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Trip Report: Amsterdam, Ijsselmeer and Keukenhof

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Home >> Trip Report: Amsterdam, Ijsselmeer and Keukenhof

My vacation this spring was a long extended weekend in Amsterdam and the regions of Northern Holland. As all of the cities (except Zaandvort) are listed on river cruise itineraries, I decided to write an extended report. Some information may be helpful for the whole season, some other are rather specific on tulip shows or tips for the museums weekend. The text is going to be structured in general information, do and don'ts. Followed by a chronological report of activities. These daily reports are rather short and and may be copied 1:1 for your free time.

Amsterdam history

Amsterdam is around 800 - 1000 years old, the very center (would be mainly the red light & amusement district today) is shaped like a football. It's northern end is the Central Station at the Ijmeer and it goes down to the Amstel river. The western end of this oval is the Single Gracht and the Zwanenburgwal to the east. Around this is the belt of concentric Grachten (canals). Study the map of Amsterdam a few minutes, it will be time well spend, when you'll walk through the center: Amsterdams layout is quite typical for a medieval city in the westerlies. The old (oval) center, surrounded by buildings from the Golden Age, for the Netherlands this was the 17th century. The most representative buildings from this era are in the southwestern part of the Grachten belt. To the northwest you have Jordaan, a workers quarter, and to the east of the old town the Oosterdok (eastern port) where the merchant ships docked and the storehouses of the Duch East India Company (VOC). Around the center are several Grachten, the Singel Gracht, Herengracht (Noblemen's canal), Keizersgracht (Emperor's canal) and the Prinsengracht (Prince's canal). Memory hook: The Singel Gracht is the only one, which is not in alphabetic order.

Food

There are plenty of cafes, fast food restaurants and other chances to get snacks and local food in the town. I recommend to try the famous 'Frites' (fries). Trust me, after that experience, you'll never ever want to eat regular freedom french fries again. Same with 'Wafles' (waffles): Never stuff yourself that you could not eat some (with chocolate, cherries, cream) as a snack when you stroll through the city. Another speciality are Pannekoek (pancakes). These pancakes are much thinner than in the US. The people in the Netherlands have developed hundreds of variations: Plain, sweet or hearty. I have even seen some pancakes with sauerkraut - and no, I did not dare to try that. Last but not least you are going to stumble over Broodjes and Toasties. A Broodje is a sandwich, while a Toastie is a grilled sandwich. Last but not least: Cheese cheese and cheese. Sample it on the market with some bread.

Now, where can you buy these snacks? Basically at every corner, and in a lot of Bruine Cafes (brown cafe). These are the center of dutch social life, consider them similar to a pub in England. Besides these 'regular' cafes, you are going to see some labeled as 'Eet Cafe' (Eat Cafe), which is quite similar to a bistro in Paris. The food offered at an Eetcafe is a bit more sophisticated than at a Bruine Cafe, but still snack sized. Hint: Do not confuse these cafes with Coffee Shops. These are the places where mainly tourists purchase marijuana for every other but medical purposes. If you are really brave, you can get some fast food, fried meat or a burger at one of the Febo fast food stations all over the city.

Restaurants in Amsterdam are really international: Their cuisine is heavily influenced by their former colonies. You can not go to Amsterdam and not try food from Surinam or Indochina. Thanks to all the tourists you'll find a lot of breakfast places as well, they offer everything: english breakfast, continental breakfast, local pancakes. We never had a reservation for any restaurant, it worked fine without, however you should go to dinner early then. Restaurants are really filling up between 7-8 pm.

Some other advices

First, I can't stretch enought how important it is to get up early in Amsterdam. It really pays off to be out on the street latest at 9, so you can see how the city wakes up.

Be aware of pickpocketing. I saw at least two arrests by policemen in the city center. This is a serious issue.

Museumsweekend. The first weekend in April is Museumsweekend in Amsterdam (and other cities). A lot of museums offer free entrance or a reduced fee of 1 EUR only. Just click the link, enter a city name at "op plaatsnam", then click "zoeken". Be aware that a lot of locals will take the chance to have a family weekend at the museum. It might be crowded.

Tickets: Museums and Train Tickets: Buy in advance, are valid for a year after day of purchase / at least for Stedelijk and Keukenhof. I really recommend to buy your tickets in advance, as you do not have to queue up during rush hour.

Cameras. I took the pictures with two different cameras: A Nikon DSLR with a 35 -135mm zoom. Then I used my iPhone for some shots as well. It turned out, a lot of streets and lanes in Amsterdam are really narrow (despite the grachten in their center). So the combination worked fine for me, but if you have the option, I recommend take another wide-angle zoom with you.

