From the moment I first caught an aerial glimpse of Amsterdam from 30,000 feet above, I fell head over heels for Holland. Multi-colored fields of tulips blanketed the lush countryside, punctured only by windmills and highways. The city of Amsterdam unfurled in a rose-like configuration of canals and centuries-old brick buildings. Lined with waterways, dotted with bicycles, and populated with storybook-esque homes, Amsterdam exudes charm from every angle.
This spring, after months of dreaming and planning, my sister Anna and I embarked on a four-country tour of Europe. Amsterdam was our starting point, and it was the perfect introduction to Europe. Far more than just the land of wooden shoes and great cheese, The Netherlands is a colorful, vibrant country with friendly locals and gorgeous sites. Around 90% of the population speaks English, so we could easily communicate with tour guides and locals alike. Public transportation is easy and the city is highly walkable, which means it's a great destination for those who, like us, are planning their very first international adventure without the help of a travel agency.
After dropping off our luggage at our hostel, we explored the Jordaan District. Originally built for the working class and immigrants in the 1700s, it is now one of the trendiest neighborhoods in the city. I love exploring new cities by foot, so we spent the evening leisurely snaking through cobblestone alleyways and along tree-lined canals. Outdoor markets, boutiques, and art studios lined the streets, and the Anne Frank House overlooked one of the canals. Eager to sample the local goodies, we stopped at a bakery for a batch of freshly baked stroopwafel. Two razor-thin, waffle-like cookies are slathered with a gooey caramel filling for a handheld sandwich that requires seconds (and thirds, and fourths, and fifths). Of course, we tried all the other local goodies too: cheese, waffles, poffertjes (spongy miniature pancakes topped with powdered sugar, Nutella, or fruit), and bitterballen (meatball-like snacks with a crispy coating.)
Anna and I discovered a quaint, glass-and-brick cafe near our hostel and visited every morning to order steaming mugs of hot chocolate slathered with whipped cream. As we sipped the chocolatey goodness, we watched the city awaken before our eyes. Bicycles are the preferred mode of transportation for many locals, and I was thoroughly impressed by their ability to multitask while bicycling. Several bicyclists smoked or texted at they buzzed by; one lady pedaled effortlessly in high heels. Parents pulled carts laden with kids behind their bicycles and deposited them at the front door of local elementary schools. (Inspired by these bicycling whizzes, we rented bikes and spent an entire day exploring tulip fields.)
Amsterdam exudes a very open, go-with-the-flow vibe, as if the whole city is populated with free spirits. Cannabis shops (called coffee shops) seemingly mark every corner, and markets sell everything from cannabis ice cream to cannabis cookies to cannabis tea. And, of course, the prominent Red Light District further lends credence to Amsterdam's image as a very open-minded society. Because of its tolerant culture, Amsterdam has been a refuge for oppressed individuals throughout the centuries, a role it maintains to this day.
Nicknamed the Venice of the North because of its intricate canal system, Amsterdam is a city that absolutely must be explored by water. We took a daytime canal ride through the city, admiring a slew of house boats and buildings along the way.
I absolutely adore flowers in all shapes, sizes, and colors, so of course a stop at Bloemenmarkt (the world's only floating flower market) was part of the itinerary. Bloemenmarkt is a configuration of greenhouse-like structures tethered to the shore and filled to the brim with flowers. It is a great place to grab souvenirs, keepsakes, or tulip bulbs. We also visited Museumplein (the museum district), where the Van Gogh museum, Rijksmuseum, and Stedelijk Museum of modern art are located.