My Week in the Netherlands: Part I

Dom Tower pokes out over the shops in Utrecht

As some of you loyal readers may already know (hi Mom), I spent the first week of July visiting my sister in the Netherlands! She has since returned, but was there interning with the company my dad works for in Utrecht for the summer.  Utrecht, as you'll see from the photos below, is basically a mini-Amsterdam just a 30ish minute train ride outside of the city.  It was a long, tiring, whirlwind of a week, but Amsterdam was one of the cities on my "travel bucket list" during the semester I studied abroad that I didn't get around to visiting.  It was even better that I got to have both the "touristy" and local experience of the country with my family.  When I originally wrote this post, it got WAY too long, so I've split it into two parts: Days 0-4, and 5-9. Part II will come in a few days! If while or after you read this you have any questions on where I went, just comment below and I'll be happy to send any recommendations your way!

Day 0: Planes, trains, and automobiles

This day was rough. I had stayed up until 3AM on Friday, June 30th moving into my new apartment with my boyfriend.  My Amtrak from Grand Rapids to Chicago left at 6am, so I had set my alarm for 4:30AM to basically get a quick nap in, and figured I'd catch up on sleep on the train and three flights that were ahead of me.  Well, for reasons still unknown, my alarm either didn't go off, or in a state of complete delirium, I had turned it off and gone back to bed.  Would you believe it if I told you I woke up at 6:01AM? That's right, literally one minute after the train was scheduled to leave the station.  I have never gone from grumbling and groggy to a freaking frenzy in such a short amount of time. After a good two minutes of swearing and pacing around the room, we decided to call Amtrak and see what I could do.  The poor customer service woman on the other side of the line probably hadn't had her morning coffee yet to deal with my 6AM nervous breakdown, but she gathered all the patience she had to tell me that there were two more stops in Michigan before it dead headed for Chicago if I thought I could make it there in time.  Sure enough, I took the fastest shower of my life, snatched my luggage (which was already completely packed, thank goodness), and ran out the door.  Poor Jordan drove me an hour and a half to a tiny little town called Bangor- by tiny, I mean that I think the Amtrack station is its largest tourist attraction (no offense, Bangor). Finally, we made it with just enough time for me to order a bagel and I was off!  Once in Chicago, I walked around a little bit, got my nails done, and met up with one of my former roommates from Rome study abroad that lives in downtown Chicago.  Chicago is one of my favorite US cities, so I didn't really mind having to kill half a day there before my flight. 

 My flight schedule was pretty much what you'd expect for someone who focuses more on getting the cheapest ticket on the right days than anything else.  My flight from Chicago went to Brussels, where I spent over 8 hours next to a drunk- albeit sweet and well-meaning- Southern couple that were dealing with the loss of a father.  It was... interesting. Once in Brussels, I had just an hour layover before my flight to Munich, then had to wait another 3 hours before I finally boarded my plane to Amsterdam.  Definitely not something I'd recommend, but hey- a (broke, travelin') girl's gotta do what a (broke, travelin') girl's gotta do!

Flying over Belgium

Day 1
I arrived at Schipol Airport, where my mom and sister greeted me, and we immediately headed for the train into town.  After putting my luggage in storage, we made a beeline for the Anne Frank Museum, since we only had a few hours to get into line because we weren't able to reserve tickets. Advice: No matter the season, reserve your tickets early for Anne Frank!!!

There was a slight ~kerfuffle~ when some mischievous kids tried cutting the line, but we were in within an hour and a half.  As someone who's studied the Holocaust and has been, for lack of a better term, fascinated with this terrible time in history from childhood, it was so surreal to finally visit Anne and her family's annex. It's so hard to imagine real people having to live this way- hiding in an attic for so long to hide from the Nazis, and yet their belongings sat on a table right in front of me. It may be a "touristy" thing to do, but I completely and totally urge anyone and everyone to make this a mandatory stop while they're in town. 

Afterward, we returned to the train station to grab my belongings and headed to Utrecht, where we were staying for the night.  Almost all of the restaurants in Utrecht were closed by the time we arrived, but our starvation was saved by a Middle Eastern/Pizza restaurant that apparently is the hub for teens and college students right before they go out to the bars.  After we ate, we headed to my mom's hotel, NH Utrecht City Center, where we made a quick stop at the hotel bar for a drink before passing out on the comfortable beds.

While waiting in  line, snapped a quick photo by the canal in front of Anne Frank Museum.  Running on 4 hours of (plane) sleep and non-stop traveling for about 36 hours, so not exactly my best look. 

