Table of Contents
- Art Museums
- Other Attractions & Locations
- Last Thoughts
As my first formal effort towards the goal of “no green bananas,” we selected The Netherlands as our first international destination. My wife & I had spoken often about visiting the Netherlands for many years, but didn’t really have a plan to get it done. So, we made one. As a bonus, I also worked in a day trip to Brussels, Belgium via train. It was expensive, but worth it. (I plan on discussing the Brussels day trip in a future, dedicated blog post.)
We managed to squeeze the trip (including Brussels) into 5 full days in late September into early October 2023. For the most part, the weather really cooperated with us (with the exception of one crummy, rainy day). So, for the most part, we squeezed everything Netherlands into 4 full days.
During our trip, we spent most of our time in Holland. (As many don’t understand the difference between The Netherlands and Holland: Holland consists of two counties of The Netherlands–North Holland, containing Amsterdam, and South Holland, containing The Hague, Kinderdijk, and Rotterdam. We did venture out to go to the Kröller-Müeller Museum and to go to a couple of other locations.)
The Dutch have some of the finest art collections in the world. One of the main reasons I wanted to take this trip was to see many of the paintings that were on my Bucket List of Art. This had us going to a lot of different art museums.
In general, though, I will say that I wasn’t a fan of how the Dutch do museums–and specifically, art museums. I don’t care for the timed entry in every location, the challenges of getting tickets (and the cost!), and the vast crowds in each location. I got a feeling that a lot of the crowd in these museums were there to “check the box” as they were tourists in Amsterdam and they did it because they were there–not because they really wanted to see the art. Encountering someone who was struggling to read the description plate of the painting while standing in front of the canvas (and not even looking at it) while blasting their audio tour in one ear was a very common sight. This made the experience of seeing many of the paintings I was trying to see reminiscent of my experience while trying to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
All in all, though, the art was incredible. (Note that the below list is not presented in any particular order. Also, as with any of these guides on this website, this is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather to discuss the main highlights of the trip for those potentially interested in planning a trip to the Netherlands.)
Van Gogh Museum
Van Gogh is one of my favorite artists, so naturally, this had been a “bucket list” item for me for quite a while. This museum contains Theo Van Gogh’s collection of paintings, including the last painting that Van Gogh painted–Wheat Field with Crows.
Unfortunately, Wheat Field with Crows had just been loaned out to the Musée d’ Orsay in Paris when we’d arrived (just my luck!), but all of the other most notable paintings were on display. This includes the Potato Eaters (1885), The Bedroom (1888), Gaugain’s Chair (1888), The Yellow House (1888), Sunflowers (1889), Almond Blossoms (1890), and countless more. More surprisingly, there’s a few paintings from other artists, mainly to show the other artists that were painting in Van Gogh’s time, his influences, but also (notably) Gauguin’s “The Painter of Sunflowers.” About 3/4ths of the way through the collection, one of the cool items in the collection is displayed–a large hutch where Theo kept his letters from Van Gogh, with a few of the letters on display.
The collection is incredible–all of the museums on this list are, but the logistics in the museum made seeing the paintings more tedious than you’d hope. The (alleged) staff in front of the museum was especially obnoxious and approached me after taking pictures of ourselves in front of the museum. She rudely yelled at me to not take pictures of the museum Employees. The woman that approached us had no name tag, lanyard, or any other identification that she was on the museum staff, and if I’m being honest would be rather lucky to be in one of my pictures. She wasn’t exactly easy on the eyes, if you know what I mean.
Also taking away from the experience as the mass Pokemon hysteria that had taken the museum by storm. People were clamoring for cheap Pokemon souvenirs for sale in the museum shop. With showing a copy of a museum ticket, your ID, and offering a blood sample, each guest was permitted ONE newspaper-printed scavenger hunt game with a bunch of Pokemon stuff on it. It was a total racket and obnoxious to navigate around.
All in all, a great collection but the logistics of the museum were challenging, at best.
I’m a Van Gogh nerd, and I had seen everything (read: had enough of the crowds) after 2 hours and 30 minutes in the museum, so that’s about how much time I’d allow.
There’s really no where else in the world quite like the Rijksmuseum. How many art museums look like a castle that have a road running through the middle of them?
The Rijksmuseum is technically an art and history museum, though I’d argue it’s primarily an art museum. They boast a pretty impressive collection of Dutch golden age paintings, including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, which is a can’t-miss in my book.
