The day we arrived in Amsterdam was an unusually sunny and warm Spring day with highs in the 70’s. The kind of day that teases of summer before the rawness of mid-April creeps back in. The canals were coming to life with the Dutch reveling in the beautiful weather, and the fact that the weekend had arrived.
When we decided on visiting Amsterdam, we started looking at apartments, and then realized that what we had to do — for a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-forget experience — was stay on a houseboat. We found this beautiful place on AirBnb, and when we arrived we could hardly believe our eyes. The first photo shows the Dutch door (I have ALWAYS wanted a Dutch door) and our boat is the white one shown in the second photo.
Those big windows open up right onto the canal.
And this became our favorite spot. Maybe our favorite spot in all of Amsterdam!
At first, it was a little disconcerting to see tour boats passing by — TAKING PICTURES OF US sitting in the window! But we got used to it, and mostly laughed hysterically for the first few hours of life in this magical little fishbowl. (Look at that lady on the right!) ?
But we also had a ball watching the other boats go buy, filled to the brim with happy Dutch folks enjoying their weekend and the summer-like weather. Over the next few days, we’d return to the boat in the afternoons, just so we could sit in this window with a cold beer (Brouwerij ‘t IJ was our favorite!) and watch the boats go by.
This is the look Ellie would give me when I’d say it was my turn on the window swing.
From the second we walked out of the train station, Amsterdam lived up to its reputation as a city of bikes. I love how most of the bikes we saw were rusty, wide-handled old things without handbrakes or gear shifts. Just the requisite bell to warn the unsuspecting tourists to avoid being hit while crossing the street.
Amsterdam is also full of lovely, interesting, and friendly people. I left the city thinking the Dutch are surely the friendliest people around.
The other thing that made our houseboat perfect was its location on the West side of the Prinsengracht. Our little Dutch door opened out to the square in front of the Noorderkerk (a 17th Century church), which hosted the Noordermarkt, home to the Saturday organic market, and the perfect place to buy bread and cheese for breakfast.
While there are also some antiques sold on Saturdays, the Noordermarkt hosts a Vintage market on Mondays.
This friendly little fellow was running about greeting shoppers, and we can’t resist a cute dog.
You can’t go to Amsterdam without a visit to the Anne Frank house. It can be a bit tricky to get tickets (gone are the days of waiting in a snaking line, it’s all done via the internet), but we managed to get them just a few days before we arrived (after checking back week after week for a month). I was not prepared for how heart wrenching this visit would be. Obviously, I knew the story of Anne and her family, but the way the Museum brings their voices to life in the (so well-preserved) place where they hid for two years, really hit me. As we walked out of the hidden annex and into the final gallery of the Museum, I could barely stifle a sob.
That night, as the water from the canal lapped up against the house boat, I could hear the bells of the same bell tower (below) that Anne described in her diary. “Father, Mother and Margo still can’t get used to the chiming of the Westertoren clock, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. Not me, I liked it from the start; it sounds so reassuring, especially at night.” (7/11/1942.1)
The next day we visited the Albert Cuyp Market (we took the tram, which was a fun way to see the city as we traveled). While the goods at the market were a lot of tourist kitsch and t-shirts, there was definitely some deliciously fun food. Especially the Poffertjes — little puffy pancakes covered in powered sugar.
We took the tram not quite all the way back to our canal, so that we could walk a bit more.
Now that the girls are teenagers, Jeff and I can actually go out for a bit at night when we travel. This “brown bar”, Cafe Paeneiland, was just up the street from our place, and it felt like we were stepping back in time as we entered the wood paneled bar room with its ornate ceramic beer taps and old Dutch chandeliers.
April 22nd was Grace’s 17th birthday and her wish for the day was to go to see (actually — SIT in) the tulip fields. The plan was to visit the Keukenhof — a planned garden/park in Lisse, just outside of Amsterdam. Keukenhof is kind of like a Disneyland of flowers (but without the rides). First, we decided to rent bikes outside of the gardens so that we could explore the tulips in their natural environment as well. (Scroll down to my travel tips at the bottom of the page for details on this day trip!) and once we had them we set off to find some flowers. This is the first tulip field we came across, and a large ditch kept us from getting closer than about 30 feet from the field. Lovely, but our visions of tiptoeing through the tulips were not happening here. (Truthfully most of the tulip fields are not accessible but can be viewed from the side of the road — I mean, can you imagine hundreds of tourists trampling through them every day?)
However, just up the road, we started chatting with a solo traveler from Russia, who gave us a little tip about a field that is accessible via dirt path that we could take our bikes down. He pointed us on our way, and we rode first through fields of grape hyacinth which I did not photograph (can’t take pictures and steer a bike!), but I can tell you that the sweet smell of those deep purple flowers was pretty delightful.
And then we arrived at our field of tulips. And the birthday girl got her wish. (We really need to take a vacation on Ellie’s birthday one of these days…)
This was just pure joy and delight right here.
