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Trip Report Trip Report: Eight Days in Amsterdam and Belgium

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Trip Report Amsterdam/Belgium 2015

Our fifteen year old daughter had been longing to visit Amsterdam since she read The Fault in Our Stars. After the movie came out, she got kind of pushy about it. Also, our 18-year-old starts college later this summer, so I viewed this as one of our last family trips before she, like her two older siblings, begins her own life and abandons me. Therefore, when the 15-year-old found direct flights from Orlando to Amsterdam for $700 round trip, we (two parents, two teen girls) decided to visit The Netherlands and Belgium for a bit over a week.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time on various travel boards to arrange this trip, and appreciate the help I got from others; hopefully, somebody else can benefit from our experiences. I will try to provide prices and details for what we did, but I forgot to write stuff down, so I’m working from memory and the photos I took on my cell phone. Feel free to post or to PM if you need clarification of details or have specific questions. I tend to schedule our vacations pretty tightly, and we do not think of travel as relaxing or slow paced. With the help of the travel boards and guidebooks, almost everything worked out perfectly.

I bought Eurail passes for this trip. At the time we bought the passes, we got four six-day Benelux saver passes for $708 (there was a one “free day” sale). I haven’t done the exact math to determine whether the passes were a good deal, but my “pre-purchase” research showed that they were approximately break-even compared with purchasing point to point tickets. We had to validate these tickets at the Eurail office at the train station (in Amsterdam it is the large office to the far left as you walk in) but it didn’t take too long. I enjoyed having the passes because it avoided the hassle of purchasing tickets for each journey.

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    Day One – Saturday/Sunday

    Our flights left on a Saturday evening from Orlando-Sanford airport. We booked on budget carrier ArkeFly. Although this airline gets awful reviews, I didn’t find it so bad. The plane in both directions was a brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and while cramped, the legroom was no worse than most American carriers these days (and I’m tall, with long legs). They do charge for checked bags (8 euros each), sodas, and movies, but they gave us one meal and tepid water to drink, so that was nice. The fact that the flight was direct was definitely a bonus and saved some time.

    We arrived in Amsterdam on Sunday morning – none of us slept on the plane at all, but I watched six and a half episodes of “True Detective” on my Kindle (ArkeFly charges for movies). I pre-booked Tinker car service to take us to our apartment. Tinker was about 32 euro from the airport to our apartment on Herenstraat (near the Anne Frank house). Tinker had emailed directions for finding their representative, and a young lady was waiting for us as promised with a sign that read “Tinker.” The sign-holder took us to a waiting car. Nice and easy. Tinker was about twice as expensive as taking the train to Central Station, but we, as a group, tend to get lost easily (which became a recurring theme on this trip), so I didn’t want to worry about finding our apartment when we were jet lagged and dragging heavy suitcases over brick streets.

    I booked an apartment for five days in Amsterdam through Maes and Heren B&B's and Herenstraat Apartments. I chose this particular apartment because of its location and because it has two bedrooms and two bathrooms – the second a huge plus with two teen girls. The apartment comprises the top two floors of a very narrow four story Dutch house. The stairs to the apartment are (almost) impossibly narrow and steep, but I loved the apartment itself, and because the bedrooms are on the top floor, it is really quiet at night. The apartment doesn’t have a washing machine, so that is a disadvantage – especially if you have to carry nine days’ of clothing up those stairs. However, the location was great, and I will probably choose this apartment again if I am lucky enough to get back to Amsterdam. The price was about $240 per night.

    By the time we settled into the apartment it was early afternoon. We had 5:30 reservations for the Anne Frank house, so we needed to find a place to buy he museumkaart and I was eager to explore a bit. I loved walking around Amsterdam – it is just neat! It was crowded and touristy around Central Station and Dam square (and kind of stinky due to the smell of cannabis), but there were lots of decent restaurants and cheap places to grab a bite. We stopped at a sandwich shop and got plenty of food for less than 20 euros – no drinks. Next, we went to the Nieuwe Kerk to view the World Press photo exhibit and bought the museumkaart there – I think the cost was about 180 euros for two adults and two students. (This was a great purchase). I enjoyed the photo exhibit at the Nieuwe Kerk and it was not crowded at all so I could actually stand and read the captions on the photos that interested me without worrying that I was in somebody’s way. The church architecture is pretty too.

