Doing Amsterdam from Paris in a weekend was easy. The trains run at reasonable times and it only takes about three hours to travel each way. That said, doing it in one day gives you considerably less time in the city, but can still be done! We took the train at 8:30 am, got to Amsterdam just before noon, saw the highlights and discovered some hidden gems, and caught the 6:15 train back to Paris. So, in reality, it was just a little over six hours.
Six hours is not a lot! But it was enough time to get a taste of the city. It’s enough to try some local food, tour the canals, see local markets, visit Dam square, stroll through a beautiful neighborhood, and get run over by a bike or twenty.
Originally on my list of things to do were the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank house. However, the lines at the Anne Frank house were horrendous, and I didn’t want to waste two of my six hours waiting in them. If you make reservations before your trip, you can get a guided tour and skip the line; otherwise, plan to spend a good chunk of time waiting in line for tickets you may or may not get. As for the Rijksmuseum, it could easily have fit in our schedule, but I’d spent so much time in museums in the past couple of weeks that I felt I would rather just walk around the city and experience it. Next time, though, I’m definitely going to check it out.
11:45 am: arrival
12 pm: canal cruise
2 pm: lunch at Foodhallen
3:15 pm: browse shops in the Hallen
3:45 pm: Vondelpark
4:30 pm: Dam Square
5:15 pm: Jordaan neighborhood
6:15 pm: departure for Paris
To do Rijksmuseum, I’d recommend skipping the shops in the Hallen and instead walking through Vondelpark on the way to the museum, and then going directly to Jordaan by walking along the canal instead of seeing Dam Square. If you’re more interested in the Anne Frank house, skip Vondelpark and walk along the canal over to the house on the way to Jordaan, since Vondelpark and the museum square are in the opposite direction from Foodhallen. Google maps is going to be your best friend here if you are short on time, no matter what you decide to do. It gives detailed instructions right up to the departure times for the local trams. If you’re concerned about data or cell phone use in Europe, there are lots of flexible options. France has one of the best deals with FreeMobile, which I wrote about in one of my first posts from Paris, and I was able to use my data in the Netherlands with zero problems. In fact, the internet seemed faster than when I use it in France. Go figure!
All in all, this itinerary will give you a pretty good taste of some different sides of the city. The canal cruise was the perfect way to start it off, because I was able to get my bearings and generally get to know the layout of the city, while learning a bit about the history of the different neighborhoods. The weather was excellent. If you can, plan ahead and make reservations for an open boat instead of a covered one. It costs the same, but makes it much easier to see the city. There are a few different companies that do the tours, including Lovers and Holland International, but their prices, schedule and tours are almost identical so it really doesn’t matter which one you pick. Expect to pay about 15-16 euros for an adult ticket, and half that much for a child ticket. The tours last one hour and pick up and drop off from various locations, including just across from the train station.
Of course, some people really want to eat pizza and/or hamburgers while they ride the river cruise. If that’s you, they have a cruise just for you! It’s called the Pizza Burger Cruise (or a variation of that, depending on the company), and it’s literally the same cruise but you sit at a table and you get to eat either a pizza or a burger.
Personally, I think you could get a better, less expensive meal elsewhere, and you’d have more fun on the cruise if you just did the cruise, but that’s why I didn’t take the pizza cruise, just the normal one. You do you, my friend.
We were told to expect a half hour wait, and the line looked really long, but we were on the boat within ten minutes from buying our tickets. The tour itself was pleasant. The driver gave brief highlights in English and in Dutch, while audioguides and earbuds were provided if you wanted to get more historical details or if you needed the tour in a different language.
After the canal cruise, which dropped us right back off at the train station where we had gotten on, we took the tram to Foodhallen for lunch. Since, you know, we did the normal cruise, not the pizza burger one, we were pretty hungry!
The tram is probably the best way to get around the city. It’s fast, easy to use, and you can get cheap day passes that let you use the tram as many times as you want. The passes cost a little over 7 euros and can be bought at the machines by the big multi-tram stop outside of the train station or from any of the attendants. Walking or biking are also very good alternatives; though walking is slower and biking is more dangerous, you’ll get to see a lot more of the city.
Foodhallen is basically exactly what it sounds like: a hall with a lot of food. It’s a hip place with a lot of options, built in an old train station. Most of the people eating there seemed to be in their 20s and 30s, which made sense because the atmosphere definitely caters to a younger crowd. It had an almost hipster vibe. And don’t worry if you don’t speak Dutch; even though it’s a place that seems to be more popular with locals than with tourists, per se, most of the vendors speak perfect English and all of them speak at least a little.
The walls of the enormous room were lined with food kiosks, each focusing on a different type of cuisine. Among the options were: Traditional Dutch food re-vamped with new flavors and style, vegetarian/vegan food, pizzas, a sushi bar, gourmet hot dogs on pretzel buns, French pastries, frozen yogurt, an alcohol bar, tacos, and fish and chips/Belgian fries. And that was only the first section.
