Amsterdam and Dutch Side Trips
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves. It's great to be your travel partner as we explore more of the best of Europe. This time we return to the Netherlands and captivating Amsterdam.
We'll start in Amsterdam — perhaps Europe's best-preserved 17th-century city and at the same time wild, modern, and a little jarring to some more conservative visitors. Then we'll delve into the much more quaint Dutch countryside.
In the Netherlands, people work hard and play hard. It's packed with art — from Rembrandt etchings to Van Gogh sunflowers. Flowers are big business, herring goes down easy, and marijuana is sold openly in coffee shops. It's a land where millers expertly catch the wind in traditional ways — and in modern ways. The Dutch seem to be experts at living together.
Europe's most densely populated country is the Netherlands. We start in Amsterdam, visit Haarlem, cross an 18-mile-long dike, go through the new state Flevoland, and finish in flower country at Alsmeer.
Amsterdam has about a million people and as many bikes. Here's a park-and-ride lot — Amsterdam style. The touristy main drag, Damrak, connects the train station with the city's main square. From this spine, the city opens like a fan, with hundreds of bridges and a series of concentric canals — named "Gentleman's," "Prince's," and "Emperor's."
All this was laid out in the 1600s, Holland's Golden Age, when Dutch merchant ships sailed up the main canal loaded with material delights from around the world. The customs house stood right here. Dutch prosperity was founded on trade — and trade is still big today.
But with a local friend, you'll learn there's more to life than lots of trade. Rolinka Bloeming, who works with me as a tour guide, lives here in the characteristic Jordaan district.
The neighborhood gathers in the corner café — everyone feels at home. A brown café is a great place to read, enjoy a light lunch, or get together with a friend. For many, the brown cafe provides a relaxing interim between their work life and their home life. Traditionally, these places have little carpets on the table — and lots of smoke. In fact, they're nicknamed "brown" because of their tobacco-smoke-stained interiors. It's been smoky in here since 1641. Most customers are locals who live within a block, but tourists feel welcome.
Bike lanes run next to the sidewalks and bikers whiz by silently — walk carefully. But don't forget to look up. The skyline is a long line of old-time facades, occasionally interrupted by a church spire.
The city is decorated with ornate gables. While these were expensive, more of the construction cost actually went into making a strong foundation. With their cramped interiors and steep steps, goods have long been hoisted up on the outside with a rope and pulley.
A merchant's house had three sections: the shop was on the ground floor, the family lived in the middle, and the attic served as a kind of warehouse.
Rolinka: Got it, Rick? Got it. Good! Seventeenth-century land was always expensive, and then taxes were based on the width of the house. So we built skinny and straight up.
Amsterdam's wealthiest showed off by building wide houses facing the ritziest canal. A high entry with a double staircase — that's real status.
To venture behind the facades, most European cities keep an elegant Old World house open to the public as a museum. This mansion shows how Amsterdam's rich lived.
Splendid hallways led to opulent rooms — ideal for entertaining. In this salon, the gentlemen would play cards. Luxury living was labor-intensive. Servants — headquartered in the attic and in the basement — kept the bedroom comfy, fluffing up the goose-down mattresses daily and carrying up all the necessary water. A state-of-the-art 18th-century kitchen was in the cellar — the coolest part of the house. While land was at a premium, these folks had a fine French-style garden.
But not everyone lived in such fancy houses. This humble, peaceful place is a begijnhof, originally an almshouse for devout women who served the church. It provides a wonderful refuge from the cities noisy hubbub and a rare glimpse of Amsterdam from a more genteel time.
This church has served Amsterdam's English-speaking community since 1607. The pilgrims, refugees from religious intolerance in England, worshipped here before boarding the Mayflower for Plymouth Rock. Dutch society has a long tradition of tolerance.
When the Netherlands won its independence from Catholic Spain, the Dutch government outlawed Catholicism just on principal. But locals still conspired to give Catholics a way to worship — providing they kept a low profile.
These 17th-century merchant houses look normal from across the canal... but picture worshippers in their Sunday best climbing these stairs to come upon this hidden Catholic Church. Called Our Lord in the Attic, it dates from 1661, when post Reformation Dutch Catholics couldn't worship in public.
Imagine this small church crammed with worshippers. The balconies actually hang from the ceiling with those iron rods.
It's a grand church... in miniature. Even these crucifixes are tiny — folk art made by seafaring people using the same techniques they'd use to put ships into bottles. These were used at home for private worship.
Whether Protestants, Catholics, or Jews, through the ages, the Dutch have given refuge to the persecuted. But they couldn't protect their haven from the Nazis.
This building, once a thriving theater in Amsterdam's Jewish quarter, was part of that sad story. Germans made it an assembly hall for local Jews destined for concentration camps. It's a thought-provoking memorial in the middle of this crowded and carefree city. It makes an indelible impression on its visitors — whether tourists or local school kids.
Rolinka: This one says, "No war anymore. Is that so difficult?" These are eight-year-old kids writing.
On the wall, family names represent the more than 100,000 Dutch Jews who stopped here en route to camps in the east... and death.
Nearby, the Dutch Resistance Museum takes you back to the 1940s, during the Nazi occupation, to tell how the Dutch fought back. Study forged ID cards — this student, hunted by the Nazis for his resistance activities, disguised himself as a woman. With this corset stuffed with ration cards, a woman who looked pregnant helped feed both hidden Jews and resistance fighters. And courageous moms with strollers did their part, as well. Propaganda movie clips tried to make Dutch Nazis look like winners. And while the Germans confiscated all radios, the Dutch got their news from England via miniature radios. This one's hidden in a matchbox
Rick: Your grandparents lived through these times.
Rolinka: Yes. Yes, in the winter of 1944. It is also called the Hunger Winter. People were so hungry they had to eat tulip bulbs just to have something in their bellies. Grandparents starved so children could live. An entire generation of people are shorter than their countrymen. Today we eat well. Our young people are the tallest in the world.
City sightseeing goes faster on bicycle — they're easy to rent.
Traditional bridges — like this one, which crosses the Amstel River — were built with a fine-tuned counterbalance. Bridge keepers bragged they could raise and lower it with a single finger. They built a dam on the Amstel in the 13th century. The community that gathered here was named for the Amstel dam — eventually, Amsterdam.
Throughout the Netherlands, pubs selling marijuana are called "coffee shops." Amsterdam alone has over 300. The Dutch, like many Europeans, view marijuana as a soft drug — like tobacco and alcohol. Marijuana is tolerated. But hard drugs are strictly forbidden.
Quantities are limited, customers must be 18, and police use coffee shops to warn about the danger of hard drugs.
Menus look like a drug bust back home. Non-smokers are welcome to drop in for just a drink. Both the staff and customers are happy to share their opinion.
If you just want some caffeine, look for a café... not a coffee shop.
Vondelpark, Amsterdam's sprawling and lively city park, offers a fun look at Holland at play. Offering free concerts in the summer, the park is popular with romantic couples, free spirits sharing blankets and beers, and young families. The easygoing hedonism here seems to say: "just relax."
Rick: That was great, thanks a lot!
Rolinka: See you tonight, goodbye. Toot zeins!
Another side of Amsterdam's entertainment scene is its Red Light District. Practitioners of the world's oldest profession flirt and tease in display case windows as they have here for over 300 years.
Most of those gawking are tourists. The Dutch have the same pragmatic approach to prostitution as they have to the recreational use of marijuana. They figure if it's going to happen anyway, rather than criminalize it, it's smarter to corral and monitor it. Generally, women pay rent for their space and run an independent business with no need for pimps. If a prostitute needs help, she pushes a button and the police come. This spectacle must be one of the most-visited attractions in town. Browsers are welcome...
...but a canal cruise is my idea of a good time after dark. Canal boats give visitors a relaxing, scenic ride through town just about any time of day. Whether on a privately hired party boat or a narrated sightseeing boat, you'll see Amsterdam at its graceful best.
