Some of the most popular cities in Europe are struggling with heavy influx of tourists such that the locals are now an annoyed lot. Cities are now geared towards catering to tourists – real estate prices are higher, unruly tourists spoil the city, the locals no longer remember their city as theirs. These cities are slowly turning into Disneyland of sorts and in search of authenticity, a traveler has to look beyond the main attractions.
I was recently presented with the wonderful opportunity to explore parts of Netherlands for the first time. There is much to see, much to experience and a lot to cycle in this country but my time was short. Many visitors to this country start and finish their itineraries in Amsterdam. To experience a slightly quieter and a more local experience, I decided to stay during my travels in the medieval city of Haarlem instead and visit Amsterdam as day trips.
Haarlem to Amsterdam is a train ride lasting just 15 minutes. While Amsterdam is notorious for offering cheap thrills, the city is a terrific amalgamation of art, history and technology. I had booked for the visit to Anne Frank museum for 10:30 am (highly recommended to avoid waiting). This was something I really wanted to experience for myself for several reasons: I was gifted this book by my father when I was and I could easily relate to a 12 year old girl writing so much of her life and that book, even if it sounds clichéd did affect me at several levels. In these troubled times, it is even more pertinent for people to be aware of what happened and what could still happen…
And so there I was in the queue and a lady standing behind me quipped to her co-traveler “I don’t know who this lady was but hey everyone says this is a must visit in Amsterdam so let’s do a quick one and move on”. I don’t like to judge but this one saddened me. On one hand, it is a shame that this house has become a bucket list of sorts. On the other hand though, it does seem like it is doing a successful job of bringing people who are unaware of the history into learning something. However, it is my opinion that a little effort in understanding the history and culture of the place one is traveling in goes a long way in enriching ones travel experience. It is possible to spend as much time as one wishes in the museum, however there is a substantial crowd. I saw what I wanted to and at the end of touring the house, there is a short 8 minute video that is screened about popular people’s outlook on the girl that was Anne Frank. I think it is an extremely well maintained museum and really a “must visit”, not for a traveler, but for a human being. There is a guestbook that can be signed off, but who am I to comment on this when greater voices have spoken before?
After the visit I was really hungry and I had read about a nice café not far from the house just overlooking the canal. Being a vegetarian was never a problem in Netherlands for me. I had a fantastic toast and a coffee by a cafe overlooking the canal. It was an incredible day to be outside. I sat there people watching for a while – that is really the best part of European holidays isn’t it? From watching an elderly woman rapidly solving crossword puzzles to children trudging along their cycles, there is little doubt that Amsterdam is a fun and vibrant city for everyone.
The main areas of Amsterdam are easily accessible by foot. The next few hours I spent exploring the picturesque Jordaan area including the Westerkerk church and the canal ring. There are so many wonderful spots around here that make for excellent photographs, not to mention the beautiful Dutch architecture, the cozy cafes, stores and the like. I walked through the Nieuwmarkt area which reminded me of all the bazaars back home but without all the haggling! The wide variety of things on display – from colorful flowers to antique jewelry, from rare books to vinyl there is plenty of option for buying or mere window shopping.
It was already 7 pm by the time I had discovered these charms and I walked to the Centraal station for a canal cruise. There are several cruises to pick from and I just randomly picked one. The cruise sounds like a typical tourist thing to do but the audio along with the cruise gives a nice perspective of Amsterdam from the canal throwing in a mix of culture and history in between explaining how the land was reclaimed from the sea. Thus ended my first day. Although I hadn’t really “ticked off” many things, I had walked around quite a lot and at the end of my day back to Haarlem I was pretty exhausted.
I had talked to my Airbnb host about the plethora of choices in terms of museums that Amsterdam offers and asked for suggestions. Being an artist herself, it made for an interesting conundrum for her to suggest a non-artsy person one art museum in one of the most artistic cities in the world. At the end of the day it was decided that I would go see the Van Gogh museum. I took the train again to Amsterdam from Haarlem (now it was already beginning to be very easy). I walked to Museumplein which is the mecca of museums. This quarter hosts many of the best museums of Amsterdam and I bought tickets for the museum. I had plenty of time to kill before my scheduled entrance and decided to relax at the nearby Vondelpark. To see that such a beautiful and sprawling garden exists bang in the middle of a city such as Amsterdam is indeed a surprise. I walked around the park and also made a small picnic for myself by the banks of a pretty pond watching the swans and ducks. It is so easy to find a spot for yourself in this busy city! Finally I walked back in time to enter the Van Gogh museum.
I must admit that I actually possess very little patience in museums as I am a bit claustrophobic and do not understand paintings especially modern art. Regardless, I found that I actually enjoyed the Van Gogh museum, reading about each of the paintings, his troubled life and ended up spending almost three hours there. Indeed a great painter and a lovely museum. Having spent a significant amount of time indoors, I wanted to visit a place that was more green and with less visitors.
I walked to the Plantage area and the Jewish quarter visiting the Portuguese synagogue and walking past the Jewish museum. It was already well past the museum time and therefore I had to contend myself walking around this lush green area. I think the best part about this city is just walking by some beautiful canals and finding some nice spots or a cute café overlooking a canal and people watch or even better, watch them on the ubiquitous cycles. That is when it struck me that a cycle trip was long overdue. I decided to do a trip somewhere on a cycle the next day. For the remainder of the day though, I just wandered back into Centraal, very briefly stepping into the red light area (unintentionally!). It all was very safe although it is to be noted that it is quite common to get a waft of weed almost everywhere. The city had so much more to offer that I could easily spend over a week seeing everything but I wanted to explore areas outside of Amsterdam as well.