“So which was your favorite destination?” more than one person asked me after I came back from my 10-destination trip to Europe.
“Ummm… I’m not sure,” I always replied. “I’m torn between Amsterdam and Paris.”
I guess I was just afraid to pick one and make a mistake. I was in both places for two days or less, how can I possibly judge a place (or ten places) based on that?
But if I quit overthinking and go with my gut, the answer is Amsterdam.
It was love at first sight.
Now I don’t know if it had anything to do with being the first place we toured, but after seeing Amsterdam, it became the high water mark that I would compare all other places to.
Day 1: Sex, Drugs, and the Freaking Cold
We reached Amsterdam via the Thalys train from Paris, the very same train where a terrorist opened fire and got tackled by some heroic Americans within the same week that we rode it.
It was a smooth three and a half hour ride which I mostly spent asleep.
The moment we got off the train, we were hit by a gust of cold wind.
“Oh my gosh why is it so cold?” Kes gasped. “I thought they said it was very hot? I didn’t bring a lot of cold weather clothes!”
I was glad I had brought a lot of leggings and two coats.
After collecting our Holland passes and grabbing very late lunches, we asked the information counter how to reach our hotel, Ibis Amsterdam Centre Stopera.
“Oh, it is just nearby,” she said. “Just walk across the water and turn right. It’s just about 5 minutes walk.”
She was so wrong.
We had to end up asking a few more people along the way about how to get there. Kes asked one of these people if this was really summer weather.
“Oh yes, this is our hottest weather,” was the reply. OMG, if this is hot, I can’t imagine what their winter is like!
The hotel turned out to be about 30 minutes away. 30 minutes of dragging your luggage over cobblestones in the cold is definitely no fun.
But that didn’t deter us from leaving the hotel to go sightseeing right after we checked in. That was when we discovered that it was a long walk and then 2 train stations away from Centraal Station. We should have booked the Ibis Hotel there instead.
We bought 48-hour train passes after asking about it from a kind train station guy who looked like Liam Neeson.
As we walked around, we noticed a lot of people eating fries out of paper cones and found ourselves in front of this store:
I remembered reading that this was one of the popular local dishes, so we bought a medium one for sharing. Boy, it was huge!
We thought it tasted pretty ordinary and couldn’t even finish the whole thing. Eeps.
Just around the corner was a coffeeshop recommended by a colleague who once lived in Amsterdam. The place is called Prix d’Ami and it’s cheap because it’s not a touristy shop but rather, one frequented by locals. They make really good iced coffee. Did we have more than just coffee? I’ll let you make your own conclusions. 😛
Afterwards, we meandered over to the red light district, which is literally lit up with red lights at night, with women posing behind huge windows, offering their services, which are completely legal.
We walked towards Casa Rosso, the most famous erotic theatre at the red light district, and bought tickets to their live show. You can’t miss it, just look for their neon pink elephant sign.
We went into an auditorium and took our seats to watch the non-stop live shows being performed on a stage. You can walk in anytime as they just rotate the shows.
The audience was composed of men and women alike, and the shows were for both men and women as well, not just men as is usually the case. Sometimes they would get volunteers from the audience and involve them in the performances.
The most scandalous parts did not involve audience participants, just a man and a woman doing it live on top of a rotating platform on the stage. It was kind of like watching an erotic dance number, I guess? It was incredibly awkward to watch, but the audience was not at all sleazy, but just a bunch of curious folks, so it felt safe.
We left after 30 minutes or so, even though the full rotation is 2 hours.
We found an Italian restaurant and had dinner there before going back to our hotel.
Day 2: Walking and Canal Tour
It rained the next day. I thought I could handle wearing my thin trench coat but the moment I stepped out in the rain I went: nope! and went back in to wear my ultra light down jacket. Drew didn’t have an umbrella and Kes lost hers the previous day, so they borrowed one from our hotel.
We took the train and walked to Dam Square, the meeting point for our free walking tour from Sandemans.
Drew and Kes bought some Dutch pastries and lattes for breakfast which we ate during the tour. We couldn’t get over how delicious they were! Yum!