    After a rest back at the apartment we went to our 5:30 reservations at the Anne Frank house which was only a 5-10 minute walk away. People are not kidding when they warn you to make reservations ahead of time. The line to buy tickets stretched for blocks. I made reservations in April and could only get Sunday evening tickets for the entire five days we were in Amsterdam (in June). We paid the extra five dollars each for the pre-visit explanation and I think it was worth it, although each of us kept dozing off because of jet lag. Overall, the Anne Frank house museum does a nice job of humanizing the Franks and portraying what the families endured during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. The rooms in which the Frank family stayed are empty of furniture and the volume of people in the museum – many who do not appear to understand the concept of moving in a line or waiting their turn to look at an exhibit – detract from the experience. I found myself so wedged in at times that I felt claustrophobic and kept having to pause, and tell myself to “breath.” I don’t know that I would visit again. However, we were all so tired from the overnight plane ride that we probably had short fuses. Hint – you can’t take photographs in the house, so leave the camera bags or backpacks at home.

    After leaving the Anne Frank house, we got some sandwiches, salads, sodas, and tangerine juice (really good) at an Albert Heijn grocery store. We visited this store numerous times on our trip – it’s really inexpensive and fast. They don’t accept credit cards, but we had no problem getting cash from the ING cash machine in the store. Also, the plastic grocery bags are 0.35 euro apiece so hang on to them for re-use. We were in bed by 9p.m. which is broad daylight in Amsterdam in June, but we had no problem sleeping.

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    Day Two -Monday
    We awoke to perfect weather. I had made reservations for nine o’clock at the Van Gogh museum. Reservations are free and probably saved us at least a half hour in the line, so I really recommend them. We walked to the museum. On the map, it looked like quite a trek from our apartment to museum square, but it didn’t seem so bad in practice even though we kind of got lost on the way and had to backtrack quite a bit. This was our opportunity to enjoy Amsterdam’s canals and quirky architecture. On the way, we stopped at “the bench” from the Fault in Our Stars movie, and my daughter took about a hundred photographs.

    The Van Gogh museum is not huge, and because we had reservations, we were able to walk right in. You can check bags for free. I can’t remember how much time we spent inside, but it probably wasn’t more than 90 minutes. There are some really cute souvenirs in the gift shop and I am a little disappointed that I didn’t buy a Sunflowers scarf. In addition to Van Gogh paintings and history, there were quite a few Monet paintings on display, and my 18-year-old concluded that she liked them more than the Van Goghs. She ended up ordering two Monet posters for her apartment when she goes to college. The line to get in the museum was even longer when we left, so again – consider reservations.

    Vondel Park isn’t far from the museums, so after taking the obligatory photographs at the IAmsterdam sign, we headed over there. My girls chose to climb on the “t” in Amsterdam for the IAmsterdam photos. When I review my photos now (for this report) my girls appear to be callously sitting atop the cross of a church. I think I should have stepped back a little to get more letters in the picture. Anyway, I think it was about a ten minute walk from museum square to Vondel Park. We stopped at the fountain with the Vondel statue, and watched a well-built man do yoga for awhile. My girls attempted to do cartwheels. I wish we had rented bicycles to explore the park for an hour or so. If I had it to do again, I would have scoped out bike shops ahead of time.

    We walked back to museum square and bought some sweatshirts as souvenirs (15 euro apiece) and ate at a hamburger stand with seating. I think four burgers, potato chips, and sodas cost about 35 euro – not too bad for such a touristy area. The condiment stand was a bit different than in the US so that was fun to play with.

    After eating we visited the Rijksmuseum. There was no wait to get in and there were lockers to store our bags and jackets. Note: although the locker takes a euro coin, you get that back when you pick up your stuff, so they are effectively free. This museum is large and I hadn’t done much research to find the highlights, but we wandered around and saw many strange pieces of art as well as the Vermeer milkmaid painting, “Nightwatch” and the huge paintings of Napolean at Waterloo (it was almost exactly the 200th anniversary of Napolean’s defeat when we were there). Lastly we went upstairs to see some of the more modern things such as the airplane and furniture. When doing my research, I had seen a tour of the building (as opposed to the exhibits) and I wondered why they would offer such a tour. I understand now. The building is beautiful, and if I return to Amsterdam, I think it would be worthwhile to take the tour of the building itself.

    We had passed the Blue Boat canal tour stand while walking between Van Gogh and Vondel Park, so after visiting Rijksmuseum, we went back to inquire as to times and prices. It was a beautiful day, and one of the open boats had room on it and was about to depart so we took that one. I think it was about 70 euro for the four of us. We enjoyed the tour, which lasted about 75 minutes, but I thought the price was steep compared with some of the other things we did on our trip. However, a canal boat tour is considered a “must do” when visiting Amsterdam, so we did.

