Amsterdam is one of those cities that people rave about. “Come to Amsterdam,” every friendly neighborhood stoner backpacker will say. “The Dutch know how to live! You can just ride your bicycle, frequent ladies of the evening, and smoke herbal refreshment all day.” Well I don’t like drugs, ladies of the evening aren’t my jam, and I can’t ride a bike, but I love pancakes, canals, and Franz Hals, so Amsterdam is just the city for me! Join me for a day of high culture, greasy French fries, and LIVE NUDE GIRLS. If you are good, we can stop at a coffee shop at the end of the evening.
Spoiler Alert! It’s not going to be that kind of coffee shop.
Address: Museumstraat 1
Hours: Every Day from 9-5
Price: 17.5 Euros
The Rijksmuseum is regularly ranked one of the best museums in the world. Its specialty is the beautiful paintings of the ODM (Old Dutch Masters), but thanks to the vast and financially salubrious Dutch colonial holdings, they have priceless beauties from all over the globe. It would be impossible to see everything in this wondrous place in one morning, so download the free audioguide on your smartphone, pick a highlights tour, and get ready to meet…
the approximately top five best works to see in the rijksmuseum
1) This is the mundanely named “Portrait of a Couple” by the anything but mundane 17th century Dutch painter Frans Hals. Hals is my favorite Old Dutch Master because the people in his paintings always seem so rosy-cheeked, jolly, and full of life. There are lots of hidden symbols of love and fidelity in this painting, like the thistle, which was apparently a symbol of male fidelity to the Dutch. I always like hearing about hidden symbolism in paintings. It makes me feel like I am a spy cracking a code!
2) Perhaps the most universally loved Old Dutch Master is the elusive Johannes Vermeer. After all, how many Dutch masters can say that Colin Firth played them in a movie or that there is a popular children’s mystery novel named after them. This work is entitled “The Milkmaid” because it is a portrait of a milkmaid. Those Old Dutch Masters were not terribly creative when it came to titling their paintings, were they? This painting demonstrates Vermeer’s famous facility at painting light.
But what I wonder is what this milkmaid’s ghost think of being the subject of such a famous painting. Imagine being an ordinary Dutch milkmaid, having some rando paint your picture, and then ending up in one of the most famous museums in the world centuries after your death. I bet her ghost is the smuggest Dutch milkmaid ghost ever.
3) This is “The Nightwatch” by Rembrandt, aka the most famous painting in the entire museum. For this reason, I was never able to get a good picture of it without people’s heads blocking my way. These dudes were particularly frustrating. They’re not even looking at the painting! They’re just talking to each other! Why can’t they move and let me take my picture?
You might be wondering why “The Nightwatch” is so popular, and I think it’s because it’s so huge and so realistic. It really feels like you are stepping back in time when you look at it. If you’ve ever wanted to live inside of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie, only more Dutch, then this painting is for you.
4) The Dutch are almost as famous for their blue and white ceramics as they are for their realistic portrait and landscape painting. It’s hard to believe that someone was able to make such detailed heads out of china! Although I think that the blue and white color makes these nobles kind of look like they have frostbite.
5) A hidden gem in the Rijksmuseum is its room of insanely detailed dollhouses. This miniature house above looks like it belongs to either the world’s luckiest little girl or a deranged serial killer. But in fact it was a 17th century dollhouse belonging to Petronella Oortman, who was the wife of a Dutch merchant. The Dutch sure know how to name people, don’t they? I think Petronella Oortman should have her own detective series. It could be about solving murders in 17th century Amsterdam by recreating the crime scenes as rooms in a dollhouse.
6) The Rijksmuseum is not really the place to Gogh for Van Gogh. He has his own museum in Amsterdam, and we are going there tomorrow. But the Rijksmuseum does have this austere-looking self portrait, so you don’t have to forGogh Van Gogh entirely.
He still has two ears in this portrait by the way. I checked for you.
Travelerette Tip: As I demonstrated in my photo of “The Nightwatch”, the Rijksmuseum gets crowded fast. Buy tickets online here and come as early in the day as you can! I promise it will make your experience more pleasant.
Travelerette Treasure: Allow me to present to you the original Angry Bird, “The Threatened Swan” by the unfortunately named Jan Asselijn. Apparently this work has sometimes been read as a political allegory, but no one knows for sure if it is or not. I like it because this is the closest I’m ever likely to get to a swan on the attack. Everyone knows that in real life it’s best to stay away from swans. They’re pretty but vicious, like Regina George from Mean Girls.
