Monday, May 2, 2016

Traveling Solo in Amsterdam: Where to go & What to Eat

Traveling Solo

My family trip to Paris was wonderful (see my previous post for tips) but after nine days, I was going a little stir crazy and anxious to be on my own. Good thing I planned a solo trip to Amsterdam! I was in love with Paris and did not expect to fall in love even harder for Amsterdam. It's compact and very walkable with picturesque canals forming circles around the core of the city. As a solo female traveler, I felt extremely safe walking alone in the evenings and it was pleasant to drink and dine alone. 

Here are some recommendations that I hope will help you fall in love with Amsterdam as well.

Getting to Amsterdam

Public transportation is wonderful in Amsterdam. If you're flying into Schiphol Airport, there are direct trains running every 10m to the city centre. Train travel in Europe is also ridiculously convenient. I took a direct train (3h 15m) from Paris Nord station to Amsterdam Centraal Station which is the heart of the city. It was a relaxing ride with some nice scenery and you pass through Brussels on the way. 

The Man in Seat Sixty-One is a great site for train travel in Europe; put in your to and from city and it'll give you all the travel and ticket-buying information you need. Do try to buy your train ticket early. They are like airplane tickets; the price goes up as supply goes down or as you get closer to your travel date. 

Best Neighborhood to Stay

I knew I didn't want to be in tourist and brand-name central so I stayed away from the hotels near the Dam Square and the innermost canal rings. I recommend the Jordaan neighborhood, which is just outside the innermost canal rings but you'll still be close enough to the canals.

The Jordaan is filled with local restaurants, art galleries, mom-and-pop shops and specialty stores and it's easy to take a tram or walk to the major sites from there (e.g. about 10m walk to Anne Frank House or 15m tram ride to museum row). The southern end of the Jordaan neighborhood borders De 9 Straatjes, which are 9 shopping alleyways with enough restaurants and independent shops selling coffee, books, chocolate, clothing, jewelry and designer-quality souvenirs to keep you entertained for a full day. The shopaholic in me loved these two areas and I did a lot of window-shopping too because I find Dutch design fascinating and thoughtful.

I stayed at B&B La Festa, a townhouse-style hotel with three rooms and an Italian restaurant on the ground floor in the Jordaan and a stone's throw from De 9 Straatjes. I enjoyed staying there and would absolutely stay there again: location convenient to major sites, good restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores, friendly owners and service, affordable (e.g. $100USD/night in late March), clean and good size room (my single room was quite big by Amsterdam standards) and convenient tram and bus service nearby.

Another neighborhood to consider is the Museum District where you'll be in walking distance to several of the major museum attractions in Amsterdam. B&B La Festa was booked the first night I arrived in Amsterdam so I stayed one night at Aalders Hotel which was right behind the Van Gogh Museum. It was fine for one night and convenient for me to hit the museums early the next day. However, I would not stay there again because the single room was really tiny (I felt like I couldn't turn around) and more importantly, the WIFI was very poor and kept disconnecting.

Tulips & Keukenhof

One major item on my bucket list was seeing the tulip garden and fields of Amsterdam. Tulips are in full bloom only for a few weeks of the year and it is very dependent on warm weather so there's no hard promise even if you go in the March to early May timeframe. I went on March 30th and I was lucky to catch just the beginning of the bloom season. Here are some tips that should help you get to Keukenhof from Amsterdam and have a good time.

  • Tulips in Holland. This is a great site you can subscribe to and they'll email you weekly bloom reports. There are also events and individual or group tour ticketing information on their site.
  • Short on time. You can pay more and join a tour which will take you direct to Keukenhof Garden. This will save you about an hour total. Plus, you have options to take the fancier tours that give you a private guide, bike tours and so forth.
  • Public transportation. This is the option I recommend if you have at least 6 hours and it is affordable (about $30usd total whereas the cheapest group tour I found was about $55usd). You can pre-buy your ticket and public transport from the site above or direct from Keukenhof. With this option, you first take Connexxion public bus #197 from Leidseplein (Leidse Square) or Museumplein. Those are the main stops in Amsterdam and Museumplein is a stop in the heart of Museum District. (Tip: if you're staying at B&B La Festa, bus #197 stops at Elandsgracht which is about a 5m walk from the hotel so you can take it from there instead.) The #197 takes you to Schiphol Airport and from there, you change to the #858 which departs at the end of Arrival Hall #4. There are signs and personnel to help guide you too. These buses depart daily during this short peak season so the operation is smooth as butter.
  • Keukenhof. If you pre-buy your ticket, you should walk straight to the entrance for admission. If you want to bike through the flower fields, you can pay an additional fee at the entrance. Or, if you walk to the middle of the garden where the giant windmill is, you can purchase a boat ticket to ride the canals that line the flower fields. I didn't do either of those things because there's an area where you can admire the fields from afar. Also, I went in the early bloom season and the fields were not in full force yet. Just the garden grounds and the various pavilions featuring tulips, orchids and other flowers is a lot for a day and I spent about four hours there. There are restaurants and food stands throughout but you might want to bring a light picnic because the gardens are beautiful and they have several seating areas for people to rest and enjoy the day out. Keukenhof is child-friendly too; there's a playground area for kids to work off some energy.
  • Spare the flowers. I guess this is more a plea than a tip. Please don't step on or manhandle the flowers in your eagerness to get the perfect picture. I saw quite a number of tourists trampling on the tulips or trying to twist them in the direction they want because they want a selfie. Also, put away those selfie sticks! 
  • Gear. You need comfortable shoes (Teva boots at REI or walking shoes from Clark's are my favorites) and dress in layers. Weather is unpredictable and can change quickly. A lightweight umbrella is a good call too. I'll repeat the tip I gave in my Paris post which is travel light and invest in something like those Columbia or Patagonia puffer jackets that have multiple zipper pockets. That way you can leave heavy bags or purses at home and just hide a few cards, cash and smartphone in the zipper pockets. 

