A Little Adrift

A Little Adventure… The Ultimate Guide to Enjoying Amsterdam Like a Local

I think that it’s been perhaps evident that I’ve been getting a bit worn out lately. All of the constant movement of the road is catching up with me and I am just tired and I don’t want to constantly pick up and move. The weariness is starting to show now though in some not so great ways.

After my time in Český Krumlov Cousin H and I were flying to Amsterdam out of Prague. Why flying? Well trains in Europe are expensive if you don’t book ahead…and we didn’t…mostly because we didn’t know. So instead, although flying is so very bad for the environment, it was a choice between Euro 50 for a flight or Euro 135 for a train…I figured purchasing the carbon offsets for the air trip would still make it cheaper…so I booked us both and we planned out our last few days in Czech Republic.

The day before our flight I log onto the internet to write down all of the information and lo and behold, I have booked it for the wrong day. This is why I am saying that I am just worn out and slipping. Crap. The only positive is that I booked it for one day later…thank the universe we at least didn’t miss our flight! But it did mean that I had to scramble to find us a hostel. Basically, I am just frustrated with myself for messing that up – it happened because I was looking at multiple days to find the cheapest option.

Ho hum. That sucked. But thankfully Amsterdam was penciled in as a two-week rest-stop thanks to a sweet hookup. A friend of Helen’s teaches English at an international school in Amsterdam and was eager to use the summer holidays to head back State-side for a visit home.

The perfect opportunity presented itself: Helen and I welcomed a free place to stay and spread out  for a couple of weeks and her friend was guaranteed that that her two kitties would get a whole lot of love and affection (and food) while she was away.

The benefits of house-sitting in Amsterdam: access to her and her husband’s bicycles so that I could ride through the city feeling like a local, a well-stocked kitchen, museum card (dishonest as it was I didn’t hesitate to use hers), maps of the cities, and a personal tour of all of the best organic markets for shopping. Talk about awesome!

Wandering through the Saturday market was just precisely the boost I needed. The markets in Amsterdam are just a treat unto themselves and it was delightful to just pick out a lot of fresh fruits and veggies without worrying if there was time enough to eat it before switching hostels! I had a solid two weeks to eat the fresh local food and cook up a storm in the kitchen – something that I have sorely missed out on because I eat out all of the time or cook up very basic dishes in hostel kitchens.

The juicy red currants had just come into season when I arrived and they graced my yogurt and museli daily at breakfast.A special treat upon arriving in Amsterdam? A care package from Jenn! She was appalled by how run-down some of the items I carry are (my headphones have been missing one ear bud for about four and half months…since India really) and sent a package of goodness to the house. One of the most random parts of the package? A tub of the most deliciously nasty Fritos fake nacho cheese product…that was a special little gift to appease my bizarre yearning for Taco Bell nachos…and it worked!

Step One: Learn How to Bike Amsterdam Like a Local.

Amsterdam is a city that has one major reputation and it’s the reputation that had numerous people giving me a *wink, wink* and a nudge when I told them I planned to stay in the city for two weeks. But there is a whole other side to the city than the “coffee shops” and I was pretty lucky to live like a local in Amsterdam for two weeks while house-sitting and take in the museums, parks, and the thrill of puttering through the streets on an old jalopy of a bike.

So, I don’t think anyone would need a guide for a weekend of visiting “coffee shops” in the city– but there is more to see …these are my stories and tips and you could definitely pick and choose if you only have a couple of days in the city! Stay tuned in all week as I fill out the list!

There is just not a single better tip than to rent a bike in Amsterdam. The city is built for bicycles and it’s faster and way more fun than either walking or public transport. I have to admit, when the husband of the couple took me out into the city for a tour I was REALLY overwhelmed. He was quite used to the bike lanes and lights and took me whizzing around the town at top speed until I pleaded for a break and took respite in a nearby park.

The city’s streets are designed to accommodate a lot of bike traffic and bikes have the right of way…cars will actually fully yield to bicycles (buses and trams not so much though so GET OUT OF THE WAY…seriously…you were warned…). The red bike lanes run alongside the major roads and work just like roads – you bike on the right side of the street with the flow of traffic.

I may be just a bit easily impressed but I loved the personal bike traffic signals just at eye level at the intersections – you know they’re for you because they’re a bike! Call me lame, but I thought it was cool…and I learned really quickly that you have to look at the ones right next to you, not the one across the intersection (picture the screeching and squealing tires of a car as I figured that one out!).

Anyhow, bikes are great and the tourist bikes are painted bright yellow and red so that the locals know to stay clear of the floundering newbs (I didn’t have that benefit on my crusty-rusty bike). Everything that you could possibly want to see in Amsterdam is bikeable – from the Museum complex to the Anne Frank House (and even the Red Light District) a bike is the only transport fees you’ll have to pay.

Another quick warning – lock the bikes up well. The reason that the couple I was house-sitting for had me using the jalopy bike (they have four others) was because of the high rate of bike theft. I had to use between 2-3 locks on the bike every time to ensure that it didn’t get stolen.

Step Two: Get Lost in the City’s Best Museums.

I’ve been lucky enough to score a sweet house-sitting gig in Amsterdam for two weeks and was able to spend a lot of time exploring what this city has to offer.

There are roughly 26 museums and/or places of interest in the city (and there’s a great free-map of them all at the tourist office/museum information desk). Another score for the house-sitting hookup was a museum card to use to my heart’s content.

I visited quite a few of the museums and really, the two most obvious were clearly the best, the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. The Anne Frank House is also worth a visit. I did the Flimmusem and the Theatre museum and thought them largely skip-able – in fact, wholly skip-able unless you’re in the city for weeks like me.

