Amsterdam in a Day

I recently took a week-long holiday in The Netherlands where I explored Amsterdam and The Hague before going to a big parkour event in The Hague. My holiday started in Amsterdam where I had one full day to explore, and I managed to do a lot with that one day.

I started the day with my favorite breakfast at the hotel, café and a croissant. Not as good as the real thing in Paris but it was close enough. After breakfast, I headed out for my first attraction of the day: Coster Diamonds. According to the website, Coster is the oldest diamond cutting factory and diamond jewelry retailer. They’re also famous for their royal clients, including Prince Albert of England who commissioned Coster to repolish the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is now part of the Crown Jewels collection. You can go see it at the Tower of London.

Also, according to the website, they do free tours. I walked over from my hotel and signed in on an iPad after requesting a tour. I was then “guided” into the workshop and promptly abandoned. Clearly something got lost in translation because nobody ever came to get me for a tour of any kind. After reading every plaque and sign I could find in the tiny workshop, I followed the signs for a museum hoping that might be more informative.

It was not.

Again, I clearly missed something because rather than a museum, I ended up in a diamond shop, as in diamonds with heart-attack-inducing price tags on them. The shop contained multiple rooms full of dazzling blues, greens, reds, and classic “brilliant” diamonds (brilliant = more facets to create more sparkling reflections of light). The smiling man behind the counter kept asking if I wanted to try anything on and I continued to smile, politely informing him repeatedly that I was just looking.

I followed the “Exit” signs which led me into more rooms full of sparkly stones and then finally the stones became less dazzling and more tacky and I felt hope that I had neared the end (tacky = gift shop = exit). Alas, I saw a real exit and made my escape, still frustrated that I didn’t get a real tour.

After I left I decided to wander… which is sort of how the rest of my day went. I didn’t have much of a plan so I literally just walked around the entire city, stopping to see things along the way. As I left Coster, I stumbled upon the I Amsterdam letters and felt obliged to stop for a touristy selfie. Everyone else was doing it.

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Next to the I Amsterdam letters I found a little food truck painted with the American flag advertising “Real American hot dogs.” Thank God, because how else would I eat when I leave the country?!

I kept wandering along the edge of the city center, past the Heineken Experience and over to the Albert Cuyp Market where I found this funny bird sitting on top of a car (pictured below), completely unfazed by passersby.

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After the market, I headed toward the city center, weaving my way through canals, bike lanes, and beautiful old European streets until I eventually found myself at the floating flower market. They had so many cute little trinkets and garden goodies, I was overwhelmed. There was also a little Christmas store across from one of the flower shops. Of course, I couldn’t help myself – I went in to look at all of the adorable little ornaments they had, including lots of little clogs, of course. Also, Christmas-themed condoms… Don’t ask.

Speaking of condoms, is it really a visit to Amsterdam without a visit to the Red Light District? Actually, I had no interest in going there originally, but one of the many coupons in my hotel fun-pack was for the Museum of Prostitution, “Red Light Secrets” which I took with me on a whim that morning. Sure enough, curiosity got the best of me on my walking tour of the city and I found myself wandering up into the RLD. It was early afternoon so there were only a handful of girls in windows and a limited number of creepy men hanging about.

I didn’t know what to expect so I tried to limit my wandering and went straight to the museum. I paid an extra euro for the audio tour in which a Russian prostitute tells you her story throughout the museum. There was an exhibit on prostitute fashion, an S&M room, two bedrooms, and chairs in windows with red lights where you could sit and see how it feels… because who hasn’t wanted to do that…

In each room, there were questions on the wall. “Why do prostitutes use red lights?” (It makes people look more attractive and hides blemishes, STDs, etc.) “Why do some windows have purple lights instead of red?” (Purple = transgender) “Do prostitutes pay taxes?” (Yes, they’re ‘self-employed’) “Are there women in the RLD who are forced to work as prostitutes?” (Yes)

I was glad to see the museum acknowledging the issue of forced prostitution. With the last question above, they explained that the police investigate the issue daily, but it is difficult to track. There was also a hotline number to call and a warning to remain alert to signs of human trafficking. In each room, there was a story about a prostitute on the wall. One of these stories was about a trafficking victim who remained in prostitution after her trafficker was caught because it’s all she knew. The realities of trafficking were sprinkled throughout the museum, creating a difficult balance between stories of this progressive, empowered, self-employed woman, and the abused, exploited slave.