What's Delicious to Eat 

After traveling around Switzerland and in Amsterdam, I can definitively say I'm not a huge fan of Dutch German food. I don't hate it but I won't seek it out and I did try it once in Amsterdam and didn't love it. So, my food recommendations will mostly be other cuisines:

  • Italian at Quattro Gatti. They were closed for Easter week but luckily, they re-opened on my last day in Amsterdam and I enjoyed a delicious linguine with clams. It was the best I've had since Italy a few years ago. I was sad that I only got to eat here once. The owners are really nice; you can tell they are passionate about their food and restaurant.
  • French at Bathalzar's Keuken. This restaurant is around the corner from B&B La Festa. They feature a 3-course prix fixe and the menu changes constantly. The meal started with a variety of small bites, then I had a really tender and moist duck confit and finished off with strawberry and meringue dessert. 
  • Thai at Rakang. I was really happy to find such good Thai food in Amsterdam and it's also a block from B&B La Festa. Both dishes I had (spicy beef salad and duck pad kee mow noodles) were fragrant, spicy and flavorful.   
  • Chinese at Nam Kee. This is a low-key and affordable place in Chinatown. Go there for classic Cantonese stir fries, noodles and rice dishes and barbecue meats.
  • Seafood at The Seafood Bar. Be prepared for crowds here and definitely make a reservation. It's near the museum district and features a trendy crowd to go along with the trendy and pricey seafood. Definitely the place to go if you're craving seafood tower.
  • Meat at Uptown Meat Company. If you can't bear the crowd at The Seafood Bar, go next door to Uptown. They feature steaks and hearty burgers. I really liked the burger and thick-cut fries, washed down with a glass of Affligem.
  • Breakfast or Afternoon Tea at Gartine. It was such a treat to enjoy two different meals here. Gartine uses produce from their own gardens and organic eggs and makes all sorts of delectable cakes and sandwiches. For afternoon tea, there are four options to choose from depending on your appetite.  I had the High Tea Classic and they even gave me two small pieces of cake so I could try more. I returned for breakfast and had really good dutch pancakes. I'd recommend Gartine over the touristy pancake places that dot the city.
  • Cheese & Charcuterie at De Kaaskamer. Walk in and admire the wall of cheese while you take a deep breath inhaling all the cheesy goodness. If you can't buy a block of cheese, look in the fridge case and you'll find small trays of cheese with strong, mild and weekly special varieties. Get one of those and some charcuterie and dry fruit then you're all set for a picnic by the canals. Or, come during lunch time and there's a variety of sandwiches to choose from too. I got a jamon iberico with pesto for my ride back to Paris and I felt like the luckiest person on the train.
  • Chocolate at Urban Cacao. Chocolate. Hot chocolate. Chocolate desserts. Need I say more? There are two locations: one in De 9 Straatjes and one in the Jordaan (on Rozengracht) which is a bigger location so less likely to run out of popular flavors. My favorites are the champagne cassis, coffee and almond ganache. I love their hot chocolate because it's not too sweet and you can really savor the cocoa flavor.
  • Ramen at Fou Fow Ramen. On the coldest night in Amsterdam, I had a craving for Japanese ramen and Fou Fow really hit the spot. It's really popular so go early or be prepared to wait.

  • Marqt and Albert Heijn. These are supermarkets where you can pick up drinks, food and souvenirs. Marqt is kind of like Whole Foods and Albert Heijn is more like your standard chain supermarket. If you like fresh-squeezed orange juice, go to Albert Heijn. The one I visited on Elandsgracht, features a Zumex machine where you can self-serve and squeeze fresh OJ. It's really cheap too!