    By this time it was almost four o’clock and we had scheduled a five o’clock “Sunset Wetlands Safari” tour which met up at Central Station so we hoofed it all the way over there. The walk seemed a lot longer in this direction, but I think that was because we were tired. This tour was one of my favorite things we did on this trip. We met up with the guide (Majel) and it happened that we were the only four scheduled for the evening tour and picnic. We took a bus over to the Landschap wetlands preserve – only about a ten minute ride. There we had a drink while Majel used a map to explain to us a little of the geological (or hydrological) history of the area and the polder lands. She also told us about a protected species of migratory bird (the name escapes me) that ensures that this area of wetlands stay protected. We took canoes out into the canals of the wetlands while Majel told us about the area. (Hint: although the weather was great, it got a little chilly out there. I wore the life vest for warmth and it worked well.) It was really fun and so educational. As Majel said, “most people who come to Amsterdam go to museums to see paintings of the Dutch countryside, but don’t actually go out and see the Dutch countryside!” We saw the tiny windmills that still pump water and stopped to have a nice picnic on a little island with really unstable soil. The girls had a great time jumping up and down – you could feel that there was water underneath the earth. They also put on Majel’s wooden shoes, and decided that they did not like them. I didn’t like them either, but I think my feet were bigger than Majel’s and wood doesn’t allow for much “squeezing in” so the shoes hurt. At the end of the tour, we stopped at a little restaurant and had hot cocoa, then rode the bus back to Central Station. Overall, the tour lasted about four hours and was about 140 euro all in. I thought this was a terrific price (remember, it included dinner, and two drinks). I cannot recommend this tour highly enough. Loved it.

    Except for the time spent paddling the canoes, we had been on our feet the entire day, so we were really tired. After our drop-off at Central Station, we walked towards the apartment, passing through portions of the red-light district on the way. I found it uncomfortable to see the ladies (and some men) in the windows – it felt as if I was seeing something I shouldn’t. We slept well that night.

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    DAY THREE - Tuesday

    Today was our Leiden/Rotterdam day. When my 15 year old did research on this trip, she found the Biodiversity Museum (Naturalis) in Leiden that she wanted to visit and she also found a Segway tour in Rotterdam that would allow her (at only 15 years old) to participate. Since Leiden is on the way to Rotterdam, we decided to combine Leiden and Rotterdam as a day trip. When I booked the Segway tour, it was only five euro extra to book a harbor tour in Rotterdam on the Spido so I figured we could do it all in one day. Turns out we could do almost all.

    Leiden has a really terrific huge windmill called De Valk which is open for exploring. It is covered by the museumkaart so we decided to take a look at it before visiting Naturalis. My guidebook stated that the windmill was a five minute walk from the train station. My husband thought he spotted the windmill as we pulled into Leiden station, so we jumped off the train and headed in the direction of his windmill sighting. We needed to be quick because our train had left Central Station about 45 minutes later than scheduled – no explanation was given. Anyway, after about 45 minutes of walking through a residential section of Leiden (including a walk through a lovely forested garden which I am pretty sure was posted with the Dutch equivalent of a “no trespassing” sign), we finally discovered that the windmill DH had spotted was on private property. (My husband’s completely serious excuse was “who knew there were so many windmills in Holland?”). Upon return to the train station and a chat with a friendly man at the tourist information office, it turned out that De Valk is, indeed, a five minute walk from the station, albeit not in the same direction which we had initially walked. I didn’t find much information on this windmill on the boards (although I did see a lot of questions about windmills), but it is really worth visiting. There is a short film, after which you get to climb all the way to the top of the windmill, and the views are stunning. Plus, its just fun to explore a genuine old windmill. I will warn you that most of the rooms are accessible only on very steep ladder-like stairs. We were the only people there the entire visit. The trains pass through Leiden on the way to Rotterdam and The Hague, so I recommend a quick stop at De Valk, even if Leiden isn’t otherwise on your radar screen – especially if you have a museumkaart. I think you could do the entire visit on an hour and fifteen minutes. Oh, and the supermarket just outside the Leiden train station has really good asiago cheese buns for only 45 euro cents!