Choosing took forever, but I eventually settled on a vegetarian flammkuchen, which is some sort of flame-cooked pizza. It was handmade and tasted very fresh and delicious, even though it had arugula, which I don’t like, but keep ordering on accident anyway. I also tried some bitterballen since it is one of the most traditional Dutch foods ever. They are very similar to croquettes, and came with a really strong dark mustard that I liked. My friend got a gourmet hot dog wrapped in a pretzel bun with all sorts of interesting stuff like tzatziki on it. Finding a seat was hard because it was so crowded, but there was some space upstairs. I think I could move to Amsterdam just for this place. It was fast, cheap, healthy, delicious, and full of cool-looking people.
Other shops in the Hallen
After lunch, it’s definitely worth it to take a look at what’s next door. There are a couple of shops, a library/café, and a film club/theater called Filmhallen. There is also a place for people to buy and sell or recycle used bicycles, aptly named “ReCycle.”
I took a quick look in the local goods store across the hall. It was really cool! Not only did they have a huge selection of local, hand-made trinkets and interesting knick-knacks, but they had a clothing section that was all sustainable, for men and women. No big name brands, just items that were made by small local businesses. Each piece of clothing had a tag on it that said where it had been hand-made and by whom, the material it was made out of, and how it conformed with Fair Trade and low environmental impact standards. I wanted to buy some of it because I liked a lot of the clothes and it would have been cool to support the small businesses like that, but I literally have no more room for anything in my suitcase because all I brought was a carry-on bag for three whole months (more on that later). Plus I am trying not to spend too much money on things other than traveling and essentials. It’s easy to travel for cheap in Europe, but only if you have some limits on what you buy!
Vondelpark is a short walk from Foodhallen, so don’t worry about taking the tram. The walk is a lovely one. On the way over, we passed through a local farmer’s market. They have a few different ones on Saturday mornings, so if you’re lucky enough to be in Amsterdam over the weekend, I’d recommend stopping by one. They were selling everything from fresh produce to home-cooked meals to flowers and clothing. If I hadn’t just eaten my heart out at Foodhallen, I would have definitely gotten something for lunch from one of the vendors.
Every big European city has to have at least one big public park, and Vondelpark is Amsterdam’s. It was pretty, and green, and open. It would have been a really, really nice place to spend an afternoon, except for all the marijuana. Seriously, every two feet someone else was smoking it, and the wind was blowing the smell everywhere, and it was nasty. Maybe you like the smell of marijuana – clearly some people do – but I can’t stand it. If Foodhallen was a deal-maker for living in Amsterdam, all the cannabis is the deal-breaker!
After Vondelpark, I decided to stroll down the canal towards Jordaan, one of Amsterdam’s famously photogenic neighborhoods, but I got a little distracted. Distracted by the city center, that is. There were lots of interesting shops, and after looking in the windows of some of them, I ended up in a grocery store. Yes,you heard me, a grocery store. It’s definitely the best and cheapest way to get a quick drink or snack on the go! I spent a few minutes browsing the snack aisle to see what Dutch people eat (they had a pasta aisle, just like us) and tried a ginger-lemon-limeaid sweetened with agave syrup.
Of course, if you are in the Netherlands, tasting stroopwafels is a must! Stop by any bakery and you should be able to find some. They are pretty good, warm and fresh, with the caramel in the middle and everything. I got two, but they were bigger than I expected, so one would have been enough.
Dam Square and Jordaan neighborhood
By that point, I was almost to Dam Square, so I went and walked around the outside of the palace for a bit. It was too late for a tour; they stop letting people in at 4:30 pm, but the square was alright. There were some street performers, a guy reciting the Bible on a microphone in English, and about seven hot dog vendors selling hot dogs with the strangest stuff on them. I saw carrots, and what looked like crunchy sweet-potato straws (but probably weren’t). I didn’t know hot dogs were a Dutch thing, but they seemed to be pretty popular.
If I don’t sound too impressed with the square itself, it’s because I wasn’t. The palace looks like it would be an interesting visit, and the cathedral next door as well, but I’d say a trip to Dam Square is really only worth it if you go early enough in the day to actually visit those things. The outside wasn’t that interesting, and it was quite crowded.
I spent the last hour or so walking the rest of the way along the canal and then walking the Jordaan neighborhood, which was supposed to be gorgeous. That it was! The only bad part about it was that I almost got run over by bikes SO many times. It was ridiculous. They are everywhere, on the street AND on the sidewalks, usually coming from both directions, and they come pretty fast. Cars, at least, you usually hear coming, but with the bikes there is no warning. They just come at you and then when they are about 3 feet away they ding their little bell and expect you to immediately jump out of the way, but mostly people just kind of stood there shocked when that happened. It was very dangerous, but nice to see so many people riding bikes instead of driving. People in America should ride more bikes!
All in all, I would go back! I would go back to eat at Foodhallen, shop the local goods stores and check out the museums I missed. Some of the other notable museums are the contemporary art museum and the Van Gogh museum, all right next to Rijksmuseum. There was also a photography museum a little bit farther off (FOAM) that is number one on my “next time” list. Probably won’t live in Amsterdam unless the marijuana popularity wanes a bit, but it made an excellent weekend trip.
I’ll finish off with a couple of pictures of Jordaan: