One of my favorite episodes of Ted Lasso is the one that takes place in Amsterdam. I never thought it was realistic that Rebecca, the character played by Hannah Waddingham, could get so distracted she fell into one of the canals. Until I got to Amsterdam.
Yes, a lot of Amsterdam is close to the water, there are frequently bicycles whizzing by and in many places, there are no railings to keep you from falling into the canals. Thankfully, I did not fall in—but it was easy to get distracted by the beauty of the surroundings in Amsterdam. It is just as lovely in person as it is on TV and in the movies, even if we did spend most of our fall visit under a constantly cloudy drizzly sky. However, nothing was going to get in our way of enjoying the museums and fabulous food.
Amsterdam was the embarkation port for our Viking Rhine River cruise. We decided to stay a couple of days ahead of the cruise in Amsterdam to enjoy the best of the city, meet up with friends who live in Brussels and avoid any potential travel delay which could affect our cruise timing. Our goal: see as many museums as possible, eat well and get a feel for the city.
VAN GOGH MUSEUM
The Viking cruise was planned almost a year ahead but learn from my mistake: our Amsterdam itinerary was not booked as far out as it should have been. The museums, especially the Van Gogh Museum, are in high demand (even in late October!) and people do book tickets far ahead. When I tried to buy Van Gogh Museum tickets several months out, it was already sold out for our two days in the city.
With no flexibility to change our timing, I wasn’t willing to give up on my goal of seeing this world class museum, so I went on the hunt of how to get around a sold-out museum date and found you can buy a private tour where tour guides have already grabbed the tickets for the desired date. This makes the museum visit much more expensive, but in the end, it was worth it. I learned a lot.
L-R: The Van Gogh Museum lobby is a busy place where there are handy free lockers to store your umbrella and raincoat; Posing with Anna, our smart, savvy Van Gogh Museum tour guide.
Anna, our tour guide, had an excellent grasp of Van Gogh’s life, his works and the stories about him that do not match what we were taught in school. Anna believes that Van Gogh definitely was not suicidal, did not cut off his own ear and he did not come from poverty. The alternative version of the Van Gogh story was fascinating and she was an animated narrator who deftly moved us through a small museum jampacked with visitors. It was great to be able to see the highlights and learn about Vincent’s life in our brief visit. Timesaving tips: The outdoor waffle stand on the museum courtyard was an easy and fast breakfast and the museum café was also tasty and efficient, allowing us to keep our full day on schedule.
L-R: Van Gogh x Pokémon exhibit took over the gift shop at the Van Gogh Museum, Waffles and Van Gogh--a great Amsterdam combo and what?! this guy is a tour guide with a great sense of humor!
Our visit at the Van Gogh Museum was during the height of the Van Gogh x Pokémon exhibit. The Pokémon creative team did a collaboration with the museum and produced replicas of Van Gogh’s most famous works to feature Pokémon. Visitors crowded in front of these exhibits, and if you filled out a quiz correctly about the Pokémon exhibit you received a special postcard with an official stamp of the museum. You could also buy the postcards in the gift shop, so I wasn’t sure why there were so much excitement around this, but apparently at one point in 2023 the museum had to quit giving away the postcards because people were selling them for thousands of dollars online. Maybe these cards will just be our souvenirs, but just in case…tell my kids our Pokémon cards are in the safety deposit box at the bank.
I have to admit that the Dutch Masters were not high on my list of favorite artworks. But in preparation for the trip and a visit to the Rijksmuseum, I started to learn more and was very inspired by an article in the New York Times: The Absolute Vermeer, in a Show More Precious Than Pearls - The New York Times (nytimes.com). Learning about “The Milkmaid” by Vermeer gave me new perspective and seeing it in person was one of the highlights of the Amsterdam experience for me. The Rijksmuseum’s remarkable museum app helped me learn about the pieces of art while I was standing in front of them, and my respect and admiration for Dutch artwork grew. There were many famous Rembrandt paintings to admire, and one of the most famous, “The Night Watch,” was under restoration during our visit. It was very interesting to see how the restoration rigging was set up, and I was grateful to see it, even from a protected distance while it was being worked on.
L-R: Vermeer's Milkmaid up close; The Night Watch by Rembrandt under restoration, the Rijksmuseum building is also a work of art; getting lost in the Yayoi Kusama Infinity Room.
The Rijksmuseum is a massive museum, with 8,000 works, covering many genres. Hint: plan ahead and pick out your favorite areas as you cannot possibly cover it all in the half-day we allotted. In addition, Rotterdam’s Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen is currently under construction and many of its works are currently on display at Rijksmuseum. I was so glad we factored in time to see this section, which feels like an entire additional museum. We got to experience another Yayoi Kasama infinity room (we enjoyed other Kasama infinity rooms at The Broad in Los Angeles and at The Hirshhorn in Washington, DC). I also enjoyed the Asian Pavilion and especially loved the 600-year-old, seven-foot tall wood carved temple guardians. They were like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
When we ended up with a couple of surprise hours open, we also visited the Stedelijk Museum, which is focused on modern and contemporary visual art and design. We were able to see a wide variety of works, including paintings by Max Beckman, an early sculpture by Yayoi Kusama, as well as furniture and architectural items. The building itself is a sculptural piece of modern art. If you have time and love modern art, this is a don’t miss.
