AMSTERDAM: Effortlessly charming, endlessly rewarding
I haven't gotten out of Berlin much these last seven months, as the city itself has more than enough to offer me for weekend explorations. But, when presented with a 4-day weekend for Easter, my co-worker Luke and I decided to venture beyond the city limits and try something a little different. We set our sights on Amsterdam, a city neither of us had been to before.
To save money, we decide to take overnight buses there and back, since planes and trains were much more expensive. Additionally, this allowed us to save money on accommodations, as we had three full days to enjoy the city but only paid for two nights of accommodation. So, we took a 9-hour Eurolines bus ride from Berlin to Amsterdam, departing Berlin at 8 p.m. with a scheduled arrival of just before 6 a.m. Overall, the bus was about as uncomfortable as it could have possibly been (extremely close quarters), but we managed to get a decent amount of sleep, all things considered. However, much to our confusion our bus ended up arriving in Amsterdam an hour early, meaning we were blearily dropped off at a train station outside the city center at 4:45 a.m., not exactly sure what to do from there.
We waited around for another hour as there weren't any trains running until after 5 a.m., and then we didn't want to arrive too early at our Airbnb host's apartment. But, around 6 a.m. we hopped on a tram, then switched to a bus, and then arrived at our apartment in time to catch the sunrise.
As it was easter weekend and we were a bit late in planning our trip, we struggled to find affordable accommodations in the city center. We broadened our search and ended up finding a nice Airbnb apartment located on the IJburg, a man-made island just east of the city center. It was only a 15 minute ride to the central station by tram, which was perfectly reasonable for us.
After settling into our apartment and freshening up, we then hopped on a tram and headed for the main station. From there, we transferred directly to a train to Haarlem, a city on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Luke had suggested we visit the Corrie ten Boom House as a sort of alternative to the Anne Frank House, which is notoriously crowded. The house is located in Haarlem, and in our communications with the tour organizers, they recommended we try to come on Friday rather than Saturday, so we went ahead and planned on that being our first order of business upon arriving.
The ride to Haarlem took only about 20 minutes. As we had not yet explored Amsterdam, we didn't necessarily know what to expect from Dutch cities and their design, so we were quite taken aback by how cute the town was. Like Amsterdam, the city is laced with canals which that are then lined with row after row of lovely narrow brick homes. There were plenty of interesting looking shops, bars and restaurants, and overall Haarlem just seemed like a lively, extremely livable place.
We explored for a short bit upon arrival, then made our way to the Corrie ten Boom House for our tour. I was not at all familiar with her story, but Luke had read her book when he was younger, so for him it was very meaningful to visit. Essentially, Corrie was a member of a Dutch Christian family in Haarlem that helped many Jews escape Nazi persecution during WWII. They were eventually found out and sent to concentration camps, where most of her family perished, though Corrie survived and went on to tell her story through books and speaking engagements.
I was a little uncertain about the tour as some of the reviews I read made it sound like the tour guides could be a bit preachy, with an emphasis on a very Christianity-centered message. However, our tour guide was very friendly and informative, and although it was clear that there was a Christian bent to the message being presented, I didn't find it to be distracting or off-putting.
Our tour group was fairly small, with about eight other people joining us. We gathered in the sitting room of the house, where our guide laid out the basic history of the ten Boom family, then she took us through several different rooms of the house that contained additional historic information. We also got to see Corrie's bedroom, where the family had built a false wall to hide Jews behind, and to see how they used a passageway hidden at the bottom of shelf to get access to it.
The tour was informative, though it felt a bit rushed, as we would be led to a room full of things to look at, our guide would say a short bit about the location, and then we would quickly be moved to the next area, not being given sufficient time to take in our surroundings and look at everything else available there. But, it was free and uncrowded, and moreover it was a powerful experience to stand in the very room where Corrie and her family were interrogated by Nazis on the night they were arrested, or to visit the bedroom and see the narrow hiding place behind a false wall that saved the lives of dozens of Jews. So overall I would say it was probably worthwhile, especially if you're looking to avoid the lines at the Anne Frank House but still want to experience a perspective on what life was like for both Jews and Nazi resistors during WWII.