Most of what you can’t miss is located in the central hall of the museum on the 2nd floor, which ends in the gallery containing (and built for that purpose) the Night Watch. While we were there, we got to see 6 different Vermeer paintings in the same gallery, right next to each other (which represents about 16.2% of the artist’s remaining paintings–pretty darned impressive).
We also saw a number of history items (a woman’s concentration camp outfit, a whole room of impressive Delftware, a BAT Bantam aircraft, etc.) They did have one Van Gogh self-portrait on display. All in all, it was an impressive, encyclopedic collection that can be somewhat exhausting to view.
If you’re after hitting the highlights, I’d allow 2.5 hours to see the museum. If you’re really interested in Dutch art in particular, I’d allow more time.
Leaving Amsterdam (and Holland), we visited the Kröller-Müeller museum. It was perhaps the most unusual art museum I’ve ever been to. Part of this was due to the unusual location of where the museum was–in a Dutch national park (De Hoge Veluwe National Park). I didn’t allow enough time to experience the park as much as I would have liked to, but for those visiting the Kröller-Müeller museum, I’d highly recommend allowing more time to grab a bike and take it through the extensive sculpture garden outside of the park.
The primary highlight of the collection, though, is the second-largest-in-the-world collection of Van Gogh paintings (after the Van Gogh museum, described above.) The collection is outstanding and includes Cafe Terrace at Night (1888), The Sower (1888), At Eternity’s Gate (1890), Four Sunflowers Gone to Seed (1887), and others, including the oil sketch of The Potato Eaters. There were a number of other really impressive pieces on display as well–the one that struck me the most was Seurat’s Can Can (1890).
All in all, it is a beautiful museum in a beautiful setting with a stunning collection. It made renting a car absolutely worth the detour (and the challenge of attempting to drive in the Netherlands. More on that later.)
To see only the museum, allow an absolute minimum of an hour and a half. That’ll allow you to get in depth in one part of the museum but won’t allow you time to see the sculpture garden / ride a bike around the pretty national park the museum is in. If you want to study more than just a couple of sections of the museum or ride through the sculpture garden, allow more time than that. One could easily make a day of going to the Kröller-Müeller / De Hoge Veluwe National Park.
Rounding out the most important art museums of the Netherlands (this time in The Hague), The Mauritshuis should NOT be missed. We arrived earlier than the museum opened and bought timed tickets on their website, and then used the extra time to walk up to the International Peace Palace and get a good feel of The Hague as we walked around. It was a really cool little city! We walked around the Binnenhof (which is immediately adjacent to the Mauritshuis) and got some great pictures while we were waiting for the museum to open up.
Inside the small museum are a number of very impressive paintings, which included Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), Fabritius’ Goldfinch (1654), and Vermeer’s View of Delft (1660) and Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665). While the galleries were crowded, there wasn’t as many obnoxious tourists that were in the way and were more focused on their audio tour than the art. This was a welcome respite compared to what we had experienced in Amsterdam.
The museum is great, but not large. If you know what you’re wanting to see and go in with a plan (and don’t plan to see any special exhibit), you can knock it out in an hour. Else, I’d allow at least an hour and a half to 2 hours.
Other Attractions & Locations
Anne Frank House
First of all, I’ll start by mentioning that this trip was a ZED fare trip (more on that later), meaning that it is challenging to purchase weeks-in-advance timed tickets for entry to any museum. At first, I was super disappointed that as I was planning the trip (about 4-5 weeks out), all of the tickets to the Anne Frank House were sold out. Of course, everyone immediately associates the Anne Frank House with Amsterdam, so it’s definitely regarded as a “must see” in the city. I read online (on the Anne Frank House website, no less) that if you didn’t purchase tickets to the museum at 10 AM Amsterdam time 6 weeks out, you were pretty much out of luck.
This ended up being a huge lie, thankfully. After poking around on the website and watching how tickets became available, I noticed that in addition to tickets being released 6 weeks prior to the date of entry, I further noticed that tickets were also made available sometime at or before noon Amsterdam time (5 AM Central time) every Tuesday for dates the following week. So, if you are out of luck in purchasing tickets for the date you want, wait until the preceding Tuesday at noon Amsterdam time and try again. Your mileage may vary, but I found lots of availability on the date that I wanted at that time.
