Spent the last week in April visiting a friend (also American) in Amsterdam. Here's how it went...
ARRIVING IN AMSTERDAM
Flight from Detroit took about 8 hrs. Enjoyed all the movies you can watch now on long flights. They must of had about 20 to choose from, plus some TV shows -- all included in the price of your ticket.
Takes about 15 mins for the plane to taxi to the Amsterdam terminal. De-planed about 5:45 a.m.
Smooth sailing through customs. Hit the ATM and took out 200 Euro, which is the max you can get at one time (cost: $272). Most of the travel advisory websites recommend using the ATMs to get euros. It's usually less-expensive than ordering euros from your bank in the US. American currency is not accepted in the Netherlands. Credit cards aren't either at many Dutch retailers.
Met up with my friend who has been working in Amsterdam for three months. I'm 49 and my buddy is 52. Both single.
The airport doubles as a train station, which is quite handy. We took the train to Amsterdam Centraal, which is about a half-mile from my friend's apartment. Once there, I went to sleep for a few hours since I didn't sleep on the plane.
Be advised, the electric current in the Netherlands is different than in the states. An ADAPTER will be needed if your electric appliance/device has "100-240v" written on it (means it will accept different currents within that range). However, if your appliance/device just has "110v" or "120v" written on it, you will need a CONVERTER (if you plug it into just an ADAPTER, it will likely burn up... or at the very least not function). Adapters are about 1" x 1" in size, whereas Converters are 1" x 3" or bigger. If in doubt, pick up a converter before you come to the Netherlands. Half the things I packed would not work without a converter. You can get them at several places, including Radio Shack for about $22, and specialty retailers like Brookstones.
When I woke up from my nap, it was a sunny Saturday afternoon in Amsterdam. Enjoyed walking the streets and seeing Vondelpark, where anything goes (drinking, even public sex). Didn't see any of the latter, but there were was plenty of alcohol being consumed. There was a bachelorette party going on in the park and I was asked to pose in a picture with the bride-to-be.
Shortly after arriving in the Netherlands, I was struck by how tall the Dutch are. I knew the men were tall, but I didn't realize how tall the women were until I walked Amsterdam. There is no shortage of tall, skinny blonde women in Holland. They are everywhere! Not that I'm complaining. ;-) And a fashion all the women seemed to be wearing was knee high boots. We saw them EVERYWHERE we went -- very popular.
It's an interesting contrast that the Dutch tend to be so tall, yet the stores, restaurants, etc., are all quite small by US standards. The Dutch seem to have a more active lifestyle than Americans so you don't see nearly as many overweight citizens there as you do in the US. Probably a good thing, given the small size of their stairwells, public restrooms, etc.
I was also surprised that public restrooms often cost 50-euro cents to use! This was true at the train station and many other public places. Outside of the train station, paying the fee is often on the honor system so I noticed a lot of people just bypassing the payment bowl. Like a lot of visitors to Amsterdam, I was hesitant at first to use the open air urinals that can be found at a few locations along the canal. After seeing a few other men using them, I got up enough nerve and by the end of the week I was using them almost once or twice a night.
If you need to wash clothes in Amsterdam, there are self service laundromat's scattered around the city. The one I used is near the 420 Coffee Shop. Cost is 5 euro to wash and 1-2 euro to dry, depending on how much dryer time you need.
RESTAURANTS & CAFES
I enjoy the Dutch tradition of serving cold cuts for breakfast, and Dutch pancakes are yummy too. We typically ate breakfast at the apartment, but I occasionally sampled breakfast offerings as we wandered about. For lunch or dinner, I enjoyed the Indonesian sate' though, as anywhere, there is sometimes a dramatic difference in quality from one restaurant to another.
If you order a hamburger in someplace other than a fast food chain, expect the meat to taste different. It seems denser and has a slightly spicier taste.
The Netherlands is a popular vacation destination for the British because it's relatively close and inexpensive for them to fly back & forth. Therefore many Dutch restaurants & cafes have a British influence. Unfortunately the British aren't known for having the best cuisine... think bland boiled meat & vegetables with lots of gravy. Or bland fried fish.
And don't expect to see many big, fresh salads on menus at Dutch restaurants. Apparently it's not as popular as in the states. In most Dutch restaurants you're lucky to find even one "big salad" entre', and even then it's not always what you would expect.