    After De Valk, we visited the Naturalis museum. My 15 year old loved it because she adores those types of museums (actually, the 18 year old liked it too). There are numerous fossils and animal specimens. All the way upstairs you can watch some of the scientists and curators working. One lady talked to my girls, showing them a dead bird that they were trying to preserve. We stayed quite a while. I thought the museum was nicely done, but only the equivalent of a very good natural history museum in the states.

    After the Naturalis, we took the train to Rotterdam. Rotterdam’s train station looks like the bow of a ship from the outside. (Hint: if you have the Eurail pass you have to scan the bar code on the back of the envelope to open the gates to exit the station. Otherwise, you are trapped.). What a cool looking city. Rotterdam is the polar opposite of a quaint European town, and I loved it. It was almost completely destroyed during World War II, and it was built back with both a sense of humor and a sense of style. We took the tram over to Markthal – I think its a walkable distance from the station, but we needed a tram pass to get to our Segway tour anyway, so we took the tram. The one-day tram passes were 7.50 euro each. A bit steep, I thought. The guy at the tourist information center gave us clear directions to Markthal and let me have a map of Rotterdam for free, even though they are usually one euro (maybe because I groused about the cost of the tram pass). Markthal is a remarkable building – I promise that you’ve never seen anything like it – Google images does not do it justice. It is just so much larger and cooler than I had expected it to be. We were really hungry by this time because the combination of the late train from Amsterdam, the first windmill search, and my girls’ love of the Naturalis, put us in Rotterdam about two hours later than I had intended, and I had wanted to eat at Markthal. I can’t remember exactly all we ate (we bought from several vendors), but we did have fries with mayonnaise because I had read about the delicious Dutch fries – the fries were fine, but I didn’t care for the combination! (Hint: the portions of fries are huge -- at least at the fry stand right in the middle of the Markthal behind the cheese stand – and I ended up throwing some away).

    I had hoped to take the Spido harbor tour after Markthal, but we were running late so we had to head over to the Euromast area to take our Segway tour. The tour runs from the building and restaurant slightly to the right of the Euromast as you face the harbor with the Euromast at your back. (It wasn’t well marked as the Segway meeting point). Again, we were the only people on the tour, so that was nice. After learning the basics and practicing for awhile, we rode through a pretty park, and along the harbor, and over an older draw bridge and back over the beautiful Erasmus bridge. Our guide was pleasant, but his English wasn’t good, so we didn’t learn much about Rotterdam. The buildings throughout the city are amazing. I took a ton of pictures, but its tough to do the unusual architecture justice with a cell phone camera. Segways are really fun, although I think my 18-year old was nervous the entire time and focused solely on operating the machine rather than looking at the city. The 15-year old was a natural. The tour ran a little better than an hour and cost 200 euros (including Spido; it would have been 180 without).

    After the Segway tour, it was pushing 9pm and we were really exhausted so we took the tram back to central station and the slow train back to Amsterdam (we didn’t know how to (and didn’t want to) pay the 2.40 supplement to take the faster train to Amsterdam)). If I come back to the Netherlands, I want to spend several days in Rotterdam.

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    DAY FOUR - Wednesday

    I knew we were going to be physically tired after Monday and Tuesday so we planned an “off the feet” day for Wednesday. In Rick Steve’s guidebook, he describes a trip called “The Historic Triangle” that is more sight-seeing than adventure, so we decided to check it out. This involved taking the regular train to Hoorn from Central Station around 9am; a steamtrain (“stoomtram”) from Hoorn to Mendemblik; and a steamboat from Mendemblik to an open air museum at Enkhuizen.

    The train ride from Central Station to Hoorne was about 35 minutes. At Hoorn, there is a cute old time station with a steam train that travels up to Mendemblik. The Hoorne station was surprisingly crowded for a Wednesday, but there was plenty of room on the stoomtram because they just add more cars if it gets crowded. The ticket for the stoomtram is covered by the museum pass.

    The steam train left Hoorne at about 10:40, and it was about a 1.5 hour ride to Mendemblik. The scenery was fun – especially when we went out to the back of the train to watch the world go by and waved at the people in the cars who had to stop and wait. There are flower fields and windmills. I do think my teens were getting a little bored towards the end of the stoomtram, but the smaller kids I saw on the train seemed to have a terrific time. I was glad for an opportunity to give my feet a rest.