Rembrandt's House is often missed. The Rijksmuseum is famous for Rembrandts' paintings — but here you'll see how the master lived and worked.
Along with his living quarters is his studio — where he mixed his oils, framed his canvasses, and actually painted many of his most famous masterpieces. Rembrandt also made masterful etchings.
To make an etching, start with a copper plate, cover it with acid-resistant wax, and sketch by scratching away the wax. Then dip in acid, which "etches" the intended design into the copper, smear with ink, wipe off the excess, and it's ready for printing.
Many of Rembrandt's etchings are on display — like this Bible scene, set not in the Holy Land, but in Holland.
A more modern Dutch master was Vincent Van Gogh, or as the Dutch say, "Van Hoochh". The Van Gogh Museum — designed as a stroll through the story of Vincent's life — shows how intimately his life and art were intertwined.
Van Gogh grew up in poor rural Holland. From the start, he had an affinity for working people. His Potato Eaters — a painting as dark and grainy as the soil itself — gives these farm laborers the same dignity Rembrandt gave to merchants and aristocrats.
As a young man, Vincent was very religious. He studied to be a pastor and did church work in poor communities. But this wasn't his true calling.
He decided to paint, to capture the world he felt so intensely on canvas.
He moved to Paris, and the "City of Light" opened up a whole new world of color. Vincent hobnobbed with the Impressionists. He studied their bright colors, rough brushwork, and everyday scenes.
He painted shimmering reflections like Monet...
...café snapshots like Degas...
...still-lifes like Cézanne...
...and self-portraits like nobody else. But Vincent longed to strike out on his own. He headed for the south of France, arriving just as winter was turning to spring. Energized by the sun-drenched colors and blue, blue sky, in just two years Vincent produced an explosion of canvases.
His unique style evolved beyond the Impressionists — thicker paint, brighter colors, and swirling brushwork that made even inanimate objects pulse and vibrate with life.
Vincent's ecstasy alternated with depression. After a fit of madness, he was admitted to a local mental hospital. His letters home told of his great loneliness.
While in the hospital, he found peace painting calm scenes of nature.
But he also wrestled with his inner world, capturing spiritual scenes with surreal colors, twisted forms, and dark outlines.
In this, his last work, the canvas is a wall of thick paint, with roads leading nowhere and ominous black crows taking flight. Overwhelmed with life, Vincent walked into a field like this one... and shot himself.
Amsterdam's train station is a springboard to the small towns and countryside, which feel more traditionally Dutch and are great to explore. In such a small country, most sights are a quick hop from here. We're arriving in Haarlem, just twenty minutes away by train.
Haarlem is a Dutch masters kind of town with plenty of 17th-century architecture. Haarlem's market square — traffic-free since the 1960s — has been the town's focal point for centuries.
To my Dutch friends, like Petra, I'm the classic American — always too busy and running around. There are no fast food chains with Petra... it's eat herring or go hungry. The herring stand is a standard feature of small town squares.
Rick: So this is raw.
Shopkeeper: It is not raw — it is made with salt.
Petra: It is pickled.
Rick: Is it good?
Shopkeeper: Yes, it is very good.
Rick: Healthy and delicious.
The shopkeeper and Petra explain the differences between the Rotterdam style (the whole fish) and the Amsterdam style (cut into bite-sized pieces).
Customer: I eat three herring a day and never go to the doctor — so three a day keeps the doctor away.
To uncover some of Haarlem's sites, dodge bikes down narrow medieval lanes.
Just down the street, Haarlem's top museum features the work of its most famous son: the great portrait artist Frans Hals.
Here we get a good taste of Protestant Dutch art. When the Dutch broke away from Spain and the Catholic Church, they established an independent Protestant republic. While great for freedom, it was a crisis for painters — no more wealthy bishops and art-loving kings to commission grand paintings. Dutch society was a merchant society, and now artists had to paint for a new kind of customer
These are ego-boosting portraits of city big shots. They epitomize the independent and upwardly mobile Dutch of the time — the men who made the Golden Age golden.
