Bikes, Boats, and Beer

I’ve recently visited Amsterdam, Netherlands. As part of my “job” I get to tell people why they should visit the city and what they should see and do during their stay. You can insert the classic response: “it’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it”, but that actually is part of my job.  I do hope I can entice you to visit the city by sharing my experiences. It would be easy to sum up Amsterdam with the 3 “B’s”: Bicycles, Boats and Beer but Amsterdam is more complicated than that. The city has a unique and open culture that works well for them. The locals only ask that you respect their freestyle living and get out of the way of fast rolling bikes. Known as the Venice of the North, Amsterdam has almost 1300 bridges (an extra “B”!)  crossing 165 canals. Bicycles are the primary mode of transportation for most Amsterdammers but you also find public forms of transportation that include trams and buses. The congested traffic provides proof that there is an abundance of automobiles as well. You will sometimes see drivers dare to challenge a bicyclist for space and usually lose. The Dutch version of the family station wagon consists of mom on a bike with a basket full of groceries. Dad is rolling alongside with one kid in front of him sitting on the handlebars and a younger child behind him in a special bicycle seat. It was not unusual to see a family travelling together on bicycles with the youngest child using training wheels. They deftly and daringly weave in and out of busy 6 lane traffic, assuming that they have the right of way. Even if it weren’t a given right, they would still claim it for their own. Most bicycles are equipped with bells and you will hear the ting, ting as a bicyclist whizzes past you leaving you wondering how they seemingly came out of nowhere. Bicycle parking lots dot the streets with some housing thousands of bikes at a time. I could not determine a system that easily allowed a bike owner to retrieve his or her bicycle and quite frankly, one bike looks like another to me. Perhaps the riders just took the most easily accessible bike at the moment. Many riders will use bicycle chains and you will see bikes secured to fences, sign posts, light poles, store fronts and even to other chained bikes. According to the official website “an estimated 800,000 people or 63 percent of the population use their bikes on a daily basis. 32% of traffic movement within the city is by bicycle compared to 22 percent by automobile and only 16 percent by public transportation”. In the very center of the city 48 percent of people get where they’re going by riding a bicycle.

Boats are also popular as an alternative transportation choice thanks to the 100 kilometers of canals that wind through the city. To us non-metric Americans, that’s 62 miles of water flowing past beautiful historic homes and buildings. Floating through Amsterdam offers an easy alternative and unique way to navigate a congested city. In addition to the privately owned boats, hundreds of public sightseeing vessels allow visitors the chance to see the city from a different perspective at water level. It’s relaxing and depending upon the time of day you might also be able to enjoy a luncheon or dinner cruise. Commercial exchanges such as floating bars and restaurants and souvenir shops are common but my favorite use of a boat was the De Poezenboot. Translated as “the Cat Boat” it’s a loose play on words referencing Puss in Boots and is a floating cat rescue and adoption organization.

Beer! If your first thought is to grab a Heineken in downtown Amsterdam you’d be surprised at how wrong that answer is. The locally brewed beverage is not the local favorite apparently due to the Amsterdammers’ distaste for the company’s perceived gross capitalism.  In a city where one bar alone serves over 200 types of bottled beer and at least a dozen more on tap, you could grab a craft beer every night for 9 months and never repeat a variety. Unless of course you chose to do so. This is a city that takes its beer seriously, very seriously. The history of beer making in Amsterdam goes back to the Middle Ages when a lack of clean drinking water forced the locals to seek options that didn’t include a side of dysentery. Beer had the additional bonus of making homely wives more desirable, work places more tolerable and dinner time more sociable. There’s no doubt that that the Dutch share recipes with the local neighbors Belgium and Germany, two countries that also know a thing or two about hops. As a non-beer drinker I must rely on the locals who informed me that the best beers on the Dutch market are produced by companies most of us won’t recognize. Breweries such as La Trappe, De Molen and Emelisse,  consistently top the “best Dutch beers” lists. Each brewery produces multiple varieties giving beer connoisseurs lots to taste and talk, or perhaps argue, about.

There is a 4th “B” – one that is whispered about in the States but spoken of openly and is on display in “Anything goes Amsterdam”. I’m coyly referencing “Babes”. Amsterdam has a very active Red Light District. Yes, it’s legal but obviously there have to be some limits so, photos of the women on display in the windows are not allowed. There are very big men who will not so gently remind you of this by confiscating your camera. Within this Red Light District, you will occasionally find a blue light indicating that while the “women” in the windows might look like women, looks can sometimes be deceiving. Buyers might want to beware.

Acceptance is both a choice and a lifestyle in Amsterdam and seems to work extremely well for the locals. It might be a bit shocking for others but if you approach the experience with an open mind it might be the most interesting vacation you’ve ever had.

