Western Europe #07 Amsterdam part 1
Western Europe #07 Amsterdam (part 1)
This is part 7 of a trip we took through Northwestern Europe in August of 2018. This edition is Amsterdam part 1. There was so much to say about Amsterdam that I had to split it into 2 sections. It seems that each time I thought I was done writing; I remembered a whole other category of things we saw or did in Amsterdam that I just had to add and after a while it just got too much for one edition.
Full Trip Map
Map for this trip segment (Bruges to Amsterdam)
From our couple of day's in Bruges, we drove on up to Amsterdam where we’d spend 6 nights before flying home. On two of our day's in Amsterdam we went outside of the city to other towns near Amsterdam – which will be in their own edition of this series.
Our first order of business was to drop the car off at the airport as one does not need a car in Amsterdam. This, it turned out, was not quite as simple as it would seem. Of course the airport was under construction as I believe there is a United Nations mandate that no international airport in the world shall ever be in a state of non-construction. And, as anyone who rents cars knows, unless you want to take out a mortgage to have the rental car company fill the tank for you upon returning the car you take the option to bring it back full. So we needed to tank up before we dropped off the car.
Conveniently enough our trusty GPS told us there was a gas station on the airport property. Yeah it was probably a bit more expensive than those outside the airport, but what’s a Euro or two when shelling out for hotels, rental cars, airplane travel, meals, museums and everything else one pays for on such a trip. So, we followed our GPS to that gas station and all was well.
The problem was that the gas station was down at ground level on city type streets and the road access to the terminal and rental car drop off was on the elevated freeway overhead. No matter what we tried, our GPS could not understand that we needed to get elevated onto the highway as it thought we were already up there. And, with all the construction there were no real signs and there just didn’t seem to be any on-ramps to the elevated section going toward the terminals. After about 20 minutes of driving around trying to get back on the right road we decided to toss in the towel and get on the highway going out of the airport (which for some reason was much easier to do), take it a mile or two to the first exit, then reverse course and follow the signs back to the rental car return. This was a great plan, except that the road we wound up on was one that first went through a tunnel under something, then through some heavy industrial zone and the first exit where one could reverse course was many miles away from the airport. But the plan worked even though we had to pay a toll - both ways - to go through that tunnel. But we got the car returned with minutes to spare before they’d charge us for another day and grabbed a shuttle to the terminal where taxis could be found.
As we had done some research prior to our trip, we had pre-paid for something called an “I Amsterdam City Card” which we had to pick up. As it turns out there was a tourism office at the airport terminal where we could present our receipt and get the card. So, with our luggage towering precariously on a luggage cart we asked around until we located the office and procured our “City Card” packet. This neatly folded little packet included a good map of the city (albeit the one the hotel gave us from their equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce was actually better for navigating on foot) which had most all the attractions marked and each one had a paragraph about what it was. In fact it had 44 museums and attractions listed which indeed proved quite useful. But, the main thing this packet came with were free passes to most of the museums, a free city tour by canal boat, up to 25% discounts at many restaurants and stores and a 3 day pass for the city transit system. Locals, of course had their monthly transit pass that they just touched to the readers on busses and trams and our “city card” worked the same way but in our case was only good for 72 hours from its first use. When you order your card, you specify how many days of transit you want which can be 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 days (with different prices per choice). We really used the heck out of our 3 days worth it and it saved us quite a bit of cash. It was so nice to just jump on and off busses and trams without worrying about it. It seems that they still offer these “City Card’s” so if you’re going, check it out – it was one of the best such deals we’ve ever come across which, of course, means they probably won’t keep it around much longer.
