The best thing about meeting expats is the promise of housing when you visit their home country. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the Netherlands. Although we tried, this is also a lesson to not rely on someone else when you can do it yourself. We were still very grateful for the offer and sentiment. With that aside, I can honestly say that Amsterdam was not my cup of tea. Whether it be the lack of legitimate cafes for real caffeine or the narrow roads that catered to cyclists instead of pedestrians, this “Venice of the North” left much to be desired.
Originally, Zach and I decided to book cheap tickets to Amsterdam because we didn’t have anything planned for that weekend. Just to give a little insight on travel in Europe because obviously now that I’m an expert (sarcasm is real), we booked these tickets about three weeks before departure on a budget airline. Transavia still gives me nightmares, but we eventually made it in one piece for the money that we paid. The poor student life, similar to sarcasm, is very real. As the weeks passed, Alex decided to tag along. Once we arrived and realized that accommodations would be an issue, it was also Alex who came to save the day!
For this particular weekend getaway, a lot of our decisions were made on the fly, thus contributing to an above-average expenses list. This preface is to warn that many of these items can be purchased well in advanced to save money and time. For example, transportation became an issue at Schiphol Airport because our hotel was located outside of city centre. This would mean that we would have to take a train into Centraal Station. By doing some quick calculations, the three of us decided to purchase a two-day Amsterdam Travel Ticket. This all-encompassing ticket covered regional trains and public transportation between the city of Amsterdam and their international airport. With the purchase, you also have peace of mind when travelling because European countries are more stringent with fares checks.
Finally, when in the city, another popular method of transportation is cycling. Along the narrow passages across waterways, bicycles often get the right of way over pedestrians and motor vehicles. Although we didn’t rent any bikes, many tourists can benefit from the bike drop off program. Docking stations spread across the city allow for you to pick up a bike at practically any location. However, be cautious of the cycling culture abroad. Learn the safety rules before heading out on the road. Similar, to Danish cyclists, please don’t piss off a local.
Upon arriving in Amsterdam during that late March evening, we only had a couple hours that night to explore city centre. Like most European cities, establishments close early and the selection of touristic sights were limited. Alex, Zach, and I decided to explore the (in)famous Red Light District. Just a couple steps outside of the train station, the area was blocked off for pedestrian use only. You’d still see the odd bicycle racing across the cobblestone path, but the bumpy ride was enough to deter most cyclists. As for the actual area itself, the path was lined with lavish displays, similar to those you would see along 5th Ave in New York or Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. However, these window displays housed people, particularly scantily-clad females of all shapes, sizes, and colours. To cater to the various tastes of their clientele, the wide selection provided an interesting dinner conversation later that night. The quote that lasts from this trip will forever be, “there’s not my type and then there’s NOT my type”. I won’t tell you which one of the guys uttered these words, but hilarious nonetheless.
As we weaved through the busy streets for food, we were sorely disappointed at every bar and pub by the lack of kitchen staff willing to serve. To be fair, it was almost 22:00 and we were looking for a full meal. We eventually settled on a Chinese restaurant, which housed hardworking staff that cooked until midnight. Although the food was mediocre, it was good to have filling meal after the whole accommodations ordeal. We walked around town a little longer and stumbled across a hole in the wall that sold Belgian fries. Apparently that’s how hipster/niche food trends start, but these fries weren’t as amazing as advertised. A little too large to be regular fries, but a little too small to be steak fries; by the time we reached the bottom of the cone, the remaining few were as soft as mashed potatoes. I guess the only redeeming quality of the establishment would be the countless condiments that paired with the frites. There were several vendors dotting the city, similar to food trucks in North America, so it might be a good option after a long night of partying.
