The Charms of Amsterdam

May 3rd, 2015

After boarding a late morning train from Den Haag Centraal Station following a day  in The Hague, we chugged north past vibrant rainbow fields of spring tulips and idyllic windmills before arriving in Amsterdam Centraal Station. Stepping out on to Stationsplein, the historic location of the harbors and what is argued to be the world’s first stock exchange with the formation of the Dutch East India Company, we were greeted with the sight of ten thousand bikes (perhaps a slight exaggeration) and a dozen trams ferrying people back and forth across the city to its main transportation hub. On a side note, for a fascinating book about Amsterdam’s history and its liberal roots check out Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto. I found it to be an enlightening and entertaining read prior to our trip. After picking up a detailed city map from the tourist office located just across the street from the train station, we boarded the #16 tram to the museum quarter where our awesome bed and breakfast for the next two nights awaited us.

Although Amsterdam city center is very walkable, the trams are fantastic for when the weather turns rainy or you are lugging a suitcase or two and a one hour ticket is available for purchase from the ticket attendant on board for only €2.80. Another option is the 24 or 48 hour tickets, also available for purchase aboard the tram; perfect if you plan to frequently utilize the tram or bus which is also included. Additionally, you can purchase the iamsterdam card, giving you unlimited access to public transport in the city as well as other benefits such as free entrance to various museums, attractions and other discounts.

There’s a free nifty Amsterdam transit app and website called 9292 (similar to citymapper for my London readers) that you can use to plan your journey, plugging in your starting point and your intended destination, and it will list all the bus, tram, train, and walking route options you can take.

After checking in, we headed off on an urban hike of the canals, starting off at Regullersgracht, passing the 7 bridges that span the canal, and winding up towards Rembrandtplein, the square commemorating the city’s famous Dutch master painter. The statue of Rembrandt was kitted out in a colorful scarf that someone, somehow, managed to drape around his neck and he was accompanied by the subjects of his renowned The Night Watch painting on the apron below him. In 2006, Russian artists Mikhail Dronov and Alexander Taratynov created a bronze-cast representation of The Night Watch as part of the artist’s 400th birthday celebration. The bronze sculptures made Rembrandt Square their permanent home in 2012 and are a tourist magnet for silly pictures, which of course Dan and I partook in later that night after the day crowds had disappeared!

 We continued our path towards the ‘bloemenmarkt’, dodging the barrage of bicycles, trams, cars, and pedestrians, before coming upon the canalside row of shops peddling dozens of varieties of tulip bulbs. In the tulip mania period of the Dutch Golden Age, prices for tulip bulbs, which had just recently been introduced to the region by botanist Carolus Clusius, reached astonishingly high marks, with some single bulbs selling for ten times the average salary of a skilled laborer at the peak of the mania in March 1637 before the sudden collapse of the market. Tulip mania is considered to be the first recorded speculative bubble and now the expression ‘tulip mania’ is used to refer to any large economic bubble that can’t conceivably last. Does the Beanie Baby craze of the 90s come to mind for anyone?

From there we made our way up Rokin, passing the Royal Palace and Dam Square before ducking into a cafe to escape the commencing rainfall and while away the afternoon over Irish coffees before our wine and cheese tasting at the Reypenaer Cheese Company. As we strolled through the Jordaan district on our way to the tasting we walked past the Anne Frank House; the line a slowly moving colorful string of bobbing umbrellas a quarter mile deep even in the pouring rain, hence why Dan and I will not be visiting the house on this trip! Even though I had just reread Anne’s diary the week before to familiarize myself with the layout of the house. Word of advice to those planning to visit Amsterdam in the future, book your tickets to the house many, many months in advance as there are limited advanced purchased tickets available.

Once we arrived at Reypenaer, we were ushered downstairs to our “classroom” and the most tantalizing spread of cheese and wine awaited us. The cheese in the 100 year old Reypenaer warehouse located in Woerden is aged naturally, allowing the organically existing microclimate in the building to affect the maturing process. The 17,000 wheels of cheese are hand-flipped to ensure even distribution of oils and minerals and are hand cleaned once a week. Sounds like a tough gig! The Reypenaer V.S.O.P gouda cheese aged for 2 years was absolutely delightful; offering a complex smoky, caramel flavor that melted on your tongue. It made me crave a hot toasty salami and dijon mustard grilled cheese sandwich!

After our Dutch cheese tutorial, we walked off the excess through the infamous De Wallen Red Light District and wandered through the Amsterdam Tulip Museum before the clouds hung heavy and the skies started pouring down rain again. They say it is easy to get lost in Amsterdam, starting north in the direction of the canal only to end up going south at some point, so that you end up walking around in circles and we humorously found ourselves back in front of the same Irish pub that we ducked into to escape the earlier deluge of rain. In again we went!

After sufficiently drying off and letting the skies clear we walked along Prinsengracht to Stadhouderskade to board our Blue Boat evening canal cruise just before the sun was due to set. As dusk settled in and Amsterdam lit up, our captain guided us up through Prinsengracht canal toward the Ij, passing under bridges and alongside Amsterdam’s landmarks while our audio guide told us of Amsterdam’s history. A few interesting tidbits I learned: there are 120 kilometers of canal ways in Amsterdam, as many bikes as there are people if not a few more, single dwellers make up 55% of the city households, the average age is under 35, and only 15% of households in the city have children. The old historical city center is ironically youthful and alive, teeming with young, single, urban dwellers. I suppose in Amsterdam that once you meet your significant other, fall in love, get married, and start a family you have to console yourself with moving out to the suburbs!

On our walk back to the hotel for the night, we detoured back to Rembrandt Square so that I could try and shoot a somewhat decent photo of the Nightwatch statues without the massive crowds that were gathered in the square earlier in the day.

Dan and I fell head over in heels in love with the charms of Amsterdam on our first day of exploring the rich history and unique quirks of the liberal city. It truly is one of the world’s greatest small cities. Tomorrow, we will make our way to the east side of the city center, exploring the city’s WWII history and joining Amsterdam in their national Remembrance Day commemoration events.

*Check out my handy printable travel guide here to plan your own long weekend Amsterdam getaway! 

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