Where we wandered in Amsterdam
Our hotel (Hotel Fita) was a lovely old school 4 story hotel 1 block from the park which houses the Van Gogh museum, the Rijksmuseum, and one of those famous “I Amsterdam” signs you see in many photographs and brochures. It was also just a block from a tram that takes you right down into the middle of town where the train station is (Central Station). We were on the 4th floor of this hotel and fortunately there was an elevator big enough for two people if no one inhaled. Having an elevator made getting the luggage up to our room much easier. Our room was somewhat large (in terms of old European inner city hotels) and had a French balcony with a lovely view of a sleepy tree shaded street with bicycles wafting to and fro and was quite nice. Which brings up the subject of bicycles.
Bicycles are intricately linked with the notion of Amsterdam. In fact, along with the canals and windmills they are an iconic symbol of the city. Even so, it seems that most visitors, including us, are amazed at how many bicycles there are and the wide variety of cyclists including students, police officers, business people, home makers with and without kids, and everything in-between. Even many City alderpersons as well as King Willem-Alexander himself regularly get around on bicycles. Can you imagine stepping out of a hotel in Washington DC and seeing the president ride by on his bike? Well apparently this happens here with the King.
Main form of transport in the city
Cycling was a main mode of transportation in the country prior to World War II when automobile ownership was financially infeasible. This was aided here by Amsterdam being flat, compact and densely populated. But then during the war in the 1940’s, when gasoline and rubber were in short supply and rationed, the use of bicycles increased and became almost a weapon of war during the Nazi occupation of the city. The strict “rule based” Germans hated Amsterdam cyclists and the cyclists did everything they could to foster that hatred. Even today, cyclists tend to have an attitude full of bravado – running red lights, weaving in and out of traffic, and being anarchistic. During the war, they used a swarming “what rules” mentality that drove the German occupiers crazy. Among other amusements, they purposely rode slowly in front of Nazi convoys and refused to give way to German vehicles trying to cross streets. This became one of the biggest expressions of resistance to the Nazis and it gave ordinary people satisfaction that they were hindering the Nazi cause – not to mention infuriating the Nazi command in the process.
But after the war, as in most western countries, the car roared onto the scene as they were now affordable to the middle class. In Amsterdam they were well on the way to replacing bicycles as the go-to mode of transportation. By the 1960’s, cars proliferated causing clogged streets and many accidents with cyclists. In response the urban planners rushed to accommodate the onslaught of four-wheeled vehicles. One plan in this time frame was to pave over the city center’s historic canals to make way for cars. Fortunately that plan fell through. Today however, those cars that five decades ago haphazardly filled the city’s most famous squares are gone. In their place are thousands of bicycles.
Even though the landscape of Amsterdam was conducive to cycling, that alone would not have mattered much if the government had not made cycling a priority. After all, there are countless cities around the world that are flat, compact and densely populated where you hardly see any bicycles. In order for cycling to catch on the infrastructure had to change to support and promote the concept.
For Amsterdam, this change began in earnest in the 1970’s, following the post-war boom in automobile traffic and how poorly it mixed with the cyclists that were trying to share the streets with the cars. For example, in 1971, more than 3,000 people were killed by cars in the city, 450 of them children. At that point in time, people decided they had to change the transportation culture in favor of 2 wheels rather than 4. So a program was started to convert driving lanes to bicycle only lanes physically separated from the cars. They put in bicycle traffic control such as bike oriented traffic signals, bike direction lane markers, gave bikes traffic priority over car traffic in how they timed traffic lights, passed rules preventing pedestrians from walking in bike lanes, established bike parking facilities at places like the train station, and many other changes. Today, for example, there are some 250 miles of bicycle paths crisscrossing the city, with an estimated half of all city journeys taking place on two wheels.
In the main transportation areas, such as the central train station, in order to deal with the massive numbers of bicycles they have created double deck bike racks and have also built several multi story bike parking garages and all of these are crammed to overflowing as I’ll talk about in the next paragraph.