RED LIGHT DISTRICT -- FUN FACTS (rated R)
In the evening we toured the Red Light District (RLD) most evenings, since my friend's apartment was only a few blocks away. I was surprised to see so many prostitute windows (actually full-length glass storm doors). There are over 100 scattered over several streets and alleys. Oftentimes you will have windows on both sides of you. It's a lot of fun to see, and for a guy, a real ego boost since most of the women are young, attractive and beckoning you with their eyes, fingers, smiles and body movement. (I know it's their job, but still....)
I was also surprised to see nearly as many females touring the RLD and looking in the windows as males. Guess its fun for everyone. You'll likely see LOTS of tour groups going through the RLD -- day & night -- and even see families w/ young kids, going through at times.
The average RLD prostitute appears to be in her 20s, with some exceptions. They are unionized (prostitution is legal) and each rents her own one-room window -- the rental rates are actually posted on the top corner of the glass.
If there's a bed in the room, then that's where the action happens. If there's no bed, then she takes customers up an inside stairwell to a bedroom. When you pass a window with the thick red drape drawn, she's attending to a customer.
The RLD is open 24/7, though only a few prostitutes work the morning shift. I've read in a couple sources that the busiest time for prostitutes in the RLD is dusk. I talked it over with my buddy and we conclude that it's probably because most "customers" would rather not be seen leaving, and since the crowds get thicker as the night goes on, dusk is a relatively safe time to get "in & out"... pardon the pun.
It's fairly common knowledge that condoms are provided (and required), and the cost is 50-euros for 15-20 mins. Contrary to what you might think, many/most of the prostitutes in the RLD are not Dutch. There are some, no doubt, but many are from other Eastern European countries, and their English isn't always the best.
Lest you think I know too much, nearly all the above information is available by Googling "Red Light District story" or similar key words. And although taking photos and videos are taboo in the RLD, you can find some on YouTube, though the YouTube videos don't really do it justice.
Scattered throughout the RLD are "Peep Shows" where, for 2 euros, you can watch a couple minutes of a live sex show from the privacy of a small closet-like booth. You're literally a few feet from the action taking place on a rotating bed, watching through a window (someone posted a sample on YouTube). Oftentimes the "performance" is a woman masturbating, but frequently there is a couple having sex -- oral and otherwise. You're only supposed to have one person to a booth, but I noticed extra people were jammed into some booths, including a group of three college-age females.
In the back of the Peep Show places are several booths outfitted with tissues and wastebaskets. I think they cost 20-euro, but I'm not sure. And I don't know what you see in those booths... perhaps a private show?
And of course, also in the RLD are strip clubs. One that was recommended to us by a Dutch friend who lives in Amsterdam, is called La Vie. It's small and a little challenging to find, buried at the end of a skinny alley in the heart of the RLD.
It cost 5-euro to get into La Vie. Get your hand stamped and you can come & go throughout the night. The bartender at La Vie is topless and the young dancers perform on the bar (there are poles at either end). As if that isn't enough to keep your interest, there are porn films showing continuously on two large flat screen TVs on the wall behind the bar.
Be prepared to pay 6 euro ($8) for a small glass of beer. A topless lap dance is 10-euro; a full-nude lap dance is 20-euro. In the US, you aren't permitted to touch strippers, particularly during lap dances. But at La Vie, touching is not only allowed, it's encouraged. I was amazed at what I saw there during lap dances.
When we weren't walking around the RLD, we took in a few of the bars. The bad news is: bars are expensive, with pints costing $6-$8, and cocktails even more. The good news is: many bars have two happy hours. The second might be 10:30-11:30 p.m. Often there's no break on the price of cocktails or wine during happy hour, but a few Amsterdam bars do. If you're like me and not much of a beer drinker, you might want to research which bars offer cocktail specials before coming to Amsterdam.
Also, be advised, many Dutch bartenders aren't keen on washing their hands before grabbing ice to fill your glass. If that makes you squeamish, you can always request your drink with no ice.
Amsterdam bars are supposed to be smoke free now, except for designated (and enclosed) areas. However, most bartenders will look the other way as long as you're not obvious about whatever you're smoking. In fact, many bartenders keep a cigarette burning below the counter for a periodic "hit".
