My Amsterdam Experience: The Beauty of a City That Feels a World Away
Photo by Katie Lucken
At every corner we turn, a new feature of the Rijksmuseum garden waits to greet us. We walked by a giant chess board in front of a beautiful arch and set of trees reaching into the sky. A group of tourists hovered around the chessboard, ready to start a game, on July 21.
As I climbed the precarious steps to our bed and breakfast home for the week, hauling my suitcase up behind me, the sun shone through the open door at the top with warm golden light. It was two in the afternoon on July 20, 2019 in Amsterdam, and we arrived at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol earlier that day from Gothenburg Airport, Sweden. As I looked around the Bed and Breakfast Amsterdam, our new home for the week, I saw that we looked out directly onto a canal, and that the other end of the apartment was a balcony draped in beautiful flowers and plants. Four doors opened from the balcony into our living room, and made the whole floor bright. Exhausted from getting up at three in the morning for our flight, I collapsed on the bed and fell asleep immediately.
After a short nap, my parents and I went to explore Vondelpark. Our apartment was only a five minute walk from the park, and considered a prime location because Vondelpark is Amsterdam's most popular park, attracting thousands of tourists and residents every day. It acts as a cycling and walking expressway that connects the city center and residential areas of Amsterdam. After exploring some smaller side streets off of Vondelpark, I felt it begin to drizzle...and then begin to pour. My parents and I sprinted through sheets of rain back to our new home, dodging cyclists and walkers. Still tired after a long day of travel and taking in new surroundings, my family and I all quickly fell asleep to the sound of the rain.
The next morning, the owner of the bed and breakfast woke us by bringing breakfast in on a white tray loaded with fruit, rolls and bagels, eggs, fresh orange juice and y
ogurt. My parents had also walked to a nearby grocery store to get food for our time there, including orange juice that you squeezed yourself at the store. Soon after breakfast, we headed back into Vondelpark to find museums that Amsterdam is well known for. Trees shrouded the park nearly the entire way there, so when we emerged into the busy streets it felt as if we had just opened our eyes.
Photo by Katie Lucken
Looking down on Dam Square, I can see just how busy it is on the afternoon of July 21. Teeming with people of all different backgrounds, there was plenty to stop and take in when you arrived at the square.
When we found ourselves on a residential street going towards the museums, we discovered that every single tree, light post, or bike rack in Amsterdam was surrounded with every color of bike in the world, many rusted over. Some were locked, many were not, and others were simply thrown against the walls of the buildings. When the bikes weren’t thrown to the side, they were soaring past with riders carrying all sorts of items. Mornings were the busiest, as people would fly past with backpacks, wearing dresses and suits, on their way to work. Every street in Amsterdam had lanes for cars, trams, and bikes, making crossing the road quite a treacherous activity, but my family and I quickly became proficient in dodging the cyclists.
Eventually we found our way to Museumplein, a large square surrounded by Amsterdam’s most prestigious museums. Picnic-goers lounged at one end of the square, surrounded by gravel pat
hs and open grass. On the other side of Museumplein, aqua blue water shimmered in a fountain, with short green trees reflecting back around the edges. A vast, formal building stood behind the fountain, spires poking holes in the fluffy clouds above. Standing in the center of Museumplein, people brushed past holding bags or treats from the little stalls covered by red and white awnings that occupied the square that morning. Each stall in the market offered unique jewelry, clothing, art, and even food. Emma, my older sister, and I explored the stalls for a while but didn’t find anything we wanted among the hundreds of necklaces, bracelets, scarves and art pieces, so we returned to our family. We eventually made our way to the food carts and after a long line, my younger brother Nathan and I shared tiny pancakes covered in nutella and powdered sugar that were almost too sweet. We were given little wooden sticks to eat them with, but still managed to get covered in powdered sugar and nutella dripped from the sides. After our time spent in the market, we walked towards the museum to escape the multitudes of people.
