48 hours in Amsterdam

There is something special about Amsterdam in springtime. The Keukenhof gardens are open for a couple of months, as the tulips paint the landscape in brilliant colours. The city is on party mode all through April in anticipation of Holland’s biggest holiday – Queen’s Day, on the last day of the month.

If you are in Amsterdam for only a couple of days, here is how to get the best of it. First, buy the 48 hour IAmsterdam Card, which allows free public transport and entrance to key attractions, discounts at some restaurants and even on bike rentals. Pick it up at the main tourist office opposite the Amsterdam Centraal railway station. Also pick up a guide to Keukenhof gardens. Or, since Amsterdam is cyclist heaven, hire a bicycle for the duration of your stay—choose from one of these options recommended by the authorities.

Biker heaven

Once you’re set, here’s how you can make the most of your two days in the city.

DAY ONE

9am: Start your day with a leisurely breakfast at an open air café on the Leidseplein (translated, Leiden Square), watching the city slowly come to life.

10am: Head to one of the many fabulous museums in Amsterdam for a morning of high culture. Choose from the Van Gogh Museum or the newly renovated Rijksmuseum. The two are located close to each other, so you can quickly take in the highlights of both.

1pm: Have lunch at one of the Indonesian restaurants that the city is known for. Order the Rijsttafel (Dutch for ‘rice table’), which is a meal of several, tiny side-dishes accompanied by rice.

3pm: Pose for photographs on the iconic IAmsterdam installation (some tourists try to climb on top of the letters for that quirky photo) and then make your way to the sprawling Vondelpark for a walk in the spring sunshine. If you are feeling particularly sporty, join in a raucous game of football that is sure to be on at several places in the park.

4pm: Walk or bike your way along the main canals of Amsterdam that form a ring in the inner city—the Prinsengracht, Keijzersgracht, Herengracht and Jordaan. The canal ring is on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites and celebrates its 400th year in 2013. There are beautiful old buildings lining both sides of these narrow streets and several canal-side cafés to nip into for a quick coffee.

6pm: Take an open boat ride on the canals, which comes with a guide and usually lasts for an hour. This is a great way to see the city and know a bit of its history.

7pm: Devote the evening to beer quaffing at a pub of your choice; you can never go wrong with beer in Amsterdam. Our recommendations are the ‘t Smalle, a distillery set up way back in 1780 near a picturesque canal (Egelantiersgracht 12), and In De Wildeman (Kolksteeg 3) famous for its Dutch and Belgian beers. And if you must, then take a stroll around Amsterdam’s (in)famous red light area, De Wallen. It is in Amsterdam’s old side, in the vicinity of the Oude Kerk (Old Church). Be sure not to point your camera at people or shops there since it is frowned upon.

IAmsterdam

Canal cruise

DAY TWO

8am: Grab a quick croissant and coffee on the run and make an early start to the Keukenhof gardens. Devote the entire morning to tulips and all the other attractions of Keukenhof.

1pm: Try some local specialties like Bitterballen—minced beef fried with a coating of bread crumbs at a brown café, so called for its darkwood panelling (and not because of the ‘substances’ they deal in, as some people think).

2pm: Take a lazy saunter through the floating flower market on Singel canal and the Albert Cuyp street market.

4pm: This is a must-do for any visitor to Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House. It is a grim reminder of the city’s Nazi history. Note that entry here is not included in the IAmsterdam card and that it may not be suited for small children. Buy your tickets online to avoid the long queues.

5pm: Pick up a helping of poffertjes (Dutch pancakes) and patat (fries) and sit at Dam Square watching buskers ply their trade. Or, walk around the shopping haven of Negen Straatjes or “nine streets” around the canal area, filled with pretty boutiques, art galleries and vintage stores

7 pm: Have a quiet dinner at Hap-Hmm for Dutch food “like grandma used to make” and at prices that make you hum with happiness. The restaurant is justly popular among both locals and tourists.

Game in progress

Windmill at Keukenhof

More on tulips

Tulips in bloomNo visit to Amsterdam in spring is complete without a trip to Keukenhof gardens just outside the city. The garden is open from 8am to 7.30pm (till May 20 this year) and it is best to arrive early to beat the crowds and get the most of your morning. Buy tickets for a boat ride around the gardens as soon as you arrive, since these are very popular and tend to get booked fast. Apart from the thousands of tulips in myriad colours, Keukenhof has other attractions like rows of daffodils and hyacinths, greenhouses for orchids, play areas for children and cafés dotted throughout. There are buses to Keukenhof from Schipol airport (easily reached from the centre of the city by bus or train) and it is best to buy a combination ticket online before you go.

