Amsterdam (April 2011)

Destination #2 of 6.  Read my previous posts to catch up on this journey.

A little background

This destination was actually not in the original plans.  Neither was London.  My original trip was only to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing.  But a really cheap fare on Delta popped up (from NYC to London), I post about it on Facebook, some friends say, “LETS GO!”, and after an arm twist later the tickets were booked.  

TIP when booking flights:  For international itineraries, a layover/connection time of up to 24 hours is legal.  Meaning it doesn’t count as a stopover.  (A stopover counts as visiting more than one location.  On a layover they assume you’re just waiting at the airport.)  Requires a little bit of research, but if you can find flights that make you connect in an airport for a significant amount of time (in our case, our layover was about 22 hours long), you can visit a new city/country for free!

Using this tip, I created an itinerary that had us in London for 2 nights, and in Amsterdam for 1 night.  The only downside is that we would be flying into Boston (BOS) instead of a NYC airport.  But luckily there are a plethora of buses that run Boston-NYC direct for $15-20, so we took that.

Going into this new city, I had a few goals:

  • Stay in a hostel
  • Drink local beer
  • Drink absinthe
  • Eat as much local food as possible
  • Visit the Red Light District
  • Visit the Anne Frank House
  • Walk around the Jordaan
  • See an actual Dutch windmill
  • Visit the Van Gogh museum
  • Check out the Heineken Experience / Museum

For only a 22 hour trip (probably only 16 hours after you take into account time at the airport, commuting time, and clearing security), all of these things aren’t possible.  But oddly enough, for me, staying in a hostel was the #1 priority.  Amsterdam is an easy city to visit, especially using the tip above.  So I know sometime in the next few years I’ll be able to see it again.  But I really wanted to see what it was really like staying in a hostel.  I don’t personally know anybody that has stayed in one, and my only experience with them is the movie Hostel.  Obviously, not a great first impression.

Schiphol Plaza / Arrivals Hall / Ground transportation

Getting from the Amsterdam Schiphol to downtown is really easy.  There is a train that goes from the airport and ends at the Amsterdam Central Station, so you won’t miss your stop, and the trip only takes about 20 minutes.  Tickets go for about €8 ($11.50) roundtrip, so not that bad.  FYI: we purchased 2nd class round trip train tickets at the Tourism office in the airport.  HOWEVER, we didn’t have to show our tickets to any engineers or put them through any turnstile.  Basically, we bought them for nothing.  I’m not sure if we were lucky, or if it was some holiday I didn’t know of….I think I heard somebody say that the train is free on Mondays?  or maybe that Monday?  I dunno.  If you want to try your luck, you can just buy a one-way and hope for the best.

Double-decker train to Amsterdam Central Station

View from the front doors of Central Station (the station is behind the camera)

And now the trek begins.  I want to be a backpacking hosteler, partly due to Nomadic Matt’s travel blog.  Through his recommendation I’m off to search for the Flying Pig Downtown hostel.

Another travel tip:  Don’t be afraid to ask for directions.  In the US, my typical male ego takes over and I don’t ask directions for many situations.  When I’m abroad, I’m the complete opposite.  I ask how to get somewhere several times en route to the destination.  Just in case I was given bad directions by a previous person.  And in general, when in a foreign country, people tend to be much nicer than Americans (at least compared to Americans from the Northeast).  They will be glad to help however they can.

When I get there, they are all sold out of dormitory rooms.  The only thing available is a private room with 2 beds, for something like €50.  Nuh uh.  The check-in girl gives me a map of other area hostels and I start to head in their direction, looking for a place to stay.  After running into another fully booked hostel, I luck out with The Bulldog Hotel “The first five star hostel in the world.”  They only have one dormitory bed left.  €30.  PERFECT!

I had the top bunk.

View from the window

Many hostels, including this one, provide wifi (though reception in the room was nonexistent), towels, and lockers (usually use your lock, or buy one from the front desk).  They also had their own bar (exclusive to hostel patrons only) with really late hours, a pool table, a living room type area with a TV, and tables for dining in.  If you want to save money on alcohol, hostel bars usually cost less than drinking out at a standalone bar.

One of the specials at the Bulldog hostel bar.

Breakfast was also provided in the dorm rate, held in the bar.  The whole time there, I didn’t feel uneasy.  There is somebody at the front desk 24/7; you can’t even go through the door without showing your Bulldog passport.

My dorm room had 1.5 bathrooms, and only 9 beds in it.  And the room lock was keycard access like a hotel.  The Bulldong’s location couldn’t be beat either.  It really is dead smack in the middle of all the action in Amsterdam.  So from now on, unless I’m traveling with friends who refuse to stay in a hostel, I will choose to stay in them from now on.  They’re cheaper, and the best part is that its easy to meet up with fellow travelers and make new friends in a strange place quickly.  Later that night, I met a few Scottish university students on holiday also staying here, and we roamed the streets as 2 of the guys wanted to go “window shopping.”  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll find out soon.

After I got settled in and readied myself to roam Amsterdam, it was already about 7pm.  Most of the museums close at 8pm, except for the Anne Frank museum which closes at 9.  Actual times from the Anne Frank Museum website:

September 15 through March 14
Daily from 9:00 am – 7:00 pm (in 2011 Saturdays from 9:00 am – 9:00 pm).

March 15 through September 14
Daily from 9:00 am – 9:00 pm, (Saturdays from 9:00 am – 10:00 pm).
In July and August the museum is daily open till 10:00 pm.

Last Admittance
Thirty minutes prior to closing.

