Growing up in Peoria, Illinois, I knew far more about Holland than most kids my age. My dad worked in the bulb business and spent three weeks every year traveling back to the land of the tulips to oversee the catalogs that many of us fondly remember getting in the mail. Long before the internet, mail order was considered the shopping of the future.
From these trips, he’d bring us home hand-painted wooden shoes, Delft blue houses, boxes of chocolate tulips, enormous wheels of Dutch cheese, and little porcelain windmills.
When he would walk into the house exhausted after his long flights, my sister, brothers and I would immediately press him for what goodies were in his suitcase. Not understanding the intricacies of direct marketing, when people asked me what my dad did, I said “he sells flowers.”
Weekend family activities almost always included Saturday morning gardening at our house. Enormous shipments of tulips, daffodils, irises and other bulbs would arrive at our house in the fall and we’d all get out in the yard to participate in the planting. One year, we planted somewhere around 2,000 tulips. My brothers to this day have PTSD from being rustled out of bed early to dig trenches and shovel large piles of compost. Being the youngest, I was assigned light duty tasks like weeding and beer retrieval for my dad. It’s no wonder that I’m the only kid in the family that still keeps up an outdoor bulb garden.
Even 30 years later, tulips are still core to the identity and branding of Holland. Tourists come from all over the world in April and May to see the fields around Lisse (an over 800 year old town about 30 min outside of Amsterdam) exploding with color. And while it took me 40+ years to make my first visit to The Netherlands (more on the Holland/Netherlands distinction later), I experienced strong feelings of nostalgia, even in the flower markets of central Amsterdam. For anyone visiting Amsterdam for the 1st time, a trip to the world’s only floating flower market, the Bloemenmarkt, is worthwhile. (Just don’t buy your bulbs there in the late Spring – they are the leftovers from the prior season.)
City with a Reputation
There are a few cities in the world that are legendary for drinking, drugs and debauchery. The top three that come to mind are: Las Vegas, Bangkok and Amsterdam. The underworld of the city is part of the branding, attracting a type of tourism of which Bacchus would be proud and mothers would be ashamed. But now having visited all three cities “with a reputation,” I can say that Amsterdam is so much more than a red light district and pot cafes. It does, however, have a reputation. As a visitor, you are more than welcome to take it or leave it.
The problem with avoiding the red light district altogether is that you miss some of the not-as-naughty sights nearby. If you’ve never visited a 17th century distillery, you can find one of the world’s best on the edge of the district. Wynand Fockink started distilling liquor in in 1679 (almost a full 100 years before the Declaration of Independence was signed) and today is home to one of the most famous tasting rooms and bottle shops in Europe.
In the tasting room, they pour above the rim, requiring a visitor to slurp off the top before politely taking their beverage off the counter. After you’ve decided on your bottle of choice, you step across the entrance threshold to the bottle shop to make your purchase. Many happy travelers, including yours truly, are quite pleased they made the trip. Exactly 337 years later, the distillery is still in operation on site.
Another site on the outskirts of the red light district is the world famous Anne Frank House. For many children, the Diary of Anne Frank is required reading in middle school. Born in Germany, Anne and her family fled the Nazi regime and settled in Amsterdam just prior to WWII.
From 1942-1944, starting when Anne was 13, her family went into hiding upstairs in the factory where her father worked. For two years, eight people lived most of their day in practical silence, never venturing outdoors and never letting natural light into their living spaces for fear of being discovered. That’s when Anne wrote about her experiences in her diary, called Kitty.
Their luck ran out after two years and those in hiding, along with two helpers, were sent to Auschwitz.
“When the Gestapo arrived with their guns, that was the end of everything.” – Otto Frank
Her father, Otto Frank, was the only survivor and he published Anne’s diaries in remembrance of her and the hundreds of thousands of other little girls just like Anne who were murdered during the Holocaust.