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Originally published on the Conde Nast Traveller website on April 30, 2013

Also read: It’s tulips time in Amsterdam

It’s tulips time in Amsterdam

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In writing about Amsterdam as one of the top 10 cities for 2013, Lonely Planet says “Golden Age charmer prepares to party.” There are anniversaries and more anniversaries this year, including 400 years of the canal ring that marks Amsterdam out as one of the prettiest cities in the world and 40 years of the Van Gogh Museum. It’s not as if Amsterdam needs any of these reasons to party; the high heels and the disco music are on all the time.

Picture Amitabh Bachchan in a white sweater and Rekha in a tight white churidhar kameez floating in a cloud of dazzling colours, the whisper of a windmill in the backdrop. Remember? “Dekha ek khwab toh yeh silsile hue.” Yes, those tulips. A far prettier scene than heroines in yellow chiffons against lush fields of sarson, don’t you agree? But I digress. I won’t go so far as to claim that I always wanted my first visit to Amsterdam to coincide with the tulip season ever since I saw that song (especially since I must have been 8 or 9 then). But I do hum it under my breath as I walk out of the tourist office clutching a bunch of brochures about Keukenhof gardens, tulip shaped dreams in my eyes.

After what seems like a dozen transfers by bus and train, we finally reach Keukenhof the next morning. Thoroughly enchanting: no idea tulips came in such colours and shapes. I walk around in a daze, mouth slightly hanging open. Reverie is punctuated briefly and frequently at the sight of Japanese tourists posing for cameras in front of particularly bright tulips, fingers in the quintessential V sign. Husband is meanwhile entertained by the sight of me crouching under a tulip with my camera, trying to capture the play of light through the translucent petals (as I told him sheepishly). Just goes to show that thing about doing not unto others and so on.

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Later that day, we head to Haarlem to catch the end of the flower parade (this year on April 20). Typically European pretty town by the river. Medieval churches, over a dozen museums, buzzing city center, pedestrian only lanes, al fresco cafés. We grab a pizza and coffee at one of the latter and settle down in the evening chill to wait for the parade. This annual parade begins in the morning and travels 40 km from Noordwijk, through Keukenhof, finally stopping at Haarlem at 9 in the night. The theme for the year is ‘Musicals’ and after a long wait, the floats begin to stream in; tableaux from Lion King, West Side Story, the Sound of Music and all the usual suspects, created entirely with flowers.

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Another day, another trip. This time, a half day whirlwind tour of North Holland (really, the country is that small). It is a fine spring day and the entire tour is like being inside a ‘Visit The Netherlands’ poster. First stop, the Zaanse Schans village. I could swear there was a Hollywood set designer at work there: windmills, gabled houses, pretty wooden bridges over narrow canals, more tulips. Even a cheese factory specializing in the round cheese that nearby Edam is famous for. And inside, a milkmaid straight from central casting, explaining the cheese making process and handing out generous samples.

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Then an hour at the fishing village of Volendam, with lots of activities suggested by the tour guide. But we spend it watching the sailboats bob up and down the slightly choppy water. And finally Marken, a short boat ride away, also scattered with picture postcard scenes (I have become blasé about Holland’s breathtaking beauty by then) and a stop at a traditional clog-maker’s shop to see how these wooden shoes are made.

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Meanwhile Amsterdam has been on a roll as usual, the streets crowded with locals and tourists. People are playing chess on giant chessboards painted on street corners, buskers are doing brisk business at Dam Square, the canal-side cafes are full of people chatting over a beer and happy couples are stretched out on the grass at the sprawling Vondelpark. On the main roads, trams, buses, cycles and horse mounted policemen all travel together in perfect harmony. One morning, we browse idly through the open-air Albert Cuyp market and then we take a late evening canal cruise. We walk aimlessly for hours by the canals and narrow side streets, giving Amsterdam’s famous brown cafés and red light district a miss.

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And we end it all on a sad note with a visit to Anne Frank’s House. As I step out, I am so thankful for Amsterdam’s sunny friendliness that manages to lift that cloak of gloom that has settled on me.

Tip: Keukenhof Gardens is open this year from March 21 to May 20.

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A slightly edited version was published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine – Tulips from Amsterdam

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