I had never really had a specific desire to go to Amsterdam. It always seemed like a cool city, but if given the choice, I probably would have decided to visit other countries or cities. However, I was given the opportunity to visit Amsterdam through a weekend trip sponsored by the University of Westminster that Katie somehow heard about. All we had to do was pay a flat fee, which paid for transportation to and from Amsterdam, the hostel, and entry in to a club on Friday night. The opportunity seemed too good to pass up! So at about 8:00 pm last Thursday night, I met Katie and her friend Ariel at the Baker Street Tube Station so we could travel out to Westminster’s Harrow campus to board the buses for the trip. Travelling by coach was the most economic way to get so many students from London to Amsterdam, but it was also one of the slowest! We left Harrow at about 9:30 pm, and travelled to Dover, where we boarded a ferry across the English Channel to Calais, France. The middle-of-the-night ferry ride was actually really fun—there’s nothing quite like being awake at such an odd hour, travelling across a world-famous body of water. The three of us managed to sleep on the coach a bit, and arrived in Amsterdam early Friday morning. After checking in at the hostel and dropping our bags off, we were allowed to set off and explore!
Katie, Ariel and I were most interested in visiting the Anne Frank House. We had heard that the lines for the world-famous building could sometimes last for hours, so we made that our first destination. It might have been because we got there so early, but we only waited in line for about half an hour, which was a pleasant surprise. The tour began with a small museum in a modern building next to the original house. This section was sparsely furnished, as the main focus was on several videos that played on the walls that described different events surrounding the Holocaust, including interviews with survivors who described their experiences. Everyone in the room was completely silent, mesmerized by the serious nature of the videos.
This section of the tour led in to the original house. We began on the ground floor, which had been a shop during World War Two. We went up the old wooden steps to the upper floors, and finally through the passageway to the section where Anne Frank and her family had lived for two years. The rooms were left unfurnished, since the original furniture had been removed long ago. Pictures remained on the wall from when the family had stayed there, though, which gave us an interesting look at how they tried to maintain normal lives while having to hide in what Anne called the “Secret Annex”. Otto Frank, Anne’s father, was the only resident of the Secret Annex who survived the Holocaust, and it was his choice to keep the rooms in this sparse condition, with only the pictures and marks on the wall remaining. The rooms were all so tiny, and it is hard to imagine how 8 people lived there in secret for two years. The top floor of the building is used as another small museum space, with information cards from when they were taken to the concentration camps, as well as pictures and videos from when the camps were taken by the Allied troops and the prisoners were freed. Anne’s original diary had been taken for conservation, which was understandable though disappointing, but the curators had left copies for visitors to look at. The entire experience was awe-inspiring and sobering at the same time, and I am grateful that we got the opportunity to visit.
After leaving the Anne Frank House, we headed back to the hostel to freshen up (since we hadn’t gotten a chance to really stop and rest since getting off the bus that morning). We all took some well-deserved naps before heading out to dinner that night. Since none of us were familiar with what “traditional” food in Amsterdam was, we settled on a local Italian restaurant. After dinner, we were content to walk around the city. Seeing the canals of Amsterdam at night was absolutely beautiful. Many of the bridges were lit up, which cast some amazing reflections on the water. Since the city is built around so many canals, many of the buildings are slightly crooked, and their traditional architecture looks like something one would find in an old storybook! I was in love with the buildings, and they looked even better at night, lit by the lights from the bridges and street lamps. It was definitely a wonderful, relaxing end to what had seemed to be a really long day.
Saturday morning, we decided to sleep in until about ten am in order to let our bodies catch up on the sleep we had missed from travelling Thursday night. We had no other real destinations or tourist attractions we absolutely wanted to see, so we were content to wander around and enjoy the sights. We stumbled upon the flower market, which is a long row of stalls set up along one of the canals. As the name implies, it sold hundreds of different flowers, including many variations of Holland’s famous tulips. However, it was also a great spot for souvenir shopping, and every stall sold some variation on painted wooden clogs. By the flower market, we found the most unexpectedly fun shop in Amsterdam—a cheese shop that offered free samples of every type of cheese they sold. Yes, FREE samples. To three girls travelling on a budget, this was heaven, and the cheese was absolutely delicious. The best was probably the homemade Gouda, which I probably ate more than my fair share of!
After our lovely “appetizer” of free cheese, we headed to a large food court located in the commercial section of the city for lunch, which had come highly recommended from the people at the hostel who had organized the trip. It was immense, full of every type of food I could have wanted—soups, smoothies, fresh sandwiches, stir fry, anything! It was also insanely busy, but the delicious food was worth fighting the crowd. After this, we wandered to the Rijksmuseum, where the “I Amsterdam” sign is located. The large letters are huge tourist attractions, and of course we all took turns taking pictures sitting in or standing around them. Near the “I Amsterdam” sign was the Van Gogh Museum, which I gladly paid the entry price to visit. It was amazing! The museum held literally hundreds of works by Van Gogh and his contemporaries, and provided an excellent collection of northern European art from just before, during, and just after Van Gogh’s time. The colors that Van Gogh used were often vibrant, especially in some of his later works, and his thick brush strokes really accentuated these bold colors.
That night, Katie and I opted out of an optional bar crawl and chose instead to walk through the famous Red Light District. This was definitely a memorable experience. During the day, the district is quiet, filled mostly with coffee shops, cafes, and, as you would expect, sex shops. The main street comes alive after dark, however. We went early, at about nine pm, and though the street was busy, it was definitely still in the beginning stages. Pictures were not allowed, for obvious reasons, and we likely wouldn’t have wanted to take any regardless. We only walked through for about twenty minutes before leaving to get some dinner—as Katie put it, we didn’t want to be “two little American girls left in the Red Light District once it got busy.” I couldn’t have agreed more!
Sunday was entirely devoted to travelling back to London. We left Amsterdam at about 10:30 am, and Katie, Ariel, and I managed to take naps on the bus to make the time pass. Our first pit stop ended up being at none other than a Belgian Chocolate Factory. Yes, indeed, we were able to shop at a small shop that made their chocolate on site. It was absolutely delicious. I bought a bar of dark chocolate with dried cranberries for myself, and bought a large bar of milk chocolate for a friend back in London. We caught the ferry at Calais about 2 pm, where we ate lunch and were able to use some of our leftover euros before switching back to pounds in the UK. The highlight of this ferry ride was getting to see the White Cliffs at Dover in the daytime. Though it was dreary and raining, the Cliffs still looked magnificent, and were a nice welcome back to England.
I never expected to enjoy Amsterdam as much as I did! It’s a wonderful city, full of history, excitement, great food, and adorably crooked buildings. I was exhausted after the full trip, and spent most of Monday sleeping since I’m fortunate enough to not have class on Mondays. London seems huge after being in such a quiet city, but once again I am glad to be back.