it’!