My photographer story from this field, as an aside, is that a family of three (mom, dad, and little boy) came along and when they spotted my camera and my BIG lens, they figured I knew what I was doing. They first asked me to take one picture of them with their camera. And then the next thing I know it was, “Can we get one on the bikes?”, “With sunglasses, and without?” “Our son holding the flower?” Uh. Before I knew it, I was doing a full on photo session! I really did happily oblige, and chuckled at the boldness of their continued requests. But they were nice, and their son was adorable, and he gave me the flower when I was done. And I suppose it can’t hurt to spread a little goodwill towards America these days! 😉
By the time we finished exploring the fields, it was getting late, and we realized that the Keukenhof closes at 6pm. So we pedaled back and arrived at the gardens a little before 5:00. Truly not enough time to explore 200 hectares of flower gardens, but we made a go of it. I will say that having only an hour did not bother Jeff much, and I have to admit, freely exploring the surrounding area on bikes was pretty special. But the Keukenhoff is an amazing place, where you can see flowers that you never new existed.
And this is where mom says, “I planned this entire trip, you WILL stand in the big clogs so that I can take a picture!”
She didn’t mind so much, when not in the clogs.
Back in Amsterdam, as we walked back to the boat, we admired the canals at night.
Our last full day started with a visit to the Van Gogh museum (off to the right of the flowering trees). The girls don’t love museums, but I love Van Gogh, and I felt like we had to visit after seeing where he lived in France when we were there in 2016.
The well known IAMSTERDAM sign was a fun stop in front of the Rijksmusuem. No one but me wanted to visit this museum, by the way. ?
We had heard about the French fries (and the sauces) and made the requisite stop for a snack as we wandered our way through the city. Be warned though, the sauce is HOT. Jeff’s spilled all over his hand when they handed it to him (almost caught that on camera!), and the resulting burn made me glad I always pack wipes, antibiotic cream, and bandaids in my bag (yup, I’m a mom.).
So if you’ve read other travel blog entires of mine, you’ll know that there always seem to be cats, thanks to the girls. We’d heard about a cat shelter called de Poezenboot, (the catboat). And yes, it’s a boat with cats, and there was no way the girls were leaving Amsterdam without visiting. We made some friends, and took heed of the warnings about some of the less friendly felines.
After four days of sunshine, the rain came to Amsterdam the morning we were returning home. I took a quick walk before the Uber came to take us to the airport, listened to the raindrops fall softly onto the canals, and marveled at how people can ride a bike while holding an umbrella.
Tips and Recommendations:
Our AirBnb: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/15038140
Truthfully, we didn’t eat at any traditional “Dutch” restaurants while in Amsterdam. I’m actually not sure what the national dish might be if you were going to out to dinner. People talked a lot of about the pancake houses, but I’m not really a pancake person unless it’s breakfast. But what we did find is that there are many International cuisines in Amsterdam, and we had really delicious meals wherever we went. This may have something to do with the Netherland’s history in the spice trade. There is just so much variety. And the Indian food we ate was the best I’ve ever had. Perfectly balanced spices, and much more flavorful than Indian food I’ve had at home. Here are the three places we ate (one night we ate on the boat), and all were very good:
Indian: Moti Mahal
Italian: Lucca Due
Not to miss, of course. But it can be tricky to get tickets. All tickets are sold via the website, and 80% are released exactly two months in advance, with the rest being released on the day you wish to visit. I kept trying back for the two months prior — I’d check at different times of day, and multiple times a day. I had no luck until about a week before. I also talked to people who got their tickets the day of their visit, so don’t give up — it is worth the effort.
The gardens are only open for about two months of the year, March to May, during the blooming season. But if you are going to be in Amsterdam during that time, it’s a must see — especially in mid-late April (I think March can be hit or miss). To get to Keukenhof from Amsterdam, you first take the train from Amsterdam Centraal to Schiphol Airport, where you then catch a bus to Keukenhof (buy the Combi ticket on the Keukenhof website). When you arrive at Schiphol, you need to look for the signs, as the Keukenhof bus is tucked away around a corner at the end of the terminal (go outside and take a right). The whole trip should take about an hour without traffic, but Keukenhof was a mob scene the day we went an we stood on that very hot bus for quite a while as it sat in traffic. As far as what time of day to visit — well, my kids are not morning people, and we had heard that the tour buses all arrive to the gardens early, so we decided to head out mid-day in order to beat the bulk of the crowds, and so that we could catch better light for pictures. This worked out well, actually, but we might have like another hour in the gardens (you COULD spend all day there)!
On there right is the main entrance to the gardens, but instead of heading there first we went to the bike rental station just outside (It’s in the background of the picture of the girls. In the foreground of the bottom photo is a Stroopwaffel, which is a whole other discussion). The bike rental place was called Rent A Bike Van Dam, and it’s easy to find at the edge of the Keukenhoff parking lot. They provide maps with suggested loops, but you really can just follow the flow of traffic and find your way. The bike paths are wide and safe and it was a really fun experience.
Other places to visit:
We walked most places, but we also took the tram, which was a great way to see the city as we went from place to place. We did Uber to the Airport, and were able to request a van, which is convenient with the amount of luggage that go with two teenage girls and their mom (Jeff has one carryon!). However, the train from Amsterdam Centraal to the airport is very easy and quick as well.
As always, if you have questions about anything in this post, don’t hesitate to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org . Prior to Amsterdam, we visited Strasbourg/Alsace, and Paris, in France. If you missed those posts you can view them, along with my other travel installments, here.
Cristen Farrell specializes in Boston Family Portraits. She is based out of Andover, just North of the city, but travels anywhere in the Boston area. Cristen photographs families, newborns, children, and life events. She can be reached by clicking on this contact form.