    We arrived at Mendemblik right at noon. It’s a pretty town, right on the Zuiderzee. By the time we arrived, we were all hungry (even though they were selling snacks on the train, we didn’t buy any). We got our tickets for the steamship at the train station – they are also covered by the museum pass—then headed out looking for sustenance. There is one main street through Mendemblik and we walked down it for quite a while and saw a restaurant called De Counter that sold hamburgers and fried fish. The portions were huge, and the bill was low – maybe 30 euro for all four of us, including four tiny coke lights.

    The MS Friesland is the steamship that runs from Mendemblik to the open air museum at Enkhulzen. I enjoyed this part of the triangle trip more than the stoomtram because I found the scenery more attractive. For some reason, we passed three or four tall ships – not sure if there was a race going on, or if its just a thing to do on nice windy days on the Zuiderzee. The views are best from the open top deck, but it was chilly so we set up camp in the dining room, ordered hot chocolate, and made frequent visits to the top. Upon approach to Enkhuizen, the police buzzed by us on their jet skis a number of times. That was fun. The view as you come into the harbor at Enkhuizen is really beautiful, so I recommend that you go to the top deck for this.

    The Zuiderzee open air museum is very pretty and quite nice to explore. During my research for this trip, I didn’t realize how large this museum is – I hadn’t budgeted nearly enough time to see it all (not sure that we could have budgeted more time because there is only one stoomtram per day-- a least when we were there). There are dozens of old houses, a church, and an entire small town to explore including a large harbor area with historic old boats. We didn’t spend enough time here – we didn’t even have time to visit the indoor museum which appeared to be quite large. Near the museum’s closing time, we walked back to the train station at Enkhuizen, but got really lost on the way. This added at least an hour of walking on my planned “low activity” day. I would recommend either taking the ferry to the station, or at least asking for directions before you set out.

    Instead of taking the train all the way back to Amsterdam Central from Enkhuizen, we hopped off at Sloterdijk and took the commuter train to Zandvoort a Zee. Even though it was getting late and we were tired, we wanted to look at the North Sea before we left Holland. It is only about thirty minutes from Sloterdijk to Zandvoort a Zee by train. The scenery after Harlem is quite lovely – the large dunes are the closest to hills I saw on this trip! By the time we arrived, the sun was setting, and it was cloudy and windy. The beach is only a 5 or 10 minute walk from the train station at Zandvoort. We saw some people using kites to surf on the water and lots of people out with their dogs. We rolled up our jeans, walked down to the water – dodging tons of washed up jellyfish on the way—waded out for for a few seconds, and headed back to the town – it was cold! I had thought there would be a boardwalk with lots of restaurants, but it was pretty sparse pickings; perhaps because we were there on a Wednesday evening, or maybe I just didn’t know where to look. We hopped back on the train and picked up sandwiches from the Albert Heijn near Central Station. It rained all the way back to the apartment.

    Hopefully, my stream-of-consciousness rambling is coherent! I will try to post more tomorrow! In the meantime, happy to clarify or answer questions.

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    Wow! My head is swimming from all you were able to see and do. I love all the details- I will be in Amsterdam for a week in September (plus 2 days in Bruges), and find this trip report very helpful in planning my trip. Lots of great ideas! Waiting for more....

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    great planning, and I am so impressed that you were there on time for your Ann Frank tour, let alone the Van Gogh museum at 9am the next day. I would have trouble getting my lot to do that and we only live in the UK!

    Stream of consciousness or not, keep it coming.

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    Thanks for the feedback!

    I was hoping to get another part of my trip report written this evening, but my husband and the 15-year old turned on the Women's World Cup game. Generally, I don't watch soccer, but this particular game was too distracting for multi-tasking!

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    Great report and some good decisions from start.
    I learnt recently that haveing multiple bathrooms in an appartment is indeed a good idea.
    Buying tickets in advance is also a very wise choice. 5$ more is nothing compared to the overal cost of one hour of waiting in line for a short vacation...

    Waiting for the real good part of the trip report - Belgium !

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    After reading your report, I have to say that your "tendency to schedule trips tightly" is the understatement of the century! My knees and hips are hurting just reading this. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful TR of a wonderful trip. thank you for taking us along for the ride. I am looking forward to more!

    As a help to old eyes, could you maybe, please, break your paragraphs into smaller sections?

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    Thanks for the feedback. Its been a little slow getting this report written -- my pesky job keeps getting in the way.

    Cheapessay -- I did not notice a big difference in prices between The Netherlands and Belgium. That said, we aren't big shoppers or eaters, so I wouldn't have noticed in that respect. I think beer was a bit cheaper in Belgium (but my sample size on that is two). I do know that our hotel in Brugges was quite a bit less expensive than I could find in Amsterdam, but about the same as the nicer hotel in Rotterdam that we stayed in on our last night.