Central Station, Amsterdam
Overflow from bicycle parking garage at central train station
But, no good deed goes unpunished and the sheer number of bikes on the streets has become a new problem. Most bikes you see on the streets are clunkers, just meant for getting around and they are everywhere. As they are low cost they seem to be somewhat dispensable. Many times they are not locked and if one gets misplaced or stolen, no big deal – just get another one. So many bikes are parked around the city that you can hardly find a fence or bridge or bike rack that isn’t jammed with parked bikes. The bad part is that it seems many of these bikes locked to every conceivable structure are abandoned. Many look like they haven’t been used in years. They are just taking up space as they rust away. And there does not seem to be any movement by the city to deal with this issue. It’s not clear if bikes need to be licensed but even if there is, it does not seem to be enforced so the city has no real way to know if a bike is abandoned or not. Of course some are obvious but many are not. Is the owner of that bike just on a holiday out of town or is it an abandoned bike? No way to tell. So, the result is literally thousands of bikes out on the streets going nowhere.
Bridge over Canal lined with parked bicycles
Bikes parked along a canal
The entire inner city is laced with canals which more or less form a set of concentric rings around the southern half of the city (the midpoint being the Central Station where suburban and international train and bus lines all converge). The three main concentric canals were dug in the 17th century during the Dutch Golden Age and others were added later. These ring canals are connected to each other by transverse canals like spokes on a bicycle wheel. It turns out there are more than 60 miles (100 km) of canals in the city forming about 90 islands
Canals really form the overall character of the city. Most of the canals have a wide variety of moored boats of one kind or another moored along both banks and most canals have parallel streets running along each side. This makes getting to, and photographing, the canals quite easy, but getting shots without lines of parked cars and bikes is more challenging (or impossible).
Boat owners rent mooring spots along the canals from the city and these have become quite valuable. Especially as in an attempt to reduce canal congestion, they are eliminating many of these mooring spots. Many of these boat parking spots have been handed down from generation to generation and are many times called out in wills as to which heir gets it. On the rare occasion when such a spot is put up for sale on the open market bidding wars ensue and the prices go through the roof.
Living along a canal or in a boat on a canal
But it is not pure chaos. Just like on streets, each canal or canal section has restrictions on the type, size, and purpose of the boats that can be there. Some areas are commercial and some are for boats that people live on. Some sections allow boats that are quite large and other sections are for smaller vessels. And, just like streets, you’ll find well-kept boats and others that are quite dilapidated. As long as they keep paying the rent on the spot, they can keep their boat there.
Well-kept utility boat
Seen better days
But no matter how contentious the politics these canals are quite charming and a delight to see and wander along.
Although there are a few draw bridges, the vast majority of the bridges are stone with semicircular arches over the water topped by a street. It turns out that there are roughly 1,500 canal bridges in Amsterdam. Depending on the width of the canal, a single bridge may have 1 to 5 of these arches.
One of few draw bridges
Example of a one arch bridge
In many places, the perimeter of these arches are lined with lights and where two canals intersect the collage of these arches can be quite striking, especially at night
Intersection of two canals at night
Night on the canals
Lone bordello outside the Red Light District reflected in canal
Tour boat passing through
Amsterdam is chock full of museums. Many are quite famous and popular and others are rather obscure and un-crowded.
Of the more popular museums, the top of the list is the Anne Frank House. The Anne Frank House is adjoined by a writer's facility and biographical museum dedicated to Jewish wartime diarist Anne Frank. But the main draw is the self guided walk through the actual Anne Frank house which is quite interesting and well done. You can get audio headphones that tell the story and describe each room you visit on your tour. Except for some photos on the wall which show what the rooms were like during the occupation, the rooms are much like they had been but most of the furniture is no longer there.
It is a must see attraction if you visit Amsterdam, but seeing it is not all that easy. Tickets are ONLY sold online. You cannot buy tickets at the site itself. All tickets are for a specific day and time and can only be used at the designated day and time. 80% of the tickets for a particular day are released exactly two months in advance at 12:00 noon (Amsterdam time) and they will be sold out within an hour or two. The remaining 20% for any particular day go online at 9:00 am on the day itself and they are also gone very quickly. In high summer season, if you wait will 9:05 on the day you want to go you’ll miss out. As you plan your trip to Amsterdam months in advance make your plan dependent on when you can get tickets rather than trying to get tickets to match your plans.
