Dutch herring served on a roll with onions and pickles

What to do in the Netherlands, Part I

At SAAFBA we are proponents of exploring a location fully and leisurely, as opposed to cramming our itinerary with goals and checkpoints. At the same time, we appreciate that there’s a lot to see in the world, and not enough time to see it in. If you’re like us, you’ll appreciate this one-week tour of the Netherlands, which meets somewhere in the middle. This itinerary is best for the warmer months, though it works for colder weather too – just bundle up for the bike rides and picnics.

Canals of Amsterdam
Rowboats parked in the canals of Amsterdam

Day 0: Schiphol

Regardless of where you’re coming from, your arrival will likely be at Schiphol. (The Rotterdam and Eindhoven airports mainly cater to the smaller, Europe-only airlines.) Schiphol is a fine place to start your journey, as it’s quick and easy to get to the central station in Amsterdam from here.

The famous Rijksmuseum used to have an installment at this airport that was free for anyone with a boarding pass. That has been closed, so don’t bother looking for it. Instead, make your way to a currency exchange. The several TravelEx booths you see around are a good bet – they exchange your money for a flat fee of €3.50, which makes sense if you want to exchange a large sum at once. Even if you have a credit card with no foreign exchange fees, you definitely want plenty of cash on hand. We came across shops and services that don’t take cards, take coins but no cash (or vice versa), take MasterCard but no Visa, etc., so be prepared for each scenario.

From the airport you can take an Intercity Sprinter to Amsterdam Centraal. It costs €5.40 per person, and the automated machines only accept coins. If you don’t have enough change, just go to the service counter, where you can pay with card or cash. This is a very well connected city, and from Centraal you will find a bus or metro line that can take you pretty close to wherever you are staying. If you’re confused, just find another service counter – everyone is friendly and English-speaking.

Day 1 & 2: Amsterdam

Wall art The Student Hotel
Wall art outside the bike storage of The Student Hotel in Amsterdam

If you’re an experienced AirBnB user, you probably don’t need advice from us about it. If not, then we recommend The Student Hotel. It’s hip and colorful, but it does not feel collegiate. People of all ages stay here; it’s affordable with standard hotel amenities; it’s at a great location and has excellent service. You can even rent a bike directly from the check-in counter for 12 euros/day. It’s a pretty basic bike without fancy gears, but it’s sufficient to cover the mostly flat city, and it comes with lock and key. Right across the street is Albert Heijn (a supermarket chain) and Etos (a pharmacy chain) if you are in need of any basic supplies.

1. Albert Cuypmarkt
Albert Cuypmarkt on a Friday morning

It’s your first full day in Amsterdam, what should you do? Get on your bike and head to Albert Cuypmarkt in the De Pijp neighborhood. There are plenty of open-air markets dotted across the city, but this one is famous for good reason. It’s one of the largest, lining both sides of a single, long street, filled with food, clothes, and souvenirs, at very affordable prices. Order one of the best sandwiches you will ever have at the vaguely Mediterranean stalls that sell cheese spreads and olives. Try your very first herring at Volendammer Vishandel, an old standby with an outpost at Albert Cuypmarkt (quick lesson: ‘vis’ is fish; ‘vishandel’ is fishmonger).

2. Museum District

Next, bicycle over to the Museum District, or Museumplein. You won’t get a chance to work off everything you ate – it’ll take you 15 minutes or less to reach. If you started the day early and are keen on your art history, get a museum pass and hit all three main museums in one go: Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum. If you want to take it a bit easier (and cheaper), the gardens at Rijksmuseum are free to enter and have their own installments of contemporary art. Nearby is Vondelpark, which is kind of like the Golden Gate Park of the city, where you can bike around and take in the scenery, or sit down with a picnic.

3. Dam Centraal

Your first evening is best spent at Dam Centraal, where street after street is lined with restaurants, bars, and cafes. Find a secure spot for your bike and lock up, and spend the rest of the night on foot. You can bar hop with small bites at each spot, or get a nice dinner in your belly and then bar hop. If you’re not too tired from your journey and want to keep the party going, clubs will open around midnight.

NEMO Science Museum Amsterdam
The NEMO Science Museum on the right of this canalscape
4. Waterlooplein Flea Market

Start day two with another open-air market – it’s the best way to insert yourself nicely into the local scene. This square near the Amstel river is named after the Battle of Waterloo and features up to 300 stalls of one-of-a-kind merchandise. Get breakfast first at Dauphine, which has waterfront seating and views, or Omelegg, which specializes in omelets. Both are easy biking distance from the flea market.

5. Stroopwafel

The Dutch invented stroopwafels, thin wafer-like biscuits with caramel or chocolate in between. The best part is that you can place them above your cup of coffee, so that the whole thing warms and softens before you take a bite. Van Wonderen Stroopwafels or croissanterie Egstorf are a stone’s throw from Waterlooplein, and the bike routes have canal views to boot.

6. Anne Frank House

This museum is open every  day of the week until 10PM, so you can stop by at anytime when you pass the neighborhood on your continuing bike tour. It’s located in an area where a canal cuts through every block. It’s a picturesque and historic part of the city where you can pay homage.

7. Foodhallen

As you might guess from the name, this is a food hall with cafeteria-like seating and varied cuisine options. Dim sum and udon are available, as are charcuterie boards, sandwiches, and pastries. This is a good place to max out your dollar while getting nice and full. If you’d rather do a fancy dinner, we won’t stop you. Generally speaking, the Dutch are not into extravagant displays and prefer to be sensible in spending their money, but they do have 16 Michelin-rated restaurants in Amsterdam alone. Here are some fine dining options for you. Maybe don’t ride your bike, though.

Bicycling around the city is a scenic adventure of its own
8. Tales & Spirits

For an evening cocktail, we can’t recommend Tales & Spirits enough. The handcrafted drinks are exceptionally creative, the service is highly original, but mostly it’s about the entire experience, from the minute you walk in, to the minute you leave, that makes it unforgettable. We won’t say any more, go and see for yourself.

9. Volkshotel

This is for those of you who don’t sleep when you are in an exciting new city. Located right across the street from The Student Hotel, and easily accessible by metro or your bike, the Volkshotel has a rooftop bar that is open very late, and an underground club that is open even later (it closes at 5AM). If you are staying in the Student Hotel like we recommend, then you are only about three minutes away from your bed, when you are finally ready to sleep. So go ahead and dance away your last night in Amsterdam.

Part II: Groningen, Rotterdam, and The Hague!

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