Magda Lombard, a South African travel blogger, is a true explorer at heart. She joined an Expat Explore Christmas & New Years Tour and shared some of her experiences of two days in Amsterdam and first impressions of the Netherlands with us!
Magda is a corporate lawyer from Gordon’s Bay, near Cape Town, in South Africa. While the law is her training, travel is her passion. She is a seasoned and keen traveller, who lives by Mark Twain’s motto; “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Read on to find out more about Magda’s adventures in Amsterdam.
How fortunate can you get? Having the rare opportunity to go beyond the tulips and canals of Holland’s postcards to see, for the very first time, its pretty towns and unique customs during the last moments of the old year and the first moments of the new, I was very fortunate indeed to experience Oudejaarsavond (New Year’s Eve) in the Netherlands.
Amsterdam is an immensely popular and busy New Year’s Eve destination. It’s a fascinating city that offers the best of Vincent van Gogh and Rembrandt art, exquisite architecture (including windmills like De Jonge Dikkert), bicycles, endless canals, museums and charming side streets. To be honest, my new fridge magnet actually says it all: “The Bike Town of the World.” Bikes are all over; pedalled by all of the population, young and old, big and small. Whether you’re looking for history, natural beauty, great food, or beautiful old-world architecture, you can find it all in and around this city. Amsterdam is about so much more than the red-light district and tolerance towards habit-forming substances.
Let’s start at the very beginning. I had two days in Amsterdam, as part of a ten-day Expat Explore Christmas European Tour. I started my visit with an orientation drive of the historic city centre where canals are around each corner.
As a European cultural centre, there are tons (400 to be exact) of museums and monuments to visit throughout Amsterdam. These museums feature exhibits that range from highly artistic culture to elements like the history of pornography, vodka and cannabis. Admiring Rembrandt’s masterpieces at the Rijksmuseum, visiting a historic diamond polishing factory and the Van Gogh Museum, with many of the painter’s famous works like Bedroom in Arles, Sunflowers and Almond Blossom, are not to be missed.
A highlight before the New Year’s celebrations was a brief visit to the Anne Frank House, which is a biographical museum dedicated to Jewish wartime diarist Anne Frank. The building is located on a canal in central Amsterdam. During World War II, Anne Frank hid from Nazi persecution with her family in those hidden rooms. She did not survive the war, but her wartime diary was published, and the museum preserves the hiding place. The museum is the third most visited museum in the Netherlands, after the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum.
I’m sure Amsterdam is a pleasant city to explore all year round, but travelling in winter means you reap unexpected rewards like exploring the museums and relaxing in snug canalside cafes. The only thing I missed was not being able to “tiptoe through the tulips”! Holland’s tulip festival is in full swing in springtime (March to April) every year. You can visit Keukenhof Gardens just outside of the city. There are over seven million bulbs planted annually, from bright yellows to soft violets. I was happy to settle for a collection of the colourful wooden versions to take home.
The Dutch are patriotic, direct, organized and conscious of time. We dared not be late for our canal cruise on day one! But they are also so friendly, energetic and open people (not to mention very tall)! We felt very welcome as holidaymakers, and interestingly enough I noticed how quick they were to educate any ignorant tourist about the “coffee shops,” the cookies that are sold and contents thereof. I love the Dutch language and adored hearing “Hallo” (Hello), “Tot ziens” (Goodbye) and “Dank je wel” (Thank you)!
Dutch food is unpretentious and delicious! Amsterdam is known for its hearty food, great fries (frites), and fine beer. Amstel and Heineken are the most famous Dutch brands. What I quickly learnt was that the Dutch are very, very serious about their beer. Traditional Dutch cuisine is warming and substantial, with unpretentious dishes like pea soup, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut.
Perhaps the best-known Dutch delicacy is the sweet known as stroopwafels, which consist of two thin waffle-like wafers with a sticky, sweet syrup spread in the middle. Said to have originated in the late 18th century as a poor man’s cookie treat, it’s typically made with flour, butter, milk, eggs, sugar and cinnamon, pressed on a waffle iron and drenched in butter-and-sugar-based syrup, heated to gluey consistency. So yummy, I could not stop devouring the entire packet…delicious and so cheap. And, these popular, chewy stroopwafels make excellent souvenirs to take home.
One of the included experiences on the tour was a late afternoon pizza cruise of the canals of Amsterdam; followed by a walking tour to the red-light district. The canal cruise is an absolute must! The experienced captain on board made our cruise highly enjoyable as he eagerly shared his knowledge of the metropolis while exploring Amsterdam’s canal ring.
It was quite entertaining to visit the red-light district, which is part of the urban area where prostitution and sex-oriented businesses can be found. The term originates from the red lights that were used as signs of brothels.
De Wallen or De Walletjes is the largest and best-known red-light district in Amsterdam. It consists of a network of alleys containing approximately three hundred one-room cabins rented by prostitutes who offer their sexual services from behind a window or glass door, typically illuminated with red lights. These “kamers” are the most visible, and typical of the kind of red light district sex work found in Amsterdam. The red-light district has become a large tourist attraction. The area also has some sex shops, sex theatres, peep shows, a sex museum, a cannabis museum, and a number of so-called “coffee shops” that sell marijuana.
Travel tip: We wary of taking out your cell phone in the red-light district as photography is banned in many areas.
Celebrating New Year’s Eve in Amsterdam is amazing! The city came alive with its third Light Festival. We saw magical laser shows piercing the night skies and glinting off the canals. Countless bars and restaurants had special events; streets were lit up like diamonds and filled with thousands of people. The atmosphere was electric with firecrackers sounds all around us.
The next day, feeling slightly delicate after hours of joyful celebrations until the early morning hours, being a cheese lover, I was guaranteed to love the Amsterdam cheese tour (at Clara Maria Cheese Farm) to the famously known fishing village of Volendam. It was a place known for its magnificent cheese making and the art of traditional clog making, typically referred to as “klompen.” Along with the delicious and rich cheeses that we tasted, I explored and discovered ancient history, culture and natural beauty in the windmill village of Zaanse Schans.
These were great moments – only a tiny taste of my unique and unforgettable experience in that far away land of tulips and bicycles. So don’t wait, pack your bags and go on this great adventure to see Amsterdam for yourself!
Hop aboard and explore Amsterdam with us on an unforgettable rail journey. Expat Explore offers three incredible rail tours that include Amsterdam on the itinerary: Amsterdam to Budapest Rail Explorer, Rome to Amsterdam Rail Explorer and Amsterdam to Barcelona Rail Explorer.
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