Then of course there is the Van Gogh museum which is in a modern building and much more “museum like”. Again, advance tickets are suggested but they are much easier to get than those for the Anne Frank House. It’s best to plan to go in the early morning before the big tour busses arrive. If you want to see the museum in chronological order, follow the museum guide that goes up from floor to floor. However, if you arrive a bit later when a lot of big tours have just arrived you may want to start at the top and work your way down in reverse chronological order.
Still in the major museum category is the Rijksmuseum (art & history) and Stedelijk museum (contemporary art), not to mention a maritime museum and tech museum. Then, in addition to these, there are many smaller art museums and you also have several dozen small “specialty” museums. For example, cats, handbags, diamonds (no free samples), pipes, houseboat, Dutch costumes, etc. Way too many to see on any one visit. We found that rather than figuring out which of these smaller museums to go to, we figured out where we were and looked at the I Amsterdam City Card brochure and found an interesting small museum nearby. Most of the smaller museums are included with the City Card. Once such smaller museum we visited was the Houseboat Museum where we got a look at the inside of a domestic houseboat.
Living in a Canal Boat
Many Amsterdam residents have chosen to live on river boats or barge boats. Just like apartments and houses, some are quite modern and lovely and others are more like dilapidated shacks. But, living on a boat is really not much different than living in an apartment. These house boats are hooked up to all the same city utilities you’d have in an apartment such as water, sewer, electricity, phone and cable.
Even though it’s very much like living in an apartment or condo, you do have to figure out ways to deal with your environment. Of course you have to deal with “boat” things like keeping it from leaking and if you intend to travel with your boat you have to deal with keeping the engine in good condition, but much else is quite similar to owning a condo or renting an apartment. You’ll find that many of these house boats have patios with barbeque grills and outdoor seating areas. You’ll also find that most now have a garden on the roof where they grow flowers and vegetables. We saw one house boat where the owners were so into gardening that they managed to secure the mooring spot next door and parked a flat bottom barge there that they filled with dirt and planted with all sorts of edible plants.
Typical House boat with grille on the back and garden on the roof
Living room in a house boat (floating house boat museum)
House boat kitchen (floating house boat museum)
Separate barge just for the garden
I hope you enjoyed reading about Amsterdam (part 1) leg of our NW Europe trip. Please check out my other travel blogs under the “Blogs” menu item at www.DanHartfordPhoto.com .
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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Or, this whole series at:
These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/nw-europe-2018-08 (all images)
https://www.danhartfordphoto.com/nw-europe-favs-2018-08 (subset of images)
Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, other web sources, and pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way.
I’d like to thank Chris Page of Amsterdam Photo Tours who provided a private dusk-night custom photo tour of Amsterdam for us. Many of the dusk and night shots from my 2 Amsterdam blogs were shot from places Chris led us to and that we might not have found on our own. You can find info about his tours here http://www.amsterdamphotosafari.com/
Keywords: Amsterdam, Amsterdam at night, Amsterdam Bicycles, Amsterdam Canals, Amsterdam Museums, Blog, Canal Houseboat, Dan Hartford Photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogNW-Europe, Houseboat, Netherlands, Western Europe
HI Dan - your photos and comments brought back great memories of our couple of days in Amsterdam at the end of a Rhine cruise. The bicycles were amazing - I spent several hours at an outdoor beer garden just watching the steady flow of bikes near the train station - multiple close calls and an amazing variety of people and kids riding. Your canal shots are wonderful - thanks!
The bicycle overflow parking I have the same photo from when I was there last summer. I think you have August 2018 as the date, and that was the same month and year that I took the photo.
Thanks for writing this blog and sharing your photographs, Dan. I'm off to Amsterdam in a few weeks and this was timely and useful information.
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