Day 2
The three of us woke up bright and early to catch the hotel breakfast (which was quali-TEA, by the way) before packing up to head back to Amsterdam and check into our hotel there.  This time, my mom opted for a nice hotel but it was also "traditional dutch style," whatever that means.  The hotel was called the Grand Hotel Amrath. It was spacious and beautiful, and truly did have an old-world, Downton Abbey feel to it.  Mom had set up a walking tour to start at 10:30AM, so we unpacked our stuff and immediately headed to meet the tour group.  I'm normally not huge on walking tours, but we used a one-man tour company called That Dam Guide, and he was super informative! Not to mention incredibly dead-pan, which is the kind of humor and personality I find so funny, and it seemed everyone else in our small 10-person group also had a great time.  After the tour, we stopped at a restaurant the guide had shown us for traditional dutch food, where I had the first of many croquettes on this trip (if you like fried food and potatoes, this country is for you).  We then made our way, whilst navigating the trams and trying not to look too much like tourists, to Van Gogh since this time we were able to get tickets ahead of time, and they're for designated times.  I'm not necessarily an avid art history enthusiast but who am I to not appreciate Van Gogh? I mean, the guy DID cut off his own ear and still manage to make hundreds (if not thousands) of pieces that remain iconic to this day.  From Van Gogh, we did a little shopping on our way to Hakata Senpachi, a legit-AF Japanese restaurant that we made reservations for solely for their yakitori. Hell yes, representing the homeland even/especially while traveling! It was actually so delicious and it was cool to see a Japanese-style restaurant with actual Japanese employees and chefs. ***Another pro-tip: In Amsterdam, and probably other popular Dutch cities, reservations are a must! Definitely see if there's a website for the restaurant you want to go to and if you can make online reservations.

The day was not over yet! This time, we grabbed an Uber back toward the city, where we made an obligatory visit to the Ice Bar, and yes- we brought mom with us! It was...bizarre. It was pirate-ship themed, and while the drinks at the regular bar to wait your turn were fruity and decent enough, the drink options inside the frozen bar were absolutely terrible.  I'm not a beer drinker, but the Heineken was the best option, and I didn't finish it. My sister and I then attempted the nutmeg flavored shot and I nearly spit it back up. It was disgusting, and the Ice Bar itself was so much colder than I thought! They give you gloves and a coat, but even with jeans, a leather jacket, and 11 years of Michigan weather under my belt, it was too cold to focus on anything else.  The three of us looked over at the girls rocking mini skirts in awe at their strength.  Before our session was even over, we agreed to get the heck out of there and my mom ended up giving her extra drink ticket to a random twenty-something. While it was terrible and I'll never do it again, it was also kind of fun, definitely memorable, and one of those "do it just to say you've done it' kind of things.  

Last stop of the day was a little cafe we just happened upon on our walk home- we took the long way.  It seemed like it was more of a high class, fancy restaurant but since it was late, they only had the outdoor patio open for drinks and appetizers. The patio was right along a canal, with views of two other canals across the way merging into another.  The sun was setting, and the twinkle lights along the patio came on, and it was just a perfect way to end my first full day in Amsterdam.  But boy, was I tired! We passed out as soon as our heads hit the pillow that night. 

Smiling through the pain

Day 3
After what felt like two seconds, our alarms started chirping and we headed out for breakfast. Today, we decided to just walk around the area and see what caught our eye.  Originally, we had stopped to check out a little place called Omelegg, but it was super busy so we moved on.  We came across a pancake place that our tour guide had shown us the day before, and the wait wasn't too long so we made our move.  If you didn't already know, the Dutch have a traditional pancake, which in reality is basically an open-faced crepe.  I got the traditional pancakes with strawberries, chocolate sauce and whipped cream and it was absolutely delicious! They also have savory pancakes, like my mom's ham and apple (weird yet still yummy).  After breakfast, we had some time to kill before my grandma and cousin arrived, so we went to Magna Plaza, a big shopping mall and looked around.  Of course, as soon as I was about to try some clothes on, we get the word that our family had arrived! A bit flustered, we threw down whatever we were holding and went to meet them at Rijksmuseum. The five of us already had tickets as well as little audio/visual guides.  Rijksmuseum is a HUGE art museum, so we decided to split up and go through whichever gallery we liked, and picked a time and place to meet back up.  I stuck with my grandma, and we actually had time to go through a few of the exhibits since we referred to the "Highlights" tour on our audio guides. Again, not much of an art buff, but I do appreciate history and seeing the evolution of the art, trends, and how changing societal values over centuries were depicted through art. 

Next, we headed back to Central Station, where we hopped on a ferry to take us to the A'DAM Lookout, where my sister, cousin, and I rode on mechanical swings on the top of a tower, with our legs dangling over 100 meters (328 feet) with a view of Amsterdam. It was so thrilling and fun, and was located on a panoramic sky deck so my mom and grandma were also able to get a good view overlooking the city! From there, we rode back over to Central Station, where this time, we hopped on a boat tour that would drop us off near where we had dinner reservations.  The boat tour was...meh.  It was awesome to ride through the canals, but all of the outdoor tables were taken so our view was a bit obstructed by the clear ceiling, and instead of a real tour guide, they just played an automatic recording that was timed out to where we'd be passing.  Nonetheless, it was a treat to be able to experience Amsterdam from the canals!  

Casually on a giant metal swing on top of a building, hundreds of feet/meters above Amsterdam. Playing it very cool here.

