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Amsterdam, Haarlem, Utrecht - life besides the canals

Amsterdam

The great magic of travel, wherever you go, is seeing different cities, countryside, mountains, rivers coastlines and buildings. It is also about hearing different languages, tasting new foods and drinks, experiencing different weather and getting an understanding of how people interact, work and spend their lives in the places you visit.

To me, travel and learning more about the world is the best educational and most exciting activities that you can ever experience. 

Every city is different – not just by its location, geographic features and architecture, but also through what I call a city’s ‘public persona’- its street character and vibe, the sounds that you hear, the expressions on people’s faces, the feeling you get when you visit a city. It might be the dead of winter, or the height of summer, day or night but you will definitely have a reaction to the sights, sounds and feel of the city and its people.

Amsterdam is one of the world’s most beautiful historic cities with a unique charm and character all its own. There is something very stylish about this city, but also quite comforting too. There is no doubt that it is a modern city, but at the same time you will see more people riding bikes than probably any other city in the world – but they are not all riding bikes dressed in fluoro Lycra, almost all will be riding in their usual city attire, heading to work or home, dropping into a coffee shop or just having a normal day. Helmets are not compulsory and you have better vision and hearing if you don’t wear one, but ultimately you also need to feel safe too.

While the rest of the world is just picking up the idea of using bikes as transport and creating bike lanes, the Dutch have been using bikes as transport for centuries and they are very much a part of daily life in the Netherlands. There are of course trains, the Metro, buses, trams, cars and taxis too, but there are more bikes than cars here in Amsterdam.

There are also bike trails all across the Netherlands for recreational bikers, and many tourists also come to enjoy them too, with the land being largely flat and crossing through villages, beside rivers, canals and through the countryside and farmlands. In Amsterdam itself there are said to be over 500 kilometres of bike paths, and that also means lots of bike riders who zealously guard their rights to the paths too. If you are walking, be mindful of bikes and if you hear a bike bell ringing, it could well mean they want you to move off their pathway.  They’re not particularly patient either.

When you see Signs on the bike trails – the Red signs signify the shortest route while the Green signs show the more scenic route.

There are many places to hire a bike and no licence or helmet is required. Before picking up your bike, just make sure it is in good condition and ask for security locks if you intend to park it somewhere as you head out to see the city. Bikes do get stolen.

Besides bikes, what makes Amsterdam quite different to most other big cities is the myriad of canals
(Gracht) that criss-cross the city. The bigger canals circle out in an arc shape from the river and around  the city centre, with each Canal named – just some of the more famous ones being the Herengracht and Prinsengracht canals. The Amstel River and HetIJ  inner and outer harbour are also linked to the canals, with various Locks built to control levels at certain points. There are also tours and a Canal Bus that take you along the canals and both are a great way to get a feel for the city.

Amsterdam, like Venice in Italy, Hamburg in Germany, St Petersburg in Russia, and Bangkok in Thailand is a city built alongside canals, the canals dating back centuries. The canals, barges, small boats and houseboats with the bridges and walkways beside the canals form a beautiful backdrop to the city and its architecture. Just be careful not to fall into a canal when you are out admiring the scenery riding your bike or walking.  In the dead of winter you might also see some of the canals icing over too.

Amsterdam’s main Airport, Schiphol is just 9 kilometres south west of the centre of Amsterdam with train connections to the city, buses, taxis and Hotel Shuttles. The trains run every 15 minutes or so, making it an easy ride to the city. Near Schiphol Airport there is also a memorial dedicated to the 298 mostly Dutch and Australian passengers and crew who died when Malaysian Airlines flight 17, was shot down over the Ukraine on the 17th July, 2014 by a missile fired by rebels in the Ukraine.

Amsterdam is just 4 hours Eurostar train journey from London and well connected to all parts of Europe by road and rail. There is a lot to see in Amsterdam with many of the great sights in the city’s centre, making the city a very walkable city too.

WHAT TO SEE IN AMSTERDAM –

If you want to see a lot of places in Amsterdam, buy an Amsterdam City Card at the Visitor Centre Office ( located at the Centraal Station) to get discounts to a number of the main attractions, as well as free transport on the Metro, buses and trams, and also a canal tour too.

In the 17th century, the Dutch trading merchants made their fortunes, but also spend some of the wealth on the arts, in what has become known as the “Golden Age of Dutch Painting”. Here in Amsterdam you can see some of the world’s most famous paintings by artists like Van Gogh (1853-1890), Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) and Rembrandt (1606-1669), but there are hundreds of other lesser known but equally skilled painters from the 17th and 18th century too.

The best and by far the most popular Art Gallery Museums are the Van Gogh Museum, Rijks Museum and Stedelijk Museum all walking distance from each other in the city centre.

The Van Gogh Museum is a dramatic glass faced building with art spread out over 4 levels, housing some 200 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh as well as 100’s of his drawings. There is also an exhibition space with changing exhibits and a library and souvenir shop too.