Visting the Anne Frank House takes some pre-planning under the museum’s new ticketing system. You need to purchase tickets well in advance for a time certain 15 minute entrance slot, unless you’d like to wait in line with throngs of people for hours. If tickets are sold out (which they often are), try pre-booking a 30 minute lecture on the website. That’s how we finally got in and the lecture and was a somber reminder of the context in which Anne Frank produced her great work. Cameras aren’t allowed inside, which is probably a good thing as it improves the experience for visitors. There’s not as much to see walking from room to room in the old part of the house as there is to feel. After less than an hour and a half in the house, we were grateful to breathe the fresh air outside. Anne and her family spent two years in a space we couldn’t last 90 minutes.
In addition to the literary arts, Amsterdam is a city with a reputation for the visual arts and was once home to some of the best painters in the world. Famous Dutch painters Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt van Rijn even warrant their very own museums to house their major works. I highly recommend a visit to the Van Gogh Museum, a well-curated, three floor tribute to his life and work (even if you still have to go to MOMA to catch a glimpse of The Starry Night, painted after he lost his ear and his mind, probably in reverse order).
Amsterdam’s most famous museum, the Rijksmuseum, is housed in an ornate and imposing building that was dedicated as the Dutch National Museum in 1885.
Home to Rembrandt’s the Night Watch, the museum also displays about 8,000 pieces of art of great significance to The Netherlands.
The Rijkmuseum can be a bit of a cluster to navigate during the high season, so be sure to download their free app before you visit and don’t forget your earbuds.
Amsterdam’s reputation extends even to that of a hoppy kind, with perhaps the most widely consumed brand of beer worldwide, Heineken. Traveling in SE Asia, liquor was hard to come by, wine was expensive and tap water undrinkable, so there were plenty of days where we were on a three-beer a day diet, thanks to Heineken and its Asian brand, Tiger. Having had our fill of said brews on the other side of the planet, we passed on a visit to the Heineken Experience. I did however, sample some other local lagers of note, including Gulpener in a picturesque Amsterdam laneway.
It’s difficult to move through the city without being tempted to sit outdoors and enjoy an Amstel, the beer named for the famous river that runs through the middle of Amsterdam.
Lastly, but not least-ly, Amsterdam is known for the grand architecture and canals that make it as famous today as 350 years ago. Much of the central city was built during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century. We should all raise a glass to the masons and bricklayers of times gone by – their impeccable craftsmanship has withstood the test of time. Although, after hundreds of years of partying, some of the buildings (while technically still standing) may lean just a bit.
There’s not just one pretty neighborhood to see on the water, but beautiful neighborhoods in Amsterdam are practically ubiquitous. Canals extend out from the central city like ring roads, making a canal tour a “must do” on your visit.
One of the great features of homes in Amsterdam are the furniture hooks attached to the gables at the top of the houses. Stairwells and doorways are too narrow to bring in furniture, so your couches, mattresses and even your pianos are hoisted in through the windows. And you though moving sucked in America?
The decorative gables are another distinctive feature of architecture in Amsterdam. It’s hard not to go photo crazy every time your turn a corner. They even look stunning on a cloudy day – a sure sign of good art.
Building on the “city with a reputation” theme, Amsterdam is also a city that gets around. Even though our cousin Copenhagen annually declares itself to be the best biking city in the world, after a visit to Amsterdam I’m not so sure. Biking, streetcars (trams), boats, walking and the Metro are all easy ways to get around this city. Cars are superfluous and an average of one per week are found at the bottom of the canals.
The only warning about bikes in Amsterdam is that they brazenly disobey traffic laws. So even though you’ve finally reached a city where cars stop for pedestrians in crosswalks on a green walk signal, bikes don’t. Ever. So, once again, pretend like you’re in Frogger and look both ways about six times until you’re on the opposite sidewalk. Good luck.
The nice thing about cyclists in Amsterdam is if you are pathetically lost looking tourists (as we were when we arrived), someone may be kind enough to stop to give you directions.
Notably, bikes in Amsterdam aren’t the same as the fast, lightweight steel frame or aluminum frame bikes we ride in Portland. Bikes in Amsterdam are built like tanks, withstanding any kind of punishment you can imagine.
The Metro and tram systems are amazing if a bit daunting to navigate at first. Basically, if you can’t reach the place you’d like to go easily on the underground Metro, you certainly can on the above-ground tram. Both of them run every few minutes, so waiting is not usually a problem.