Onto the museum. I’ll start this by saying that it is impressive that the original building is still standing, and so are some of the original fixtures. Also, the audio guides work fairly well in the museum, dictating to everyone the story of what happened in the rooms that the crowd was walking through.
There were a couple of things I didn’t like about the museum, though: First, no photography was permitted anywhere (but I was told not to check my camera bag anyhow, as they didn’t want to damage it behind the coat check counter. Kind of silly, in my opinion.) However, walking through the rooms, there is very, very little that you’d want to take a picture of as most artifacts have been removed from the rooms, leaving only a few artifacts on display (like, a set of marbles that Anne Frank gave to one of her friends before going into hiding), a few documents (most of which were copies), and empty rooms. They did have the original bookshelf on display which opened into a secret door, leading into the hiding space. (This was super cool to walk through.) They mention in the museum that Otto Frank wanted the rooms to be empty as to symbolize the void of the people that were removed from the Netherlands during World War II and the Holocaust. Frank may have said this, but I think having the furniture (or copies of the furniture) in the space would help the public better understand what Anne Frank went through in hiding, and would give people a better understanding of what it was like to write her journal and grow up in such close quarters to others by illustrating that concept. I suspect the real reason for the exclusion of any furniture in the building is that it allows them to get more tourists in and sell more tickets. (I know–maybe I’m just a huge cynic.) I felt like the space should do a better job of sharing the personality and soul of those that remained in hiding the entire time, and I didn’t feel that in this way, they honored the specific people that lived there. I feel it’s disrespectful to the Frank family and the others in the hiding place NOT do this. I felt like the museum was on the sterile side–like reading a history book. I think they missed an opportunity there. As I walked through the room that Anne Frank slept and likely wrote her diary, I had a challenging time trying to picture the exact location where she wrote in the pages in her diary, which is really unfortunate.
The best part of the museum in my opinion were Frank’s actual diaries, including the original Kitty, on display in a display case at the very end of the museum. (Looking at the cover of Kitty gave me the best insight into Anne Frank’s personality and who she really was when compared with everything else I’d experienced in the museum.) Also nearby were some of the Frank family artifacts which were interesting to look at. In the last room of the exhibit space (outside of the hiding space) was a video that seemed to be thinly veiled propaganda, trying to discourage “extremist thought” (and I also think the concept of “nationalism”) while somewhat engaging in extremist thought in the other direction. Ironic…
All in all, it was an interesting museum, but I think on the whole, the museum is pretty overrated. It’s definitely nice to see once, but I feel like it could have represented those in the hiding space a lot better.
Part of the challenging / frustrating part of the Anne Frank House is that you are almost forced to “go with the flow” of the crowd, and it’s packed everywhere. I think you’re best off trying to be there at opening, or about an hour from closing. I say an hour because you won’t need more than an hour to an hour and 15 minutes in the museum, and that includes gift shop time and going at a leisurely pace. Also, the restrooms before the exhibits are a lot larger than those after the exhibits–so ladies, be sure to use the ladies room prior to entering the exhibit space. You aren’t allowed to go backwards in the museum–not even to use the restroom.
Some of the greatest highlights of our trip were the places that we went to outside of Amsterdam–and the things that I thought I would enjoy less. Kinderdijk was a place that we decided to go to as a “bonus,” and boy am I glad that we did.
Kinderdijk is a little town and 19 adjacent historical windmills (dating back to the mid-18th century) which encompasses the largest concentration of old windmills in the Netherlands. While I think the windmills were used for different purposes, the main purpose was to drain water from the land from the sea (which is all below sea level) and reclaim the land for other uses.
I had originally planned on buying tickets entering into the official UNESCO world heritage site visitor center, which included transportation to and from the site, a boat tour, and entrance into the windmills, but as we pulled into the parking lot for the site, we just missed the tour bus which shuttled visitors to the site. We were told that the next one was in 25-30 minutes or so, but were told that bike rentals were at an adjacent location.
Investigating further, I learned that renting bikes for a couple of hours for both my wife and I would cost us less than the cost of a single ticket into the UNESCO site, would allow us to better see the little town of Kinderdijk, and give us the ability to tour the windmills more quickly and control our time better.
Boy, am I glad we missed that tour bus. The bike tour was the perfect way to see the site. It didn’t bother me that we didn’t get to enter any of the windmills, and I felt like we got MUCH better pictures driving our bikes between locations.