Early Afternoon: Amsterdam Food by Foot Tour
Hours: Every Day but Monday at 1:30
What’s the first thing you think of when I say Dutch food? I can pretty much guarantee that your answer was either “Gouda cheese” or “pot brownies”. But I promise you that the Dutch know how to do snack food as well as anyone in the world. I signed up for an Urban Adventures food tour in order to experience some of these delights for myself. I spent a very pleasant afternoon getting to know our enthusiastic guide Sean, two friendly couples, and most importantly…
the approximately top five best dutch snack foods
1) In an unexpected turn of events, the first Dutch snack food on our tour ended up being frites, which are really Belgian. However, being that Belgium is so close to Amsterdam, Belgian fries are all the rage in Holland. And why not? They double fry them the Belgian way, which maks them extra delicious.
Like most Europeans, the Dutch use a variety of toppings other than ketchup on their fries. I got the “War” topping, which is a combination of Dutch mayonnaise and Indonesian peanut satay sauce. It is called War because the Dutch and Indonesians were at war with each other during the fight for Indonesian independence from the Netherlands. So the War sauce is really delicious and…probably terribly offensive.
2) Our next stop was at a local dimestore retail chain called HEMA to sample one of their hot dogs. If that seems like an odd choice to you, I was equally confused when I heard that as well, but according to Sean and also the Internet, HEMA hot dogs are legendary. I found the hot dog plump and fresh, but my favorite part was the tangy mustard sauce. Apparently it’s a secret recipe!
3) Our next stop was to sample a famous sweet called the stroopwafel, which literally translates to syrup waffle. At first I thought that the term “wafel” was a misnomer and that actually this was a kind of sandwich cookie. But in fact, the humble stroopwafel is made by pressing a very thin waffle into a very thin waffle iron, splitting it in half, and filling the split waffle with either caramel or honey. It tastes exactly like…a deliciously crisp sandwich cookie filled with sticky caramel. But I did like the fun texture that the stroopwafel gets because it was put in a waffle iron.
There’s a lot of food on this tour, so I actually recommend saving the stroopwafel for later. We’re not going to have a big dinner tonight, so you’ll want your stroopwafel then.
4) Everyone knows about certain things that are really popular in the Netherlands: canals, bikes, tulips, prostitutes, windmills.. But did you also know that the Dutch love pancakes? More specifically, they love these tiny, puffy pancakes with the adorable name of poffertjes. They are not hard to make, but you need a special poffertje pan to cook them in. Poffertjes are best eaten warm and covered in powdered sugar.
Coincidentally, in The Netherlands, Harry Potter is known as Harry Poffertje.
Travelerette Tip: A drink is not included here, but I suggest ordering a Nestea with your poffertje. Sean recommended that we try it because in Amsterdam, Nestea is always carbonated, so it tastes much more like a fun soda than a boring iced tea.
5) It’s not a food tour without booze, right? At least that’s what my grandmother always told me. So we had to stop at a small local bar called Die Drie Fleschjes and find a type of booze that is sweeping the Dutch nation, genever. Genever is a kind of juniper spirit that tastes about halfway between gin and whiskey. There are two main varieties: old and young. Once again, the Dutch are not so creative with the names there.
I chose young because Sean said it had a milder taste, and it was my first time with Queen Genever. I liked it! It tasted a bit like vodka to me, only more herbal. Next time I will try the old variety to see if I can handle the power of a full-flavored ginever.
6) Another Dutch contribution to the culinary arts is the famous herring cart. You know how in NYC we have hot dog vendors on the street? In Amsterdam they have carts just like that, except instead of serving meat in tubes, they serve cured fishes.
We went to a particularly well-regarded herring cart called Haring and 20 to snack on some lovely herring and some bites of cured eel. Either you’re the kind of person who likes that curious combination of seafood and salt to be found in cured fish, or you are not. But personally I loved them both! You know this cart is good because it’s so popular with Russians visiting Amsterdam that all of their signs were printed in Russian as well as Dutch and English. If there’s one thing Russians know, it’s good herring.
7) Our last stop was at a cheese shop called Reypenaer that is famous for its high-class Gouda cheese. Before visiting Amsterdam, I had always thought that Gouda was a bland cheese, really only good for melting and mixing with other, more interesting cheeses. But that was before I sampled the goods at Reypenaer! They have samples available of their Gouda at different ages, each one more pungent and flavorful than the last. I’ll never be able to go back to waxy American Gouda again!
Travelerette Treasure: Thankfully for me, a coffeeshop visit to sample some of Amsterdam’s well-known herbal refreshment was not part of the tour. (In Amsterdam,a coffeeshop is a place to get pot, not a place to get coffee. So that is one example of the Dutch naming something creatively.)
But we did walk by a coffeeshop, so Sean taught us a trick for messing with the heads of the people getting stoned inside. We all stuck out our arms and pretended to swim down the street as we walked past the window of the coffee shop. All of the mile-high patrons of the coffee shop looked deliciously confused. I highly recommend the experience.