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Nearing the end of the museum, there was a wall of photos and a list of names. A memorial to the prostitutes who have been murdered on the job.

Lastly, there was a wall connecting art & prostitution, a wall of sex confessions written by museum guests from all over the world, and a wall of stories of celebrities who’d hired prostitutes or who’d been one themselves at some point. The list included Jack Nicholson, US Secret Service in Colombia, Tiger Woods, Eddie Murphy, Charlie Sheen, Marilyn Monroe, Hugh Grant, and Russell Brand.

Leaving the museum, after walking through a gift shop full of sexy trinkets, there was a donation box for Stop the Traffik, reminding us once again of the darker realities that exist in this area and around the world.

My mind was racing with thoughts of morality, legality, and choice as I left the museum and wound my way through the alleys back to the city center…

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At this point I was getting quite hungry so I went back to my hotel, taking a new route so I could see a few more things on the way. After lunch and a brief siesta, I walked back toward the city center to visit the Anne Frank House. I tried to book online but it was all sold out so I was stuck going in the afternoon to wait in line. When I showed up, the line was almost as bad as the line for the catacombs in Paris.

I couldn’t rationalize waiting three hours in line so I wandered over to the beautiful church I passed on my way there, Westerkerk. There was a sign out front advertising tickets to climb the bell tower. I have a tendency to climb bell towers in every city I travel to so that seemed like a good alternative. I entered the sliding glass doors to the church (which just feels weird, btw) and asked how much for the tour. €7.50, he said. Perfect.

I made a rule for myself on this trip that I would only do or buy things that were less than €10. And I actually stuck to it! Every piece of food, souvenir trinket and tour that I paid for in Amsterdam was under €10. As the tour guide at the church was processing my payment, I asked him if the line at the Anne Frank House ever got any shorter. He laughed, “No, no it does not. I don’t understand this. Why does anyone want to go see her house? This is so strange. I would much rather climb this tower any day.”

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Westerkerk. Amsterdam. June 2016.
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Westerkerk Bell Tower. Amsterdam. June 2016.

We waited a few minutes until the time of the tour, left our bags in the locker (you’re not allowed to take anything up with you) and began the steep climb up. This bell tower was actually much less painful than the others I’ve climbed because there were several landings where you could stop and catch your breath on the way up. Each landing had something interesting for us, a little history lesson. On one, we found two bell keyboards (press a “key” like a piano and a string gets pulled to ring a bell). On another, we found a collection of old bells. And on the last two, we found first the cross-beam supports for the huge bell upstairs, and then the giant bells themselves on the last one. The main bell in the center was made in 1671 and it weighs about 3200 kilos which is about 7,055 pounds. It takes three men (or one Quasimodo) to ring the bells by pulling the ropes from downstairs.

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Church bell at Westerkerk. Made in 1671.
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Bell keyboard at Westerkerk
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View of Amsterdam from the bell tower at Westerkerk

After my visit to the church, I wandered down the canal and saw the sun peek out for just a moment before going back into hiding behind an enormous cloud. I decided to wait on the bridge for the sun to return so I could take the perfect, well-lit, stereotypical canal photo in Amsterdam. This was the best I got:

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On my walk back to the hotel for dinner, I found a bakery with delicious things in the windows (see picture below). I have a hard time saying no to sweets… They had mini cupcakes for €1.50 and little chocolate covered marzipan balls (aka HEAVEN IN MY MOUTH) for only €0.75 so of course I had to get one. Yes, I only got one.

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Bakery window. How could I resist?!

Finally, after walking around the entire city and visiting as many landmarks, monuments, and museums as I could find, I went to dinner (tomato soup with delicious homemade bread… under €10) and reorganized my backpack before going to sleep. The next morning, before checking out and heading to the train station, I spent an hour in Vondelpark, sitting on a bench in front of a fountain in the sun, reading a book. It’s the little things.

Next Stop: The Hague

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