Arriving at the bike rental place near Kinderdijk’s parking lot and renting bikes for 2 hours provided a PERFECT quick experience to enjoy the site and nearby village. I would recommend doing this no other way, unless you want to rent a bike for longer and spend a longer time biking around the area.
Aalsmeer Flower Auction
The Aalsmeer Flower Auction is a bit more of an off-the-beaten-path tourist attraction, though it is not far from the Schiphol airport. It is absolutely worth a visit, though. The Dutch are the kings of the floral industry, and it’s super interesting to see all of the logistics behind the flower industry. It’s so massive, it’s almost unimaginable. (I think it is the largest building in the world, by footprint.)
At €10.50 per adult, it is a little expensive to get into the flower auction. If you have a smart phone, you can download an audio tour on your device that walks you through each part of the building as you walk through it. It’s super interesting to see, though, and worth your time. Sadly, the auctioning mechanism is all online, which means that the big control room you’ll pass is essentially abandoned (and has been since COVID), but you can learn about the Dutch auction process here (or in the audio tour of the flower auction).
The facility is so large, it’ll take you an hour to walk through it. Allow at least one hour to see the tour–but probably more like an hour and a half to be sure you don’t miss anything and that you are fully appreciating what you’re seeing.
Exploring Amsterdam through a canal cruise is a captivating journey through the city’s history, culture, and scenic beauty. These tours offer a unique perspective on Amsterdam, revealing interesting facts and breathtaking sights.
Amsterdam’s extensive canal system, dating back to the 17th century, is a standout feature. It’s fascinating to learn that Amsterdam has more canals than Venice (165, actually) and over 1,700 bridges, showcasing the city’s rich waterborne heritage.
The canal cruise guides provide engaging insights into Amsterdam’s history, including its Dutch Golden Age and the Canal Ring, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These canals played a pivotal role in shaping the city’s prosperity.
The iconic canal houses are a sight to behold, with their unique architectural details and narrow facades, shaped by Dutch property taxation. (Houses were taxed by their width, thus encouraging the dutch to build “up,” and not from side-to-side or out.) Houseboats along the canals offer a glimpse into the city’s diverse and unconventional housing options.
For an extra special experience, consider paying the 12 euro extra for cheese and wine / beer / soft drink service on the cruise. (I took one of the Flagship cruise boats that left from near the Anne Frank house and would recommend their company.) Dutch cheese, world-famous for its quality, pairs perfectly with a glass of wine, making for a delightful addition to your canal journey. (More on food later.)
An Amsterdam canal cruise is an immersive experience, providing a blend of history, culture, and picturesque views. Even on a rainy day, they’re worth doing. Whether you’re intrigued by the city’s past or simply seeking a serene and scenic adventure, this tour offers a memorable way to explore Amsterdam.
Here’s a compiled list of all of the companies that I considered for our canal cruise, which I think summarizes most options. Depending on where you want to be picked up and what kind of tour you’re looking for, you may want to select something different. (Note that hours are as of 10/2023, but probably vary seasonally):
- Flagship Amsterdam: 10 AM – 9 PM, Leaves from Anne Frank Museum, Rijksmuseum, Central Station (60 Min, Starts around €21.50 for adults)
- Friendship Amsterdam: Torus leave 1 PM – 7 PM daily from Central and 11 AM – 9 PM from Red Light Dist. (60 min, €20)
- Those Dam Boat Guys: 10 AM – 10 PM, leaves from Keizersgracht 96 (Close to Anne Frank house). (90 min, €32.50)
- Blue Boat: 10 AM – 6 PM. Boards at Heineken Experience or Hard Rock Café. (75 min, €15.50)
- Stromma: 10 AM – 6 PM. 100 Highlights Cruise. From Damrak, Central Station, & Rijksmuseum. (60-75 min, €16 – €18.50)
- Reederij P. Kooij: 10 AM – 9 PM, depending where you board. Multiple options available. (75 min, €13)
The Flagship cruises are about 1 hour in length each (which I think is pretty common for all of the other tour companies, though your mileage may vary by itinerary, group you are sailing with, tour selected, etc.
Rick Steves Walks
The best things in life are free, and one of those things happens to be a good amount of the Rick Steve’s Audio Tours in Europe. There are three Amsterdam tours that he offers for free on his website: A general Amsterdam City Walk, a walk through the residential and picturesque Jordaan neighborhood of the city, and one that goes through the red light district.
