By Roberta Lasky
Having grown up on Netherland Avenue in the Dutch-named Spuyten Duyvil* section of Riverdale in The Bronx**, I have always had a strong interest in visiting Amsterdam. Planning our summer vacation in Europe, my husband and I decided to add a three-night trip to this city that has so many meaningful connections in my life.
We took a mid-morning train from Paris’ Gard de Nord station, having purchased our reserved seats in advance through the easy to navigate Thalys website. After a three hour picturesque journey on the clean and comfortable intercity train (complimentary WiFi!), we saw light at the end of the tunnel arriving at Amsterdam’s Central Station in early afternoon. We immediately made a bee-line over to the nearby VOC Café for traditional Bittenballen (a bite-size round snack food) on the canal-side deck of this casual eatery, recently featured on the Travel Channel by Andrew Zimmern. This café is housed in an over 500 year-old structure (Schreierstoren) nicknamed the “Weeping Tower” due to the tearful wives saying goodbye to their husbands departing for long journeys at sea.
After lunch, we headed to the Andaz Hotel (which came highly recommend by The Points Mom), which is located away from the bustle of the Old City on one of the quieter “ring” canals for which Amsterdam is most famous. As we walked into the lobby of this artsy, modern boutique hotel we felt like we were living in a real life Alice in Wonderland story. Tiny doors lined the entryway leading to the oversized hat-like chandeliers hanging over concierge desks in the lobby. Location is everything, as we soon discovered, as we were only a 15-minute walk from the city’s popular areas, including the Museum Quarter, Dam Square and the charming Jordaan neighborhood.
Cruising the Canals-Blue Boat Tours Amsterdam
To get our bearings, we took a lovely 75-minute canal ride with Blue Boat Tours that included a taped audio guide about the city’s origins. The boat launch is located right across from The Heineken Brewery, which offers a popular tasting tour. Back at the hotel, we checked out the stylish lobby bar and took in the mixed-media art installations positioned throughout the public spaces. We had fun navigating the maze-like courtyard garden with hidden sculptures and seating.
For dinner, we took a short taxi ride over to Café Panache for outstanding grilled chicken and an oversized mixed platter of grilled shellfish. We sampled several Dutch beers as well.
Tip: Make reservations for restaurants via Open Table.
Museum Square Must-Sees
Our second day in this beautiful city was devoted to museum hopping around Museum Square. We made the 15-minute walk over to the Museum Quarter, stopping at Stach along the way for some fresh pastries and coffee to go. The Van Gogh Museum was first on our list, and timed-entry tickets (available online) are a must. From sunflowers to self-portraits, we were treated to a fascinating survey of the artistic development and interesting life of one of the world’s most famous painters. Having worked up an appetite, we stopped into a nearby restaurant, The Uptown Meat Club, for tasty sandwiches. After lunch, we strolled through beautiful Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s answer to New York’s Central Park, complete with bike riders, dog walkers, fountains, joggers, ponds, and people watching. Heading back to the museum route, we next visited the world-famous Rijksmuseum to take in major works by Rembrandt (The Night Watch), Vermeer and other 17th century masters. After some downtime back at the hotel, we stopped in for traditional Dutch pancakes at The Pancake Bakery, and ate one of the sweetest and largest banana/nutella crepes we have ever seen.
We next strolled over to the nearby Anne Frank Museum to queue up for our timed admission tickets. The audio guide is a must as you make your way up the narrow stairways and offices that protected the Secret Annex where the Frank family and others remained hidden from the occupying Nazis for more than two years, and the young Anne Frank wrote her most famous of diaries.
Tip: Book your timed entrance to the Anne Frank House the moment you know when you will be in Amsterdam. Tickets are very popular and sell out quickly, but evening times tend to be less crowded.
A late dinner was in order after our long day of sightseeing, and we were able to score an outdoor table at the Venus and Adonis bistro just across the canal. The corner cafe looked warm and inviting from the outside and our instincts were correct as we sat at a table on the terrace at this bistro. We went for some of the grilled specialties, enjoying steak and spare ribs and a cone-full of perfect pomme frites.
