My wife’s family is Dutch (via Oakland and San Mateo) and so I’ve been coming to Holland for a couple of years now to see family, breathe in the North Sea air, and dream of seventeenth-century economic power of unparalleled scope.
From Paris the easiest way in is probably the TGV Thalys from Gare du Nord which gets you into Centraal station in just under three hours. One can debate the merits train vs. plane on this route, but if there’s a high-speed rail link with no changing trains, I’ll usually take the train instead to avoid the hassle of airport transfers, security, ear pressure, restricted liquids, punitive luggage policies, yadda yadda…
Looking out from Amsterdam Central station.
What’s fun in Amsterdam? Well, it depends on when you’re there. I’ve been there a few times in the winter, and let me tell you that the Dutch winter is no joke. So I’d avoid the winter months if you can; you’re probably not as tough as the Dutch when it comes to weather. Unless you’re from Chicago.
In spring and summer, Amsterdam’s city center is wonderfully walkable, with iconic UNESCO-listed canal houses at every turn. Apartments within a canal house are often available on AirBNB, sometimes even with huge front-facing windows that blend interior and exterior life in the way the Dutch have for centuries. If you’re lucky (and in reasonably good shape) you can get one with a staircase angled at sixty or more degrees with steps about the width of your iPhone. This is normal.
Walk the canals and dream of gettin’ paid on tulips and East Indies stocks.
My favorite neighborhood is the Negen Straatjes, a tiny little grid of streets between Central and the Jordaan that is packed with boutiques, cafés, bicycles, bakeries, and classic Dutch charm. The excellent Hotel Pulitzer is situated here also – the Dutch breakfast spread is this enormous smorgasbord of cured meats, cheeses, sausages, pastries, and the Pulitzer has one of the best in town.
Braised veal at Café de Klepel
The funny thing about Dutch food is that if you talk to a local they’ll probably say something typically self-deprecating and negative – but I think Amsterdam’s food scene has improved dramatically since my first trip in 2008. Some stuff to eat:
- Café de Klepel. It’s like a Dutch cave à manger.
- A haringfilet with shallots from a street stand.
- Daalder serves beautiful prix-fixe modern European (it’s neo-Dutch!)
- Giant pancakes. The classic is just butter, powdered sugar and stroop (syrup) but sometimes the more exotic savory combinations are pretty exciting.
- Winkel 43 bakes perhaps the best apple pie I’ve ever had.
- Gouda, gouda, gouda. At each end of the spectrum, try the young white goudas and also the 4-year aged oud kaas.
- Eetsalon Van Dobben reminds me of New York-style cafeterias, but with crazy postwar Dutch flavor combinations (chicken with cream sauce and pineapple? wtf, but it was pretty good)
- The farmers’ market at the Noordermarkt and the huge Albert Cuypmarkt in De Pijp have endless hearty breads in fun shapes, smoked sausages, veggies and much more.
It’s never too early, nor too late, for a pancake.
Definitely avoid: argentine steakhouses, most Asian restaurants. People keep telling me that rijsttafel is amazing, but what I’ve had thus far has been a big fancy presentation of a wide variety of mediocre Asian foods in tiny dishes. Like, you can’t just put shrimp chips in a teardrop-shaped bowl and call that something, because it’s not anything.
I still haven’t been to any of the Michelin-level restaurants in Amsterdam – given the city’s high ratio of finance types to fine dining restaurants, I think it’s probably still a few years from having a serious tweezer food scene. But the potential is there, someone just needs to look backward, forward, and inward and forage for a new Dutch cuisine.
A canal sports bird sporting his sporty racing stripe.
Amsterdam is the only city I know of that’s essentially a wetland. Water birds of all kinds roost at the canal edges, especially in the more residential areas. It’s not uncommon to see a family of ducks swimming through downtown, which is pretty unlike anywhere else. With all the rain the Dutch get, central Amsterdam is one of the greenest metropolitan areas in Europe, and less polluted than Paris.
Yay! Amsterdam sunshine!
You’ll notice I didn’t mention any of the big tourist attractions – red light districts, weed shops, the Heineken megaplex, torture or sex museums, etc. I figure these are probably either on your itinerary or not and I can’t advise you too much about them other than that the lines are long and that you should bring an umbrella 🙂