Visiting The Netherlands as an American

I lived in the Netherlands for 2 years, and my daughter attends the University of Amsterdam. I have recently had some friends ask me for tips for a visit there, so I thought I would share those tips via this blog.

First of all, The Netherlands (actually, Nederland) is the name of the country… not Holland. North and South Holland are 2 provinces in the north of the country, where the most well-known cities are located (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and The Hague). However, most Dutch people just accept the fact that foreigners refer to the country incorrectly as Holland. (When I lived in the Netherlands, I mostly lived in Eindhoven, which was in the southern part of the country.)

The whole country is quite small. You could drive across it in any direction within a few hours. Driving is straight forward there; they drive on the right side of the road, and traffic isn’t bad except sometimes in the big cities. I would caution that all signs are in Dutch, and bicyclists are always in the right. Also, you need to pay close attention to when lanes shut down only to buses. If you’re going to travel around the country, I would definitely go via train. Train stations are typically in the center of the city, so you can walk around and see a city, then catch the train again when you’re done. Great day trips. Also, within each city, it’s easy to rent a bike to get around.  The infrastructure promotes bike riding, with great bike lanes and lots of bike parking places.

Everyone understands English, although some of the older population in small towns might not be able to speak back to you because they haven’t had much practice. Younger store workers in small towns are usually very happy to practice their English with Americans. In general, the Dutch like Americans. We make good movies and TV shows, we are generally happy and positive people, and we were helpful during WWII. (Also, everyone likes Canadians!)

The food is… well, just different. There isn’t much variety, but at least it is real food (typically not processed). The Dutch love bread and milk. Sandwiches are quite popular, but they usually only include a slice or two of meat. If you’re not a big fan of bread, then you won’t like their sandwiches. Their cheese is amazingly delicious. They don’t export their best tasting cheese, so if you visit, you must try some. Other typical foods include potatoes, sauerkraut (called zuurkool), sausage, and fried meat snacks, such as bitterballen and frikandel. They have wonderful pastries, so I recommend a stop at a Dutch bakery. Dutch bakeries also make a wider variety of items than U.S. bakeries (e.g., chocolates) and typically produce seasonal items. Farmer’s markets are popular, so find one that’s close to you, and try some kibbeling (fried fish nuggets) too. Mmmm.

If you have the time to travel around the country, the top 3 cities I would recommend visiting are Maastricht, Den Bosch, and, of course, Amsterdam. When you get to Den Bosch, you must try the chocolate-covered pastry balls at the famous bakery near the train station. Any Dutch person can direct you there.

Amsterdam is typically the easiest place to visit and stay because of the international airport, Schipol. The first time I went to Amsterdam, I didn’t like it because I stayed in the most touristy area. It was too crowded, and it just had American touristy places like McDonalds, Planet Hollywood, etc. Instead I recommend staying south of the museums and shopping district.

20140318-073033.jpg

Red = very touristy… no need to even visit
Green = best areas to spend the night
Purple = best areas of Amsterdam to check out

The top of the purple is the famous “red light district” where women dance or stand in the windows to entice you to come up and pay for sex…. a sight to experience if you’d like. Stadswandelpark (means city walking park) is beautiful. Museumplein has several incredible museums, especially the Van Gogh and Rijks museums.

If you visit one of the 100’s of coffeeshops (which usually don’t sell coffee… just a variety of marijuana), be aware that if you order a joint, it will contain tobacco too. Don’t order edibles; they just throw whatever into those, and inconsistently. Also, if you’re new to pot, just have a little bit. Amsterdammers have many funny stories about Americans falling over from smoking too much. There is a law in place that prevents foreigners from buying pot in the south of the country, so get it while you’re in Amsterdam.

A good way to find a reasonably priced place to stay is http://www.airbnb.com. The site to check out train times is http://www.ns.nl/en/travellers/home

If you want to travel to other countries while you’re in Amsterdam, I recommend going to the zoo next to the train station in Antwerp, Belgium. While you are in Belgium, you must try their french fries (the best in the world) and any of their beers. It is also easy to get to big cities like Paris, France or Dusseldorf, Germany via non-stop train rides. Not everyone will speak English in other countries, but if you are just doing some general siteseeing, it shouldn’t be a problem.

I haven’t listed all the great things about visiting The Netherlands, but those aspects can be discovered when you get there.  I highly recommend a visit!

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