Saturday, December 30, 2017

Amsterdam: Our Favorite Sights, Sounds, Smells & Snacks!

Amsterdam December 2017: 
Our Favorite Sights, Sounds, Smells & Snacks

Our 4-day Amsterdam getaway this December was incredible. In our previous post, we gave you the quick review of our hotel and flight package, and some fun tips, tricks and lessons learned. This post will give you a detailed review of our favorite things. Check out our 2-minute video reviews below: 
How did we plan our days:
As we mentioned in the Quick and Dirty post, the Iamsterdam Card is everything you need to plan a perfect 4-5 day trip in this small, but active city.
We did the math and if we had paid at each individual museum that we went to and for a canal tour, we would have paid about 120 Euro/ea, which is about 122 USD. With our Iamsterdam Card, we paid $92/each for more museums than we could visit, a canal tour, and UNLIMITED Tram rides. The tram is HUGE because it would have been at least 22 Euro/each if we wanted the same 96-hour unlimited deal.

Every evening, we pulled out our map to determine which museums we should group together, based on proximity, for the next day. This nightly activity of planning for the following day was actually a lot of fun because it tested our growing knowledge of the city. This became our nightly staple and gave us just enough structure, without causing us  to feel overwhelmed.

In addition to the museums listed below, check out the Rembrandt Monument and bronze-cast Night Watch replicas in Rembrandt Square (Rembrandtplein).

We stumbled upon some fun artist and flea markets during the day in Rembrandtplein. It was perfect for picking up authentic souvenirs. 

The best way to see the city is at night when it is lit up. 

Also, Devon found these Dutch Cats (eye-roll).

Day 1
On our first day, we took our map to the hotel concierge, who suggested that the best place to start would be Dam. We had absolutely no idea where we were going and had made no plans. It was perfect! The tram was easy to find, and just with our eyes open on our first ride in, we were able to see a few of the museums we wanted to go to over the course of our trip.

We got off the train in Dam, which seemed like the most central area for shopping, and just walked...

In our first go around, we tried the ever famous fries and mayonnaise, entered our first coffeeshop, and got a feel for the more commercial shopping area of the city. We decided to use the Canal Tour that was included in our City Pass.

That was potentially the smartest unplanned move we made. It was amazing to experience the city from the water, and it was super helpful in our understanding the city layout.

A note about museums:
Here is the full list of 15 Museums and how we grouped them during our 4-days in Amsterdam. Keep in mind that we did not experience a single line at ANY museum and that is likely because of the time of year. 

* denote our must-dos 
Day 2

 Jewish Historical Museum- This was our first museum, so we were pretty bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. This museum archives Jewish history, culture, and religion within the Netherlands, and is also located just one block from the Portuguese Synagogue. It is located in the Jewish Cultural Quarter, which is full of delicious eats and quaint bakeries. 

Portuguese Synagogue*- This is our first MUST-DO. The architecture of this 17th Century synagogue has been preserved, and it is still used today. Even in our modern society, this synagogue is heated simply by candles and body heat. Around the perimeter of the synagogue are many rooms that serve a variety of ritual preparation purposes. Women still come to the bathhouse to cleanse themselves post menstruation….

Rembrandt House Museum*- This museum was exactly what we love; a passage into someone else's history. The Rembrandt House maintained much of the pieces and structure that it did during Rembrandt's lifetime. There was also a secondary exhibit going on that covered the incredible artistic accomplishments of two of Rembrandt's most gifted, but under acknowledged pupils, Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck. In the top level of this lavish home, we were able to see where these students apprenticed under Rembrandt.

Our Lord in the Attic Museum*- This was our #1 FAV. Once again, we traveled back in time to the Protestant Reformation, during which Catholics were forced to find alternative and private spaces to practice their religion. Three homes owned by a Dutch Bourgeois make up the secret church that law enforcement turned a blind-eye to.

Oude Kerk*- So we THOUGHT we were just visiting one of the oldest and largest churches in the world...we were uninformed about this CREEPY AF art exhibit. This exhibit focused on how one is forgotten over the decades and centuries following death. Morbid stuff. The large stones on the floor are actual grave markers, and the coats…well, you can watch us lose our sh*t in our "Dutch Witch Project" style video below.
Day 3
Rijksmuseum (purchase in advance)- We were expecting to have this one on our must-do list, because everyone else says you MUST do the Rijks. But after a day of more intimate museum experiences, this modern museum was overwhelming. Despite feeling lost in the many large galleries here, we did get to see Amsterdam's most famous work of art: Rembrandt's Night Watch (De Nachtwacht). 