My family and I were more inclined to explore the vibrant gardens that surrounded Rijksmusuem, home to art and history from the Dutch Golden Age, than enter the building, so we descended the concrete steps into a maze of gravel paths. Beds of purple bachelor’s buttons, orange poppies and papaver orientales gleamed in the sun. Hanging from the trees were silver sculptures, like twisted beehives, while green branches drooped down all around. In the middle of the first garden was an interactive fountain that visitors could run in and out of, dodging streams of water. My brother and mom ran in and out of the fountain, and unlike most of the other visitors around them, neither of them really got soaked. A gravel path surrounded the fountain with reclining chairs lining the paths in the shade. After we walked around and had our fun in the fountain, we turned the corner into an archway of vines and leaves that almost completely shaded the path. My family and I walked through into the light and around another corner, to find more paths, trees, chairs, and flowers. In the middle of this corner of the garden was a giant chess board, framed by a brick archway and two trees reaching into the sky. A whole group of people occupied the big chess board as we walked by, contemplating their game. As people chatted and sat around us, my siblings and I goofed around, making jokes and running around, covering every square inch of the gardens. Soon enough, we got tired and decided to move on from the Rijksmuseum gardens. After debating our next move, and listening to an orchestra quartet in the museum hall for a while, we headed towards Dam Square and the Royal Palace Amsterdam.
While finding our way to Dam Square, we stopped at the Begijnhof, an enclosed courtyard. This area was originally built as a sanctuary for the Begijntjes, a Catholic sisterhood. Although they lived like nuns in the early 14th century, they took no religious vows. Today, the houses are still occupied by single women, although none of the earliest homes survived. Eerily quiet and serene inside the courtyard, many tourists took in the sanctified atmosphere alongside my family. Several plaques are placed around the area, including one that details the history of Amsterdam’s oldest home, called Het Houten Huis, from around 1420. Contributing to the holy feeling of the gated Begijnhof stood the Engelse Kerk, meaning English Church. My father and I entered into the silent church, most of which is roped off to the public. Rows of small candles filled the corner of the building, lit by people from all over the world to honor their loved ones. Smelling the dripping wax and ancient wooden pews, my dad and I lit a candle for my grandma, and stood for a moment at the back of the chapel, considering the artwork and statues along the walls. Soon we exited the gates of Begijnhof into a tiny street, lined with dark buildings reaching into the sky, and found our way to Dam Square.
When we arrived in the square, my parents once again stopped to consider what we should do. As they discussed, I took in the overwhelming surroundings. Brick and stone buildings rose out of the ground around me, encompassing the square like soldiers and blocking out the sun. Despite this, the scene in Dam Square was anything but menacing. Standing in the very center of the capital of Amsterdam, street performers danced to my left, children gathered around a sock puppet show to my right, and women whirled around in flowing skirts, twirling soapy bubble wands and casting them up into the sky.
At the west end of the square, the Royal Palace Amsterdam stood tall, and my family headed toward the entrance. We waited in line to pay for entry, and then proceeded into a hall with rows of audio tour headsets. We each selected a headset, and changed it into English out of the many offered languages. Ready to explore the largest and most prestigious building from the Dutch Golden Age, we climbed two flights of grand stairs and followed the signs into a gigantic ballroom, called the Citizen’s Hall. Beautiful golden chandeliers hung from the ceiling, softly glowing. On the floor were two huge maps, one of the northern sky, and the other of the world. The Amsterdam Maiden, a symbol of economic prosperity in Amsterdam, gazes out over these maps, almost as if she is protecting them. On the other side of the hall stands a marble carving of Atlas, carrying the sky and heavens upon his shoulders.
Small stands stood around the massive hall where visitors like my family could wave their small guided tour headsets above, and instantly begin to learn about the history of whatever object was nearby, whether it was a painting, carving, or an entire room. For more than an hour, we wandered the halls of the palace, into rooms and halls filled with history and art. The Citizen’s Hall intrigued me the most, with the intricate maps and detailed carvings all around the hall, which seemed nearly impossible to come from marble. Inundated with knowledge about the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam’s royal family, and the history of Amsterdam, we returned our headsets and walked back into the sunlight of Dam Square.
Photo by Katie Lucken
Looking down the street, I see blue water of the canal and the brick homes as we walk towards Muiderslot, the castle in the town of Muiden. The trees offered relief from the midday sun on July 22, with the maroon posts hot to the touch from sitting in the sun.