To make your life easier–there are even iOS and Android apps available which allow one to easily download the tours (and corresponding maps) directly into the app and allows you to save them offline so you do not need to resort to using cellular signal while exploring the city while on these different tours.
All are enjoyable. You should start with the first half of the general city walk tour (which takes you from Centraal station down to Dam Square via Damrak–a great (if not touristy) introduction to the city), and then from there, you can either finish the city tour, or start either of the other tours–both of which start from Dam Square.
The tours are straightforward. The only advice I’d offer here is to do the Red Light District tour when it’s starting to get dark (but not too late). Also, push through the beginning of the Red Light District tour. It seems lame at first, but stay with it. It will start to come into it’s own as you start your way down Zeedijk and as the district becomes more alive in the evening.
Additionally, consider the Rick Steves books that discuss Amsterdam and The Netherlands. There are a lot of other (not free) tours that he describes in his book that make planning very helpful.
Allow 2 hours for the Red Light District walk, about 1.5 hours for the Jordaan walk, and 3 hours for the city walk.
Some of the best parts of the Netherlands are the smaller cities that fewer people visit. Delft is one of these places (so is Gouda, below–which is even smaller than Delft). Delft offers a glimpse into more of what most of the Netherlands is really like.
There’s an old world charm about the city that feels somewhat like a step back in time. The city center is filled with cobblestone streets, ancient buildings, and scenic canals. It’s great to wander through the streets aimlessly–shopping, eating, and (if you plan it right) enjoying some of the markets that line the canals on certain days of the week.
Of course, the quintessential Dutch Delftware is named for this town. The Royal Delft Company (probably the best known Delft company) still resides in Delft. In addition to the factory, they have a museum as well as a few stores.
Delft is where Johannes Vermeer is from, and also where he is buried. (He’s buried in the old church of the city.) There is a Vermeer Center next to the Markt area of the city that serves as a museum that explores Vermeer’s life in Delft. (No paintings are on display, though.)
Though the best part about Delft is walking around and just exploring it. it’s fun just to stroll through the Market Square (in other (Dutch) words, “Markt”). Also, bike rentals are available and one can tour the canals with guided boat tours as well.
Delft offers a nice, authentic slice of Dutch life that is away from the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam.
You could make a day or an afternoon of visiting Delft–it all depends on what you’re looking for. I recommend visiting The Hague in the morning, and visiting the relaxing Delft in the afternoon.
Even smaller than Delft, Gouda is absolutely worth a detour. Gouda is like Delft, but with less pottery and more food.
Of course, Gouda is synonymous with cheese, and you can’t say that you visited Gouda without going into one cheese shop and sampling some gouda. Also first made here were the famous Dutch treat, the stroopwafel. Of course, you can buy some delicious, fresh-made stroopwafels on the street here, to this day. (But I’m getting ahead of myself. More on all this in the next section: Food.)
The historic city center is super fun to walk around. It’s a very popular area, and while we were walking around, a mechanical nickelodeon was wheeled out on the square and serenaded those in attendance with different one-man-band type renditions of classic rock songs. It was great fun.
Like Delft, it’s just a ton of fun to walk through the small city streets and explore the area. At the North end of the square is the De Goudse Wang (Gouda Weighing House), which now hosts a cheese & crafts museum. Additionally, the Lange Groenendaal is the first fair trade street in the Netherlands–and in the world. It is still lined with eclectic, independent shops which are fun to peruse.
Much like Delft, Gouda offers a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the bigger cities of the Netherlands, and provides an authentic slice of life of Dutch culture.
Also like Delft, Gouda can be done in an afternoon or a day–it all depends on what you’re looking for. I recommend making sure that your Netherlands itinerary includes at least either Delft or Gouda, though ideally it should include both!
The best stuff I ate in the Netherlands wasn’t at any sit-down restaurant. (All that sort of food seemed to be imported, but not distinctly “Dutch.”) The items that I identify most with the Dutch culture were the street foods that I ate.
When it comes to street food, the Netherlands offers a wide variety of treats that will tantalize your taste buds. There’s something for everyone.
Kroketten (i.e. – Krockets): One of the most popular Dutch street foods, kroketten are deep-fried croquettes filled with a creamy, flavorful mixture of meat or cheese. They’re crispy on the outside and wonderfully gooey on the inside. Enjoy them as a quick, satisfying snack. I’m especially a fan of the krocket sandwiches, which are krockets served on a bun (like a krocket burger). Mustard is used as the sauce to flavor the sandwich. (Even McDonald’s in the Netherlands has a “McKrocket” sandwich!)