36 Hours in Amsterdam


If you had only 36 hours in the city of Amsterdam, Holland, a.k.a. the Netherlands would you jump at the chance? Or would you decline, reasoning that there wasn’t enough to time to “really” see the city? Operating on the theory that enjoying one and a half days in Amsterdam is better than no days in Amsterdam, I submit that it’s all about making good choices. Truly, there are no wrong choices since it’s a matter of preference and prioritizing what matters or intrigues you the most. A city such as Amsterdam has so much personality it should be its own small country where you could easily spend a week or more. However, we’re talking brevity here. The best planners will always start with a master list, one that eventually gets culled to the final magic number. Here, that magic number was 3. Three experiences seemed manageable given the short amount of time but they needed to be unique to Amsterdam. My initial list included historical choices such as the Anne Frank House and several museum options. I added in some limited “seasonal” selections that included Keukenhof, a 79 acre park that is on every gardener’s wish list. Local experiences such as bike riding past the wind mills or floating down one of the many canals on a barge were also considered. My decisions were based upon opportunity, emotional content and what was uniquely of Amsterdam.

My first choice was to visit Keukenhof located 45 minutes from Amsterdam in Lisse. Keukenhof is one of the largest gardens in the world with 79 acres of sheer beauty. As with so many other things in life, timing is everything. With a window limited to a scant 8 weeks each year, the opportunity to see the 7 million springtime blooming bulbs is narrow. I reasoned that I could always visit Amsterdam again but I wouldn’t be able to guarantee that a future visit would coincide with the blooming of the bulbs.  I would be a fool to not take the opportunity to witness 800 varieties of tulips, hyacinths and daffodils sprouting in unison. A mélange of reds, pinks, burgundies, oranges, whites, yellows, greens, blues and violets spread throughout the park as though a rainbow had literally been planted in this magnificent garden and sprouted. Some of the gardens were themed and one of my favorites was the Delft garden. The famous blue and white pottery bears the name of the city where it’s produced and is a popular collectible item. It was also used as a focal point for a blue and white garden. In an unexpected twist the pottery was broken into pieces which were then randomly attached to a waist high white wall. The flowers planted at the base of the wall were color coordinated in blue and white. It was simple, unexpected and elegant. If you have the opportunity, I would certainly recommend a visit. If you never travel to Holland, a visit to your local garden center might be the next best thing. Eighty percent of the bulbs grown in the park are exported, many to America.

My second choice was a somber choice. I opted to visit the Anne Frank house at Prinsengracht 263, Amsterdam. It is the former Opekta factory owned by Anne’s father, Otto Frank. Mr. Frank ran a successful business selling spices and pectin for making jams. When it became clear that he and his family would be persecuted by the Nazi regime Mr. Frank transferred ownership of his corporation to an associate and with his family and several other associates, went into hiding in a secret annex of the building. During this time, his coming-of-age daughter Anne wrote poetry and diary entries that seem wiser than her limited 13 years. Her writings were published in a book titled “Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl”. It has been printed and published in 60 countries, translated into 70 languages and more than 30 million copies of the book have sold.  [DC1] The book urges you to revisit the past so as not to repeat the same mistakes in the future. Of all the great speeches given during World War II the voice of one young Jewish girl still speaks to us. If you stop to listen, what you will hear, above all, is “hope”. My travel companions and I arrived without a reservation for a timed entry ticket and opted to take a chance by waiting in line. The exhibit opened at 9:00am and we thought we’d beat the crowds by arriving an hour prior to opening. As I got on the back end of a very long queue, I realized that many other tourists had the same idea.  After an hour of standing in the cold we purchased our admission tickets and followed the slow moving line into the exhibit. We walked silently through the former office building and got a real sense of the era. The preservation of the living quarters offered proof of how well prepared the family was. At the center of all this are the writings of a 13 year old girl, Anne. Through her diary entries you get the sense of a young girl on the cusp of becoming a woman, wise beyond her limited number of years. I look at her photos and in her face I see my mother as a young girl. The similarities are immediately noticeable and I realize how fortunate I am that my Jewish Grandparents were already in the states when the war broke out. No person can exit that building without a new appreciation for the freedom they enjoy on a daily basis.

My third choice brings art and culture to the mix. There are over 50 museums in Amsterdam, far too many to see in a 36 hour period but I reasoned that I should visit at least one. I chose to go to the Rijksmusem, (rhymes with bikesmuseum) partly because of proximity. Also, because I thought I would find the collections at the Rijksmuseum a bit more accessible than the abstract impressionism of the works at the Vincent Van Gogh museum. Stepping up to the admission desk I was advised that the museum would close in 45 minutes. My query about where I would find the most important collection resulted in being directed to floor 2. I didn’t have time to wait for the elevator and dashed up the stairs and came face to face with “The Nightwatch”. This grand painting is one of Rembrandt’s most famous and was drawing crowds. The familiar “Syndics of the Draper’s Guild” was also on display. I will publicly admit that my recognition of the piece had more to do with a Dutch Masters cigar box than cultural acumen.  With closing time approaching quickly, I made an effort to view as many works as possible as I headed for the exit. Despite the pedigree of the pieces housed within the majestic building perhaps the most popular piece resides in the outside courtyard. If you appreciate pop art, you might be familiar with the classic set of giant letters that spell “Iamsterdam”. They are located in front of the museum and have been used in a campaign to promote the city. Each letter stands 6.5 feet high and collectively the letters stretch out to 77 feet long. The crowds waiting to photograph the display were so thick that I left without getting a picture of the iconic image. Perhaps next time. Good planning helped me maximize my experience in a minimum amount of time. While I did leave satisfied with what I saw and what I did, I’m happy to say that the city also left me wanting more. With flight time less than driving to Washington D.C., it’s a great long weekend option and I hope to return in the future.