Plain clothes police intermittently come into bars and if it's apparent the bar is allowing smoking (i.e., by having ashtrays out), they will fine the bar. The first fine is about 500-euro and I'm told many bars have been busted since the relatively new law came about. Most bar owners chalk it up to the cost of doing business and continue as usual after the bust.
The second bust can cost a couple thousand euros. That one gets the attention of the bar owner, not just because of the expense, but more so because a third bust means they lose their liquor license. As a result, the bar owner will try to negotiate his/her way out of the second bust. If they succeed, they often continue to allow discrete smoking in their facility, though with a bit more caution.
As a non-smoker, I did enjoy the "relatively" smoke free air in most Amsterdam bars, though few are entirely smoke free. Just cutting down on the volume of smokers is helpful to keeping my clothes from stinking too bad.
The infamous coffee shops seem to be located on most every block in Amsterdam. You can often smell them before you see them. By law, they aren't permitted to "promote" their main products so you typically go in and ask to see a "menu" and/or they will show you whatever you ask to see.
My friend and I don't partake in that activity, but we did try to get a souvenir shirt from some of the better-known coffee shops. Surprisingly, none had any for sale. Perhaps it falls under the "non-promote" category. They can sell shirts in a separate retail store-- and a couple of the bigger ones have that set-up -- but the shirts for sale are generic/tame... seldom mentioning the name of the shop (with the exception of Bull Dog... but no mention of "coffee shop"). We were disappointed.
ANNE FRANK HOUSE
On Sunday we went to the Anne Frank House, which for me was one of the highlights of the trip. Very moving and informative. It brings WWII to life in a way no memorial can. Though I had read excerpts from her diary years ago, I found myself thinking about Anne Frank's family long after I toured the house.
If you know the exact time you will go, it's definitely wiser to buy your tickets in advance online. There was no waiting for those who had internet-purchased tickets. We didn't know what day & time we would go so we stood in an hour line Sunday morning... in the rain. The tour is self-guided and takes maybe a couple hours to soak it all in. Adult admission is about $11.50.
Other things we saw during our week in the Netherlands included the Sex Museum, Torture Museum, windmills at Kinderdijk, tulip fields near Keukenhof, Muiden Castle, and the town of Weesp.
The Sex Museum was interesting, but not great. I think admission is 3-euro. Much of it is black & white porn photos from the early 1900s, an exhibit about Mata Hari, and a few mannequins dressed up like prostitutes. There are other things too, but not much. It would be more enjoyable to see with a member of the opposite sex, just for the reaction and squeamish factor (there's a small photo exhibit on bestiality and other fetishes). I guess in the days before the internet, the Sex Museum was one of the few places conservative western culture residents could see this type of stuff. Now, much of it seems somewhat dated and/or ho-hum.
The Torture Museum was even more of a letdown. It consists of pieces of paper tacked to walls in a few different rooms so you spend your whole time reading. Also posted to the walls are some old rough-looking sketches of people being tortured with various equipment. There is old-looking wood & metal torture equipment to look at and touch, but I suspect much of it is reproductions. Even if not, I was still not impressed. My friend and I left feeling we just visited the library... and spent about $7 each to do it. I guess for someone who has never been exposed to ancient torture devices, the museum might be somewhat interesting. Otherwise, save yourself the disappointment and buy "Torture Through The Ages" in paperback. It's an easy read and offers much more grueling torture detail than what you'll see at this museum. I think it's out of print, but you can buy it used.
WINDMILLS AT KINDERDIJK
One day we took a 2 hr? bus ride to see the windmills at Kinderdijk. The bus ride itself was very scenic, through the Dutch countryside, by interesting and different farm homes and communities. There are 19 windmills at Kinderdijk, clustered more or less along a few canals. You can take some wonderful photos there, but it can be quite windy! You can easily walk to many of the windmills, though a lot of people rent bikes at the gift shop and ride along the canals to see them. Kinderdijk is very popular so expect to see several tour groups (and tour buses).
For a small fee, you can do a self-guided tour in one of the windmills. (There's also a "free" bathroom you can use once you pay the admission.) Inside the windmill are video presentations on flat screens showing how and why families actually lived IN the windmills, and animated presentations of how a windmill works. Perhaps best of all, you can get some very good up-close photos and video of the outside of the windmill.