French Fries: While French fries may not be exclusive to the Netherlands, the Dutch put their unique twist on this classic comfort food. Dutch fries, or “patat,” are thicker and served with a variety of delectable toppings. Try them with mayonnaise, ketchup, or any of the multitude of sauces offered at the location you get the French Fries. I, personally, recommend the Manneken Pis french fry chain. These are easy to find in touristy areas in Amsterdam. (Just look for the place that smells amazing with a loooong line out the front.) I get those with the “Manneken Pis” signature sauce.
Stroopwafels: These sweet, thin waffle cookies are a quintessential Dutch treat. Stroopwafel literaelly translates to “syrup waffle.” They originated in #Gouda. Made by sandwiching a caramel-like syrup between two waffle layers, stroopwafels are often served warm at street markets. The gooey center and crispy edges make them a delightful street food option. They can be acquired with candies or sprinkles on top of them, but honestly, this isn’t super necessary–just a basic stroopwafel hits the spot for me!
Poffertjes: Poffertjes are mini, fluffy pancakes that are beloved throughout the Netherlands. Cooked in a special poffertjes pan, these bite-sized delights are typically topped with powdered sugar and a generous pat of butter. Sadly, I neglected to try these, but they look amazing.
Cheese: The Netherlands is famous for its cheese, and the country’s street markets are great places to sample a wide variety. Gouda and Edam are just a couple of the popular Dutch cheese types you can savor. Try them plain or paired with some fresh bread for an authentic Dutch experience. There are lots of cheese stores in Amsterdam that offer nice gift sets as well–shop around and decide what you like before you buy. (They’ll give you samples of anything.) Note: To bring Dutch cheese back to the US, make sure that the milk that made the cheese was pasteurized, and also make sure that the cheese is in some kind of vacuum sealed packaging. Otherwise, customs may nab it.
Fish: I admittedly passed on this, but there are many fish booths that serve pickled fish to those that are interested. (This is usually herring, though I think salmon is generally an option as well.) These can be acquired in the “Amsterdam style” (where they cube it up for you and you eat it with toothpicks) or by traditional style (down the hatch, head first).
Also–when I’m in Europe, I seem to drink a LOT of Red Bull. It’s a lot easier to find than Monster, in my experience, as it seems like every darn restaurant offers Red Bull as a drink option, and usually for the same price as other soft drinks. Not only are they delicious, they help me fight jet lag!
During our time in the Netherlands, it was planes, trains, automobiles, AND trams!
We took a KLM ZED Fare out of Houston Intercontinental (IAH) direct to AMS. This worked really well both ways, though we didn’t get upgraded to first class. 🥺 On the other hand, the food on KLM was some of the best food I’ve ever had on a transatlantic flight. Also, the inflight crew was very nice and pleasant. I’d totally fly KLM again. (Sadly, as of this writing you can’t use StaffTraveler to pull KLM loads, so you have to go in kind of blind–relying on the smiley faces in the ZED fare portal. Keep this in mind if you want to fly KLM.)
Regarding cars: If you do not plan to leave Amsterdam and go to an area where it’s super handy to have your own car–DO NOT RENT A CAR IN AMSTERDAM. IT IS IN NO WAY WORTH THE HASSLE OR COST. If you must, try to minimize the amount of time you rent a car–it will save a lot of money and perhaps even more hassle. Public transit in Amsterdam works GREAT.
Now that I’ve got that out of the way regarding cars in the Netherlands / Amsterdam: Driving a car is very interesting in the Netherlands. First of all–DON’T SPEED ANYWHERE. If you’re even speeding a little bit, they’ll send your rental car company a sizable ticket. All enforcement is done by speed cameras, so packing your radar detector isn’t going to help you. It also doesn’t help that the speed limit changes on highways at certain times of day. Our car told us the speed limit (pretty accurately!) on all the roads that we were on, directly on the dashboard, but it doesn’t hurt to have Waze as a check and balance.
Also–do NOT rent a diesel car. Amsterdam is a emissions zone, and you can get a big ticket for driving in the emissions zone with a diesel engine. Crazy, I know.
