Pedals and perennials aren’t the only beautiful things in the Netherlands – but they certainly give anything human-made a run for its money. Northern Holland has two famous, friendly cities connected by a fast, efficient train just waiting to be explored by the adventurous traveler with good walking shoes.
Holland’s most famous (or is that infamous?) city is Amsterdam, and its primary draw for me wasn’t related to drugs or vice, but water and history. Built as it is on land reclaimed from the sea, Amsterdam – and much of North Holland – is flat as a pancake and crisscrossed with canals that serve as drains as well as charming waterways through the cities and the countryside.
Amsterdam is ringed with miles and miles of these canals. Some are extravagant, some are plain and practical. But there are places to see and things to do on the dry land between the waterways, let’s take a look.
Heading directly into town from the main train station, take a look at the various Northern European mix of architectural styles, from spiny Neo-Gothic to classic gables.
The main hub of Amsterdam is Dam Square, where the river Amstel was first dammed to dry out the sandy earth upon which the rest of the city would eventually be built. Unlike famous plazas and piazzas in other great Continental European cities, the square is bisected by a busy main road full of cars, bikes, and the tram. This unfortunately kills some of the charm of the square, as it doesn’t feel like one whole, accessible space.
South of Dam Square, over the bridges and down streets lined with interesting shops, Vondel Park is a linear oases from the rather cramped streets, sidewalks, and cycle lanes of the city.
The tightwad tourist with a time limit might give a skip to the museums – the Anne Frank House, Van Gogh Museum, and Rijksmuseum may be the most famous – in favor of simply walking through historic neighborhoods and enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of this obliging city.
The city’s most famous modern attribute is its accepting view of selected drugs and prostitution, most of which is concentrated in the Red Light District of the city. Adult entertainment of all kinds is on full display on every corner, and prostitutes work in rented spaces with display windows. Coffeeshops offer menus of marijuana that can be smoked on-premises or taken to go, loose-leaf or pre-rolled for your convenience. Photos are discouraged in the Red Light District, so visitors have to rely on their hazy memories when reminiscing about their adventures there, which seems ironically fitting.
The Netherlands, being so close to Belgium, import many of the best brews of their fellow Low Country. No one can blame the Dutch for not trying to outdo the Belgians when it comes to brewing perfection, so don’t feel bad ordering a Belgian in a craft beer pub while enjoying a hard, cured sausage and fragrant cheese before leaving town.
Amsterdam’s quiet western neighbor is much smaller and more relaxing. It boasts a cute main square – without the busy road slicing through the middle – and a fair collection of its own canals and hidden gardens.
From the Tourist Information center in the central square, grab a (sadly not free) walking guide of the various hofjes in Haarlem, small secluded courtyards ringed with small houses or apartments. This housing style was popular in this part of the Netherlands in the days of insanely wealthy international trade merchants. They were built for the benefit of the poor, especially single and widowed women, to provide safe housing for those who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
Today, most of these secret gardens are still open – but many are behind a secure door or gate, and only open to the public during business hours – and can be explored with the brochure guide.
If spending some extra time in Haarlem, take a walk along one of its canals for a less-crowded look at the various roof gables so popular in Belgium and Holland. The city’s small museums are on the water, as is the big windmill – the image we Midwest Americans so closely associate with Holland and the Dutch people.
The museums and windmill aren’t free, but with good legs, an adventurous spirit, and a picnic lunch, a day in Haarlem can be enjoyed without paying any admission fees.
We discovered, mostly by accident, that the three-day holiday weekend in May is the perfect time to visit the Netherlands. The flowers of Keukenhof and the industrial bulb plantations are in full bloom, the weather has turned the corner into the warm summer, and the cities are as welcoming – and freaky – as ever they are. Lace up your walking shoes, pack your bike shorts, and make sure your camera memory has plenty of space for flower shots!