For dinner, we had made reservations at Moeder's, which is Dutch for Mother's.  This place is so cool! It came recommended from my boss, who had visited a few years prior.  The restaurant is Dutch traditional food (the food served is typically more common in winter), and dedicated to moms.  When the restaurant opened, the owner asked his first few visitors to bring in their dishware, resulting in what are now very eclectic and colorful table settings.  Around the entire restaurant are framed photos of moms that people had brought in from over the years. We had completely forgotten to bring photos of mom and my grandmas, so I plan on sending them there soon to be framed! PS, don't worry about bringing a frame; they have stashes of frames that are just waiting for the perfect loving mama photo!

My cousin and grandma were staying in a different hotel a bit outside of the city center, so after we split ways, my sister and I also ditched our mom to go walk around by ourselves.  Until this point, I had yet to see the infamous Red Light District, so we decided to grab some ice cream and take a look.  In Amsterdam and other parts of the Netherlands (and growing into other European cities), prostitution is legal and heavily regulated.  Although there are still misconceptions, prejudices, and some push back, it is recognized as a career, where people can rent the little rooms they stand in as their "mini office."  It was a surreal experience, but I knew what I was walking into, and it was a random weekday night, when not many tourists and partiers were around.  

We made a quick loop through the streets, then headed straight back to the hotel for another short but incredibly necessary night of sleep.

Breakfast! So good the calories were WORTH IT, DAMMIT!

Day 4: 
My mom was leaving this morning, so we quickly packed up and checked out of the hotel, and sent her off to the airport from the train station.  Since my sister and I still had our stuff, we rented a locker from the station and went to find a breakfast place.  We had time before meeting up with our grandma and cousin, so we decided to try the Omelegg place that had been too busy the day before.  We got lucky and there was only one family ahead of us, and we ended up getting seated right at the window! We are definitely people-watchers, so it was a fun and quaint view.  The food (obviously very egg-centric) was so yummy, and definitely fueled us for what would be a very busy day. After breakfast, we walked around a bit and took some photos, then met up with our family at the train station.  

This is what we call, living in Nom City

Originally, the four of us were going to take a day trip to Cologne, Germany this day, but when we checked for tickets, they were way too expensive to justify spending for probably an 8-hour day trip.  One of my former roommates from when I studied in Italy was attending grad school in Maastricht, just a few hours south by train, so I suggested that I go there while everyone else gets another full day of sightseeing in Amsterdam.  Instead, they all decided they would join me for the adventure.  My sister's roommate also wanted to tag along, so I let my friend Hannah know to expect a whole entourage, then we hopped on the train.  Two hours later, we were in what is believed to be the oldest city in the Netherlands.  It is so beautiful and quaint, and you can tell the French-Belgian inspiration found its way into the city's architecture and overall "vibe."  Hannah met us at the train station, and walked into the center of town, pointing out some landmarks along the way.  She first took us to an old church-turned-bookstore, then into the heart of the town, where it is lined with adorable and quintessentially European cafes.  We dropped my grandma off at one of the cafes, as she had recently had some hip surgeries done so she wasn't as up for trekking around the town as us youngsters (although she is still very fit and adventurous. Sidebar- she just got her personal trainer's license at 70-something!).   

My lovely friend Hannah

My cousin, sister, and her roommate Isabel decided to go off on their own while Hannah took me through to her favorite spots around town.  Maastricht is small enough that you can get through most of the city within a few hours, and every turn was filled with cobblestone streets and charming shops.  We first stopped for a bite to eat, where I had probably my 5th croquette. Those things are DELICIOUS. It was so nice to spend a while just catching up on our lives since studying abroad, reminiscing on our crazy adventures, and it felt like we'd never left our little apartment in Trastevere!  After lunch, we went shopping for a bit, then Hannah 
took me to the country's first water wheel, an old and beautiful Roman Catholic church, and we escaped from the rain in a quirky tea shop that had a very psychedelic, hippy feel and sat down for some tea and a good chat again.  

Unfortunately, what had felt like only two or three hours turned into about six, and it was time to meet back up with everyone before heading to the station.  Everyone agreed on an Italian restaurant for dinner, then we boarded the train and were back in Amsterdam.  From there, we grabbed our luggage and jumped on another train to take us to Utrecht, where I'd be staying for the rest of the trip.  

Alright folks! That's Part Uno of my week in the Netherlands! Sorry it took me SO FREAKIN LONG to get this up- I actually tried to publish a few weeks ago, but half of it got deleted and I hadn't been able to rewrite it until now.  

If you made it all the way to the end of this, congratulations and thank you! And if you're planning a trip to Amsterdam or the Netherlands in general soon, I would be happy to give you some recommendations or provide links to the places/activities/etc listed in this post! Part II will be coming soon, as will posts and hopefully videos of my recent trip to Toronto and recent music festival experience.

Have you ever been to the Netherlands? What was your favorite thing, or what would you like to do? Leave me your thoughts in the comments!