Another day we took a 90-minute? bus ride to the tulip fields near Keukenhof, which is the big-deal flower display that's only open mid-March to mid-May. We went at the end of April and opted to skip the flower show (adult admission is $18) and instead headed to the adjacent tulip/flower fields. We originally planned to rent bikes and ride around the fields, but it was a cool, misty day so we decided to walk instead. It was a bit of a hike - 2 miles or so each way -- but fairly easy to follow paved paths from Keukenhof. The flower fields were quite the colorful sight! Since it was a little late in the season, some of the fields had already dropped their pedals, but many had not. There were some farther off fields we couldn't get to without bikes, but we were pleased we got some good photos, then walked back to Keukenhof to catch the bus back to Amsterdam.
MUIDEN CASTLE and TOWN OF WEESP
Another day we went to the Muiden Castle, and the town of Weesp. This is a good bike ride destination since you travel through the country, by farms and through small towns. I believe Mike's Bike Rentals has a trip from Amsterdam to Muiden Castle. Instead of riding from Amsterdam, we opted to take the train to Weesp and rent bikes at the train depot. The town of Weesp is only a short distance from Amsterdam and is quite serene. It reminded me in some ways of a Cape Cod resort town. We stopped for ice cream and traveled by some of the small shops. We also stopped for a nice lunch at a café along a canal.
I found riding a bike through Holland's farm country quite exhilarating! I loved it, which was a good thing because Muiden Castle was pretty much a let-down. It's targeted more for kids and there were lots of them there. The adult admission is about 9-euro. We walked around the castle anticipating an interesting experience, but there wasn't much of interest there... at least that was our impression. After grabbing a cup of espresso in the castle cafe, we hopped on our bikes and rode back to Weesp, stopping at a corner bar for a quick pint before turning our bikes in at the train depot.
QUEEN'S DAY, APRIL 30
We spent our last full-day in Amsterdam, celebrating Queen's Day on April 30. The weather was sunny and it was a splendid end to our trip. Everyone was outside in a festive spirit and it was a great opportunity to view Dutch culture in a unique way. I believe Queen's Day is the only day of the year that Amsterdam residents can participate in a "yard sale", so there was no shortage of people purging their junk.
Many of the main roads in Amsterdam are closed to cars and trams on Queens Day, which made it easier to meander without fear of getting run over. I particularly enjoyed watching families in Vondelpark performing together and supporting one another, as did the many people watching the performances of dancers, puppet shows, drummers, musicians, singers, etc. There were lemonade and fresh juice stands, and lots of baked goodies. There was even some enterprising teens yelling for volunteers for "speed dating", where, for a nominal fee, ten single people could spend 2 minutes having a one-on-one conversation with 10 other singles (of the opposite sex).
Kids sold things they made, as did some adults. And there were lots and lots of yard sale things. I thoroughly enjoyed walking around Vondelpark on Queen's Day. There was so much to take in ... and try out (yum!).
Later on Queen's Day, we hung outside by a café/bar, and cheered on the many passing party boats. Apparently the police relax the canals partying & boating rules for Queens Day. It's a hoot to see the people ride by while jammin to the music blaring from their boats.
HEADING BACK TO THE STATES
Departing the Netherlands took a bit longer than entering. Not sure why, but we had to wait in more lines than when I arrived. Seemed to take a long time to finally get to our gate, mainly due to the extra lines. If my experience is any indication of how it is normally, be sure to allow yourself lots of time (i.e., 2 hrs) to exit the country.
Amsterdam is not a cheap destination, but it is interesting to see. Expect to pay a few dollars more than US prices for everything you eat, drink or buy. And be warned, there are inescapable "adult" elements throughout the city that you likely won't want to explain to your children.
Things I would consider doing next time:
1. Research Amsterdam happy hours online, for bars offering discounts on cocktails (most just discount beer)
2. Skip the cheesy Sex and Torture museums
3. Research the least-crowded time to see the Rijksmuseum, to avoid the loooooong line (we skipped it, due to the long line to get in)
4. Skip the Muiden Castle.
5. Rent a bike for the week and use it liberally.
6. Plan more bike trips outside of Amsterdam.
7. Visit more small towns outside of Amsterdam.
8. Consider arranging a canal tour w/ small motor boat, guide, wine & cheeses (saw several of these go by and they look quite enjoyable... more so than the large "cattle" boat tours)
9. Coordinate my trip around Queen's Day again (April 30)!