With our stomachs filled, Alex, Zach, and I took a late train back to our hotel and prepared for the next day. Obviously I didn’t prepare well enough because I forgot my phone in the room when we skipped off in the morning. It’s really a shame that I didn’t have my iPhone in hand because our first stop was Keukenhof! The land of tulips stretched across the horizon and painted the landscape with colours only seen in fairytales. Located away from city centre, we took a train and bus to arrive at the front gates. One-way travel took about an hour, so ample time to be hyped about flowers. The best time to go is mid-April, when the tulips are in full bloom. The gardens are open between late-March and mid-May, so you’ll have a chance to see them during that span. Other than the flowers, Keukenhof often hosts traditional Dutch events. When we went, there were performers dancing around in clogs and costumes. They also had a cheese festival running through the week, with wheels of cheese lining the walking path. Near the edge of the gardens, there was a Dutch windmill that blew away the fumes of smoked fish. In addition to a greenhouse filled with exotic flowers, an oriental arch over the main waterway, a children’s play area right above a pond, and a dangerous tire swing, they had an animal petting zoo too! Look below for cute goat photos!
Aside from all the fun activities, Keukenhof reminded me of my childhood. When I lived in Ottawa, the annual Tulip Festival brought the dull city to life in May. Millions of flowers filled the city with colour and aroma. My parents would always make me pose in front of the flowers, but I’d have none of it. The only way they could convince me to cooperate was to buy me ice cream. And here I am, relating it back to food because Zach and I basically inhaled a dozen cream puffs while our time in the gardens.
After saying goodbye to all the cute things for the day, the three of us returned to city centre for an impromptu meet up with more Princeton friends. Jonathan and Jessica were on exchange in England and, as part of their study break, had a grand travel plan all the way down Europe. We met up at Pancakes Amsterdam, which they had recommended as they had tried it earlier that week. Now I’m going to recommend it to you as well because it was scrumptious. With a combination of sweet and savory options, this place had a line out the door. Be prepared to wait if you have a large party. Also, make sure you have cash as the wait for the credit card machine is not worth it. With decent portions and fresh ingredients, these crêpes were cooked to perfection.
With a little catch up and a lot of calories under our belt, the two Princeton groups split to their respective museums. Alex, Zach, and I chose Rijksmuseum for a little R&R. Little did we know that we’d have to exert some effort in taking a photo in front of the Amsterdam sign before going in. Similar to our Paris trip, trying to take a photo in front of a major tourist attraction is test for your Photoshop skills. Another way around it is to take a picture from the back of the sign and then flip it into a reflection. We eventually gave up due to the threat of rain and picked one letter in front of the museum. Once inside though, it was toasty warm for a large establishment. Located in the Museum Square, the Rijks houses prominent artworks from Dutch artists and historical relics of Amsterdam. As the national museum, it dedicated several halls to Rembrandt and Van Gogh. While exploring, Alex and I were surprised to bump into Zach’s flatmate, Tom. Casually waiting outside one of the exhibits, we quickly caught up with a few courteous exchanges. Apparently, Tom’s group of friends was on an epic journey from Amsterdam to Brussels to Paris. They gave us a run for our money in terms of crazy travel schedules.
After exploring the majority of the rooms and creeping onto closing time, Zach suggested that we check out Anne Frank’s House. Located a little ways away, the walk brought us through wrought iron gates, above serene canals, and past coffee shop 420. It was hilarious because we thought it was a clever play on words of the street address. The quaint houses along the waterways give a sense of small village, with pastel facades decorating the bland paths. I can understand why this city is romanticized. A place to inspire fairy tales, when pace slows and nature flourishes. I often hear of expats wanting to move to the Netherlands, especially Amsterdam, to escape the ever-bustling environment of North American corporate culture. By the time we arrived at our original destination, our unhurried steps were unable to make it before the last ticket batch. Although a little disappointed, Alex, Zach, and I continued our leisurely walk around town. Stopping around every corner for photo ops, it’s a real shame I didn’t have my phone on me to take more candid pictures.
Exploring Amsterdam by foot was one of the best decisions we made during the weekend. Skipping along the canals, exploring the lush greenery around Museum Square, and grocery shopping like a local. We stopped by an Aldi for some late night snacks. It was here where we discovered Alex’s love for stroopwafels. Buying a couple packages too many, we also decided to buy a pack of beer to pair with our pastries. I was absolutely elated because I was finally in the land of Heineken, my favourite beer. In hindsight, we didn’t need so much liquid courage because those heavy cans were lugged around in the boys’ backpacks all night. Later that night, we met up with the Princeton crowd again for ramen. The reoccurring theme of Japanese comfort food abroad is a little concerning, but comforting nonetheless.
