Came for the Canals, Stayed for the Windmills: My Time in Amsterdam and Zaandam

It’s finally time for another travel story, and today I’m excited to tell you about my time in a place that’s very well-known for its tulips…and, if you haven’t guessed by now, that place is none other than the Netherlands.

Specifically: Amsterdam!

Amsterdam is a city that I was super-psyched to visit! And NO, not just for the reason that probably popped into your head (although I couldn’t have partaken even if the desire struck, due to an upcoming internship…).

Instead, I was drawn by the unique layout of the city, the cool and laid-back lifestyle, the nearby Keukenhof gardens (lots of tulips there!), and the countryside…especially when my friend Emma and I chose an AirBnB that happened to be in Zaandam, about 20 minutes north of the city center.

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Staying in Zaandam

We didn’t realize it at the time, but the lodging that we had chosen happened to be a 5 minute walk to Zaanse Schans – the site of some of Amsterdam’s most iconic windmills, cottages, bakeries, and more. Besides the easy access to this cool slice of Dutch history and tradition, we also found that the surrounding neighborhood was something out of a fairytale! Picture lush green trees, flowers dotting the paths, farm animals lounging lazily in the front yards (of some houses) – and even a constantly sweet smell in the air. Yes, I’m serious: there was a faint trace of chocolate in the air no matter where we walked in Zaandam! To this day, I don’t know where it came from. So, if anyone reading this happens to know, please share your knowledge.

Now, the Amsterdam city center had a much different atmosphere – as one would expect. We took a train into the city each day, and as soon as we came out of the train station we were greeted with the sight of bike rentals, a tour office, and the main street extending into the maze of canals.

First Day: Begijnhof, Vondelpark, and Searching for the Red Light District

On our first day, we chose to wander around the city. What I loved about Amsterdam’s canal-driven layout was the way that there seemed to be something new and interesting to look at on each “street”. For instance, we managed to stumble upon a small, quiet garden called Begijnhof within our first hour of exploring. It was the kind of place that seemed separate from the rest of the city’s buzz – even though it was merely enclosed by houses. Later on in the trip, I made my way over to Vondelpark as Emma visited the Anne Frank House – and again, I found myself wandering off of the path, just to glimpse what might be around a different corner.

That same day, we also decided to pop into the first souvenir shop we could find in order to grab a map, and get our bearings – and locate the Red Light District. This was a must-see for us, as it’s so different from anything we’ve experienced in America. However, we had a bit of a detour on our journey there…

Basically, as we were asking about the Red Light District, the shop owner gestured over a general area on the map – and the spot that caught our eye in that area was a large, red plot of land on the map. So, we thanked her for the help, and set off toward that big red area. As we walked – further and further out of the city center – we realized 3 things:

1. There wasn’t much activity going on around us.

2. It seemed strange that a popular attraction would be so far out of the way.

3. The sun was setting very soon.

With all of that in mind, we had ultimately decided to try looking for the Red Light District when we came back the next day. Right as we made that decision, however, Emma noticed that we were in front of what appeared to be a naval base. After consulting the map and estimating how far we had walked, we came to the realization that the red area on the map was actually an indicator for the base – not the Red Light District!

Man, did we feel stupid. All of that walking for nothing! Luckily, we weren’t too far from where we had begun, since our path looped back to the train station. Plus we got to see a bit more of Amsterdam along the way: for instance, there was a collection of house-boats that were lined up on a riverbank that we passed. Many of them had eclectic decorations, and it looked like a very unique community overall.

Experiencing the Red Light District

Once we got back to the main city center, we decided to try the search again while we still had a sliver of sunlight left. This time, we followed the general direction of where the shop-owner had pointed, and went left of the main path. Lo and behold, we were there within 5 minutes! Of course that would be the case.

As I said, the Red Light District was certainly unlike anything I had seen before. It’s definitely a polarizing area: sex is on display throughout the area, blatant and proud. There are girls in windows, live shows, and shops selling everything you could imagine: toys, DVDs, outfits, and more. We only spent a short time there, walking around and observing some of the dynamics in the area, but it was plenty.

We also found this interesting: despite the exhibitionist nature of the District in general, anyone (usually male) who tried to take a picture of the window girls were swiftly rebuffed, and the girl would disappear behind the curtain. Of course, it makes sense if you consider the aspects of consent in reference to the girls’ choices of when and how to display their bodies. But still, it was quite a contrast to the general vibes of the area!

Furthermore – and, surprisingly – we saw people walking around with their children! We couldn’t tell if they were part of a walking tour that was ending, or if they had purposely chosen to bring their kids to the District. Regardless, it certainly wasn’t something that we expected to encounter. Shortly after the sun set, we decided to leave. Although generally a safe area, the Red Light District does attract a number of characters – and we had no plans to interact with them.

Second Day: Pancakes, Stroopwafels, and Museums

Our next day in Amsterdam was a bit more…”wholesome”, you could say. We started the day with a boat ride through some of the canals and around the lake. It was cool to see Amsterdam from a slightly lower perspective, and it was relaxing. So, I would definitely recommend making time for it when you visit!
After the boat ride, we decided to try a popular cafe called The Happy Pig Pancake Shop. They had such delicious pancakes. In fact, they were the best that I had throughout our whole trip (although nothing could beat my beloved Stroopwafel)! Each pancake is made-to-order, and I chose a combination that made my pancakes taste like caramel-apples. So good!

Following this snack break, we made our way to the Rijksmuseum. Emma and I had been conflicted over which museum to visit, since we only had a short time in the city. We were told that the Rijksmuseum has a greater variety than Van Gogh (obviously) and that it would be the best choice if we wanted a sampling of different styles. With this in mind, we chose Rijksmuseum – but when I go back, I will definitely be paying a visit to the Van Gogh museum!

Third Day: Keukenhof Gardens

On our last full day in Amsterdam, we (finally) visited the Keukenhof Gardens! I was looking forward to this during the entire trip, because I love nature – especially flowers. Although we went on the very last day of the season that year (May 16th), and most of the tulips had been harvested, there was still an immense amount of flora to admire. Besides the flowerbeds scattered throughout, the Gardens also had live musical shows; animal exhibits; indoor flower arrangements; and other cute features, such as a mini windmill, a lookout point, and a small pond with a boat that was perfect for photo ops (like the one below)!

Overall, I fell in love with the Keukenhof Gardens, and probably would have been content to spend the entire day there! Alas, we eventually had to head back home, to explore Zaanse Schans one last time before packing up to go back to London the next morning.

Leaving Amsterdam was even more bittersweet than my previous trips, because it was the very last trip I would take before flying back to the U.S. after my semester abroad was finished. It felt strange that soon, I wouldn’t be able to hop over to a new country within a matter of hours (and for a much lower price) anymore.

Regardless, I’m so happy that Emma and I made the trip, and I will definitely be going back to Amsterdam one day soon! Out of the activities I mentioned today, which would one would you want to do the most?

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