    Annhig -- As far as vacations go, I am lucky that my kids are early risers. OTOH, you might notice that we don't do much in the evenings!

    Irish -- I will try to break down the paragraphs. They look fine in my word processor, but when I cut and paste in Fodors, the paragraphs look so long! Sorry.

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    DAY FIVE – THURSDAY

    Today we visited The Hague.

    We left Amsterdam a bit after eight in order to meet our guide. I pre-arranged a tour with John at tourthehague.com because I really didn’t know how to prioritize my time here, and wanted to see as much as possible. (Also, I know from experience that I weary around day five, and needed to let somebody else “drive” for awhile).

    John met us at The Hague central station, and we immediately began walking while he told us stories about the city he so obviously loves. After hearing some of the history of the city, we visited the Binnenhof where many government offices are located. Binnenhof is beautiful – it looks like something out of a fairy tale. Seriously, look up images of this place – its much lovelier in person especially the morning when nobody else is there. We were early enough that we had the entire square to ourselves so John was able to tell is a bit about Dutch politics.

    While we were at the Binnenhof, a black BMW drove up and Mark Rutte (the prime minister of The Netherlands) got out of the passenger side just a few feet away. He waved to our little group which made my fifteen year old giddy with excitement. Unfortunately, he went inside before she got her camera out.

    After our brush with greatness, we visited the little museum underneath the knights hall (I think that’s the name) where there is a display on the annual royal procession and a display showing the monarchy history. I wouldn’t have known the display was down there without John (but now you do – the stairs down to the museum are on the right of the building as you face it).

    We left Binnenhof and wandered through the town to a shopping mall called Passage which is the oldest mall in the Netherlands. The mall is pretty, and you can put your face in a cutout of “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” (yes, its tacky, but we all did it). Otherwise Passage is just a shopping mall with many of the same stores you can find in the US.

    We walked towards the International Court of Justice. Along the way, we learned some about the relationship between The Netherlands and Indonesia and John pointed out numerous mansions built by people who made their fortunes in Indonesia. The top floors of many of these impossibly huge houses contained quarters for servants, but in order to save money, the floors were only 3-4 feet high. I kind of got obsessed with spotting the “half stories.”

    There was also an art sculpture festival going on – I’m not sure if it was a contest or just a display— and one of the roads through a park displayed dozens of large displays. Frankly I thought most (but not all) of the sculptures were just weird. For instance, one was an old car on which someone had put dirt and then planted grass, enclosing it all in plastic because the smell is supposed to be part of the art.

    When we reached the International Court of Justice, we briefly visited the visitor’s center (they have headphones in English) and John explained a bit about international civil arbitration – I wish I knew a little more about it. The Court was not conducting tours on the day we visited. That is a little too bad because the building itself is really pretty.

    We headed over to the Museum Mesdag to see Mesdag’s Panorama. This is a huge painting with a purpose-built room showing a depiction of Scheveningen (a fishing village) as it appeared in 1881. This painting is really nice! (There was a lot going on in 1881). I highly recommend a visit if you are in The Hague. This is especially true since the museum takes 45 minutes or less to thoroughly enjoy. John knew a lot about the history and details of this painting as well as the history of Mr. Mesdag, his wife, and the painting. He made it so interesting. This museum demonstrates why I think the Museumkaart is such a good deal. Entry would have been almost 40 euro had we paid full price.

    After Mesdag, we wandered over to the new city hall. It isn’t far from the Passage we had visited earlier. This futuristic building is definitely worth a visit. Look up images of “The Hague City Hall” on Google. They don’t do it justice. I definitely didn’t expect to see a building that looked like this in The Hague. You can visit for free and there is a museum downstairs with a continuous-loop video playing showing photographs and video about the history of The Hague.

    Since we were the only people in the video area, John was able to explain some of the photos that were showing and loop together some of the stories he had told us earlier. We took the elevator up as high as we could so that we could view the atrium. I looked up this building on the internet afterwards and it seems that you can arrange a tour of the building. If I get back to The Hague, I will try to take that tour.

    It was early afternoon when we were done with City Hall – time to part ways with John. I can’t remember exactly what he charged (my husband paid) but I think it was either 130 or 150 euro for the day (about 6 hours if I recall). I thought it was more than worth it. I could have done research and figured out things to look for on my own, but I wouldn’t have known the stories and wouldn’t have been able to see half as much. (And we would have gotten a few times).