The three of us headed back to the hotel relatively early because Alex had to catch an early train out to Innsbruck. At the same time, Zach and I would be taking a quick three hour bus ride to Brussels. Our quick weekend detour to Belgium was premeditated. However, our backup rainy day plan was not. Hence, when we arrived in gloomy Brussels, we were a little worse for wear. The problem with our schedule was the awkward half-day-here and half-day-there kind of arrangement. A complete day split between two. Zach and I wanted to make the most of our time, despite the weather, so we quickly bought a daily metro pass and zoomed to our hostel. Zach had booked this one in a hurry, so it wasn’t as nice as Wombats in Munich or Generator in Copenhagen. However, he also booked a room with fewer inhabitants for the sake of comfort. The Meininger is located within walking distance to city centre, so the location gets bonus points.
Our first stop was the Atomium. Located slightly outside of the city, this site was originally built for Brussels World’s Fair. The structure itself was little underwhelming because I’m used to all the skyscrapers in North America. Standing at only 102 metres tall, you could easily climb the tower from the external staircases. Due to the weather, Zach and I decided to join the elevator line. You can also purchase these tickets ahead of time, but you will have to wait in line for security with the rest of the patrons. Once at the top, we gained a bird’s eye view of Brussels’s utilitarian layout. We also saw all of Europe, if Europe were to be miniaturized into significant landmarks. Inside the tower, there were historical infographics, geographical outlines, and periodicals of the downfall of a Belgium airline. Long story short, Swiss Air basically bankrupted Sabena in 2001. And that’s when Zach and I decided not to show our Swiss resident’s card during our stay.
The elevators up and down the Atomium eventually gave us a headache, which contributed to our bellyache due to a lack of food. Our trek back to Old Town was quiet, but our stomachs were loud. The weather was also turning for the worse and I, unfortunately, did not pack a heavier jacket. Thank goodness for dear Zach, who kindly offered his down puffer to shield me from the cold. This didn’t go unnoticed; my mother questioned me about it once she saw my photos from that day. The photos in Old Town were moody to say the least, with ominous clouds looming in the background. On the foreground, you’d see the pair of us hopping between cold parks and cool museums for the day. Before all of these excursions, Zach had found an authentic Belgian café, Café Novo, for a late lunch. I don’t remember exactly what we ordered, but the dishes had a lot of meat. Much appreciated after our nearly vegetarian diet in Switzerland.
Walking around the cobblestone streets of Old Town was the perfect way to burn all those calories and explore the faint charm of the city. We had been told to stop by for Belgian waffles, especially the one right outside of Manneken Pis. Edrick, a friend who had visited earlier in the year and my guiding light in Scandinavia, said the waffle shops closest to the tourist site sold the least expensive snacks. For a reason unbeknownst to me, the little statue on top of the fountain attracted big attention. We had passed it twice before noticing a large crowd gathering at its feet. It was only the weekend after did I read up on the history of the statue, which you can find here.
The Belgian waffles we tried were not special, but the Pierre Marcolini chocolates we bought were divine. After trying a couple other brands for comparison, the both of us walked out of the boutique with sleek black bags to prove our unwarranted purchase. A friend back in Switzerland was a bit of a chocolate connoisseur and she was massively impressed by our selection. However, for more affordable choices, Zach and I agreed that Neuhaus was the clear winner for taste and price.
Later that afternoon, we slung around our fancy bags into a rather interesting museum. The Musical Instrument Museum, located in city centre, housed a collection of over 8000 artifacts. The descriptions throughout the building are in Dutch and French, but the internationally translating headsets were provided for a reasonable fee. Again, we used our student status for discounted tickets. You’re also not allowed backpacks, thus Zach departed from his beloved knapsack for a short while.
