Looking for a quick getaway and hoping to stay on a budget? Traveling to Amsterdam could be just what a girl needs to rejuvenate her spirit after a hectic holiday shopping season. Holland is one of the most laidback countries in the world. They were the first country to legalize same-sex unions in 2001 and for the LGBTQ traveler, Holland is a nice change of pace. Here are some tips to help you have a great time without putting too big of a dent in your pocket book.
The Gay Girls' Guide to Amsterdam
Day 1: Exploring the City, “aka Shopping Recon”
My friends and I booked a hotel in the heart of the museum district, which ensured that we were within short walking distance of the best shopping and tourist areas in the city. A quaint bed and breakfast, The Hotel Washington offers reasonable rates and a comfortable stay. For €115 a night, we had wifi access and a traditional Dutch breakfast each morning, plus a private bathroom and clean sheets every day. This sure beats staying in a hostel!
After recuperating from the 10-hour flight from the US, we took the tram to Rembrandt Square and from there, we walked to the Kalverstraat. If you’re looking for name brand clothes, shoes, and accessories, this is the place. Unfortunately, with the current exchange rate, you’re not likely to find a good deal on clothing in Holland. Window shopping is definitely worth pursuing, but I would save your money for the other attractions Amsterdam has to offer.
While we were shopping, we noticed a crowd gathering near an ice-skating rink in the middle of the square. Curious, we decided to take a look. What did we find? Drag queen on ice skates! In a country where anything goes, there was nothing surprising to the locals about 5 drag queens in beautiful ball gowns sharing the ice with little kids in mittens. Do I love this country or what?
For dinner, we decided to take a friends’ recommendation of visiting a restaurant we have lovingly dubbed “Mary’s Shack.” Here are her directions, verbatim. “When you come out of Centraal Station, you’ll see the ferry dock on your left side and a little shack on the right side. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s the best meal I’ve had.” After searching high and low, we discovered Pier 10, which is directly across the street on the north side of Centraal Station. The menu features traditional Dutch food and continental cuisine with a modern twist. I enjoyed a pasta dish with grilled vegetables and brie, as well as an oak leaf salad with porcini mushrooms and a red currant dressing. Even the house wine was delicious.
The highlight of our meal, however, was dessert. We ordered a cinnamon toast with cinnamon ice cream, which in Holland is called “wentelteefje.” The waitress told us that directly translated, this means “turn around, bitch.” (I later confirmed this translation with my cousins.) Paired with a nice white dessert wine, this dessert will leave you wanting for nothing more.
Day 2: Visiting the Countryside
Since my family is from Holland, I decided to take a trek to Hilversum, a village which is only 20 minutes by train from Amsterdam. In Hilversum, you can see windmills and little farms, as well as enjoy shopping the in the open air market on Wednesdays. We enjoyed a lunch of pannekouken, which are Dutch pancakes the size of a large dinner plate. At any pannekouken restaurant, you can choose from a variety of sweet or savory toppings.
Following lunch, we drove from Hilversum to Loosdrecht, which is a small sailing town that sits on 5 lakes. During the summer, this village is swarming with families on holiday and you can rent a boat or a house for your vacation. Since we were there in December, all of the boats were in the boat house for the winter. They’re hoping for a nice freeze this year, but with global warming, that seems unlikely. Even though we couldn’t go sailing, it was still worth the drive into the country to see what life is like in rural Holland.
Day 3: Museum Day and 4:20 at the Arabica Lounge
Amsterdam is home to some of the finest art museums in the world, including the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. The Rijksmuseum is currently under renovation, so there is only a small wing open until 2009. With only 4 days in Holland, we decided to take in the Van Gogh Museum. For €10, the museum is definitely worth the entry fee. And if you wait to do you souvenir shopping at the stall outside of the museum rather than in the museum gift shop, you will save a lot of money.