I did not have to change money, but there were not a lot of money exchanges around, just spotted 2 on the Damrak (between Central Station and Dam Square). I recommend you should get at least 200 EUR in advance. This will cover a first taxi from the airport & dinner.

Transportation

Our flight was from Nuremberg to Amsterdam Schiphol, so I can't provide information on custom control, as we stayed within the Schengen Area. Our hotel was a bit away from the city center in the western outskirts, so we took a taxi for 25 EUR. You can estimate the costs for a taxi to the center (Centraal Station) to be around 50 EUR. Instead, you can take the shuttle train from Schiphol to Amsterdam Central Station for 4 EUR.

I spotted river cruise ships at three different spots around the Central Station: The main dock is at De Ruijterkade to the east of the station. Some other ships where to the west at Westerdoksdijk, to the east. From the ferry I saw some ships behind the Mövenpick Hotel at Veernkade & Javakade. The first two are in easy walking distance to the center.

Amsterdam has a great public transportation system GVB with buses, trams and subways. You will reach every spot within the Grachten belt (and the Rijksmuseum ..) by tram. We did not use the metro as we were not in a hurry and wanted to see some parts of the town. If you consider public transportation an option, you'll need a ticket. Amsterdam's GVB offers two tickets: One single ticket (valid 1h from check in) for 2.80 EUR and a day ticket (24h valid from check in) for 7.60 EUR. The math is simple: If you use the tram more than twice in 24h, buy a day pass. You can buy these tickets on the tram - the staff is really helpful. On one day, they had no 24h passes any more and let us go for free to the central station to buy them on the next tram. For tourists, I would consider the tram lines 2,5 (from Centraal westbound) and 9 (Centraal eastbound) to be the most important lines. These pass nearly every important point of interest.

Bicycles: Amsterdam (and the Netherlands) are well known and dreaded for their bike riders. Whenever you cross a street or bike lane, I recommend not just a look to your left and right, but have a full 360 degree view, followed by a second look to your left and right ;). These cyclists are surprisingly slow, but there are just so many of them.

If you rent a car, stick to the rules! Do not drive faster than allowed (usually 100km / h), fasten your seat belts. As a driver, do not make calls on the cellphone, operate any electronic equipment like a GPS navigation system. Fines start at 60 Euros and go easily up to several hundred EUR if you do violate these. A lot of rental cars in Europe (even in the upper categories) do still have manual shifting, you ma

The 'food chain' in the Netherlands is: Bicycles > Pedestrians > Cars . Whereas you have kind of an armed truce between drivers and cyclists. In case you go by car, bicycles always have a right of way, and even if they do not, don't insist on yours.

Highlights and Mistakes

Now, before I give you my chronological notes, let me spoil the whole thing by mentioning the 'do and don't' list first. In general we spent 2 afternoons and evenings to explore the city center and just stroll through the Grachten belt. On Saturday & Sunday we were only in the city for walks and museums. On Sunday morning, after Stedelijk Museum, we then reached the point where we thought 'we have seen everything'. So you should calculate 2-3 days for Amsterdam.

If you just want to walk around, spare the eastern areas. They are rather insignificant. In my opinion the most beautiful stretch of the Grachten would be the area between the Bloemenmarket (flower market) and the Westerkerk (close to the Anne Frank Huis. The buildings along the southern ring of Prinsengracht and Keizersgracht may be even more impressive, but are mainly used by banks and businesses. So if you just have limited time, I would recomment, start a walk at the Spui (close to Amsterdam University / UvA) northwestbound via Westerkerk, take a detour through Jordaan and turn east at Brouwersgracht to the Centraal Station. Unfortunately the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum were still undergoing refurbishment, so I don't know about them. Instead we visited the Eye Film Institute and the Tropenmuseum. Both places were great and time well spend, I'll give you more information below.

A hint for tasty food: Saturday is market day on the Waag square. Get there, sample local cheese, fish, bread and beer.

What I would not do again:

Don't walk around Bloemenmarket. The flower market is really touristy. The flower shops are on rafts floating in the canal - on the southeastern pier of Singel gracht. So you'll just have a lot of souvenir shops around, and no sun light for pictures.

Don't have food at Leidseplein (close to the Stadsschouwburg / the Municipal Theater). There are some nice cafes and pubs in the lanes around, but the food is rather general, their target group are drunk tourists. I recommend Rembrandtsplein or Waag instead.

And I would not go on a grachten cruise again. It was just boring with a recorded voice pointing out a few buildings. The option of renting a boat sounds tempting for a next visit to Amsterdam.

