We are staying near The Hague, Netherlands so we drove about 45 minutes to a park & ride outside of Amsterdam where we caught a tram to the Central Station. We could have taken public transportation from The Hague but it would have been 20-30 Euro/person; with the three of us it made more sense to drive much of the way and then park!
Figuring out the Park & Ride ticket machine was the first challenge of the day! Jason had researched park & ride possibilities (What would we do without the Internet?!!) and he found one that was close enough that we didn’t have to pay a lot for transportation into Amsterdam and we didn’t have to make any transfers. Another appealing aspect about this location was that once you paid for your tram ticket, parking only cost 1 Euro for the entire day! On the drive to the Park & Ride, he made an offhand comment about hoping that paying wasn’t an issue. I guess there were discussions online about paying; it was a new payment system that wasn’t at all straight-forward…even for the Dutch people! There were two machines standing side-by-side. If you wanted to purchase your tram ticket, you had to use the machine on the left. When you were finished riding the tram and leaving the Park & Ride, you had to use the machine on the right. There was a line of people waiting to use the machine that dispenses tram tickets. The user instructions on the machine were in Dutch without a choice for English. (Most ATMs, parking machines, and other automated machines have a choice of languages and English is usually one of the choices.) Jason tried to use his EC card, which has a chip in it. This is the card Europeans use if they pay with plastic. He tried repeatedly and it wouldn’t work. He was baffled and frustrated because other people were using their card without problems, and of course there was an ever-growing line of people behind him waiting to use the machine. (We knew we had enough money in our account to cover the cost.) At a loss, he finally asked the person behind him to purchase our tram tickets on their credit card and Jason then repaid him in cash. A kind couple further back in line approached us on the tram platform as we were awaiting the arrival of the tram and they explained to us that we needed to validate our ticket once we boarded the tram, then again when we disembarked; we had to do this within one hour. We would have to do the same thing, on that same tram ticket, when we left the city center and rode the tram back to the Park & Ride. It was very nice of them to explain this to us because we were obviously clueless.
The tour book suggested we pre-purchase tickets to the Anne Frank house at the tourist information center located at the Central Station; that would allow us to skip the line at the museum. (In case any readers plan to tour Amsterdam, the tourist information center is located outside the Central Station building.) Inside the tourist information center there were different lines for different services, none of them moving particularly fast. While standing in line, a ticker across the video screen said all pre-sale tickets for the Anne Frank house were sold out for the next three weeks! Apparently everyone else reads the same tour book we had referenced; therefore, if we want to see the Anne Frank house we will get to stand in line.
Jason, Natalie & I re-conferred and decided to take a canal boat tour so we purchased those tickets at the tourist information center. We then immediately boarded a canal boat in front of Central Station and took an hour-long tour.
It was nice to sit in the boat and be driven around listening to the tour guide tell about all the interesting sights in Amsterdam. We were dropped off in front of Central Station at the end of our tour and grabbed lunch inside.
In Central Station I witnessed a group of men donning white t-shirts that read, “Keep Calm and Deny Everything.” I suppose Amsterdam is a popular place for bachelor parties.
Later, I saw a 12-person cart with each of the 12 people pedaling. It was sort of like a picnic table where the people sitting were pedaling to propel the cart down the street. At the head of the table was a bartender who was serving drinks…as well as steering the cart! It appeared to be a bachelorette party because it was a group of women with one of them wearing a veil. Too funny! Apparently these carts used to be in Stuttgart too, but have recently been banned due to safety concerns!
After lunch we began our walking tour of Amsterdam by heading for the historic Red Light District. (Photography is strictly prohibited.) We knew we were close when we passed shops affiliated with the sex trade, such as an erotic shop and a condom shop. Suddenly we were walking past store fronts with large glass windows and plate-glass doors where women wearing lingerie or bikini style swimsuits were standing behind the glass. Many of the women were standing provocatively yet I saw one who looked as if she didn’t want to be there. Two women were together in one doorway and some guys in the group ahead of us must have initially looked their way because the women behind the glass were beckoning, trying to convince guys to come in; they did not. According to the tour book only 5% of the women working the Red Light District are from the Netherlands and the Red Light women are required to pay taxes. In recent years there has been an effort by Amsterdam city officials to shut down the Red Light District, not due to morality but rather claiming it is a high crime area with drug trafficking, money laundering, and pimping. It has been met with strong opposition, but the Red Light rooms that have been shut down have been turned into cafés, art galleries, and trendy boutiques. We walked less than a block when Natalie said she wanted to walk somewhere else because she was feeling uncomfortable; I was more than ready to leave that area as well. Although interesting, I found it largely depressing. Strangely, or not, there is a Prostitution Information Center and Red Light District Tour, explaining the details of how the prostitution business works. The tour goes into a Red Light room. Blech! We skipped it.