Although the museum is relatively small, the collection of Van Gogh’s work is very overwhelming. The museum is a testament to brotherly love. At the time of Vincent’s death, the majority of his paintings were owned by his brother Theo. Theo died shortly after his brother Vincent and his wife Jo made it her life’s mission to make Vincent’s work known to the world. Jo had Theo buried next to Vincent when he died, stating that “although he belonged to me, his memory belonged to his brother.”
Looking at art always puts me in the mood to shop. And if you really want to bargain shop, the Albert Cuyp Market, one of the largest open air markets in the world, is the place to be. Here you will find everything from wooden shoes, Delft porcelain, clothing, vegetables, cheese, and herring. I managed to do the majority of my souvenir shopping here for under €30.
After all that art and bargain hunting, we needed a break. We grabbed a quick bite to eat at a little bakery and had a typical Dutch lunch of bread and cheese, then dropped our treasures off at the hotel. Since the sun was out, we decided that a canal tour was definitely in order.
Holland is a country that lies mostly below sea level. The land has been built up by keeping back the sea waters via canals with lock systems that date back as far as the 1500’s. Taking a canal tour is a very efficient way of seeing all of Amsterdam in a very short period of time and the ride only costs €10. For a little more money, you can get an unlimited pass that allows you to get on and off at different tourist sites.
The architecture of Amsterdam is truly unique. Since the country is landlocked, the buildings are very narrow and they are usually 4-5 stories tall. The Jordaan is one of the oldest sections of the city and here you will find the most interesting houses and bridges. Once you get to the harbor, you will see modern shipping boats, as Amsterdam is the second largest port in Holland, as well as a ship from the 1600’s called the Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam, it’s 4:20 all day and you can’t go to Holland without visiting a coffee shop. If you want a complete rundown on Holland’s drug laws, as well as a review of different coffee shops, I recommend the book “Let’s Go Amsterdam.” IN a nutshell, you can buy up to 5 grams a day from any one shop and you may carry up to an ounce on you at any time. Weed, hash, and shrooms are considered “soft drugs” and are permitted, although Holland recently tightened up restrictions on mushrooms.
For 4:20, I picked a local favorite, Arabica Lounge, because it’s strain of White Widow won the 2003 Cannabis Cup. Pre-rolled joints are only €3, but all pre-rolled joints in Europe have tobacco in them. You can buy a gram of pure weed for only €7. If you do the monetary conversion, that’s about $9. One gram is a little less than an eighth of an ounce. And in Long Beach, you can get an eighth of Chronic for $35. So this is definitely a bargain.
The shop owners found me entertaining because I asked them to roll the entire gram into a spliff for me. “Are you sure? Just one?” they asked. “Yes,” I assured them. “Don’t let this churchy demeanor fool you. It’s a finely tuned-façade that has kept me out of trouble with the police. In America, I would roll that up in a blunt and smoke it.” I finally convinced them that I could handle my weed, so they rolled me a fatty, handed me a lighter and asked if I wanted anything else. I asked for a Coke and they said, “we don’t sell that here.” Word to the wise, if you want to be a hospitable guest, ask for a cola instead of a Coke so you don’t freak out the shopkeepers. Holland has a zero-tolerance policy for hard drugs.
The White Widow was everything I hoped it would be. After just a few drags, I got a nice, mellow high and sat there lounging to the 70’s funk, enjoying the laid back atmosphere. I watched a man re-varnishing a table while he kept a joint dangling from his mouth and thought, “this is the life!” I love a country that lets people smoke their weed in peace!
Day 4: Dutch Resistance, LGBTQ Politics, and Rotterdam
If you’re on a tight schedule when you’re in Amsterdam, skip the Anne Frank House and go directly to the Dutch Resistance Museum. At 9:00 AM, the line for Anne Frank was already wrapped around the block and the tour itself takes a little over an hour. However, in front of the church that is next to Anne Frank’s house, there is a monument to the LGBTQ victims of the Holocaust. There is also a little shop where you can purchase gay-themed souvenirs, such as a Delft porcelain statuette of a girl and girl or boy and boy kissing.