The Rijks Museum on Museum Square opened in 1885 and in recent years underwent a massive multi-million dollar renovation, re-opening in 2017. Its most famous painting is Rembrandt’s  ‘Nightwatchman’ but there are over 8000 other paintings and other collectible treasures here to see too – from carpets, ceramics, lace, fashion and more.  Rembrandt’s canal side house, built in 1606 is also a Museum too (Museum Het Rembrandthuis).

The other very popular Art Museum is the Stedelijk Museum, next door to the Van Gogh Museum. It has art by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and other famous artists, as well as contemporary new artists too.   

There are said to be about 50 museums in Amsterdam and there is a diverse range of subjects being exhibited. If you have a particular interest, you may well find a museum that has it here in Amsterdam. 

These are just some of the Museums –

  • The Diamond Museum
  • Tulip Museum
  • Bible Museum
  • Erotic Art Museum
  • Cheese Museum
  • Heineken Beer Museum
  • Museum of Bags and Purses
  • Museum of Torture
  • National Maritime Museum
  • Anne Frank House Museum  (see History section pages)
  • Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum
  • Dutch Resistance Museum
  • Houseboat Museum
  • Amsterdam Pipe Museum (smoking apparatus)
  • Pianola Museum
  • Print Museum
  • Cobra Museum of modern art.

As much as seeing Museums and Art is interesting, particularly if it is cold outside, it is also great to just wander the streets in the city centre to see some of the great Dutch buildings with their gable roof shapes and find a good café to just sit and take in the atmosphere.

Probably the most beautiful building in Amsterdam is the Royal Palace (Koninklijk Paleis) dating back to 1665 when it was first built. It is located on a large square called the ‘Dam’ that dates back to 1270AD, with the National Monument dedicated to those who died in World War Two also located here.

Amsterdam’s oldest church is the ‘Oude Kirke’ that dates back to circa 1213AD with the church consecrated in 1306. The church is about an 8 minute walk from the Centraal Station at Oudekerksplein 23 near the Red Light District.

Amsterdam has many great parks too and if the weather is good, they make for a restful and great place to walk, jog or cycle. The Vondelpark is one of the best, with small lakes, ancient trees, pathways, lawns and gardens.

The Netherlands is of course famous for flowers and particularly Tulips and in Amsterdam there is a floating flower market located on barges that are moored on the Singel canal. Also not far from Schiphol Airport is Flora Holland Auctions – where millions of flowers and bulbs are traded and sold for sale around the world. The auctions start at 7 am in the morning and are a great sight to see. Take a look at www.royalfloraholland.com/en to read more.

The Keukenhof Flower gardens are located in Lisse – which is about 20 minutes from Schiphol Airport via Bus #858. Here you will see thousands of Hyacinths and Tulips in abundance. The best time to see the tulips are in the months of March, April and May.

During the Second World War when there were great food shortages in the Netherlands, people ended up cooking Tulip Bulbs as a way of getting something to eat. I am not sure that this is a delicacy or not, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

The other distinctive part of Dutch Heritage and culture are windmills and you will see many souvenirs from table linen to ceramics featuring Dutch Windmills in their design. At one time there were around 10,000 windmills in the Netherlands of which around 1000 still survive, with 8 of them in Amsterdam.

To see traditional Dutch windmills (Molen) in Amsterdam – head to De 1200 Roe on Haarlemmerweg 465; De 1100 Roe on Herman Bonpad 6; the Riekermolen on the Amstel River (you will see this on a river cruise); D’Admiraal on Noordhollandschkanaaldijk 21; De Bloem on Haarlemerweg 701; Gooyer in Fuenenkade 7 near the Maritime Museum ; Molen van Sloten on Akersluis 10 in Sloten Village and De Otter Mills located on Gillis van Ledenberchstraat 78.

Not far from Amsterdam is the village of Zaanse Schans – a 40 minute bus ride from Centraal Station (Bus 391). Here you will be able to see working windmills next to the Zaan River, a clog factory and a museum that is dedicated to preserving Dutch Windmill history and craftsmanship.

At Centraal Station VVV Information desk ask about getting a Waterland Day Ticket or an Amsterdam & Region Travel Ticket. Both tickets offer value transport and will help you to see more of Amsterdam and the surrounding area including some of the Waterland villages that are close to the city.

Waterland is the region to the north of Amsterdam and the Day or Two day ticket will let you travel on the yellow EBS Buses or the red R-NET buses to travel to some of the historic fishing villages like Volendam, Edam, famous for its cheese;  the harbourside village of HoornMarken on an island; Monnickendam, Broek, Middenbeemster, De Rijp and Purmerend.  Taking a day or even two days to stop, stay or wander around any of the villages above and seeing the Dutch countryside will greatly add to your enjoyment of being in the Netherlands. De Rijp for example has been put forward as being the most beautiful village in all of Holland.  

Further north, about an hour from Amsterdam’s Centraal Station is the town of Enkhuizen on the harbour where you will find a re-created traditional 1800’s Dutch village museum complex. You need a whole day to get there, look around and get back to Amsterdam, or you could stay over, or head even further north or even head to Friesland. This part of the Netherlands is great too.

