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AMSTERDAM

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Amsterdam canal, Netherlands
Amsterdam canal, © Can Stock Photo Inc. / lsantilli

Amsterdam is the capital and largest city in the Netherlands.  The city is located in the province of North Holland and has an urban population of more than 2 million.  The city is built on a system of dams of the Amstel River and it was an important European port in the 1500s.  The canals were built in the 1600s and are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The canals dominate the landscape and contribute to the popularity of bicycle travel through the downtown.

Weather:

The climate of Amsterdam is heavily influenced by the North Sea, making it cool in summer and usually preventing freezing in winter.  Average highs from May through September are roughly 20 C (70 F), while lows average 15 C (60 F).  Winter highs average about 5 C (40 F) with lows just above freezing.  Rainfall is spread fairly evenly throughout the year, but is slightly lower in April and May.  Visiting in early May provides excellent opportunities for good weather and catching the end of the tulip season.

   

Transportation:

The transportation system in Amsterdam is excellent.  Take the train from the airport to the downtown Central Station (Amsterdam Centraal) in about 24 minutes.  It's a straight forward process to buy tickets and staff speak fluent English if you need assistance.  The ocean and river cruise terminals are downtown.  The tram system is equally friendly and easy to use.  It interconnects with Central Station.  Most of the major attractions are within walking distance of the station, but the #2 tram is a convenient way to reach the Rijksmuseum, close to Vondelpark and the Van Gogh Museum.  Renting a bike is a great option for sightseeing.  Amsterdam loves their bikes.  With vehicle lanes, tram lanes, pedestrian lanes and bike lanes, it's sometimes challenging to cross the street safely.

bicycles at Amsterdam Centraal Station, Netherlands

2,500 bikes parked at the central station

The Schiphol Airport (pronounced “skiple”) is one of the central hubs for flights into Europe.  It was a bit unusual in 2012 because they did the security clearance at the last second when you are boarding your plane at the gate.  It made arrival at the airport a breeze, but it was a pain when 300 of you line up for screening after they call your flight.  By 2015 they had upgraded to the more conventional system, but you still see the abandoned body scanners at each gate and there is now a terrible shortage of seating for those waiting to board a flight.  There is accommodation available within the secure area of the airport at CitizenM so you don't have to leave a secure area to rent a room by the hour.

In 2015 we found the inter city rail transportation confusing because they treat the train destinations in a similar manner to subway travel.  If you are travelling from Amsterdam to Rotterdam and that isn't the final destination of the train, it is very difficult to find the information about what train to catch.  We constantly needed assistance, but staff were ready for questions and spoke English well.

Canal Cruise, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canal Cruise, Amsterdam

Rhine River Cruising

Amsterdam is one of the world's premier river cruising embarkation ports. Shorter length cruises, under a week, wander through the locks and canals of the Netherlands. The most popular route is up the Rhine River, through the Rhine Gorge to Mainz. From there cruises can continue through the Main River to Regensberg and down the Rhine River to Budapest and Bucharest. A cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest typically takes two weeks. In 2012 Viking River Cruises began building a large fleet of ships that soon dominated the industry with 75% of the river cruising market.

Attractions in Amsterdam:

Things to see and do:

  • Take a canal tour - there are two main companies offering tours right outside the Amsterdam Central station - Lovers and Holland International.  Join a Viator Canal Boat Hop-On Hop-Off.  The Church of St Nicholas dominates the view in the area beside the station.

  • Dam Square includes the Royal Palace and the New Church (Niewe Kerke).  It is reached by walking south from Amsterdam Centraal on the pedestrian only Nieuwedijk walkway.  From the square, continue on the pedestrian only Kalverstraat walkway to the tower known as the Munttoren.

Amsterdam Canal Intersection, Netherlands

Amsterdam Canal Intersection, © Can Stock Photo / erikdegraaf

  • Anne Frank House - the place where Anne hid from the Nazi's and wrote her famous diary.  It's located right beside the Westerkerk church and Anne refers to the church bells in her diary.  In the summer, you can expect to wait 2 hours in a line encircling the block before you gain access.  Arriving early in the morning doesn't help.  Consider this destination for an off season winter visit.  Anne Frank House is a reasonably easy walk from Amsterdam Centraal.  Also an easy walk is the Red Light District (De Wallen).  Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, but in 2015 there was controversy and protest marches, as the city started to decline the renewal of business licences in an effort to close down the area.  The Old Church (Oude Kerk) is located in the Red Light District with brothels actually facing the church in full view of the parishioners.

Church of St Nicholas, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Church of St Nicholas

  • Visit the Rijksmuseum and see Rembrandt's De Nachtwacht (the Night Watchman).  It's located on Museum Square (Museumplein).  Also located here are the Van Gogh Museum, the Concertgebouw (home of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra), the Stedelijk Museum with the Hall of Horror and the outdoor "I Amsterdam" sculptured letters.  A few minutes' walk from the Museumplein will take you to Vondelpark.  It's the largest park in Amsterdam and a popular destination for tourists and locals as well.