    I’m sure I left plenty out that John showed us (like the large beautiful church with graves on the floor that is no longer a church and the stories about the guys who tried to overthrow the monarchy).

    We were really hungry by now and I had heard of a special Netherland’s McDonald’s sandwich called the McCroquet which I wanted to try. We left City Hall and headed towards an area near the Passage with tons of fast food restaurants, including McDonalds. Ordering a meal at this store was one of the few times we had trouble communicating in English. We thought we ordered all kinds of interesting different menu items, but ended up with three Big Macs and some weird egg/pea thing on a bun. I am not a food snob by any means (I actually like Big Macs), but the egg/pea thing was awful. And this meal cost us about 34 euro!

    Nevertheless, revitalized after our egg/pea meal, we headed back out. John had advised is to visit deBijenkorf department store right outside the Passage in order to view the stained glass windows gracing each of the stairway landings. The windows are indeed beautiful (each is different) and worth a quick visit to this otherwise unremarkable store (think Macy’s or Dillards in the US).

    We walked upstairs to look at the windows (and to visit the toilets). On the third floor, I saw a beautiful cafeteria with sandwiches that looked delicious and were very nicely presented. They looked to run between 3 and 7 euro – less than McDonalds, and no crowds. Although I can’t attest to the taste (but how bad can a sandwich that isn’t made from eggs and peas be?), I would recommend foregoing fast food and eating lunch at this lovely restaurant. I was disappointed that we had rushed lunch, but we were so hungry!

    We wandered the shopping area near Passage for awhile and picked up a ton of souvenirs at a small discount department store near deBijenkorf – underneath the Albert Heijns if I recall correctly. I can’t remember the name (it started with an “E”) but the store appeared to be a cross between Ikea and Dollar General. The same little trinkets available at the tourist shops in Amsterdam were here for about 1/3 the price. I bought some knickknacks and potholders for friends. My kids stocked up on porcelain figurines of windmills for their friends and my husband bought a giant salt shaker.

    Our final destination in The Hague was a visit to Mauritshuis. I was afraid that it would be crowded because we had not reserved a time slot online. However, we were lucky enough to just walk right in. Maybe because it was almost 4:30 by this time?

    I had thought we would just go straight to the “famous” paintings, and head out, but we stayed until they were getting ready to shut it for the evening (probably 90 minutes or so). This was my favorite art museum on this trip – maybe ever. Maritshuis is just the right size for a museum – you actually can see most of the collection in a couple of hours – and the collection is especially nice, more small paintings.

    My 18 year old especially liked Willem van Haecht’s “Apelles Painting Campaspe,” and bought a poster at the gift shop. I was not familiar with this particular piece – its really fun; a painting of paintings. Apparently, this painter is known for his gallery paintings. I may look for a book for my daughter. Oh, and the outside elevator at the Maurishuis is fun. I took pictures of my girls riding up – it looks like a spaceship.

    I know its been said before, but I think Mauritshuis is a “can’t miss.” In fact, I would recommend it over the Reijksmuseum (if you only have time for one).

    We took the train back to Amsterdam. I was beat by the time we reached the apartment (I think John said we had walked six miles during our time with him) and needed to pack up for tomorrow’s trip to Belgium, but the girls and my husband went back out to shop. They are indefatigable.

    I liked The Hague a lot – I think we would have liked it even if we hadn’t had a guide, but I know we wouldn’t have seen or learned as much had I tried to do it on my own. It was a good day.

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    thanks for the tour of The Hague, Laura! I feel that I've been there myself - without the weariness though. Good idea to book the guide - it sounds as if he did an excellent job, as did you with the other activities you found. It's definitely going on my list as a place to visit the next time we go to the Netherlands.

    I would never manage to get my kids out so early on a regular basis, so it's unlikely that we would ever have seen as much as you but OTOH we do go out at night quite a lot [nothing too exciting, normally a stroll and a meal] and they hate McDs with a passion, so we'd have been in the dept store eating those yummy sandwiches. [or more likely in a pub so their dad and I could have a beer!]

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    Ha ms_go -- I think the lower apartment would have been easier to access!

    DAY SIX – FRIDAY

    We had to get up very early to make our train to Brussels. Because we had the train passes, we couldn’t take the high speed. However, the 5:52 would get us into Brussels at 9:10 – in plenty of time for our 10:00 bike tour-- so we took that.

