Trip Report ' Amsterdam
(subtitled "Pancakes, frikadel, more pancakes and the quest for Vermeer")
When: April School Vacation
Who: Your truly and her dear (younger) sister
Why: Sister's first trip to Europe and the quest to see as many Vermeers, Van Goghs and tulips in one week
How: Took IcelandAir from Boston to KEF and then on to AMS. Completely painless, especially after being upgraded to first class on the way over. That meant nothing more than more legroom and a wider seat (no other services were offered to us), but I got 4 solid hours of sleep which is wonderful. Transferring at KEF took literally 7 minutes. I had been worried about doing it in an hour. By getting off the plane first and getting through passport control before the other 150 on the flight, that was nice. But we still would've made it anyway. And so did our bags.
Weather: We were there during the stretch of 3+ weeks of no rain and bright sun. In fact it was over 80 two of the days we were there.
Best Buy: FORGET THE I-AMSTERDAM CARD!!! If you get the Annual Museum pass, you can get into any number of museums all over the Netherlands for free, multiple times, with no time restriction (ie ' 1 day, 3 day, 5 day). It was 34.50E for us and we ended up seeing 68E worth of museums in a week. This covers everything from the biggies in Amsterdam (including the churches but not Anne Frank) and smaller museums outside Amsterdam (including Maurithuis but not Kroller-Muller). You do not get the tram access with this pass that you would with I-Amsterdam but neither are you restricted to a certain number of days to fit in all your museum time. We found we hardly took trams around Amsterdam anyway, as everything was so walkable.
Staying: We stayed at Hotel Zandbergen, a B&B which lies between Museumplein and Vondelpark. The neighborhood is residential and very very quiet. There are two tram stops on the #2 line within about 100 feet of the front door. The #2 runs to Centraal Station and just about anywhere else you're going to want to go in the city center. The room was dead quiet and immaculately clean. We had room #19 off the lobby, but there was the main door to our room, a short hallway with a bathroom, then another door into our room. The double doors helped squelch any lobby noise we may have heard. Breakfasts were buffet style and ran the gamut to all cold offering (cereal, pastry, meats, fruit) and hard boiled eggs which the host did as you waited. The coffee (brand "DE" he said?) was out of this world, and it helped having it with a thick and creamy condensed milk. Oooh la la! The host has recently taken the hotel over from the Vonks, who I'd never met but had read about extensively on Trip Advisor. You'd never know if he was new to this or not. He is incredibly hospitable, knows when to offer up information and how much to tell you, is eager to answer questions and was genuinely interested in seeing that our experience was all that we had hoped. We loved this man, who unfortunately we never found a name for! I cannot recommend this B&B enough. In many, many trips to Europe, this was my best accommodation experience. Hands down.
Pre-trip reading: Yes, I overplan. I re-read Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, the fictional The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, the historical account of TulipoMania, and The Story of the Woman Who Helped to Hide the Frank Family by Miep Gies. I also watched Girl With a Pearl Earring (ran out of time to re-read that). I found the Gies book and the diary were most useful to me, and the history behind tulips was concisely explained in TulipoMania, although that was a very dry read.
Strategy: We normally took day trips for the first part of the day and spent the latter part of the day seeing things in Amsterdam. We went to Keukenhof, Cologne (my sister knows people from there), Zaanse Schans, The Hague and Delft, Haarlem and Otterlo. We still managed to see just about everything we wanted to see in Amsterdam proper, but also got out of the big city feel for part of each day.
Keukenhof: Nothing will ever prepare you for what you see here. My grandmother was an amazing gardener with a knack for making anything and everything grow like mad. I know now what heaven looks like for her. Simply spectacular. The colors and different types were out of this world. We hit it at a wonderful time and were completely overwhelmed by this experience. We had expected to spend an hour or two just wandering and instead found ourselves completely consumed by seeing everything on the map. We spent nearly 5 hours here.