While I am genuinely interested in the development of musical instruments, which they laid out by decade as well as region, it was the nouveau art deco that caught my eye. The building was dimly lit, so the photographs were not stunning, but the little details throughout the museum were gorgeous. Take for example their central elevator, which featured a dark iron gate encompassing the zooming contraption. If you were to ask me which instrument was my favourite though, then I’d have to say the hurdy-gurdy. The Steinways and Fenders might be the showstoppers, but this medieval instrument was the most interesting one out of the collection. In my London adventures, it will pop up again! I might also like to add now that those headsets mentioned above played musical excerpts of how the instrument would sound in action.
In the evening, Zach and I passed by the Royal Palace and wandered through the area around Town Hall. These two enormous buildings proved to be difficult to photograph, but pretty to look at nonetheless. Everything was well-lit in the city centre and we felt that Brussels came to life at night. This was quite surprising because when you think of “party-city” you don’t automatically think somewhere in Belgium. Even from the cool dinner location, Bia Mara, we could feel the atmosphere change as the clock ticked closer to midnight. Now that I mentioned food again, this casual diner was stupendous! It was basic fish and chips to the prime. The line up out the door would also be an indication of its popularity. The beer selection was decent and paired well with our meal.
Feeling absolutely exhausted from our impromptu Belgium adventures; Zach and I decided to finally retreat back to the hostel. Our room was fit for four individuals, with a bunk bed on one side and a large queen-sized bed on the other. However, from previous travels, we knew that European queen-sized beds were basically two twin-sized beds tied together. So as we undid the sheets and disassembled the set up, resulting in a pretty decent arrangement. There was 100% another inhabitant in the room, due to a lone cologne bottle in the bathroom, but that individual never appeared that night. This only added to the idea that Brussels is perhaps more of a party city than we first originally thought.
Our bus back to Amsterdam wasn’t extremely early so we decided to crack open a bottle of wine before bedtime. Zach had some computer science assignment to work on and I just rolled around the bed. Obviously there was one productive person on this trip. He had showed me some cool applications he had created and others works completed by his friends. It was a nice chance in pace to sit down and understand his other talents.
In the morning, we woke up a little late, but still had enough time to admire the artwork that dotted the city. Brussels had a large obsession with street art and comic books, so it was only fair that I snapped this photo before leaving:
To touch base on travelling within in Brussels, we purchased a daily metro pass and zoomed around on several forms of public transit. These can be purchased from any station and if you take more than five trips, then you breakeven. Understand that like any large city, the system generally slows in the early hours on weekends. We had attempted to catch an earlier train based on the Google Maps recommendation, but missed it by a couple minutes. Those couple of minutes multiplied because the next train was due 20 minutes later! Within in city centre, most attractions are walking distance from each other. We both agreed that Brussels was a highly walk-able city and one of those hop-on-hop-off buses was completely unnecessary.
Back in Amsterdam, we travelled to Schiphol Airport for our flight home. Usually Zach and Alex would take me as a guest to the business lounge (look at these fancy pants), but this particular international airport didn’t have one that supported Zach’s rewards program. Therefore, we waited in the general commercial area for more entertainment before passing through security. The dilemma was that we had an extra can of Heineken and it wouldn’t be allowed on the plane through our carry-on. With that said, you see good ol’ Grace sipping on her tall can without a care in the world. I don’t want to completely take the blame for the next series of events, but Zach and I lost track of time. Eventually leading to our Olympic-level sprint to the boarding gate. It didn’t help that Zach’s entire backpack was filled with electronics or that the airline boarding system required physical validation. By the time we sat on the plane, the one that we almost missed, Zach and I collapsed in a panicked heap for the rest of the flight.
Returning on the Sunday was the right choice, as the both of us required the much needed sleep. Alex didn’t come back until later in the evening, but he recollected his adventures in Innsbruck. Overall, it sounded like I would have liked the Austrian ski town more than Amsterdam and Brussels combined. However, like my mother always says, “You don’t know until you try”.
As a benchmark, including transportation, accommodations, entertainment, meals, and a quick rendezvous to Belgium, the entire weekend getaway cost approximately €400. Previous entries have stated weekend trips to cost significantly less than €300. Although this getaway did not live up to expectations, I am still very content with how the three of us handled each obstacle that came our way. I wouldn’t return to these places in a heartbeat, but perhaps it was also a learning lesson for my future travel plans.