Roaming Through Red-light District
Our visit to this European city would not be complete without a stop in the notorious Red-light District (Da Wallen). As we wandered through the busy, noisy, marijuana-infused alleys, the Police song, “Roxanne” immediately popped into our heads. It was interesting to witness all the unusual antics happening in this unique neighborhood. Once is enough, in my opinion. Now we can say, ‘Been there, done that.’
Bikes Built for Two
Amsterdam is a city designed for and completely owned by its’ cyclists. To get an authentic view of this lovely metropolis, we borrowed complimentary bicycles from our hotel and headed out for a day of adventure.
Destination: Dam Square
We rode for 10 minutes to the center of Amsterdam to the original site of the Amstel River’s dam. The major buildings within Dam Square include; The Royal Palace, The New Church (Nieuwe Church) and The National Monument, which is a 72 foot white travertine stone pillar, designed by J.J.P. Oud, built in 1956 and honors WW II Victims. We also got a glance at the house where Rembrandt lived
Every year the New Church hosts the World Press Photo exhibition. Our timing could not have been more perfect to stumble upon the show and see the winning photographs and videos.
Journey to Jewish Quarter (Jodenbuurt)
We next cycled over to Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter to investigate the long history of Jews in Amsterdam who first migrated to The Netherlands from Spain in the early 17th century. First stop: The Portuguese Synagogue (aka Esnoga). This is the world’s second oldest active temple (The oldest active temple is in Prague) and houses the oldest Jewish library in the world (The Ets Haim) as well. The large brass chandeliers adorning the high-vaulted ceiling are impressively striking. We made our way around the corner for our next stop on our cultural trek and visited the Jewish Historical Museum (Joods Historisch Museum), which opened in 1932. The most interesting historical artifact was the sheet of fabric with multiple Star of Davids. It was quite poignant to see the actual 76 year-old roll of cloth with the identifying symbols printed on it with our very own eyes.
Tip: Purchase the multi-pass ticket for sites in the Jewish Quarter. Admission to the following is included on the pass: Jewish Historical Museum, Portuguese Synagogue, The Hollandsche Schouwburg, The Jewish Historical Children’s Museum and The National Holocaust Museum.
We rode through Wertheimpark located in the Planate neighborhood and saw the “Broken Mirrors” Auchwitz monument by Jan Wolkers featuring six broken mirrors inscribed with the important words, “Never Again Auschwitz”. It was a treat to ride through the city all day and it was fun to ring the bicycle bell as well. The built-in exercise was another plus.
Before dinner, we had some spare time, so we parked our bikes and toasted the day over some beers canal-side at Café van Leeuwen.
Indrapura located on Rembrandt Plein (Rembrandt Square) provided the opportunity to sample traditional Indonesian delicacies and rijsttafel, a legacy of Dutch colonial history in Southeast Asia. We feasted on the elaborate Nusantara Rice Table Menu comprised of small plates of different fruits to nuts as well as meats and vegetables. Even though we were stuffed from this uniquely delicious dinner, we hopped backed on our bikes and treated ourselves to world-renowned apple pie at Winkel 43, a cute café with outdoor seating in the Jordaan neighborhood.
On the Road Again
The next morning we had some savory croissants and coffee in the hotel lobby before our taxi whisked us away to the train station for our return trip back to Paris. It was a wonderful way to culminate our stay.
Dank je (‘Thank you’) Amsterdam for an outstanding experience. Now I know why I highly enjoy bike riding, eating pancakes and drinking beer from Holland. Do you think it’s a coincidence or ironic that I once lived near Gansevoort Street in Greenwich Village (Groenwijck) and now live on Heritage Drive?
* Spuyten Duyvil (Spuitende Duivel or “Spouting Devil”) which refers to dangerous currents.
**The name Bronx is derived from the name of the Dutchman, Jonas Bronck,who established the settlement in the area.
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