Zaanse Schans: We had thought about this prior to the trip and scratched it because we felt it would be too touristy. But after seeing one windmill at the Keukenhof, we decided to go see more. We learned more than we expected and we had a beautiful, warm and sunny day to wander around here. The cheese samples (which got us to buy 4 blocks of cheese) and the wooden shoe carving demonstrations were really good.
Maruithuis: This reminded me so much of my favorite museum, the Frick in NYC, only on a larger scale. But oh my, the Vermeers are spectacular. Girl With a Pearl Earring actually glowed for us, it was an amazing and breathtaking experience to finally see her. My sister and I are on a quest to see all 35 of his known paintings (these would bring us to 18) so this was by far my favorite. Until we got to the Rijksmuseum. The Rembrandts here are wonderful as well. This was another occasion where I left home not a fan, and returned a fan of an artist, in this case Rembrandt.
Rijksmuseum: Even in its condensed version, you can't help but be pleased with what you see here. The Vermeers are exquisite, especially The Love Letter for me and the Milk Maid for my sister. The Rembrandts are amazing, especially the Night Watch, which was so much more impressive in person than I had expected. What is on display is much less than I had expected though, so perhaps a return visit is in order for when it reopens. I can only imagine what we are not getting to see.
Van Gogh Museum: This was the highlight for dear sister, a faithful Van Gogh fanatic. I felt the display was well-done and made sense, and it certainly is the most comprehensive collection of Van Gogh's work we'll ever see. However, be warned: we went late on a Friday to avoid crowds and got treated to a grossly annoying jazz/scat act that was in the lobby and which was heard from each of the levels of the open-structured museum. You couldn't escape it even if you wanted to. I would have rather been with more people and no background noise nonsense.
Anne Frank House: This was a very humbling experience. Because of all my recent reading, I still had fresh images in my head and this lived up to all of them. I actually came to the bookcase and the stairs and just could not get myself to go up them for a few minutes. It just freaked me out. This is a very emotional and compelling trip and words really can't express how affected by it I was. If I offer up any advice, it's the obvious: Go as late as you can. We went around 7 p.m. on a Sunday and it was virtually empty. Thankfully, because it was so darn hot both outside and in the (non-air conditioned) annex.
Dom (Cologne): Yes, it's massive and gothic. But if you're there you have to see it and can't help being awestruck by it, no matter how many other churches you've seen. The remains of the three magi are a bonus.
Rembrandthuis Museum: This was an excellent stop for a newly converted aficionado. It was interesting to see how the artist lived before he went bankrupt and to also get to see his sketches done during his Berlin period that were on temporary exhibition there. Also, I was not aware that there are resident artists who get full access to his work to study Rembrandt's style and ensure that it carries on. It was fascinating to see them working with the sketches there and trying to copy them.
Not so great experiences:
Haarlem: As I mentioned elsewhere, there was a street carnival/fare on in the Markt the week we were there. That eliminated the possibility of taking in the square and the front of the church. It was loud, dirty and full of kids. We visited the church and the Teylers Museum and went back to Amsterdam.
Teylers Museum, Haarlem: This is written up in a couple guidebooks as having sketches by Michelangelo, Raphael and Rembrandt, which they rotate on display. There were none of the above on display when we were there. Thankfully this was on the museum card, so it wasn't a complete waste of money.
Kroller-Muller Museum: Sister and I were split on this. While I found it a hellacious waste of a day, she felt it was worth it to see the second biggest collection of Van Goghs anywhere. It literally took two trains, a bus, a 20 minute walk and then a 10 minute bike ride to get here (three hours total) and then repeat that nonsense to get back (there was a bus that would've eliminated the walk and bike, but we just missed it and it only ran every hour). Granted, there were some Van Goghs that she will never see anywhere else, but if you are a fan of anything other than Dutch art, there isn't much else there of interest. A Monet here, a Renoir there, but they seem to be their lesser works. If I had it to do over, I would have scratched this in favor of the Jewish History Museum and the flower auction (both of which were on our list and which we did not get to).