It’s not a bad idea before your trip to hit up your local AAA office and get an International Drivers License. (They’re good for one year.) It’s not required, but recommended by the US State Department. Also, that drivers license can be used as an extra ID in some circumstances and can come in handy. It isn’t expensive.
Finally–the street signs in the Netherlands are really weird to an American like me. If you’re planning on driving in the Netherlands, take some online practice tests with Dutch street signs. You’ll learn a LOT, and it will come in VERY handy. The street signage is NOT intuitive to an American.
Finally, consider a transit pass. They’re challenging to understand, but a little bit of studying goes a long way. This site helped me dramatically. Generally speaking, once I figured things out–it was usually best for me to buy the 24 hour unlimited GVB passes, and then to get to the airport, I just bought a one-way train ticket, though depending on when you plan to first (and last) use your transit pass, your may find that the “Amsterdam Travel Ticket” might save you a Euro or two. (But, unless you’re going to the Airport daily because your hotel is out there or something like that, it’s probably not worth it.)
Note that it is possible to get a tourist pass like the I AMsterdam pass that includes a transit pass, but I refrained from doing this as I wasn’t able to visit enough locations to make it worthwhile.
If you can stay somewhere near a metro station, the metro (the subway for Amsterdam) was SUPER easy to use. We ended up staying somewhat more remote–at the Holiday Inn Express Amsterdam North Riverside. This was a bit high for us (€180 euro a night, or somewhere around there) and was about a 10 minute walk away from the Noorderpark station, which is a little far, but the room was very large and very nice for a European hotel room (or even an American Holiday Inn Express! It was probably the nicest Holiday Inn we’ve ever stayed in), the continental breakfast that came with our room was outstanding, the view from our room over the river was great (your mileage will vary here), but perhaps most importantly, the Airline Leisure rate that we booked allowed us to cancel or modify our reservation all the way up until 6 PM on the day of arrival with no deposit and no penalty. You can’t beat that when ZED faring! I would 100% stay there again, though I’d look to see if anything were closer to a subway station.
The shopping in the Netherlands is pretty good! The items to get are:
- Cheese–though I discussed that already in the food section above,
- Flower bulbs–though you should make sure that any bulbs you buy come with a non-expired certificate approved by your country of residence prior to purchasing them,
- Delftware (and Royal Delft will command a premium–but you want to make sure you get the stuff that’s made in the Netherlands and not the cheap stuff made somewhere else)
- Wooden clogs, if that’s your thing. (They’re widely available and not expensive.)
- Miffy Stuff (again, if that’s your thing), and
- Bicycle accessories, though try to find stuff that specifically can’t be found in the US. (I got myself a nifty bicycle bell!)
The art museums generally have really nice gift shops (with things like museum-specific Playmobil toys for the kids–these are super cool!), and also the touristy areas have all the shops you’d imagine.
One last thought here: I collect travel Swatches, as discussed in this article. There are currently 2 destination special Swatches available in the Netherlands right now: one in Amsterdam, and one in Rotterdam. However–I was also INSANELY lucky as a Swatch collector to stumble on and purchase the “Mission to Neptune” Swatch in Rotterdam. During that same trip, I was also able to easily locate ALL of the Blancpain X Swatch Ocean series watches, and I took advantage of this by purchasing a couple.
I also noticed that I was able to easily locate Blanton’s bourbon in the one liquor store I stuck my head in during this trip. I didn’t purchase it (as getting it home would have been a major feat) and I’m not sure if I was lucky, but there’s a number of items that you can get a lot easier in Europe that you cannot find in the US!
One sad thing about shopping in the Netherlands is that Pylones (one of my favorite European chain stores) closed their Amsterdam store, which is a real bummer, so don’t plan on visiting their store. ☹️
I saw far fewer pickpockets / gypsies than I’d expected (after spending my most recent international trip in Italy), though I did encounter a fair share of strange people doing strange things, likely as a distraction in order to try something shady. As with anywhere else in Europe, it is your responsibility to minimize their opportunities to do so. Remain vigilant. Don’t give into distractions, and store valuables (like passports) in a moneybelt under your shirt so that it is virtually impossible to take them from you. If some person appears to drop their baby on the ground or some child appears to throw themselves off of and slide down a steep embankment (that actually happened on this trip!) or similar, always be suspicious and fight the urge to get involved. You never know what they’re after.
Did I cover everything? Let me know if I missed anything in the comments below! And thanks for reading!