After finishing at the Corrie ten Boom House, we took a couple hours to explore Haarlem further by foot. We didn't go into any buildings or churches, just strolled along the lovely canals and turned down random streets that seemed particularly cute. It was a delightful, relaxing way to kick off our visit to the Netherlands. For people spending more than a couple days in Amsterdam, I would say Haarlem definitely warrants a half-day trip (at least).
When then hopped on a train to head back into Amsterdam, and from there our first stop was the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam's flagship art museum. We purchased our tickets online ahead of time to save time waiting in line, although crowds didn't seem to be too bad on this day. The museum is your typical large-scale European art museum, meaning it's full of of striking works with more than a few big names mixed in, and after about 3 hours of walking through it you are absolutely spent. We did not see all there was to offer, just focused on the parts that were interesting to us, and we still spent a solid 3-4 hours at the museum.
We were at a bit of a disadvantage since we were both pretty tired from our early morning arrival into Amsterdam, so after we were done with the museum, we both just needed to sit for a bit and regain our strength. After some recuperation, we wandered a bit through the city, which was our first proper chance to start to take in Amsterdam. Much like our experience in Haarlem, we found ourselves reveling in the chance to stroll aimlessly through the city and take in all of its charms. Though it was Easter weekend, it didn't feel difficult to find parts of the inner city that offered a break from the throngs of tourists.
We stayed out long enough to get some dinner, then made our way back to our Airbnb apartment to relax for the rest of the night, exhausted but satisfied with our first day.
Our first step the next day was Gassan Diamonds, one of the most prominent diamond retailers in Amsterdam. I was not certain what to expect out of this activity, as it was Luke's idea, and I didn't even realize Amsterdam had such a strong association with the diamond trade before he made the suggestion. So I went in with minimal expectations, and I must say, these expectations were surpassed. The tour (which was free) was quick and informative. It started with a an overview of how diamonds are formed, cut, and polished. Then we had about 15 minutes to wander through a showcase area with cabinets displaying diamond jewelry, as well as a chance to watch some of the workers shaping diamonds.
Afterwards, we were taken into a smaller room, where our guide gave us informational cards explaining the different ways you could evaluate a diamond, such as by color, weight, clarity, etc. She then showed us several diamonds and explained how each one would be judged by these various criteria, then she gave us a price. I actually found that to be quite interesting, since you could compare two diamonds that seemed similar but cost wildly different amounts and understand what accounts for that difference. At the end, she passed around several boxes of diamond jewelry for us to look at and try on (and buy, if we so desired). Unfortunately, pictures were not allowed at that stage, so I wasn't able to get any photos of me wearing $8,000 diamond rings. Bummer. The overall guided experience only lasted about 45 minutes, but I found it to be quite interesting (and the perfect length), and I'm glad we took the time to do it.
From there, we lazily worked our way to the Cuypmarkt, an open-air market located on the southern end of the city. The market is open six days a week and features hundreds of vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables, cheeses, meats, and other wares. There were fewer vendors selling ready-to-eat food, but we still managed to score a delicious Stroopwafel (a popular Dutch treat consisting of a waffle thinly sliced with caramel syrup in the middle; for best results I suggest getting one with chocolate on top) as well as some tasty loempia.
From there, we just wandered through the city, focusing mostly on further culinary adventures. We weaved our way through the Red Light District, stopping to grab a pork bun from the adjoining Asian district and trying to avoid making eye contact with bored prostitutes starting out their windows, and later tried Bitterballen at Cafe de Tuin in Jordaan. Bitterballen, as far as I could tell, are just fried balls filled with a sort of meat-vegetable-gravy-sauce concoction... idk they were good.