Food ' a quick summary: we both fell hard and fast for poffertje, the tiny little pillows of love (pancakes) that the douse in butter and powdered sugar. We had those once, twice, three times a day when we could. We also found and became devoted to frikadel, the sausage that's like a corndog that has a sort of cult following. I'd never eat it at home, but we did there. And loved it. Also, we had the herring...more on that later. Our restaurant experiences, in no particular order:
Brasserie Restaurant de Roode Leeuw on Damrak, near Dam Square ' Rick Steves recommendation. This was a very good meal, served in a nice, quiet, calm atmosphere. I had a salad with crab and cod cakes over white asparagus (in season and delicious), follwed by stampotten, a traditional Dutch meal that was quite hardy (mashed potatoes topped with bacon, sausage and veal). We were both too full for dessert.
Fruh (Cologne) ' this was right off the main square where the Dom is. I had wiener schnitzel and my sister had bratwurst. Both were delicious and the wait staff was wonderful with my sis, who was struggling with the language barrier all day.
Pancake Bakery (Jordaan area of Amsterdam) ' about two blocks past the Anne Frank House lies the Pancake Bakery, which we visited twice. I tried a pancake with chorizo and cheese, as well as the poffertjes done Dutch style (with warm cherries and kirsch) and an omelette with chorizo and cheese (big chorizo fan, I am!). All of them were really very good. Not a gourmet meal by any means, but a good, fast, cheap meal if you're in the area. And the cherry jenever (Dutch brandy) is absolutely lethal. Try it and tell me otherwise!
Herring Stand (outside the Binnenhof in Den Haag) ' we both wimped out on the raw herring here, but the fried herring with sauce was an excellent, warm and tasty quick lunch. Reminds me of fish in fish & chips elsewhere, but a milder taste, and the sauce (sort of like tartar sauce) was quite tasty.
Haesje Claes (Spui stop on the #2 tramline) ' recommended by both Frommers and Rick Steves. Here we caved in and tried the raw herring, and it was a split decision. I loved it, laden with onions and pickles, my sister was repulsed. But I eat sushi at home and she does not...is that the difference? I think if you're there, you should try it, and served as an appetizer like this was as good as any. We also had the cheese croquettes, which were made of local cheese and were quite tasty. I had poached salmon with gouda sauce and mixed vegetables, which was very good. I'm forgetting what my sister had. We both had lemon jenever, which was good but not as good as the cherry. The whole meal for 2 was 58E.
Brasserie de Poort (in the Hotel Die Port van Cleve at the Dam stop on the tramline) ' my sister wanted to try this for the best pea soup in Amsterdam (or so says Frommers). She was not disappointed. I had a tomato soup with goat cheese worked into it, which was thick and creamy and absolute heaven. We both had hutspot, which was similar to stampotten, with potatoes, sausages and bacon which was hearty and filling. We finished with poffertjes with egg nog sauce, which was heavenly. Sister had a jenever/champagne cocktail and I had a campari with orange. This was our splurge meal at 87E. The restaurant is beautiful and the wait staff is wonderful. We were slightly uncomfortable going in wearing jeans, but most of the other tourists there were similarly dressed. I'd highly recommend this on any stop in Amsterdam.
There was a lot more food, but mostly things like frikadel, Berliners (Cologne), apfelballen, etc. Once we found these things, we got hooked and kept going back. Surprisingly, I only gained 2 pounds.
Random thoughts: As a weekend cyclist at home, I loved the bike culture. The bike lanes, parking garages and lots blew my mind. But what's with only seeing 5 helmets in 8 days? That freaked me out a bit.
This part of the Netherlands is a nice place to go and relax or do as much as you can in a week. We tried to strike a balance, but found ourselves so hungry to see more and do more, that we tended to over-do it. I'd return to Amsterdam in the future, for sure.
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Trip Report ' Amsterdam