The River Cruise App

Of course I seized the opportunity to test my app abroad. I could only test the iOS version, as Android was not finished yet. In fact it worked great, especially the GPS marker was really helpful. No more searching for streets on the maps. But it was not just helping in the big cities, but even in places like Keukenhof where not all footpath where marked. Thanks to the free wifi spots, it was even possible to load maps on demand - like our spontaneous trip to Haarlem on Friday. There is only one minor issue, you should make sure your battery is loaded over night: The GPS signal draws a lot of energy. Over the day, I usually brought a fully charged battery (1yr old) down to 20%.

Wednesday evening: Amsterdam

The first late afternoon we just walked around the city center for orientation. We explored the area between Central Station, Waag, Dam (and Palace) - the northern half of Amsterdams old town. When we came along the Central Station again, we bought train tickets for the next day in advance. Then we went south along Singel to Rembrandtsplein and had some indonesian food.

Thursday morning: Amsterdam

We had two full day excursions planned: One to the Ijsselmeer, Hoorn and Enkhuizen, the other to Keukenhof and the North Sea coast. The first was by train, the day tickets we bought were at 23 EUR / person / both directions. Hint for the train station: There are some cafes downstairs, they are really busy. Instead, go up to Spoor (track) 1, there are two lounges (Starbucks & Balcony Cafe) upstairs. The train to Enkhuizen leaves every 30 minutes. Most tracks in Amsterdam Central are labeled e.g. "19a / b", which is the same track, it just depends if the train leaves east - / or westbound.

Trains in the Netherlands have free wifi and internet via 3G, just connect to 'tmobile' hotspot. A nice feature: After you connect, a screen pops up where you see the arrival times for the next railway stations updated in real time. The train to Hoorn takes about 40 minutes, to Enkhuizen (terminal stop) it is 1 hour. The train goes every 30 minutes, after a 15 minutes break back to Amsterdam. This timing allows you to have a pleasant 75 or 105min stop in these towns.

Thursday: Enkhuizen

Enkhuizen is a former port town used by the VOC during the Golden Age. We did not go to the Zuiderzee Museum, just strolled through the town. It was really cold and very windy. We saw a few (german) cruise ships at Dirck Chinaplein, just 3 minutes from the train station, but a 10-15 minutes walk away from the first cafe. We arrived around 11am at Enkhuizen, took the train at 12.15pm back to Hoorn.

Trivia: If you are interested how they construct these brick roads, check this Youtube Video of a Road Making Machine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Khb5cIq_mO0

Thursday: Hoorn

Hoorn is quite similar to Enkhuizen (though a bit bigger 70k inhabitants). So if you have limited time, just pick one of both cities, I think it was a bit redundant. Funny thing: We met the Viking Odin while we took a walk along the Marina. They had to walk about 250m along the pier to their buses. So obviously they did not do a walking tour?

Thursday: Amsterdam

After we went back to Amsterdam, we just strolled through the southern areas of the old town. Had chinese Food at Zeedijk and ended in a cafe at Waag.

Friday

Today was our second trip, but this time not with public transportation but by rental car. We picked it up from Avis Zuid (south), close to the A10 Ring. There are several places for car rentals, some in the center (e.g. Nassaukade), some at the Airport (too far away). So we went to Aaron Coplandstraat 6, which is imho the best pick up. We took Tram 5 to Parnassusweg (from Central Station southbound). There is a BP Station next to it, which is great as you have to return the refilled car. Rental costs and gas for the whole day trip where 60 EUR.

Friday: Keukenhof

The Netherlands aren't big, it is a simple 30 minutes drive to Keukenhof. Directions are simple: Get on the A10 (no matter where you start), drive towards Schipol (A4), use Exit 4 (Nieuw-Vennep). Turn right towards Lisse, then go straight ahead until you think you're lost. Another 2 kilometers down the road turn left (the first real street on the left since you're of the motorway). Frorm there just follow the Keukenhof direction signs. Pass two roundabouts and you are on the parking lot.

After we parked the car, we ran into the first river cruise group: Uniworld's River Ambassador had the same plan as we. Too bad I forgot my Quietvox backup receiver at home to listen to their guide. I can't really give you any advices on the outdoor park. It was really cold, around 10°C and, as you can see on the picture, not a single flower blossomed. Keukenhof has a particular theme every year, this year was Great Britain. Besides the park, a pet zoo and an old wind mill Keukenhof has several Pavilions. Beatrix Pavilion (Orchids); Oranje-Nassau Pavilion (Main Theme); Willem Alexander Pavilion (Tulips). I got a bit jealous when I saw the snacks and beverages presumably arranged for Uniworld in Willem Alexander Pavilion. Forget about the other pavilions: Juliana had some information films and general information on gardening, but the others were just food stations & souvenir shops. The three mentioned are worth a visit, but if the weather is good, just stay outside and stroll through the park.