Already well into the afternoon, I grew tired of constant walking, especially among the hordes of people that occupied every street of central Amsterdam. Aware of impending unhappiness, my parents steered us towards Vleminckx, a hole-in-the-wall shop that sells the best fries in Amsterdam. Held in red and white paper cones, the thickly cut fries are always warm and sprinkled in salt. They were the perfect snack for my mood, and melted in my mouth.
Feeling reenergized, we walked to the Anne Frank House, only ten minutes from Royal Palace Amsterdam. Located on the canal Prinsengracht in central Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House is a museum dedicated to the story of Anne Frank, her family, the Van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer. These eight people hid from the nazi’s for more than two years during World War II to avoid being sent to concentration camps, simply because they were Jewish. They lived in what is called “The Secret Annex” in the house off the canal. Anne Frank kept diaries of her time in the annex over those years, which were later published and have helped inform the history presented at the Anne Frank House. Her father, Otto Frank, was the only survivor of the Secret Annex and he was also involved in the creation of the museum.
In the lobby of the museum visitors, again, were given audio tour headsets to guide their tour of the building. As soon as the self-guided tour began, the atmosphere became melancholy and reflective, and the only noises to be heard were the floorboards creaking and the narrator in our headsets. When we arrived at the annex, we had to duck down and enter a small opening behind a bookcase that swung open, and take a huge step up into a steep staircase leading way up. The path through the house featured a multitude of photographs, videos, personal items, and testimonies from the eight people that lived there and those who knew them. Some rooms seemed to be lighter, with happier memories from Anne Frank’s diaries, and others were darker and sadder, with tears and terrible stories. I couldn’t imagine the terrifying life that the narrator described to us, because the families in the Annex had to be painfully quiet day and night, and couldn’t even flush their toilet during the day. Even after we had left the Anne Frank House, the rest of the day I was reflective of what we had learned there.
The next morning, a breakfast of omelets and rolls on a white tray woke me again. A little bit later, we walked to the nearest bus stop and headed towards the small town of Muiden, Amsterdam. Muiden is home to one of the oldest and best-preserved castles in the Netherlands, built in 1285 as a defensive fortress. Today, it serves as a historic attraction, with even more audio touring headsets. When we first walked in the brick gates, I was stunned by the size of the castle, but even more by how well-kept it looked after more than 700 years. We headed down a wide gravel path, and to the left was the gate to the drawbridge leading into the castle, but we first walked to the right into the green archway that led to the gardens. It was a beautiful day full of sunshine, but the castle’s gardens just couldn’t match the splendor of the Rijksmuseum gardens. We pretty quickly moved onto the castle, crossing the drawbridge into an open courtyard. In the middle was a deep well, and one doorway led down into a small gift shop, while the rest of the doors led to different parts of the castle. We all picked up another audio tour headset, and picked a doorway into the castle. Up and down what seemed like a thousand stairways, we explored every room in the castle, learning the storied history of the many wars it survived and the hands it was passed down from. We also learned that its preserved state comes after three major restorations, when it became a national museum in 1878. After taking every twist and turn the castle had to offer, my dad and I somehow found our way to a terrace overlooking the surrounding moat and land.
After some aimless wandering, we eventually found our way back down into the courtyard. There, we ate lunch and Emma, Nathan and I goofed around in the gift shop with the wooden swords and costumes. We walked around the gravel path surrounding the castle grounds, passing a plum tree orchard and a concrete structure called the Water Shield Pavilion. This sunken pavilion informs visitors about the castle’s long history with water defense lines in the Netherlands.
After we left Muiderslot, we walked around the town of Muiden for a little bit. At one point, we crossed a bridge, and when we had come back to cross back over, we had to wait as a boat passed through the lock, because the bridge had risen. A group of teenage boys took advantage of the hot day and the canal, swimming and flipping off the brick platforms that made up the lock. When we eventually made it to the other side, we ran to a bus stop at the edge of town, nearly missing the bus to Naarden, our next destination
Naarden is another small town, east of Amsterdam, that’s considered one of the best preserved fortified towns in Europe. Naturally, we had to go see the fortresses, but stopped on the way for ice cream at a small shop. Finding there wasn’t much to see at the fortresses other than empty stone structures and grass mounds, and already having had a long day of touring around, we soon headed back to the bus stop and rode back to our home on a stiflingly hot and humid bus. That night we just relaxed before our final full day in Amsterdam.