Our tour guide was named Mike, and he did a good job of walking us to the different points of interest and explaining their history. I had fun learning interesting trivia, like (1) it rains a lot in Amsterdam, they experience 200+ rainy days in a year, (2) the Dutch are the tallest people in the world, and (3) the dutch king had married a woman from Argentina.
Here’s what we covered:
*The Old Church
*The Red Light District
*The Jewish Quarter
*The Jordaan District
*The Anne Frank House
*The Begijnhof Convent
*Masterpieces of Dutch Art
*The Widest Bridge and Narrowest House
*The Dutch East India Company
We took a break in the middle of the three-hour tour and went to La Place, where I insisted on having some tomato soup.
It turned out to be the best damn tomato soup anyone of us had ever tasted, and we couldn’t get over it (again).
Yes, the tour is free, but you do have to tip the guide, the amount depends on how good you think he was!
After the walking tour, my feet were so painful.
Another colleague of mine who had also lived in Amsterdam had told me that the best time to take a canal cruise is under either of two circumstances: (1) It’s raining, so you need shelter and (2) Your feet hurt and you need to put them up.
This was obviously the perfect opportunity.
We had a free one thanks to our Holland pass, so we went back to the Centraal station so we could get on a boat.
It was a good idea, as it gave me a chance to sit back, relax, and take a bajillion photos.
Don’t worry, I won’t post the entire bajillion here.
After the tour, we decided it was time to take a trip to the famous I Amsterdam sign in front of the Rijks museum and visit the Van Gogh museum, too, so we took a tram there. The trams fascinate me, because they operate like bump cars, that is, with these electric lines on top, and I’ve never been in one before.
We weren’t sure where to buy tickets for it, but it turns out you can buy them from inside the tram itself.
We witnessed an interesting episode in the tram, when a man scolded two other men who put their bags on empty seats when there were plenty of standing passengers who needed them (including us). When the guys refused to relinquish the seats, he sat beside the the second guy in his seat, forcing him to move over to the other seat. LOL. I wanted to give the guy a standing ovation. Bravo!
We hopped off our station and walked towards the Rijks museum. Much to our dismay, it was hard to take a picture with the I amsterdam sign because there were so many people with umbrellas!
So we had to settle for a picture from far away.
We wanted to go into the Van Gogh museum using our skip-the-line tickets using the Holland pass, but it turns out everyone else in the line had the same ticket and when everyone can skip the line, no one can. It was already late and the guard told us we might not be able to go in if we joined the queue at that point, so we left.
I’m sad coz Van Gogh is my favorite artist. Oh well. At least I have an excuse to go back! 😛
We tried the Rijks museum but it was already closed, so we just had some Dutch sweets and coffee at their cafe instead. So delicious, yet again!
Then we took the tram again and tried to get back to Jordaan, as it is known to be the most beautiful part of Amsterdam and I wanted to have dinner there. We asked a lot of strangers for directions until I found a woman who lived near the very restaurant we wanted to try, and she said she was walking that way and we could join her.
But when we got there, the restaurant was fully booked. So we just walked into another restaurant nearby. It was an Italian restaurant again. Kes really loved her marinara pasta there, but I hated my tasteless aglio olio.
Then we headed back to our hotel to get some rest because we had an early train ride back to Paris the next morning.
My Amsterdam tips in a nutshell:
1. Get a hotel near the Centraal station so you don’t have to drag your poor luggage over miles of cobblestones in the rain.
2. Bring an umbrella. Apparently it rains a lot there.
3. Bring a jacket. It was summer but 13 degrees. Brr.
4. Eat pastries and drink coffee everyday. Soooo yummy!
5. Take a free walking tour and buy tomato soup at La Place during the break. Sooo yummy!
6. Take a canal cruise especially if it’s raining or your feet are tired.
7. Be careful of bikes. They cause the biggest number of accidents.
8. Don’t rely on skip-the-line museum passes because everyone has them and you won’t get to skip the line at all. If planning to go to a museum, get there early.
9. If you want to try a coffeeshop, go to Prix D’Ami. It’s not a touristy place, so it’s cheap.
10. If you’re curious about sex shows, the most popular non-sleazy ones are Casa Rosso and Moulin Rouge.
I highly recommend Amsterdam. It’s such a charming place and I’d love to go back someday!