Can Amsterdam be done as a day trip? Only if your day starts at 6 am and ends at midnight, or if your whole plan for the city involves a stop at a “coffee shop” and grabbing a beer along one of the canals. If you want to get more out of the Dutch capital, I suggest you take a weekend. I wish I had.
As soon as it was confirmed that my Brussels work trip was happening and that I could tack on a weekend in Europe for myself, I knew that I would be going to Amsterdam for a day. However, with my idea of the city being very reductionist and subsequently limited to canals, weed and prostitutes, and having no interest in the latter two attractions, my plans for the journey were fairly unambitious, consisting of taking some photos of the aforementioned canals, and visiting the Van Gogh museum.
Then, as it often happens with any kind of travel, I started discussing my plans with other people and those people were full of recommendations on what to see, do and – most importantly – eat in Amsterdam. By the time I took off for my trip, I have added Dutch pancakes, Indonesian food, pickled herring, canal boat tour, Rijksmuseums and the central flower market to my Amsterdam agenda. I wasn’t worried about the new plan being overly ambitious: looking at the map of the city, everything seemed very accessible and close together. I figured 10 to 12 hours ought to be enough.
Long story short, because of the bizarre train schedule, I barely got 6. Then, because I did not pre-purchase the Van Gogh museum tickets, I wasted almost an hour at a Heineken bar waiting for my admission. THEN, because Europe doesn’t believe in 24-hour everything like Moscow and NYC do, I had to loiter around the pancake house waiting for it to open AT NOON, and forego the recommended by the Heineken bartender Indonesian restaurant, because it was closed between the very specific lunch and dinner hours. In short, lots of time wasted out the already-tight time budget, all because I did not do proper advance research. Never again! And as the icing on this very hectic cake, I arrived from the rainy +15C Brussels sporting a rather substantial outfit, only to be greeted by +25C and sun in Amsterdam, and subsequently spending the day running around sweating my *** off.
Regardless of all the madness, I had a fantastic time in Amsterdam. I just wish I had more of it.
Here is what I got to do in 6 hours in Amsterdam:
- The Van Gogh museum was well worth the bar wait. It is the most impressive collection of the artist’s works and includes the world-famous classics, a lot of lesser-known pieces, and some works by other painters who were either influenced by Van Gogh’s style, or had themselves impacted his work.
- Indonesian food was a revelation. Being a total ignoramus, I did not know that Indonesia used to be a Dutch colony and that there was any culinary connection between the two countries. And, having learned of that bit of history but having never been to Indonesia I was expecting something vaguely Thai. The vibrant flavor palette was brand new to me, and so, so, so delicious! My take-away box lasted me through the train ride back to Brussels, and that night’s dinner AND subsequent breakfast.
- OMG the Dutch pancakes! If you think $16 is too much for a pancake, then you had never tasted the light, rich, fluffy 12-inch in diameter creation stuffed with bacon and cheese and covered in pineapple, strawberries and kiwi and powdered sugar. This breakfast dish would make anyone into a morning person – except for some off reason the best place in town only starts serving it at noon!
- The canals and the boat tour. Ok, the canals are everywhere, which is great, because you don’t have to exert yourself looking for a picture-perfect spot. I found plenty while trying to pass the time waiting for the pancake place to open. The boat tour – which went from a time-frivolity to a time-necessity due to a confluence of scheduling mishaps – is a nice and relaxing way to see the city the way I am guessing a lot of natives used to.
- The flower market was disappointingly devoid of a carpet of fresh Dutch tulips, but then again, it was mid-July, way out of season. Instead I was treated to a wide variety of bulbs and seeds, ginormous and gorgeous mixed bouquets at a fraction of what they’d cost in Moscow, and bunches of dried blooms hanging from the ceiling. Definitely worth a visit.
- The bikes are INSANITY. They are indeed everywhere, carrying everyone from infants to senior citizens. I do not understand the rules that guide their movement, and I spent the day beset by utter panic that I will literally die in Amsterdam, struck by a bike. The thought of such demise rendered me catatonic, causing me to freeze still in the middle of the street looking like this, every time I saw a bicycle coming my way: Yeah, I know that not looking doesn’t help the case…
- The random ‘rest: I walked quite a bit around Amsterdam, trying to check off some of the must-sees, and only passed by one “coffee” shop – a rather seedy-looking, foul-smelling establishment. I tried the much-lauded pickled herring at a farmer’s market – the Russian version is a million times more flavorful. I also bought some hard orange Dutch cheese and it was fantastic. Everyone was really friendly and helpful. The men were very handsome, and a bunch checked me out in a very pleasant way (yeah, yeah, gay capital of Europe… at the very least it meant I looked chic). The Red Lights District was very… tame? When I walked into a bar in what was supposed to be the middle of it and asked if I was on the right track (I was passing through on the way to catch my train back to Brussels), and the waiter told me, yup, you’re indeed in the middle of it, and I replied with a disappointed “oh…,” he said that yeah, Amsterdam is a lot less naughty than it is made out to be. Then he pointed me to the “seediest” RLD alley where I could get my touristy delight, and it was, um, much more civilized than most of the NYC’s Midtown West.
What is still on my Amsterdam to-do list:
- Rijksmuseums, or the National Gallery. Primarily for all the gorgeous still lives of the Northern Renaissance, but also for one of the best art collections in the world, period. Rich imperial legacies tend to leave those.
- I definitely could have used a few more hours browsing the food stalls at the farmers’ market, trying all the cheeses and seafood and whatnot. And of course, aside from the pancakes, I am yet to explore the traditional Dutch cuisine, some of which I had read about on other blogs and it sounds fascinatingly weird,.
- Amsterdam seems like a fun shopping destination for all kinds of creative items – fashion, art, housewares. This in itself definitely warrants a return.
Have you been to Amsterdam? How much time do you think it takes to see it properly?