Here is the most touristy selfie of us taking a blurry selfie with the famous painting in front of other tourists, who are also taking a selfie with the famous painting.

Van Gogh Museum*- This site is right next door to the Rijks in the Museumplein area. This almost didn't make our must-do list for similar reasons to the Rijks, but ultimately we enjoyed learning more about this most brilliant artist whose history was both fascinating and painful. It blew our minds that Van Gogh's fame occurred only after his suicide, which was due exclusively to the efforts and passion for his art by his brother and sister-in-law and, years later, his nephew. 

Cromhouthuis (Biblical Museum)- This canal house was confusing; full of both odd and decadent collectors' items and religious possessions. The first few floors focused on the extravagant life of entertaining by the Dutch elite. The portraits and home decor in this home were stunning. The upper floors featured a collection of Christian and biblical objects that had been acquired by the Cromhout family. 

Anne Frank House* (can ONLY purchase on-line, in advance). IF THIS IS THE ONLY THING YOU CAN DO IN AMSTERDAM, DO IT. This is the most bone chilling, visceral experience we can imagine. We initiated our tour in a sterile and modern looking museum building. Once you reach the Secret Annex, it is required that all phones and cameras go away. Lenni was able to snap a quick picture of the bookcase through which the Frank family traveled behind to get into the Annex. To walk the floors and staircases of the eight people who resided here in silence for two years, to stand in their rooms, and to look at the carefully preserved bedroom wall covered in magazine photos by Anne, was truly humbling and moving. 
One Note: We had some trouble finding this museum, as it is a very different area from anywhere else we had previously explored. It turns out, it is just behind the GIANT Westerkerk Church.

Amsterdam Tulip Museum- Alright, this was silly. We actually could not have been less interested in how tulip pollination contributed to tulips becoming synonymous with Holland, but the gift shop was really cute! We don't have a picture, so here is a picture of Devon and his cat. 

Day 4

Tropen Museum* (in Oosterpark by our hotel)- Watch Lenni embarrass herself as she walks the African Fashion cat-walk and pose with no idea that she's being filmed…Go to this museum for the aesthetic alone! When you enter the gallery area, you feel like you are in an older, more beautiful Grand Central Station. 
This museum mostly focuses on cultures that contributed and influenced Dutch culture. There was a sweet music history gallery, a runway for African Fashion, and our favorite:  BODY ART galleries that chronicled the cultural and artistic trends of using the body as a blank canvas for expression. Really neat and refreshing stuff! 

National Holocaust Museum- This museum was much smaller than we expected it to be, and it is apparently in the process of expanding. It offers intimate accounts into the lives of those who were victims during the Holocaust. The exhibit that was featured focused on the stories of the children of the Holocaust. This museum also offers an expansive digital exhibit to search individual victims and their stories.

Holocaust Memorial*- This is located just across the street from the National Holocaust Museum. We didn't recognize it at first because it looks like an old theatre...and it turns out, it is. It was in this beautiful theatre that Jews were quartered prior to camp deportation. 

The theatre platform and roof have been removed, and between the original brick walls facing the open sky is an obelisk standing as a reminder of all who were lost in the Holocaust. The surrounding walls where theatre goers used to sit is filled with wooden tulips and notes of remembrance. Just behind these walls is the courtyard. Within the building (the original lobby), you can watch several documentary style films, and see the scale of devastation on displayed list of names of the 102,000 Dutch killed in the Holocaust. Between touching these brick walls and walking the tiny patch of green courtyard, our experience was similar to that at the Anne Frank House. 

Amsterdam Museum- We were pretty burnt out by the time we got to this museum, but it is fun, modern, and laid out in a funky format. Here you can learn about how Amsterdam became the world's largest bike city, its history as a leading trading city, and how far it has come as a free-thinking culture. There is also a great interactive kids area!

Begijnhof (Chapel and English Church)- This is just outside the Amsterdam museum. This courtyard is lined with beautiful private homes and historic buildings. Enter the Church and Chapel for some is almost like the busy city disappears within their walls!


Sounds: There is fun street music everywhere! Stop and listen. Devon and I had never heard a saxophone sound like the one featured as the background music you hear during this argument we are having about tipping.

Smells: Weed. Weed wafts everywhere. 

If you are looking for a cool coffeeshop, check out De Dampkring (as featured in Ocean's 12 with Brad Pitt). It had a knowledgeable "bud-tender" AND offered some pretty awesome freshly squeezed juice options for non-smokers, who just want to be a part of a chill atmosphere without partaking.

Snacks: The number one question we have been asked about Amsterdam has been, "What is Dutch food like?" Well, the truth is, it's nothing that special. 

