A Week in Netherlands: Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht

Netherlands made its way off and on our list as we debated our route around the world, weather conditions, and my general disinterest in Amsterdam’s famed offerings, however we’ve agreed that we’ll have to make it back during warmer weather. Netherlands in winter, specifically around early January was very cold and wet, it rained half the week that we were there. We didn’t catch any snow, which surprised us a little since we’d just come from Prague for the New Year (post coming soon) and it was snowing there, however the cold weather and the shorter daylight hours definitely played a role in our experience or lack thereof for the Netherlands.
As there weren’t very many AirBnB options in Amsterdam, we wound up staying in a beautiful AirBnB apartment in Utrecht, a quaint suburban city between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, which worked out well in terms of making day trips out to either city, including a day trip to Brussels. Unfortunately our Brussels trip cost us an extra day when I ate too many mussels (yes, mussels in Brussels) and I was rather home-ridden the following day. Utrecht doesn’t have much to offer in terms of attractions or activities, but it was a good central location and the town has a quieter and less touristy vibe.

a day in brussels

When we arrive in Netherlands, we still had one more day on our Eurail pass, so we made a day trip out to Brussels and tried to hit all the main points. To be honest we were underwhelmed despite our love for all the “must eats” in Brussels: waffles, fries, chocolates, and mussels – but none of them were particularly good here. Granted, it could be the restaurants we chose or bad timing, but here’s the rundown on our day in Brussels.

Fries are just Fries in Belgium

We went straight from the Central Station to Royal Gallery of Saint Hubert, pausing to admire the many chocolate shop windows and listen to an amazing street singer just outside the gallery. We circled around the Christmas market that wrapped the Bourse de Bruxelles and grabbed some fries with andalouse sauce from Fritland (decent but expensive for what it is), then walked through the Grand Place, which was definitely impressive, but also packed with tourists. This is a good spot to pick up a free walking tour though; several guides milled around here with their signature umbrellas. We struggled photographing and filming the square with all the people and the sheer size of the buildings, so we quickly moved on to my favorite thing: chocolate.

Find happiness in chocolates

There’s no end to your choices of chocolate shops in Brussels! We tried Corné Port Royal Bruxelles centre, this location happens to be next to 3 other chocolate shops (self guided chocolate tour anyone?). We entered the shop and instantly felt warmer; golden yellow walls, glorious chocolate truffles neatly lined on display, and the shopkeeper chatting amicably with customers. While there were only a couple customers before us, he apologized for the wait and had us pick out complimentary chocolates. He seemed so eager to accommodate that I felt like I was at some sort of chocolate spa being pampered! After we made our choices for purchase, he again gave us a couple more free chocolates. I looked at Carl like, “watch out, this guy’s about to be my new best friend”. Every single chocolate turned out divine. Try any of the ones with praline in it for that delightful crisp!

the peeing statue is on a street of waffles

Next on our list we had waffles to try, so we headed down Rue de l’Etuve towards Mannekin pis, who was dressed as a blind man for Braille Day. It was a bit comical to see the mass of people surrounding such a tiny statue tucked into a corner. Along Rue de l’Etuve you’ll find waffles, waffles, waffles, and souvenirs. Not having much else to go on, we tried to peek at their waffle stacks to see which looked the freshest, but all the shops had stacks of already made waffles sitting, so we simply walked into a shop and grabbed a waffle with chocolate. Luckily the waffle was served warm and the chocolate sauce was excellent and not too sweet.

Onwards and upwards

Walking North, we made our way to the Botanical Garden, a beautiful outdoor space in the middle of a very urban block. The garden is below street level, which allowed us to admire the design of manicured hedges as we approached from above. There were some spectacular statues of winged angels and snarling beasts. It was quiet that afternoon and we had it mostly to ourselves. We walked through the Botanique, but there wasn’t much to see inside and the cafe side smelled like cigarettes; it’s more impressive from the outside.