The Van Gogh Museum though is worth every penny of a visit so don’t scrimp and skip it. Seriously, don’t. I was actually here about four years ago and also paid a visit; the museum is larger now and has a whole other exhibit with works of art and masterpieces from Van Gogh’s contemporaries at the time. The works chronicle Van Gogh’s life and I thought that the works from Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard were just as neat and interesting.

There is also an interactive portion on one of the upper floors for those wanting to get in touch with their inner geek (read: me) and learn more about the restoration process and about how they even know that some of these paintings are actually authentic Van Goghs.

And I cannot leave out the Rijksmuseum- also well worth a visit and has some amazing silver work the likes of which I have never seen in addition to a whole lot of china and various objects d’arte…a different experience than the V.G.M. where it’s all about looking at the paintings.

And here is the supremo piece of advice I can offer you about the various museums…you don’t have to like it all. And! you certainly don’t have to stand in front of every painting.

In my most humble opinion, unless you are an art-buff, it is perfectly acceptable (and much more enjoyable) to gently stroll through the museums and stop at something that catches your eye. Every single thing and piece of art is just not that interesting. It just isn’t. I much prefer to spend 10 minutes each staring at several paintings that I like/find intriguing than two minutes rushing around to see them all.

Skipping some and focusing on what catches your eye truly takes some of the chore out of visiting and cuts down on burnout. Just give yourself a free pass and say “hey, I don’t have to like/get this, I think I will walk onward.”

Step Three: Visit the Markets and Eat all of the Things!

Delighting in the copious amounts of organic food markets in Amsterdam is the subject for this third installment of the Amsterdam series. While I was pretty lucky to have a home with a fully stocked kitchen, backpackers with a hostel kitchen and hotel travelers should also take part at least with fresh fruits.

The city of Amsterdam is one of the most progressive and green cities I’ve visited so far on the trip…and in addition to biking around the city instead of cars, the locals have a huge selection of organic fresh outdoor food markets. I often hear travelers rave about sampling the exotic treats at food markets in Asia; just because the city is Western doesn’t mean the outdoor markets should be skipped!

A wander through the local bustling markets was just as enlightening in the Netherlands as it was in Laos. I wandered through the stalls taking in the crisp scent of every vegetable imaginable – and it was all fresh and in-season! Instead of buying the Washington green apple shipped in from the US’s Pacific Northwest the local farmers bring in juicy blueberries, currants, and other seasonal delicious delights – that is both eco-friendly and more fun!

Currants just came into season when I arrived and these bulging juicy red berries topped off my yogurt and museli every morning – easy enough for hostels and hotel travelers too! Fresh oranges also packed up well and naturally don’t require cooking and I found them the perfect anti-dote to my craving for fresh Florida oranges – not the same but lovely  :-)

And perhaps one of the best reasons to take a wander through the daily and weekly markets is to interact with the locals and have some authentic dialogue and a bit of fun while sussing out the perfect apple for an afternoon snack. Every person in Amsterdam pretty much speaks English and if they started speaking in Dutch, I just asked for English and they flawlessly and immediately switched languages.

Beyond just seeking out some fruits and snacks in the markets cooking up a feast for yourself using all of the local ingredients is a great way to feel like an authentic part of Amsterdam…after all, the locals don’t eat out every night! I cooked up a feast in Italy using fresh local pasta, fresh organic tomatoes and top-quality olive oil and it was a lot of fun to shop around and dodge locals picking out their weekly produce.

So, the same holds true for Amsterdam – pick out some gorgeously fresh veggies, pop into the local bread shop for fresh bread, and cook up the local flavors.

And just for fun, a little find in one of the huge flower markets? Cannabis seed starter packs. You know, it’s just one of those things that you’re likely only going to see while wandering the streets in Amsterdam really and cracked me up.

Step Four: Pick a Park and Pack a Picnic Lunch.

The final installment of my tips for enjoying the best of Amsterdam is to take a break and relax. The city has a lot of green park space and it’s fairly tourist-free actually.

Relaxing and taking it slow is supremo tops on the list for a lot of travelers making their way to Amsterdam – and in addition to allowing “coffee shop” purchases the city does not have the restrictive open container laws that are in effect in the United States.

That means that a top recommendation once you’re burnt out on the sightseeing is to stop by a market and pick up some treats for park consumption. One of the best parts of my visits to Amsterdam was getting out of the house once it started to get claustrophobic and heading to Vondel Park.

For visitors already renting a bike for traveling around the city, the trip to Vondel Park is a cinch – it’s extremely close to the Rijksmuseum and the whole museum complex. There is a delightful little bread shop and grocery store on Overtoom (on the left side of the street if coming from the train station side of town).  This street is just around the corner from Vondel Park and the bread shop has the freshest bread in the city according to my friends allowing me to house-sit.

Whenever I needed a break I would just peddle over to this small market, lock the bike up tight and go on a mini shopping indulgence. Though I could wander the shop for a very long time I instead picked out a loaf of bread, chose a temptingly expensive chunk of exotic cheese, grabbed a bottle of wine (H was with me for this) and headed lakeside at Vondel Park to people watch and relax.

I will warn that you have to hold a high tolerance for juveniles at some points in the day. The high schoolers frequently also sat by the lake and on the park benches laughing obnoxiously and a whole lot…if you get my drift.

But again, watching them was half of the fun because really, where else can you find that precise environment? Couples on spooning on the grass, ducks napping on the grass near the lake, a chill breeze in the air, and teenagers acting like…well…like teenagers.

All told I found it brilliant way to relax, read my book, and feel like I just might have found a little bit of the local flavor of Amsterdam.