The hostel had a few maps for free, and I asked where the museums were.  The clerk circled all the locations, and all were within walking distance, though the Van Gogh and Heineken were a little bit of a hike.  The map also had a few locations to visit, and another one that perked my interest was the Xtracold ICEbar Amsterdam.  I saw something like it featured on the Travel Channel once.  Its a bar that’s completely made of ice;  the bar, the seats, the walls, even the glasses!  It now became a priority to go have a drink there.  I had also heard that the Anne Frank house usually has long lines wrapped around the block to visit and pay homage to the amazing resilient girl.  Wait times could be upwards of 1.5-2 hours.  So my plan of attack was to pass by the Anne Frank house, at least see it if the line was too long, then continue on to the Jordaan.  Again, another recommendation from Nomadic Matt, the Jordaan is one of the older sections of Amsterdam, with old buildings and beautiful architecture, little specialty shops, restaurants, art galleries, and bars.  After that, I would shoot over to the Icebar and enjoy a few beverages in -10º Celsius.  Ready.  Go!

Almost there

Museum entrance

Rest of the building adjoined to the left of the Musem

Nameplate to the right of the door

TIP:  If you plan on visiting the Anne Frank Museum, I suggest going in the last couple hours before closing.  When I got there, there was barely a line, and I waited no longer than 20 minutes to start the tour.  The museum isn’t like ones in the US, where if you tried to read everything, it would take you days.  Some of the rooms only have one or two things on display with a short nameplate & description.  You only need about an hour to read everything and sit through all the videos on display.  

One of the canals bordering the Jordaan

Many of the old house complexes in the Jordaan have a central courtyard.  I wandered into one.  Not sure if I was allowed to be there or not.

Reminds me of my old apartment in Baltimore


About to have my first beverage in Amsterdam

Inside the bar

Bar menu

Heineken & sausage. The bartender told me this snack is a "very Amsterdam food". On the menu, I think it is the Portie Ossenworst. Ox sausage.

The dip was horseradish.  The sausages weren’t that bad.  It looked and felt raw, though not sure if it actually was.  Not a bad taste, definitely different than beef/pork/chicken/venison.  Next time I’d make sure I had somebody to share it with.  The 10 slices were too much for me, but I forced them down.  I should’ve ordered a cheese plate, or some other little dish too.  Oh well.  Next time.

And Heineken does taste different in Holland than in the US.  At home, I don’t really like Heineken, but in Amsterdam I could have it as my go-to beer.

I finish up my snack and continue to wander around the Jordaan for a little while longer.  Almost everything I walked by were closed already so I head back to the Bulldog.  On the walk back home, I finally see with my own two eyes what the Red Light District is all about.

Red Light District windows

For those of you who don’t know, the area is filled with windows like these with a red light shining signaling that it is a place for sex.  There would be a girl usually in a bikini, or underwear, or lingerie in the window calling for you as you pass by looking for business.  Apparently its a huge business there, as its regulated and the girls even have their own union.  I would have taken more pictures and video, but I heard that’s verboten there.  So I didn’t.

I make it back to the hostel and head into the bar to check it out.  I take a seat at the bar, get a Heineken and start chatting it up with a couple on holiday from Barcelona.  I think they were both municipal architects.  During our conversation, I remember that I have to drink absinthe traditionally, with the spoon and the sugar and the whole kit and kaboodle.

The sugar cube was on fire, but I couldn't take the picture fast enough.

Man is that stuff strong.  And you end up burping it up for hours.  Not my first choice for alcohol, that’s for sure.  But out of the super strong liquors, it would have to be the best of the bunch.  My chaser was the Heineken, and it felt like drinking water after the absinthe.

A few more conversations with other travelers pass, a few more beers gets drunk, and I decide its time to take a tour of the Red Lights.  On my way out, I hook up with that group of Scottish students and we “shop.”  We continue sharing stories, drinking on the street, all while a few of the guys look for one they like.  Surprisingly, many of the areas where red light windows are placed close.  The lights turn off and a there is a gate so you can’t even access the alley that they are in.  At 2am.  But I’m guessing because its a Monday night, and not a weekend night.  I’m sure its a different story then.

As its really early now, and things are closing, I head back and think of my next move.  Its now about 3:30am, and I have my flight at 11am.  I think the earliest train is at 7:30am which would give me plenty of time to shower up and eat a decent meal in the KLM lounge in the airport.  So do I sleep?  or do I stay up?  I decide to stay up; I certainly don’t want to miss my flight from oversleeping, and I can be a pretty heavy sleeper.  Even if I have somewhere important to be at.  I stay up the rest of the night in the room, doing something on the computer, though I can’t remember what.  I was partly delirious I was sooo tired during that time.  Anyway, 7:00 rolls around and I grab all my things and go downstairs grab a small bite to eat before I leave.  As soon as I get out of the elevator, I see 2 Scots I was hanging with earlier in the evening with about 10 empty cans of Heineken in front of them.  What troopers they are.  The breakfast pickings were pretty sad, consisting of sliced bread, ham, turkey, cheese, cereal, OJ, milk, and coffee.  Though I guess its better than nothing.  I make my sandwich, say my goodbyes, and head off to the airport.

Forget Vegas, next time I want to find a party destination, I’m dragging my friends here.

PS – I know that Amsterdam is also known for its coffee shops, where you can order and smoke weed.  I’m not really into that scene, and though I probably should have done it anyway just to say I did, its probably also a much better experience when you do it with friends.  I wasn’t about to roll up and smoke a joint by myself.  I had higher priorities at the time.


8 Responses to “Amsterdam (April 2011)”

  1. great post! hostels are fun – i’ve been a few times, and this post really brought back memories of my 2 nights in amsterdam in dec. ’00. damn, long time ago. haha!!! glad you got there!

  2. […] Get Gowing! Travel above your means and within your budget. « Amsterdam (April 2011) […]

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