The Dutch Resistance Museum is well worth the trip and admission is free. You can pick up a map of a walking tour of Amsterdam that takes you past all of the important sites of the resistance movement. One thing that I found particularly interesting is that women played a very large role in the resistance efforts because the Germans assumed that women wouldn’t participate in armed conflict. How’s that for patriarchy? Many women would pretend to be pregnant in order to smuggle guns and documents and they would pass right under the noses of the German SS.
Another interesting day trip is Rotterdam, which is the largest port in all of Europe. The architecture of Rotterdam stands in stark contrast to Amsterdam because German bombings flattened the city during World War II and most of the city had to be rebuilt. Stepping out of the train station, the tall skyscrapers make you feel as if you’re in Boston or another major US city. When I asked why the Germans bombed Rotterdam and not Amsterdam, I was told that that Dutch sunk their own ships to make the port unusable for the Germans and in retaliation, Germany bombed out the city. The Dutch are very proud of the way they stood up to the Germans, and stories like this are typical.
If you want to see all of Rotterdam in a single stop, the Euro Mast is a tall tower that looks similar to Seattle’s Space Needle. For €10, you can ride to the top and enjoy the view of the harbor and all of the city. There’s also a restaurant at the top if you need a cup of tea or a sandwich. Rotterdam is also home to the church where the Pilgrims set off for America. It is located in the small historic district that managed to survive the bombings. With all of its shopping and interesting historical sites, Rotterdam deserves a week of its own. I definitely intend to go back when I return to Holland next year.
Tips for Tourists
- Watch for cheap airfares.
We were able to fly for only $450 because we were willing to go during the off-season. Prices go up sharply during the remainder of the year. You can typically find airfares for around $600 if you travel in March-April, but as you get closer to June-August (which is when most Dutch people take their holidays), airfares are usually around $1200.
- Invest in a multi-day transit pass.
Holland has excellent public transportation, including subways, trams, and buses. You can get a unlimited day pass for €6.50 and a 3-day pass is only €13.50.
- Plan your trips to the gay bars wisely.
Because anything goes in Amsterdam, there isn’t a particular “gay zone” to visit and gay bars are scattered throughout the city. I used the website GayAmsterdam.com to locate different bars and cafes. But just because anything goes, that doesn’t mean that the bars are always open. I made the mistake of heading out on a Monday night, which is the only night of the week that the bars are closed. Also make sure that you check the tram schedule to find out when the last tram leaves the station nearest the bar so that you don’t have to hoof it all the way back to your hotel.
- Save the credit card for large purchases and carry cash.
Because of the poor exchange rate, you will save a lot of money in fees if you only use your credit card to pay for airfare and your hotel. Bring an ATM card to withdraw cash when you need it, since this is how you will get the best deal. You will need a small amount of cash to take the train from the airport into the city, so do plan to exchange about $40 in the airport. But don’t be shocked when you only get €20 in return. Wait to withdraw more cash so you get the best exchange value and only withdraw what you know you will spend. Between shopping, eating, and transit, I budgeted €100 and I had a lot of money left at the end of the trip.
- If you plan to bring tulip bulbs home, make sure they’re certified.
Before you buy, make sure you ask if the bulbs are ready for export to the US. The package should have a certificate on it. If not, do not waste your money because you will have to declare your bulbs at customs and you will not be let back into the US without the proper documentation.
- Take in the countryside to see all that Holland has to offer.
I enjoyed the day trip to Hilversum. Gouda, which is known for its cheese, is only 20 minutes from Amsterdam via train and I plan to go there on my next trip. Holland is a lush, green country. The air is clean, due to the large number of people who bike or use public transportation. And you can enjoy looking at sheep and cows out of your train window. If you’re a city dweller like me, this is definitely a novelty.
Four days is definitely enough time to take in a lot of Amsterdam. And staying on a budget is also easy if you plan ahead. But if you really want to experience all that Dutch culture has to offer, I recommend giving yourself at least a full week in the city, if not more time. This trip was only the tip of the iceberg and I can’t wait to return next year!