You've got your meat and potatoes, often doused in 
HOLLANDAISE sauce (get it..HOLLAND-aise…), and as our server said, Dutch meatballs are just meatballs made in the Netherlands (they do NOT come in marinara sauce, but with mustard, as pictured). 

Fries with different flavored mayonnaise are all the rage when it comes to snacking, and Dutch pancakes are really just rolled up flapjacks smothered in ice-cream, whipped cream and chocolate sauce

Lenni is Gluten-Free...womp, womp. 

and...Gluten is EVERYWHERE...
and "gluten-free" menus are not a thing here (probably because their food is cleaner than the crap we put into ours and therefore people don't have these allergies). The few times we tried to inquire to servers about this, we ended up just receiving more careful.
Unfortunately, only Devon could indulge in the gluten-y Dutch dessert goodness of waffles, pancakes, and churros covered in a variety of deliciousness.  
Fortunately, Lenni loves a good oversized omelette stuffed with Dutch cheese and "tiny coffees" (americano, espresso, cappuccino), so she was all set!

Dining Etiquette:
  • Tips...tipping was SUPER confusing for us. With Devon's background as a server, he struggled with the common practice of NOT tipping, or only leaving some spare change on the table instead of a 20% tip. We actually received some SHOCKED reactions from those we tipped heavy handedly before we fully understood how this worked. We did some research and learned that in Europe, restaurant servers are paid a living wage and do not rely on tips the way servers in the states do...but this was still hard for us.                                                   

 Which brings us to....

  • You, the diner, set the pace for you meals. Unlike the attitude in the American restaurant service, in which quick turnover is key for tipping, it is considered rude in Europe to bring the diners the check before they ask for it. In some restaurants, it was up to us to go to the cashier when we decided we were done. We had to watch a few people do this, but once we understood, we were able to relax and linger as long as we felt comfortable.
  • Eat outside in 30 and 40 degree weather! Almost all outdoor awnings in this city are FULLY heated!
Ok that sums it up Amsterdam, folks. Look for our upcoming posts about Disney and Greece 2018! Until then…


Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Quick and Dirty Tips, Tricks and Lessons learned in Amsterdam (Amsterdam: Our favorite Sights, Sounds, Smells & Snacks coming next!)

The Flights: We could not have been happier on our direct flight on Delta booked through Expedia! Lenni hates flying and she only decided we were dying once! We had plenty of food and entertainment and the crew was excellent!
Image result for hotel arena

The Hotel: A+ to Hotel Arena. The aesthetic alone was worth the stay. This 4-star hotel stands in Oosterpark in front of a small pond. The exterior looks like an old fortress or church and the interior is just modern enough. Our room was a loft, which made us feel like we were hotshot celebrities. The food in the chic restaurant was the best we had on our trip. The bar was hoppin' all night, every night and definitely appeared to cater towards what we'd consider the "gossip girl" types of the upper east side. 

The only reason we can explain how this incredible hotel was included as the price it was in our Expedia package would be that it is not centrally located in the city. Hotel Arena is about a 5-minute walk to the tram, a 2-minute tram ride to the Jewish Quarter, and a 5-7 minute tram ride to Dam. It was actually amazing to retreat to the quiet and beauty of this park area at the end of a long day in the bustling city.

Random Tips:

Image result for i amsterdam cardFirst of all, the Iamsterdam City Card is EVERYTHING! Literally, you don't need anything else. For under $100 each, we had unlimited access the Tram, entrance to about 40 museums, a canal tour and a sick map. We'll get into that in the next post...

  • Don't be afraid to get lost! The best thing we did was wander down little alleys and streets with no idea where we were or how to get back to things we were familiar with. This city is small. You will find your way back, so just wander as you please!

  • The Red Light District is SICK! We ended up spending most of our evenings strolling in this area in awe of all that goes on, even on week nights.
  • At this time of year, Amsterdam is getting less than 8 hours of daylight. Literally, the sun does not rise until 8:40am, which was super confusing our first morning with the time difference.

  • First of all, this is an amazing city to be in during the holidays! People talk about the tulips and yeah, we get it, we missed out on that, but the entire city was DECKED OUT for Christmas, which made it so special for us. Weather in December is actually comfortable. There is no wind in this city, making the mid-high 40s more than bearable. Honestly, scarf, hat and gloves were toooo much, even for Lenni who is perpetually freezing.
  • If you have allergies bring your own Benadryl!!!! OTC meds that you'd find in CVS and Walgreens are not a thing. We learned that "drugstores" will give you very low dose of OTC meds, but you have to find an "apotheek" if you want something like a painkiller or allergy medication that would be sold over the counter in the US. Devon, who you can see in all of his red and swollen glory, had an allergic reaction to the dustiness of the some of the museums in preserved old homes. Even the apotheek did not have an allergy medication compatible to Benadryl, and so, he was forced to suffer along.