    It was an easy train trip, although we got scolded by a snarky train conductor because I hadn’t been logging our separate trips on our tickets (I wrote in the dates used – just didn’t write each leg, but he threatened to confiscate the tickets because I hadn’t logged each individual trip we had taken). None of the other conductors had said anything. But mu helpful hint to others is to log each individual trip!

    We got into Brussels right on time, put our bags in a locker (5 euro), and walked downhill to the main square. It’s really pretty. The delivery trucks were crazy. We scheduled a 10:00 bike tour with Brussels City Tours which met us in the main square and had us walk to their shop to get us the bikes.

    Generally, I like every tour I go on, but I don’t think Brussels is the best city for a bike tour. The city is busy, hilly, and has streets made of bumpy Belgian blocks (who knew!). In addition, our guide, while ok, didn’t seem to love doing bicycle tours. She rode really fast, which turned out to be a problem because we had an older gentleman on our tour who rode rather slowly, and my husband would stay back to ensure that he knew where we were going, and in the meantime, the guide would be gone.

    It was stressful for me to try to bridge the distance between the guide and the end of the line while dodging the traffic. I think we would have covered most of the distance in a walking tour. However, we did go out to see the EU buildings, and that was nice. Plus, I just like riding bikes. (Actually, while flipping through my phone pictures, I am remembering how pretty Brussels is!).

    After the bike tour, we wandered the square a bit before meeting up for our afternoon chocolate tour – also with Brussels City Tours (35euro pp). This tour was way more fun than the bike tour. We had the same guide, but she was obviously more enthusiastic about chocolate than she was biking. She was a bit of a chocolate snob. We visited five or six chocolate shops around the town while learning so much about the history and methods of making chocolate.

    We started with the least expensive (the guide compared it to Ryanair) and continued to a place where the chocolates cost several hundred dollars per kilo (First class on Singapore Airlines). I love chocolate – all chocolate – so this was a special treat for me. It was also eye-opening – I am so very fortunate because my favorite praline came from the second least expensive shop!

    Actually, although I found the most expensive piece quite beautiful and tasty (it kind of tasted like a canned mandarin orange dipped in melted chocolate chips), I felt a bit like the boy viewing the emperor’s new clothes and wondered whether anyone (a least most non-confectioners) could really tell the difference between the chocolate shops. Yes, the pralines are definitely better than the average Hershey’s bar, but I think that’s because they are freshly hand-made in the shops from better ingredients – not mass produced. I could not have lined up the pieces by price. But maybe I don’t have a refined palate. Anyway, I really recommend this walking tour in Brussels if you have a few hours. Bring a water bottle – I got really thirsty.

    We returned to the train station after the chocolate tour. I wonder if we got scammed a little at the station? Some kids (college aged boys) approached us at the locker, asking if we had any euro coins so that they could open their locker. They seemed legit and a bit confused about how to work the lockers, but we noticed that even after we gave them the requested 2 euro, they didn’t try to operate the locker. I didn’t recognize the language they were speaking and their English was limited, so they may have been legitimately confused about the mechanics. Anyway, it doesn’t seem to be a particularly productive scam if it is one.

    The train to Bruges took only an hour. The station was crazy busy when we arrived about 6:30 p.m. so instead of trying to walk to our hotel with bags, we took a cab. It was a good idea (and only cost a few euro – maybe six or seven). We stayed at the ‘tVoermanshuys bed and breakfast right off the market square. This is the perfect location in Bruges. The rooms were fine – really large and clean. It also included breakfast which was nice to have.

    None of us were hungry enough for dinner so we just grabbed a couple of cheap salads at the Quickburger on the main square (not really good) and wandered around this most amazing of towns. I loved it.

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    Looking forward to reading more about your visit to Bruges. Chocolate - any chocolate is better than Hershey's - the worst chocolate I have ever had. Glad you found a not too expensive chocolate that you liked.

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    Your report is great! I love how much you packed into your trip! All of your details are very much appreciated. I’m looking forward to the continuation of your adventure.

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    Quite nice.

    We tour Bruxelles each year on bike during the car-free week-end in september and each time we are so surprised to realize te city is quite hilly.
    And I wouldn't trust the drivers - we are globally noted as bad drivers and are not (yet) accustomed to sharing the streets with bikes.

    But yes, chocolate and beers... and mussels...
    Great report. Enjoyable and the efforts of splitting the paragraphs make it much easy to read.

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