For our final day, my family and I traveled to the Van Gogh Museum, one of the many art museums in Museumplein. After one of our last walks through Vondelpark, we entered the cool museum, full of the world’s largest collection of works by Vincent Van Gogh. Each of the museum’s four floors is broken up into different sections. The first room I walked into featured Van Gogh’s interpretations of peasant life, and the room after featured works of modern life in Paris. Again we were able to guide ourselves around the museum with the help of an audio tour headset. My favorite room in the museum was an expansive, bright room, which mostly contained landscapes and gardens, because Van Gogh used beautiful colors in the paintings and they were incredibly well preserved. I also liked the room called “A Life in Letters” because the audio tour took you through some of the letters exchanged between Van Gogh and his family, and you could get a look into the mind of the amazing artist. While the whole museum was full of amazing paintings, I thought the most interesting collection was Van Gogh’s self portraits, because although you could tell they were all of the same man, some appeared disfigured or harsh. After learning about the artist’s struggles with manic depression, it was even more troubling to see what he really thought of himself.
The Van Gogh Museum consists of two buildings, the main one being the Rietveld Building, and the exhibition wing called the Kurokawa Building. After extensively touring the Rietveld Building, where the museum’s permanent collection is displayed, my brother, dad and I went to the Kurokawa building. The exhibition display changes, but in July 2019 the display was all about Van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers. Van Gogh created five large canvases of the flowers, and his message behind them was gratitude. In the exhibit, we learned about the history of the iconic paintings, created in 1888 and 1889 in Arles, France. We also saw how the restoration process took place, and realized that because the paintings are over 130 years old, their colors are consequently very different than when they were first painted.
After experiencing the main galleries and the exhibition hall, my family browsed the gift shop, and then headed back out to Museumplein to eat lunch in the square.
Photo by Katie Lucken
Entering the Citizen’s Hall in the Royal Palace Amsterdam on July 21, the room is full of tourists. On the floor were two grand maps, one of the northern sky and one of the world. The maps were protected by short railings and surrounded by signs where tourists could learn all about the maps and the Citizen’s Hall through their headset. Glowing chandeliers hung from the vaulted ceilings. At the other end of the hall stood Atlas, carrying the weight of the sky upon his shoulders.
After lunch, we took many buses and trams to the train station, Amsterdam Central. Here, we waited for a few minutes to board an orange train that would take us to Zandvoort, a beach town on the Dutch coast. The 30 minute train ride to the beach was considerably my least favorite part of the trip, as it was suffocatingly hot, and cracking open the thin windows did nothing to circulate air. As soon as we arrived in Zandvoort, I stumbled out of the carriage feeling half-dead. We all brought bathing suits, but as soon as we arrived at the top of what seemed like a mini sand dune, we saw what looked like thousands of people on the coast. Already feeling too sticky from the train, I didn’t feel like changing and then swimming in salty water. Instead, we just decided to walk along the beach, among the umbrellas and towels of every possible color that decorated the sand. Narrowly dodging kids kicking balls and people running into the waves, we spent a little time on the beach and dipped our feet in the water. The hot sun beat down on us though, and we soon walked back up the burning sand to the train station. After suffering through another thirty minute ride, we had arrived back in Amsterdam, but needed to take many more connecting trams and buses to get back to our little bed and breakfast. Anticipating our departure in the morning, we spent the evening packing our bags for the final trip home.
I woke up as my dad and sister prepared to leave for their flight a few hours before ours. After they left the bed and breakfast, it was our job to do all the last minute checks and tidying up. Not fully awake, I packed up the rest of my suitcase, and, soon enough, my mom, brother and I took an Uber to the airport. Only a few days prior, we had arrived at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol from Gothenburg, Sweden. That city, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, seemed like a whole different world than the one I came home to. I can’t think of the next time I’ll take a bus or train to get around my city, and doubt I’ll ever see a floating barge loaded with bikes again. This time we stepped off a flight, we would land at Detroit Metro Airport, go through customs one last time, and finally get to sleep in our own beds, happily reunited with our dogs. As I went to sleep that night, finally in my bed after two weeks away, I found myself missing the breeze from the balcony next to my bed in Amsterdam.