Amsterdam and the Netherlands itself take pride in their “liberal thinking” or more correctly “tolerance” of the use of recreational drugs, prostitution, same sex marriage and other controversial social issues. Here is Amsterdam you will find ‘Coffee shops’ where they sell coffee and also sell cannabis and associated drug related items, in some ways a hangover from the Hippy Days in the 1970’s. As a tourist this might or might not be of interest.

Equally most tourists will also look to see the Red Light area most along Oudezijds  Achterburgwal Street, Warmoesstraat  and Trompettersteeg  Alley – where the girls sit inside window boxes along the street, and then close their curtains when they have a client. This has been a tourist destination for many years and is in keeping with the Dutch thinking that it is better to have open legal sex work than have hidden away in the back streets. There are more people looking at the spectacle of the girls in their window boxes, more so than buying their services. It is certainly a unique sight to see.  

The Dutch love their food too and beer – so there are many pancake, cake and pastry shops, bars serving beers and ‘Frites’ (potato chips) with mayonnaise and many shops selling Dutch cheeses and pickled Herring too.  Also if you love liquorice, then you will find lots of choices as liquorice has long been a favourite Dutch sweet to eat.

Christmas time is also a special time in the Netherlands with special Dutch breads, marzipan and other treats made for the occasion. You will also find a number of great Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam, Indonesia once being part of the Dutch Colonial Empire.

Amsterdam also has a large Zoo that first opened in 1838 and as you would imagine it has all the animals to see in a beautiful landscape with Sycamore trees and other trees. Besides Elephants and other animals, you will also find an engaging display of Microbes.

Certainly the best way to get a feel for Amsterdam is by walking through the old city centre, taking a canal trip, hiring a bike or just catching a tram to some of the many districts within the city.

You are also not far from other Dutch cities like Haarlem. Most people on a short trip to Europe will stop just in Amsterdam and that is certainly fine too, but if you do have time to see some of the other parts of the Netherlands you are bound to have an even better time.

THE CITY OF HAARLEM-

Haarlem is just 20 kilometres west of Amsterdam and is a city of around 155,000 people compared to Amsterdam’s population of around 820,000 people.

The city of Haarlem gave its name to Harlem in New York – when Dutch settlers established Haarlem there in 1658 in what was then called Nieuw Nederland  with Nieuw Amsterdam, renamed New York by the British in 1664 being the main city. The British also dropped the extra ‘a’ in the name Haarlem to anglicise the name to Harlem.

Haarlem too is a city with lots of canals, a very prominent Windmill right next to a canal and lots of historic buildings along cobblestone roadways.

The city is said to date back to the 10th century and was taken under siege by the Spanish Hapsburg armies in 1572 before being liberated by William of Orange (Willem van Oranje) (1533-1584).

The best way to see the city is to take a canal tour to see some of the great architecture and hear the story of the city and the sights that you see. You will be able to see the giant windmill here and also the Haarlem Poort gatehouse – with its Turrets – both making for great photos.

There is the great Grote Kerk van St Bavo, with its high steeple and church organ where Mozart once played; the 14th century City Hall; magnificent Teylers Art and Science museum with its high Barrel ceiling and glass atrium roofline; Frans Hal Museum featuring art by Frans Hal and other 17th century artists; and De Hallen Haarlem Modern Art and Photography Museum.

For those interested there is also the Corrie ten Boom House Museum – a Jewish ‘safehouse’ during World War Two, where the Corrie ten Boom family hid and protected 100’s of Jewish and Resistance fighters from the Nazis.

Haarlem is only a few kilometres from the Dutch coastline and here there is a vast forested parkland called Zuid-Kennemerland where the cycle and walking pathways will lead you to an area of sand dunes that is said to be around 1000 years old. Along the pathways you might also see some deer and in autumn the leaves changing colour in the trees.

Markets are held in Haarlem on Mondays and Saturdays in the main city square (Grote Markt) with a mix of market stalls selling mainly foods but also clothes, household items and other things.

Being so close to Amsterdam, means Haarlem is an easy day trip and will give you a glimpse into another Dutch City and the Dutch lifestyle.

Utrecht

Utrecht - another beautiful city beside its the canals –

Utrecht is located a little over 50 kilometres south-east from Amsterdam, so less than an hour away. It is a lively University City with a population of around 330,000 people and has history dating back to Roman times.

There are a number of Museums here in the centre of the city, a great Cathedral and tower that dates back to the 14th century. To see the city the best place to start is to take a Canal Tour and listen to stories of the city and its architecture and people. There are many good places to stay and of course food, bars and events happening here too, making Utrecht a good place to spend a day or two. Also see the section on this Netherland section of this website for information about two castles that are located within 35 kilometres of Utrecht.  

I hope you have a great time getting to see and know more about The Netherlands.

Happy travels

Geoff Stuart
www.FlightsHotelsInfo.com
www.HappyTraveller.com.au

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