  • DO NOT WEAR HEELS. You will wish you were dead...
  • You do not need a personal tour guide in this city. Almost every museum had a complimentary audio recorded tour of the museum in English as well as written commentary in both Dutch and English.
  • TOURISTS BEWARE FALSE WEED PRODUCTS! Cannabis paraphernalia and products sold in stores that are not coffeeshops are often THC free, which means that while they technically have weed (CBD Oil) within them, they WILL NOT get you high. We watched several tourists go crazy purchasing items that they thought would get them high that were THC free...perhaps the placebo effect will make up for the holes burned in their wallets.

  • Coffee Shop (with a space between) indicates a shop that sells coffee. A Coffeeshop (no space) sells coffee AND other stuff...go to a coffeeshop before you hop on a canal cruise...
Ok...that's the quick and dirty! Stay tuned for an explanation of Devon's "baby-penis" commet from the video in this post, as well as a thorough review of our favorite Sights, Sounds, Smells & Snacks from our trip to Amsterdam!

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Here we come Amsterdam...and on a budget to boot!

We will be in the Netherlands in 5 days! This post will cover the pre-trip portion of the trip (aka financial package and payment perk options). See our Travel Review coming up next!

This is our first time making use of an bundle package. In the past, we've booked hotel rooms using Expedia, but never a we are here to give you an honest review.

Perks and Points? We love POINTS, and Expedia offers these! Prior to our Amsterdam escapade package, we had only used Expedia once, for a single night hotel stay. The points are only redeemable once you've finished your stay.... so to date we have enough points to get us about 
$2.56 towards a rental car service! 

A serious perk? We could book Flight, Hotel AND Recreation in one transaction...and we did.

The Dealio:  With the guidance of Rick Steves, we selected Amsterdam as the best option for the 5-days of travel time we had in our schedules! We (Lenni) impulsively booked this trip back in February of 2017. It was a deal too good to pass up: 4-nights at a 4-star hotel and DIRECT airfare (which is important to Lenni because she is THE WORST flyer ever) on Delta for two came to a total of $1257.16 (+$88 for taxes and fees). 

We also each 
purchased a 96-hour City Card through Expedia, which totaled $185.40 for two. This card will give us access into pretty much ALL the museums in Amsterdam, public transportation, and other touristy attractions like city and canal tours. We PRE- purchased tickets for the Anne Frank House  ($10.55/ea) and Rijksmuseum ($21/ea), which are not included in our city card, but are absolute must dos.

So before food, drinks and shopping, we are looking at $796.83 per traveler for flights, hotels, recreation and additional transportation.

How do you get out of baggage fees? This is a tricky one because we are flying Jet Blue to and from a wedding in Virginia the day before we leave for Amsterdam, but not leaving the airport between the two trips. This obviously means we require packing wedding appropriate attire and extras that will stay with us through Amsterdam... but when it came down to it, it was not worth it to pay baggage fee for 4-flights. So we just had to make it work.                                                                Image result for baggage fee images

Both Jet Blue and Delta have the same baggage policy: 1 carry-on  (approximately 22" x 14" x 9" or 56 x 35 x  23 cm) and 1 personal item (backpack, purse, computer bag, etc.)

BUT HOW CAN YOU FIT STUFF? Determining what we REALLY needed for Amsterdam was a puzzle, 
but fortunately with it being winter, there was no need to pack cute outfits that would never been seen anyway. In this tiny TSA approved carry-on suitcase, Lenni fit:
1 semi cute winter dress that no one will see
4 pairs of Disney themed PJs
Plenty of underwear and winter socks 
5 sweaters
2 pairs of jeans
5 tanks and undershirts 
1 full length wedding guest dress
Fancy shoes. 

This list doesn't include a travel outfit: an extra sweatshirt, sweatpants, winter jacket, gloves hat and scarf. 

This means only ONE pair of shoes (in addition to the fancy shoes), but thats a small price to pay for saving hundreds between baggage fees for the both of us.
We will each be able to take an additional "personal-item," which gives us the opportunity to each bring these really fashionable back-packs jammed with our toiletries, chargers, travel books and maybe some extra socks. We are being very careful to LEAVE EXTRA ROOM in these, because we will inevitably come home with more than we left with ;-)

What next? Well, you can expect a full report on Lenni's first time experiencing"turkish coffee," Amsterdam do's and don'ts, hidden jems and our Expedia flight, hotel and city card reviews!

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