  • See the bulbs and tulips at the Floating Flower Market, the Amsterdam Tulip Museum and the botanical gardens at Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam.

  • Rent a bicycle.  Join a Viator Small Group Bike Tour.  There are likely more bikes than people in Amsterdam.  Without traffic signals at many intersections or helmets for safety, the locals gracefully weave and flow through complex traffic patterns.  For a visitor the experience is quite different, with an emphasis on the traumatic avoidance of a multi-bike pile up at each intersection.

Munttoren, Kalverstraat, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Munttoren, Kalverstraat

Amsterdam canal, Netherlands

Things to see and do near Amersterdam:

  • Royal FloraHolland Aalsmeer (Flower Auction) - this is the largest flower auction in the world and is located 15 minutes by cab from Schiphol Airport.  Don't confuse this with Keukenhof Gardens.  You won't get close to the flowers, but if you arrive before 9 am you can watch the activity as they sell and ship about 20 million flowers every day.

  • Travel 45 minutes to Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse - the premier garden stop in the Netherlands.  Keukenhof Gardens sells tickets online that include express bus transportation from Schiphol Airport and also tickets that add train fare from Amsterdam Centraal.  The gardens are only open in the spring, when the tulips bloom. The last two weeks in April are a good time to go.

  • Zaans Schaans - take a trip outside of town to see the windmills.

  • Take a trip to Edam or Gouda to see the namesake for famous cheeses. 

Hot food vending machines, Netherlands

Hot food vending machines

Savor the Tastes of Amsterdam:

Amsterdam Tours:

Hotels in Amsterdam:

There are two standard options for accommodation in Amsterdam - hotels near the Schipol Airport or hotels downtown.  Train service is frequent between the two areas.  

Take That Vacation Recommendations for Amsterdam:

Munttoren left and De L'Europe hotel center. Amsterdam, Netherlands

De L'Europe Amsterdam

Take That Vacation Recommendations for Schiphol Airport - (AM)S


View Amsterdam map

Amsterdam Visit

with Tim Anderson
The winter weather in Amsterdam was gray and cold, with drizzling rain.  English is the second language of the Netherlands, so it’s easy to communicate, which also made it feel familiar.  The surprising parts for me were the extensive, enchanting canals and the overwhelming volume of bicycle traffic.  There were 2,500 bikes parked outside the main train station, but about 9,000 riders look for spots each day.

Skinny Bridge, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Skinny Bridge

On our outbound visit, we took the train from Schiphol Airport to Amsterdam Centraal in the center of town.  The train from Schiphol to Amsterdam Central was fast, comfortable and only took about 15 minutes.

Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Oude Kerk

We first took a canal cruise. There are two options immediately in front of the Amsterdam Central station.  One is Lovers and the other is Holland International.  They both offer one hour tours and longer tours too.  We took Holland International's 100 Sights one hour tour.  This was more than enough of a tour and was very interesting.  The cost was 13 Euros per person.  It covered the harbor, the Skinny Bridge, Anne Franks, the Wester Church and a number of small canals including the Seven Bridges.  At the 7 Bridges, from water level you can see 7 canal arches lined up each inside the other.

Seven Bridges view, Canal cruise, Amsterdam, Netherlands

7 arches on the canal cruise

After the canal cruise, we walked over to the Oude Kerk (old church) in the heart of the Red Light District.  The RLD was fully operational at 4 pm, though I understand it is much busier after 10.  The women are in very small rooms with a glass door that maximizes the view.  They are scantily dressed and there is a bed in the room.  They simply close the curtain when customers are present.  There was an Asian section, a Caucasian section and a shemale section - all in close proximity.  Be respectful and don't take pictures.  After that we walked to the Royal Palace, which was under reconstruction.  We then wandered the streets and canals until we were able to walk across the Skinny Bridge.  The bike traffic was constant and dangerous to the inexperienced, as you don't often hear the bikes coming and most of the areas you'd think of as being for pedestrians are actually bike lanes.  The bikes are all older styles - no 10 speeds and no mountain bikes.  No one wears a helmet.  We saw a couple of bikes with wheelbarrows out front that would hold children and we saw children tucked in front of parents or in baskets on the handle bars.

Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Red Light District

Our return visit, on the way back from Tanzania, was a 6 hour layover.  This time we repeated our train trip to the center of town, but being veterans at it, we were less careful and ended up on a train that took us to the outskirts at Utrect Central instead of Amsterdam Central.  We found the floating flower market and then visited the Rijksmuseum, where we saw Rembrandt’s “The Night Watchman.”  The Van Gogh Museum is right beside the Rijksmuseum.  Afterward we were too cold to walk back to the station, so we took a local bus.  At the train station we ordered our favorite Starbucks lattes and ate pastries.  The staff spoke excellent English.


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