We walked across the narrowest bridge in Amsterdam which can be drawn up by hand. We found the place where seven canal bridges align and can all be seen if viewed at just the right angle.
We walked along the Gentleman’s Canal (Herengracht) where the wealthiest residents of Amsterdam in the 17th century built their mansions, then continued on to the Golden Bend section where the wealthiest of the wealthy built their double-wide mansions. Centuries ago, the home owners were taxed based on the width of their house so these double-wide homes were built to flaunt the homeowner’s wealth. Therefore, the narrowest house in Amsterdam isn’t much wider than its front door. (It is the shorter red house that is only one window wide.)
Many of the homes had about 8 steps from street level leading up to the front door. There was also a door on the front of the house below the front door; it was entered by going down about 4 steps. In times past, the upper door was the main entrance to the house while the lower door was the entrance for deliveries and servants.
Most of the canals have parking for cars along the wall on both sides. So many cars ended up in the canals (due to neglecting to use the parking brake as well as parking attempts made after a night of partying) that the city paid to install low guard rails to keep the cars from rolling into the canal. The cost of installing the guard rails was lower than the cost of continually fishing cars out of the canals. It was interesting to see ‘No Parking’ signs posted on the inner walls of the canals; those signs are for boats.
It was fun to see the different houses along the canals; they are tall and narrow with one touching the next. The front doors are unique as are the gables at the top which were designed to hide the steep pitch of the roof. A beam extended perpendicular to the gable and there was often a hook hanging down from the beam. That beam and hook are used to hoist large items in through the windows of the upper rooms of the house because the houses are so narrow and the stairs inside are so steep that large items can’t be brought in through the front door and up the stairs to the upper rooms.
Additionally, the houses are built to intentionally lean forward (toward the street/canal) so that when large furniture is being hoisted to the upper floors, it doesn’t bang into the front exterior of the house!
We walked to the Anne Frank house and since the line was quite long we went in search of ice cream to eat while waiting. It ended up being only a 45 minute wait – much better than the 2 hours I was expecting. The museum and actual rooms of the Secret Annex were very well done. It wasn’t overwhelmingly macabre but told the story of 8 people hiding for years: how they spent their days, how they got on each other’s nerves, etc. It put a human face to the horror of the extermination of the Jews in WWII.
It is well-known that in Amsterdam a coffee shop is where marijuana in various forms is sold while a café is where one would get a cup of coffee. According to the tour book, 1/3 of all Amsterdam tourists visit a coffee shop and as we walked around the city the smell of marijuana was prevalent. It gave us pause for thought and generated some discussion when we passed a shop labeled ‘Coffee Shop’ which had coffee beans in the window as well as a picture of a steaming cup of coffee on the window. Is it really selling coffee?
The Netherlands is an extremely bike-friendly country and in Amsterdam there are bikes everywhere. They have their own bike lanes on the road with their own traffic lights.
There was a multi-level bike parking garage at the Central Station and it was full! Many bikes had a child seat on the back but it wasn’t uncommon to see a large bucket (similar in size and shape to a wheel barrow) on the front of a bike, in front of the handlebars and over the front tire. This bucket would hold two children. It was also normal to see bikers giving an adult friend a lift. The friend would sit on the bike seat while the biker would pedal standing up. The Dutch people must have strong leg muscles!
Amsterdam seems to have it all, but it also seems as if they have capitalized on their status as a tourist destination. It has loads of museums. In addition to ones dedicated to the famous artists such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt, there are numerous quirky ones such as the Cat Museum, the Houseboat Museum, the Purse Museum, and the Tattoo Museum which includes preserved pieces of skin! There was a Cannabis college which aims to educate visitors on the tricks and tips to having a positive smoking experience as well as explaining the local cannabis laws.
At the end of the day we returned to the Park & Ride machines to pay our 1 Euro in order to validate our parking pass and leave, but the machine was telling us we had to pay 20 Euro for parking. Jason knew that was wrong. There is a Park & Ride office next to these machines and fortunately it was still manned. We went in and asked for specific directions on the steps we needed to take to make this work. While the clerk wasn’t supremely helpful, we thought we understood the general idea. We followed all those steps on the appropriate machine and it still wouldn’t take Jason’s card. Once again he asked someone in line behind us to pay for our 1 Euro of parking on their credit card and then we repaid that person 1 Euro cash. We thanked that person profusely and she remarked that the new machines aren’t easy to figure out how to use. I think she was being sincere and not just paying us platitudes.