Dusk started to fall so we took a tram up to the Atomium and snapped a couple quick photos. I wanted to explore the surrounding Parc d’Osseghem Laeken but it was getting too dark so we headed back into the city center in search of some mussels, a Brussels winter specialty, for dinner.

too many mussels in Brussels

We wanted to try Mer du Nord, but the store front was closed when we arrived. Fortunately they had a stall right outside at the Christmas market, sans mussels, but their fresh oysters Oleron and gillardeau were both delicious and zero brine. After shooting those we warmed up with a bowl of their lobster soup.

Still in search of mussels, we headed over to Chez Leon, a long standing restaurant. Sadly it was a let down, the moules à l’escargot gratiné was under-seasoned and the restaurant was very touristy. The best thing there was my Grimbergen brown beer, which was unexpectedly fruity. And as the story goes, that night I went to bed with a stomachache that lasted through the following day.

Brussels: Our Verdict

Overall we were fairly disappointed with Brussels; the food just didn’t hit the mark and the city felt extremely touristy. Perhaps we missed the true highlights, if you have any suggestions please let us know in the comments section!

a day in Rotterdam

The Kinderdijk Windmills

After waiting out my mussels mess (apologies for the graphic alliteration!) and the rainy weather, we headed down to Rotterdam on our first sunny day. Because of their proximity to Rotterdam, we also included Kinderdijk so we could see the famous windmills. There wasn’t a direct way there from Utrecht and we had trouble with the ticket machines, so we inquired at the service center and wound up taking two buses. Public transportation is in excellent condition in the Netherlands: their buses were like the luxury buses from back home!

Two hours later, we strolled along the residential streets of Kinderdijk, allowing our eyes to adjusting to the rare sunshine. Despite the beautiful weather, the wind was still something ferocious. We made our way down Molenkade, the narrow road that leads to the trails through the windmills, exchanging hellos with many locals out walking. They were completely indifferent to the wind that seemed to be battering only us. Still it was invigorating to see the wind rippling across the water in the dikes and through the reed grass; the cold air brightened the green in the fields and sharpened the glinting water. I could almost feel the fairytale enchantment coming to life among the windmill houses with the cats napping in their gardens, the horses in their backyards, and a swan preening in the water nearby. It was almost disappointing when we were approached by a slightly hunched older gentleman and he tried to sell us art prints instead of magic beans.

Rotterdam’s Best and Worst: Cube Houses and Market Hall

By the time we arrived in Rotterdam, it was already mid-afternoon. The convenient thing is that the Cube Houses and the Market Hall are right outside the Blaak station. Although I hadn’t anticipated much from the Cube Houses, the timing provided some beautiful light that was just a dream to photograph. The details in that small space were like a spectacular kaleidoscope: the hexagon tiles on the ground, the lines of the stairs and the brick walls colliding with the lines of the panelling, and the filtered sunlight catching in the blocky windows.

After our photographic binge, we headed across the way towards the behemothic building; the Rotterdam Market Hall. Our late lunch started off strong, a piping hot gözleme from Ekmekci, simple and ultra satisfying. The experience started to fall apart when I succumbed to some home-sick cravings. We got taro milk teas from YOYO! Fresh tea bar that were super powdery, had undercooked tapioca, and were fairly expensive. The off textures and lack of flavor had us tossing the drinks as a tear slide down my heart. Our second mistake was opting for sushi from, well, Sushi Sushi. I had rationalized that a smaller sushi stall would be better than their AYCE buffet sushi restaurant at the opposite end of the Hall, but I was terribly wrong. The moment we put in our order and they started to assemble our rolls spastically, my heart dropped. The salmon was hacked at, mayo was awkwardly spread on all the rolls, and the knife was not wiped between cutting the various rolls. Needless to say, the rolls were not enjoyable and not worth the price. Luckily redemption via a salty salted caramel stroopwaffle from Goudstroop came swiftly.