With only two dinners in Amsterdam, we knew it would be hard to narrow down where to go. After researching what foods Amsterdam is known for, we knew we needed to try rijsttafel, which translates to “rice table” in Dutch. Indonesia was a Dutch colony for centuries and thankfully there is still a delicious legacy of Indonesian food. Rijsttafel consists of a tabletop buffet of several small dishes accompanied by rice, of course. Our choice was Restaurant Max, in the Centrum area of the city, and we loved everything from the opening shrimp chips and satay salad to the variety of vegetable and meat dishes. We were surprised and delighted to be offered seconds on whichever of the dishes we liked the best (chicken curry), and the desert buffet was also excellent!
L-R: The delights of Kaagman & Kortekaas--Oyster with citrus vinaigrette; venison pate with pickled pear and endive, pumpkin 3-ways, partridge and scallop, cheese heaven and the eclectic and interesting mango fishy dessert.
Another eating adventure was at Kaagman & Kortekaas, a restaurant that describes itself as “Courageous cuisine. Natural craftsmanship. Celebrated hospitality.” Our friends who live in Brussels came to Amsterdam to visit us, and we thought we all deserved a fabulous splurge. The atmosphere is very casual and belies the artistically presented gourmet food that came our way. The meal started with delicious warm bread and two butters (including a lard butter that tasted like bacon), followed by an oyster with an amazing citrus vinaigrette, served with a crispy cone of cabbage, all on top of bed of rocks. While I normally am not an oyster fan, this was one of the most uniquely presented dishes I’ve ever seen and it was delicious!
Next up was a venison pate with pickled pear and endive. My favorite of the evening was pumpkin served three ways: a gratin, a mousse and a sauce. It may sound like too much pumpkin, but the artistry and flavors were like eating art. Next up was partridge with potatoes, and a delicately stuffed scallop. The dessert was maybe the weirdest dessert I’ve ever had—mango mousse with a fish-sauce flavored rice and crispy shrimp toast, wrapped in a mango slice. It was salty, slightly sweet and extremely interesting. After all of these culinary delights, we moved on to the cheese case, where there were so many amazing cheeses to choose from. The restaurant had an open kitchen, and we had fun watching the chefs and the enthusiastic staff who loved delivering these works of edible art. The relaxed pace let us catch up with dear friends we hadn’t seen in person since before COVID times—one of the highlights of the whole trip.
THE CANAL CRUISE
A trip to Amsterdam would not be complete without a canal cruise. Our friends joined us, and for a few hours during our brief stay, it stopped raining long enough to really enjoy the views. On a cruise you get a much better view of the city architecture, without the worry of falling in the canal when you are taking a photo! There are tilted houses, uneven skylines and so much history to take in. Our cruise captain regaled us with Dutch history and semi-comedic tales about what we were seeing (along with cocktail service). My favorite story was about how many bicycles are at the bottom of all the middle of the canals, but even crazier were claims that Teslas are the cars that end up in canals most frequently due to their self-parking function. Apparently, insurance companies are starting to install small concrete barriers at the edge of the parking lanes near the canals to prevent this.
We took a brief walking tour around the Centraal Train Station. The building was built in the 1880s and is striking with giant clocks and ornate Gothic details. The station sees more than 200,000 visitors daily. We visited the bike parking garage attached to the train station that was so clean and organized it looked like a store, with space for 4,000+ bikes.
The pastries and chocolates in Amsterdam are bountiful and we tried many between our walks from museum to museum. Of course, we also made sure we got some “chips” and a savory, spicy dipping sauce (you might call them French fries, but don’t do that in Amsterdam!). We also visited the Tony Chocolonely store, where the brand is headquartered. The shop is artfully designed, charming and a wonderful place to pick up chocolate gifts. Plus, I love their mission of chocolate without exploitation.
We stayed at the Sir Albert hotel, a Marriott property, which was perfectly located near the museum district. It is a small boutique hotel and our spacious room was blissfully quiet. It was about a 10-minute walk from Sir Albert to the Museum District and a short ride to everything else.
L-R: Painted tiles in the tunnel near Amsterdam's Centraal Train Station, a visit to Tony's Chocolonely will put a smile on your face and fill your bags with chocolate; the ornate and beautiful Centraal Train Station building is worth a visit.
We loved our trip to Amsterdam. If you appreciate great art and fabulous flavors and can stay out of the bike lane, you’ll love it too!