Ultimately, the day was very unstructured, and that was perfect for us. Amsterdam is truly a city that lends itself to being seen at a relaxed, comfortable pace (so all those coffee shops really do fit well with the city's overall vibe).
This was the day I was probably most excited for, as this was when we planned to visit Keukenhof, the world famous tulip gardens located about 45 minutes away from Amsterdam. For years, I have seen pictures of the gardens, which are only open for a couple months every spring, and I dreamed of a day when I might have the chance to visit. When Luke and I were planning our trip, this was the only thing I insisted that we do, because I didn't want to miss out on this opportunity.
Since we had the combined double whammy of planning our visit for a weekend (Sunday) and a holiday (Easter) I expected there to be major crowds, so I made sure we planned to depart for Keukenhof early that day (and luckily Luke was on board for it). To get there, we had to first tram into the city center, then hop on a bus to Schipol, the airport. There, we transferred to a special bus just for taking people to the gardens. We hopped on the bus at 8:45 in the morning, and while it was full enough that we had to stand, it was by no means crowded. They had metal gating set up outside the bus at the airport as if to control queues, but there was absolutely no need for it when we were there.
The ride to Keukenhof was easy enough, and since we had purchased tickets in advance, there was no need to wait in line to buy tickets. We just walked up to the entrance, had our tickets scanned, and off we went. At this point, it was about 9:30 in the morning, and while there were definitely plenty of other people around, it was by no means cloying or overwhelming.
So, we set off without a real destination or plan beyond taking in the flowers. Overall, the park lived up to my expectations. We were a bit too early in the season to see everything in full bloom, so there were parts of the park that were still very green but that surely in a few weeks would be exploding in color. Still, there was more than enough to feast the eyes on. One thing that impressed me was how impeccably maintained everything was, despite the fact that we didn't see a single employee doing landscaping work during our visit. The gardens open at 8 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m., so that means there is a lot of work happening very early or very late at night. Color me impressed!
Despite the ample amounts of tourists jockeying for the best pictures of flowers, I overall found the park to be quite relaxing and enjoyable to explore. There was plenty of variety in the flowers used and the designs of the beds, so it didn't get at all monotonous spending three hours walking through the park looking at nature. The park also featured several indoor pavilions, although for the most part I found them to be a bit dull compared to the splendors outside (one featured a sort of exhibit on Vincent van Gogh, and another a bunch of garish floral arrangements centered around the theme of Love). The main pavilion did feature a gorgeous spread of tulips though, clearly meant to offer something to those who visit the park before the flowers are in full bloom outside.
We spent about three hours in Keukenhof, which I found to be perfect. We hopped back on the bus around 1 p.m. and saw a massive throng of people at the entrance, queueing for tickets as well as just to enter the park. As our bus navigated out of the parking lots, we saw a huge line of cars and buses trying to enter the park. And once we made it back to Schipol, it became clear why they had set up gates to control the line -- there were now hundreds of people anxiously waiting to board the next bus to Keukenhof. I was absolutely astounded at how long the line was: those people were surely going to wait at least 45 minutes just to board the bus, then adding on time to make it through traffic, lines at the entrance... Luke and I were immensely relieved that we decided to get up early to beat the crowds, because it would have been a completely different (and far more negative) experience for us if we hadn't.
I didn't see Keukenhof in its full, gorgeous splendor, but I am still absolutely thrilled that I had the chance to visit, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone that has an appreciation for natural beauty.
The rest of our time in Amsterdam was again spent just enjoying the vibe of the city without any real agenda. Sure, we could have planned a much more intensive trip, and there were certainly major sights we missed (such as the aforementioned Anne Frank House or the Van Gogh Museum). But, I am confident that I will be making another trip to Amsterdam at some point, so why rush? We saw enough to have a meaningful trip, and did it at a comfortable enough pace that we avoided getting burnt out or run into the ground. We had the chance to see world-class sights and to enjoy the culture of a gorgeous, endlessly charming European city. For this trip, I have no regrets.