Friday: Zaandvoord

Early afternoon we left Keukenhof, followed the roadsigns to Zaandvoord at the North Sea. The route were 10 miles through the beautiful countryside. The place is not really spectacular, but I remember spending some summer vacations there in my youth. And what would a vacation in the Netherlands be without walking along the North Sea beaches and trough the dunes. Actually this is all you can do there. After the walk we had some snack at the beach. While eating our sandwiches and checking the schedule we figured out, there was enough time to visit Haarlem - which was located on our direct way back to Amsterdam.

Friday: Haarlem

After another 30 minutes drive we parked the car in Haarlem at a parking deck at 'Raaks' in the east. All outside parking lots are for residents only. The city is quite similar to Amsterdam, same buildings from the 17th century. Probably not as many grachten, but not a lot of tourists either. The city does not have a lot of public restrooms, however there is a big V&D department store with free restrooms on the 6th floor, a nice restaurant, great view and free wifi. We just strolled through the city, had some wafles at St. Bavochurch. Haarlem still has a lot of Hofjes - the origin of the social security system in the Netherlands.

Friday: Amsterdam

We arrived around 6 in Amsterdam, returned the car and went back to the city center and had dinner at Leidseplein, close to Stadtschouwburg. But there were too many tourists, teenagers, so we went to Waag and a nice cafe.

Saturday: Amsterdam

After these two days for the countryside, we had 2.5 days for Amsterdam alone. Again, I can't stretch enough how important it is to get up early in Amsterdam. We had breakfast at Slui (close to the University of Amsterdam), visited Beijing Hofjes next to it. From there we went to Bloemenmarkt. Frankly spoken - a waste of time. Very shady, hundreds of tourists and we have already been to Keukenhof. From there we went further southeast to the second hand market at Waterplein. About half of the stuff was just cheap junk offered by professional sellers, but the rest was really nice. From there we turned north on our walk towards the market at Waag. Unfortunately I was still stuffed from breakfast, that I could not get a second breakfast and try all the fresh delicious food.

We went further north, along the buddhist temple to the Damrak, time for our grachten cruise. This is big business in Amsterdam, there dozens of lines offering cruises: Hop-on-and-off or from 1-2 hours. We chose a cruise with Rederij Plas Rondvaarten - because they did not had audio guides, but a speaker system. It was not the best choice: Instead of using an audio guide system, we heard the same two sentences again and again: First on English, German, Dutch and French. As I have stated earlier: Next time I consider renting a boat myself. After our round trip we went to the Eye Film Institute.

The Film Institute is located in the big modern building at Amsterdam Noord (on the other side of the Ij behind the Central Station. Just walk through the Central Station, on its northern side you have the free ferries to Noord. Take one of the shuttles (every 5 minutes) from Peer 2 or 3 towards "Buiksloterweg". The museum did not accept cash, so I had to pay a 2 EUR entrance fee by credit card. The basement has a great collection of digitalized short films and vintage snippets, some video games and interactive art. The main exibition was about Johan van der Keuken. In my opinion one of the best museums, easy to reach and its cafe has a spectacular view on the port, the Ij and all the ships passing.

Afterwards we went shopping at Nieuwendijk & Kalverstraat, walked southbound to Rembrandtsplein, had some PIzza and Spaghetti. Then sampled dutch beer at Cafe Van Rijn (at the northern side of the square).

Sunday: Amsterdam

On our second day in the city we started with breakfast at Leidseplein. Forget the square in the evening, but they have some nice places for breakfast in the morning. The weather was really good, still quite cold but very sunny. So we started the day by walking through the Vondelpark, turned north through Jordaan and went via Haarlemmerdijk to Central Station. Tram 9 brought us to Alexanderplein for a visit of the Tropenmuseum. The Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum were still under renovation, we wanted to see something unique, covering dutch history. The museum has some modern art on the ground floor, dealing with the clash of civilisations & decolonization.

The first and second floor covers the different continents where the Netherlands had colonies: New Guinea, Indonesia, Africa and the Caribbean. The exhibition is very well designed. For example they show old tribal relics and at the same moment they analyze the impact of modern societies on ancient traditions. You should calculate about two or three hours for the museum, it closes already at 5 pm. Afterwards we went to get some indian food between Bloemenmarkt and Rembrandtsplein.

Monday: Amsterdam

Our flight was scheduled for early afternoon, which meant we had another 6 hours in the city. After 2 evening walks and 2 full days in Amsterdam, we were at the point of "We've seen everything". Which Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum still closed, we went to the only museum open at the Museumsplein: Stedelijk Museum for Modern Art. I am not a big fan of modern art and don't consume non medical marijuana, so it was really boring for me ;) However, if one likes modern art, I think you will not regret the time spent there. After two long hours we decided to stuff ourselves with frites and wafles before we took a taxi to Schiphol.

Hope you enjoyed the report and it may be useful for your own vacation in the Netherlands!