Late Afternoon: Canal Cruise
You cannot visit Amsterdam without taking a cruise on the canals. It’s like going to Paris and refusing to ride the Seine, or going to Upstate New York and not cruising Love Canal. Fortunately you should have just enough time between the end of the food tour and the beginning of our evening’s activity to set sail onto closed waters and take some weight off your feet.
Travelerette Tip: There’s lots of canal cruises available in Amsterdam. I took Stromma’s because it was hop-on, hop-off, so if I wanted to get off and explore an attraction, I could. The most convenient place to get on is at the top right outside Anne Frank House. I also suggest buying your ticket in advance online to save money and time.
Early Evening: Red Light District Tour
Address: National Monument in Dam Square
Price: 14 Euros
Hours: 7PM Daily
As I’m sure anyone who reads this blog regularly will have figured out, I’m a lot more interested in the quirky than I am in the seedy. But you can’t go to Amsterdam without seeing the famous Red Light District, whether or not you are interested in drugs or prostitution, so I decided it would be best for me to book a Sandeman’s evening tour through the area.
Sandeman’s tours are popular because they are so inexpensive, so this is hardly a small group tour experience. I lucked out with my guide Lisa though because she was very professional and entertaining at the same time. She told all the juicy stories anyone would want going through the Red Light District, but she was never exploitative when talking about the sex workers. I highly recommend getting on line for her tour if you can.
Picture taking is strictly verboten in the main part of the Red Light District because the sex workers don’t want their picture taken. So instead of getting your attention with snaps, I’ll have to try to keep it with…
three (Arguably not very) fun facts about the red light district
1) Red light District started because so many sailors came through Amsterdam and they were looking for ladies. Local Dutchmen became angry that sailors were stealing their women, so everyone agreed that it would be better if sailors stuck to frequenting working girls confined to a specific area. Young women who were not prostitutes took to wearing fur as a sign that they were maidens and “off-limits”.
2) Prostitution is legal in the Red Light District, but there are certain rules about who can work there. You must be over 21 and an EU citizen to register as a sex worker in the Red Light District. This is to prevent the exploitation of teen runaways or women from poor countries pressed into sex work. However, over 90 percent of sex workers in Amsterdam come from Eastern Europe. That statistic made me uneasy for reasons I have a hard time putting my finger on.
3) For a brief period of time, they tried having male sex workers in the Red Light District, but it didn’t take. First off, it brought too many reporters, which made the female sex workers uncomfortable. Second, the male sex workers had a harder time performing with female clients they weren’t attracted to, so that sort of defeats the whole purpose. I’m sure no one pays someone for sex only to feel unattractive if the encounter doesn’t come off.
Travelerette Treasure: One thing you are allowed to photograph is the “Bronze Boob”, which is an amusing piece of street art in the Red Light District. Apparently this work was left here by an anonymous street artist. I just guess it was Banksy because I assume that all anonymous street artists are named Banksy.
Travelerette Tip: At one point on the tour, Lisa brought us to a peep show where 2 Euros would buy you a couple of minutes in a booth looking at a naked lady dance. It was totally optional, and not something that really appealed to me, but I decided to do it just so I could say I’d been to a sex show in Amsterdam without having to do something I’d like even less.
Unfortunately, another solo female traveler on the tour asked me if I wanted to share a booth with her to save a Euro. I did not, but I agreed because I didn’t know how to refuse politely. So I ended up getting stuck in a small booth with a complete stranger watching a sad-looking naked lady pretend to be aroused, all of which I hated. So I guess my tip is, if you don’t want to share a booth with a stranger, just say no!
Evening: Cafe Brecht
Address: Weteringschans 157
As I mentioned, I much prefer the quirky to the seedy, so I was very happy to spend the evening at the charmingly quirky Cafe Brecht. This claims to be a Berlin-style cafe, and I must confess I do not know what that means. But I adored the vintage chairs and couches, and it was a great place to sit with a book and sip on an elderflower lemonade….
and a pretzel filled with Gouda!
I felt all my discomfort from being in the Red Light District wash away from me. Amsterdam really is a city with something for everyone, no matter how you take your pleasure. For me, I prefer the satisfaction of a comfy couch, a good book, and some damn fine cheese.
And That’s How to Have a Perfect Day in Amsterdam
What would you do with one day in Amsterdam? What is your favorite work in the Rijksmuseum? And is War the most offensive name for a French fry topping you’ve ever heard, or did you encounter something worse? Please leave your thoughts below!
I am here to provide perfect travel itineraries with 24 hours, 3 fun facts, and 1,000,000 laughs! I hope that I can motivate you to get out there, see the world, learn something, and have a sense of humor about it all.