These Dutch worked hard and were proud of it. Here some businessmen close a deal. They enjoyed displaying the fruits of their labor: an exquisitely detailed still life of good food. No preachy Madonnas or saints, but a canvas reminder that this household had some fine pewterware. In this woman's portrait, her elegant outfit and jewelry are painted with as much care as her face.
It's a small country. You can cross it in a couple hours. And with so much of it reclaimed from the sea, the country is twice as big today as it was 300 years ago.
This is polder land: once the seabed... now reclaimed. To pump out all that seawater, the Dutch used one of their leading natural resources — the wind.
For centuries, the Dutch have built windmills. Over a thousand survive, many still work, and some welcome visitors interested in a peek at the clever engine that basically powered the creation of this land. I'm standing 12 feet below sea level. Many windmills turn Archimedes' screws — like this — which, by rotating in a tube, pumped water up over the dike and into the sea.
To catch the desired amount of wind, millers — like expert sailors — know just how much to unfurl the sails. Mills are built with sturdy oak timber frames to withstand the constant tension. When the direction of the wind shifts, the miller turns the cap of the building — which weighs 25 tons — to face the breeze. As he spins the winch, it all slides on these wooden roller bearings. Then, with a hefty chain, he anchors it in the correct spot. As the gears — greased with beeswax and oil — connect, wind becomes clean power, Archimedes' screw rotates, and the water spirals up.
These fields were once the bottom of the wide-open Zeider Sea. This 18-mile-long dike was built as the first step in turning the sea floor into farmland.
The master plan: cordon off sections of the shallow sea with hundreds of miles of dikes like this. Then, by draining each section dry, piece by piece, build a bigger country.
Because of this reclamation, old fishing villages — like Schotlan, once islands — are now high and dry.
Behind this sturdy stone-and-wood seawall, this tiny community once harvested the sea. This humble lighthouse once helped the fishermen find their way home.
That cannon warned villagers of a high tide. I'm standing below sea level, I know this because this marks sea level according to the official Amsterdam measure. Imagine, fifty years ago, that buoy bobbed in the harbor. What was the bottom of the sea is now a fertile field.
And when farmers first tilled their new soil, they uncovered more than just muck and mollusks.
This propeller is from an English bomber. When they drained the sea, they discovered a rusty graveyard of WWII wreckage.
Rural Holland is not only old and quaint. Here in Flevoland — the Netherlands' newest state — windmills are still part of the landscape. But rather than pump water, they generate power for the needs of — with today's wind — over 9,000 households. In Flevoland, some of the residents are older than the land they live on, which was reclaimed from the Zeider Sea in 1960s. The roads, commercial centers, and neighborhoods — made affordable to the masses — are all carefully planned and tidy as can be.
The salty new seabed soil is treated organically and eventually becomes extremely fertile. One thing the polder soil grows particularly well... is flowers.
And here at the Alsmeer Flower Auction, it's clear: flowers are big business in Holland. Visitors are welcome in what they claim is the world's biggest commercial building. Strolling the fragrant catwalk, you peer down on the action.
In five auction halls, over a thousand wholesalers bid on trainloads of flowers as they cruise slowly by. Traditionally, the buyers are men. To get the flowers out as fresh as possible, everything happens in lightning speed, including the bidding.
Woman: This is a special kind of auction — we call it "Dutch auction." The prices go from high to low. The price is per flower. The light is started by the auctioneer, the first buyer to press the button is the only buyer. You must be very, very fast; it is the only way to sell so many flowers in one morning — upwards of twenty one million flowers.
Workers scramble to get each buyer's purchase assembled on a train and shipped out fast to their flower-hungry market. The Dutch are the world's leading flower exporters — 80 percent of these flowers are going abroad. Every day, 20 million flowers are sent from this building throughout Europe and around the world, destined to make someone's day.
Thanks for joining us. Whether navigating wild and historic Amsterdam or just enjoying a small town square, here in the Netherlands, everything's just so Dutch! I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Toot zeins.
See more travel details for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.