Amsterdam was quite possibly our favorite stop on the trip. The first thing we saw upon stepping out of the train station with all our gear was a series of crooked old buildings, a few houseboats, and a massive cathedral. And this was considered the ugly part of town. It was swarming with tourists, this is true, but it was still quaint and unusual, and from the minute we set eyes on the city, we were in love with it.
It became a routine to set out in the morning, buy a pastry at the nearest bakery for breakfast, and then wander the city for most of the day. Amsterdam is chock full of hidden gardens, hidden courtyards, hidden churches, etc. There’s more than one secret door to ferret out. Most of them Will and I came across by accident. At the beginning of our stay, the Erasmus family, who’d kindly allowed us to crash in their basement room, pointed out all of the best sites on a map, which we only ended up using when we’d get disoriented. Disoriented sounds better than mildly lost, right? I’m directionally challenged; we’ll put it that way. Luckily for me, one of the best ways to see “the real Amsterdam” is to get lost in it. With so many beautiful little canals, cafes, and back streets to wander, it’s impossible to find the hidden gems by following a map.
Will and I found a hidden door leading to a courtyard completely secluded from the bustle of the streets surrounding it. Interestingly enough, the houses in this courtyard are populated entirely by single women. Apparently, we’d wandered into the Begijnhof entirely by accident. As it turns out, this is a relatively famous part of Amsterdam, known for both the 15th century church in the center of the complex and for the fact that only single women are allowed to live in the surrounding apartments. I believe the oldest house in Amsterdam is also located in the courtyard. It was an interesting thing to come across accidentally!
We also took the time to visit the Hortus Botanicus, which is something I’d wanted to see for a while. It’s one of the biggest botanical gardens in Europe, and it was utterly fantastic. With thousands of plant species, some of which are critically endangered, there was more than enough to keep me there all day. Unfortunately, we ran out of time long before I would’ve liked. The greenhouses were massive, and appealed to our fascination with steampunk. We sat inside the largest and drew the various plants surrounding us until our time ran out.
Wandering into the Red Light District accidentally was an adventure for sure. It’s a bit disguised. As we started seeing adult shops here and there, our first instinct was to find a way out of the area. Looking around, I noticed a church spire a ways away. Naturally, I assumed that a church wouldn’t be located right splat in the middle of the Red Light District. Makes sense, right? Nope. We navigated through the streets and over a few canals to wind up in front of the cathedral… in the very center of the Red Light District. The cathedral was surrounded on three sides by girls behind glass windows, dressed in their underwear, waving out at passerby. It was what we like to call a “Culturally Broadening Experience.” On the bright side, we did locate the oldest church in Amsterdam (which is relatively famous, actually), as well as a fantastic chocolate shop.
We could’ve spent a good month in Amsterdam alone. With so much to see and do, we ran out of time long before we felt ready to move on. I think it was generally agreed that our week in Amsterdam was one of the best of the trip. I wish I’d had more time to write, but we spent so much time outside, exploring and making the best of our time that I had a hard time finding an hour here or there to sit down and fill you in!
Next stop: Geneva