Things to Do & Museums

Amsterdam has a lot of wonderful museums. A free museum map that I picked up listed 44 museums and that didn't even include the Cat Museum. Definitely pre-buy your tickets online direct from the museum and pick early or late times to avoid the crowd. Buying tickets from your hotel does not guarantee you'll be able to skip the line. I made that mistake with the Van Gogh Museum and I was still directed to wait in an enormous line even though I had a ticket.

Of course, there are plenty of other things to do if museums are not your thing.
  • Rijksmuseum. If you only have time to visit one museum, go to the Rijks. It's located right in front of the much photographed "I AMsterdam" sign and a beautiful garden surrounds the museum. They have a massive collection of classic Dutch porcelain and paintings from the 17th century and you'll see famous paintings from Vermeer, Rembrandt and Steen. One of my favorite things is to go see all the food paintings of that era and get hungry while admiring all those delicious-looking paintings. Currently, there are also two awesome temporary exhibits on show until May 22, 2016. One is the Catwalk, featuring Dutch fashion from the 1600s to mid-1900s. You've got to see the dress that is 6-feet wide. The second is George Breitner's Girl in a Kimono series. It's a rare occasion for his entire collection to be featured in one place.  If you get hungry during your visit, the Rijks has a restaurant that is practically art on a plate (sadly, I didn't get to try it this time).
Still Life with Cheese. Floris Claesz van Dijck, 1615
This dress is 6 feet wide. Worn by a socialite in 1750.
  • Van Gogh Museum. I went because I had the time and I like Van Gogh's work. If you're not a huge fan, I don't recommend fighting the crowds. A lot of his famous works are not here (e.g. Starry Night). No pictures are allowed and the whole museum is over-commercialized. However, there is a small temporary exhibit called "Easy Virtue" about prostitution in French art from 1850 to 1910. That's on show until June 19, 2016 and that's worth a visit. 
  • Katten Kabinet. Cat lovers should do a short excursion here. This museum is really just one floor of cat poster art, sculptures, drawings, memorabilia and there's even a cat mummy. The whole visit should not take more than an hour unless you get caught up in the gift shop like me. It's close to the Flower Market.
  • Flower Market. If you can't get to the tulip fields, you can do a short visit to the Flower Market in the city center. You can buy all kinds of tulp bulbs and flower seeds here.
  • Albert Cuyp Market. This street market is worth a visit. You'll find classic Dutch street food like stroopwafels, herring and more. There are also various vendors selling produce, souvenirs, clothes and home goods.
  • Anne Frank Museum. Good luck getting in. They hold a monthly lottery for time tickets into the museum but it's only for a limited number of tickets. The line is an hour+ long wait regardless of the time of day. I tried my usual trick of going at 9am when they open and 6pm near closing time and the wait was estimated at 2 hours. I didn't have that kind of time so I didn't get to visit this time. Some online forums mention that the Amsterdam Visitor Center may have some tickets and you can try your luck there a few days in advance of your visit.
  • North Amsterdam. I didn't have enough time to do this but you can take a free ferry from Amsterdam Centraal Station to the north side of Amsterdam. One of the places you can check out here is the Eye Film Institute. It's a really cool building and they have a huge collection of Dutch and foreign movies and posters.
View of The Eye from the canal cruise.
  • Canal Cruise. This is touristy but no trip to Amsterdam is complete without a canal cruise. There are a lot of choices right outside the Centraal Station. The cruises run by the bigger companies are pretty much all the same so I didn't bother to pre-book and found that you can hop on a cruise leaving every 15 minutes. There are smaller and more intimate cruises but those cost more of course. The boats are closed top to protect you from the cold. In the summer, they feature open boats so that must be pretty awesome.
Only on the canal cruise will you be able to this: all 7 bridges of this canal in one shot!

Goodbye...for now

I learned on this trip that Amsterdam is so much more than the red light district and smoking marijuana. In my six days there, I didn't pass through the red light district until my fifth day. And even then it was accidental because the red light district borders Chinatown and I was searching for a noodle soup lunch. I don't like marijuana and the only weed I smelled was in a cafe. I tried to go in and keep an open mind but I couldn't stand it and had to jump back out. I really don't like the smell. But those things are such a small part of Amsterdam.

I cannot wait to go back and sit on the canal with my cheese and charcuterie picnic while basking in the sun. I want to go visit all 44+ museums and taste more of the delicious foods Amsterdam has to offer. And most of all, I just want to go back and get lost exploring the streets and alleys of this charming city.

If you need more Amsterdam travel info, check out I Amsterdam.

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