Our best investment during our week-long stay in Amsterdam was a 7 day GVD transit pass that set us back 33 Euros (about $37 USD), and that pass gave us access to all of the buses, trains, trams and ferries in the city. It’s not widely advertised, so ask for it at the tourist information centers. Others passes are available as well that include access to museums, depending on the length of your stay. More info is available at I Amsterdam.
Most tourists never bother to leave the bustling city of Amsterdam, but those who do discover incredible treasures in the countryside. The train system in The Netherlands is probably the best I’ve ever experienced.
About every 15 minutes, trains leave to neighboring cities and outlying places, making it a breeze to take the Metro to the Central Station and then go almost wherever your heart desires from there.
A 40 minute train ride from Amsterdam, the ancient Dutch city of Leiden makes old places look practically new and is the perfect place for a day trip. The first mentions of the town date back to 860 A.D. when a settlement was formed at the confluence of the Old and New Rhine rivers. Consider this for a moment…by the late 1500’s (Shakespeare’s era), the town was already about 700 years old. #micdrop
Leiden is home to a world famous university and was the birthplace of Rembrandt. You can still walk by the house in which he was born in 1606. The university was founded a few decades earlier in 1575, making Leiden prime real estate in the middle ages.
Speaking of old, one of the great sites of Leiden is Pieterskerk, a medieval church dedicated to St. Peter.
The origins of the church date back to 1121 A.D., but construction on the current structure began in 1390.
Info at the church tells the little known history about the significance of the city of Leiden to the Pilgrims. In 1609, many pilgrims settled in Leiden to escape religious persecution in England. They subsequently departed across the seas via the Mayflower in 1620. John Robinson, one of the leaders of the pilgrims, is buried in Pieterskerk. According to historians in Leiden, our Thanksgiving holiday has its origins in the traditional Dutch celebrations on the 3rd of October.
Perhaps the most visited tourist destination in Leiden is the Molenmuseum de Valk, a museum that pays tribute to the importance of windmills in the region. Where there were once 19 windmills that were the originators of clean energy for industry, only the Molenmuseum de Valk remains.
For the ridiculously low entry fee of .50 Euro, you too can climb to the top of a historic windmill…if you dare. From the outside viewing platform about half way up, you can enjoy 360 degree views of the city.
For the stout of heart (and the steady of legs), you can climb up steep, creaky ladders to each subsequent level, gaining greater insight into the inner machinations of the mill.
Just remember, what goes up, must come down.
But probably my favorite thing about Leiden was getting to visit with a former colleague of my dad’s, Rob Van Reisen. When I was about the age I was in the photo in the Brecks shirt (above), Rob taught me some great soccer moves in my front yard and also came to my grade school to present about Holland. Thirty years later and Alisa and I enjoyed a beautiful evening with he, his wife Rosa and his kids, Florence and Daniel. I was pleased to learn that he’s now serving as a City Council member in Lisse.
Even the overpasses are decorated with tulips next to the fields of Lisse.
A couple of days later we visited another of my dad’s former colleagues, Robert Heemskerk, in a suburb even closer to Amsterdam called Heemstede. Robert and his wife, Anne Marie, invited us to a lovely outdoor lunch at their home. Robert is still in the bulb business, now running a company called Natural Bulbs that specializes in growing organic bulbs. They don’t yet ship to America, unfortunately.
The bike parking around Heemstede station is worth mentioning, because it is a mind-blowing concept for a suburb — double decker parking. Here’s a shout out to my friends in Beaverton, Gresham and Tigard. What if…???
Thinking back to my early days in Peoria and then my experience over the last week in Holland, I can appreciate what its like to visit a place so familiar and foreign at the same time. Oh, and the difference between the Netherlands and Holland is pretty simple – Holland is comprised of the most Western provinces of the Netherlands. So Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the Hague are all technically in Holland. Now you know.
I’m grateful to have finally visited this beautiful place and hope that good fortune and perseverance will allow me to return.
It certainly would not have meant as much but for my dad, PoppaBob (known in the tulip fields of Holland as Pelly). So this post is dedicated to you, Dad. Happy early Father’s Day.