After a week’s stay in Paris, we arrived in Amsterdam on board the inter-city Thalys express. We definitely recommend taking a train over flying. It saves you a ton of time and waiting in lines at two busy airports that are plagued by post-covid inefficiencies. Not to mention the fact that Amsterdam's Centraal Train Station drops you right in the heart of the city.
Upon arrival, we followed the instructions sent by our host and quickly jumped into a tram that was waiting just outside the station. If there were a Nobel Prize for public transport convenience, it MUST go indisputably to the Amsterdam tram service. Nowhere in the world have I seen so much concern for the convenience of the passenger! After jumping on board, you simply walk to the back of the tram-- no tickets needed while boarding. Then once you get settled with your bags, you approach a ‘REAL PERSON’ sitting in a booth (inside the tram) who helps you buy your ticket or pass. That won my heart.
Our Airbnb was located away from the crowded, touristy city center. My first impression, coming from Paris, was that Amsterdam is a much smaller city, and the central area near Damm Square and the train station gets really crowded, so if you are looking for a more pleasant experience of the city, staying a little bit outside of the hustle and bustle is the best way to go.
Our Airbnb was a charming Dutch Baroque house emblematic of Amsterdam architecture. It was a few steps away from the fourth concentric canal, Prinsengracht, and very close to the museum district. Our host, Johan, graciously waited for our arrival and showed us to the spacious studio apartment.
Our studio was formerly the real life artist's studio of a local Dutch actress and painter, Nola Hatterman. The studio was bathed with beautiful late summer light, exposing lovely original details of the interior and furniture. The attention to detail was everywhere. One large window opened into a park across the street. Every architectural detail was curated and preserved meticulously by our host. As an artist, I felt very honored to be staying in this studio for the next four days.
After a brief rest, we headed back downtown to meet a group of friends from Chicago who had just arrived upon completion of their Viking river cruise along the Rhine. We were excited to explore the canals, the city squares and the famous red-light district together. It was Friday evening and the streets and alleys were overflowing with people. The Tourist area isn’t my scene, and I soon got tired and overwhelmed. After dinner, we were happy to retire to the peace and tranquility of our quiet abode just a few tram stops south.
It was Saturday morning, and the city was still and quiet at daybreak, people sleeping-in on the first day of the weekend. We woke up early and looked out of the window to find the streets empty. The quiet was interrupted only by a random dog walker and speeding cyclists.
With the memory of the previous evening’s chaotic experience still in mind, we decided to venture out early before it got busy. In those early hours of Saturday morning we met the real Amsterdam!! The beautiful houseboats lined up on the edge of the canals, arched bridges drawing circular reflections in the water and narrow colorful buildings, making it a picture-perfect experience which was totally opposite of the night before. We felt we had the entire city for ourselves while the rest were just waking up.
We arrived at the café De Huyschkaemer (Utrechtsestraat 137) which our host recommended, just when it was opening. The breakfast was delicious and a bargain. The service was great, with indoor and outdoor seating. It was by far the best breakfast place we found during this visit. Highly recommended.
Later in the morning, we booked an online time slot for the Rijksmuseum, home of the Dutch masters. As an artist and museum enthusiast, I have visited many world-class museums in the States and all across Europe, but this one stands on its own ground. In the era when AI is winning award shows in America, I am ready to bet my last penny that no AI or human can attempt to come even closer to the artistic achievements of some of the paintings shown here.
We had limited time, so we didn’t dwell on every section. The museum has a nice café where you can order your food on your phone. If you are tired after walking around the museum, it is a great pit stop to refuel before a second round!
Later in the afternoon, we took a canal tour on Captain Jack’s boat. It starts right outside the Rijksmuseum. We were served cheese, wine, beer and snacks along with 90 mins of informative and humorous commentary by Captain Jack. It is something comparable to Chicago’s architectural tour. You can cover a majority of the sites and sounds of the city without being on your feet.
We were a group of 10 who had worked up an appetite! At first we were looking for an Indonesian restaurant, but since it was a busy Saturday evening and we had no reservations, we couldn’t make that work. With three Brits and one Indian in the group, it was a simple decision to switch to an Indian spot, and all were happy with the choice in the end.
Tired from all day's activities, we came home and rested.
On Sunday, we discovered a Farmer’s market across the canal. It was literally a museum of colors. I have no words to describe the shape and colors of the flowers I have seen there. It was the Giverny of Farmer’s markets!! The only difference was that here you could bring the flowers home. We bought a bouquet to brighten up our home away from home.
On our host’s recommendation, we visited a bigger vintage market in the town. It was a long forty minutes’ walk but worth visiting. It was a large market with a few hundred vendors selling all varieties of items, jewellery, cotton cloth, all kinds of ethnic and modern ware, and a huge assortment of vintage goods were represented. The market closes at 1.
We had pre-booked tickets online the month before, reserving the 1 PM time slot at the Anne Frank home. We had a quick bite to eat and met up with the rest of our group outside before going in. After a solemn thirty minute presentation about the events that led to the 40s and then Anne’s stay and subsequent tragedy, we were let in on a self-guided tour through various floors of the house leading up to the secret bookcase attic room and then back out to the museum. It was a very impactful historic place to visit and I strongly recommend making reservations a month in advance for the presentation so that you get the total experience.
Prinsengracht 260, 1016 HG Amsterdam, Netherlands
A vintage book store on the edge of canal 4. This store has an assorted collection of books, prints, pictures from the last hundred years. It is in the building's basement and I promise you will find something of your interest.
Prinsengracht 272, 1016 HH Amsterdam, Netherlands
A block away from this store, I found a designer store selling ethnic Indian clothing designed to the taste and size of Dutch people. Khasto–the cotton cashmere.
Biking trip in the Garden
On our last full day, we started by combining two favorite activities: bike riding and a day in the park!. We rented bicycles, the icon of Amsterdam, and went for a bike ride in Vondelpark, Amsterdam's equivalent of Central Park. This park is in the Museum district, just behind the Van Gogh museum and Rijksmuseum. It was a liberating experience, just to spend time in the presence of nature. The park is vast and a perfect spot to ride and explore. If you are hesitant to bike on crazy city roads, this is the place to try it. Vondelpark is filled with many small intimate gardens, benches and fountains. There are many cafes, restaurants and street carts to try as well.
Van Gogh museum.
We kept the best for the end. There is nothing much to say here that isn’t said. The collection is impressive. But you won’t find Starry night here. It’s in MOMA.
Last day Morning
On our last day, we checked out and left our bags with the host. I bought a box from the mailing store Winter @ 57 Vijzelgracht, paid shipping charges by box size from Amsterdam to Chicago on Postnl.post, to send all my excess shopping to Chicago.
Our night train to Basel wasn't until 8:30pm, so we made a short day trip to the much recommended Haarlem before we left Amsterdam. It’s a small medieval town with 14th century structures, a lot of boutiques and international shopping brands. There are tons of restaurants. We made the mistake of settling on a restaurant in the main square, which was crowded and sort of ordinary fare. Walk around and explore the area before picking your restaurant, there's a great variety down the quaint little alleyways. We bought a 9 euro day-pass from Centraal station, just a 30 minute train ride away.
Haarlem is pretty and worth visiting, touristy, but a little less crowded than Amsterdam.