Daylight falling fast, we left the Rotterdam Market Hall discouraged. Dusk met us on the Luchtsingel Bridge, the yellow and the names fading in the darkness. We were going to explore the bridge a bit, but we got spooked by some shady voices on the other end and with the dropping temperature, we decided to call it a day.

a day in amsterdam

In an attempt to get out to Amsterdam earlier, we wound up taking the train during the commute hour the seats ran out and we wound up awkwardly packed with others standing in the stairway. Exiting the Central Station, we walked along the canals and admired the gorgeous old buildings but we had to pause for a moment: the houses looked like they were leaning in towards us! This was later confirmed to be true by our guide. Because the city used to be a swamp and the houses were build on wooden poles, as the water level in the city changed, it exposed the wooden poles and caused rot, creating instability in the foundations. At least that’s the theory! Despite the precarious situation, the buildings stood with such elegance; dark almost black houses trimmed in white.

The Inspiration of Anne Frank

We made our way down the already cramped sidewalks, littered with old Christmas trees. Bikes covered all available fencing. Our first stop that morning was the Anne Frank House museum. Walking through the house was quite an experience. When reading the book, I had imagined the annex much smaller. Stepping through the wall behind the bookshelf and seeing the space as it was left since it was raided; there was just such a dense quiet, an emptiness that posed only questions. Ordinary objects, innocent remnants of childhood, and displays of her neat handwriting: they felt spiritual. The video at the end of the tour shared some resounding thoughts: Anne Frank was just one of many victims; her could-never’s are our opportunities; she didn’t die, she was murdered; and the reality that such a calamity could happen again.

We left feeling pensive and quietly headed over to our next appointment, pancake therapy at Pancake Bakery.
Neil Diamond’s “Coming To America” played as we perused the menu and eyed the sizable bowl of thick gooey syrup complete with a large wooden ladle on the table. Carl practically scarfed down his savory pancake, while my scoops of cinnamon ice cream melted across my apple pancake before I could finish it. As I clean my plate “Walking on Sunshine” comes on and I grin, thinking, indeed I am, fortified and ready to reenter the chilly gray world outside.

So much for Amsterdam flowers

As a flora fanatic, Bloemenmarkt was at the top of my list, and even though it is wintertime, I was still severely disappointed at the lack of fresh flowers in the shops. The bright tulips sitting in the barrels were synthetic, and other than bulbs, seeds and souvenir trinkets, there wasn’t much to look at. Only the final shop on the corner closest to McDonalds seemed to be an actual flower shop. The sudden smell of real flowers eased my disappointment and the dried flowers carpeting the ceiling stole my heart. I snapped photos dreamily until I got inside and belatedly saw a sign that said no photos, oops!

We skedaddled on over towards the Rijksmuseum, where the lithe voices of violins beckoned from the tunnel. As we entered into its darkness, we could finally make out the two violinists and a bassist playing a giant triangular looking guitar, which Google tells me is a contrabass balalaika. They were incredible musicians and somehow the tunnel seemed both ironic and ideal for their performance.

Since the weather was still holding, we opted to skip the museum and visit Vondelpark first. Despite the chill and a light drizzle there were plenty of people out and about. We enjoyed some people watching among the bare trees; their fallen leaves trimmed the murky ponds. The green of the grass was brilliant amid all the rusty browns. An interesting fact: the park would be completely submerged in water if it wasn’t renovated every 30 years!

Boutique Shop selling real sh*t & another Food Hall

When it got too cold to sit still, we decided to warm up by trekking up to De Hallen Amsterdam, a converted industrial building that now serves as a shopping and creative space. We mainly came to check out the Maker Store, a boutique offering locally handmade goods and unique products. There was everything from clothes covered in hilarious illustrations and cans of fertilizer made from local manure, to wooden and leather products that you could customize with a burned design of your choice. There was also a neat looking denim store across the way, but we got sidetracked by the Foodhallen next door.

The Foodhallen was like an expensive hipster foodcourt: wooden bar tables, fairy lights, a beer bar and a cocktail bar, a Mexican stall warring with a “healthy” Mexican stall next door. We were still a little wary given our Rotterdam Market Hall experience, so we avoided the overpriced dim sum stall and opted for some bitterballen (a popular Dutch snack) at the De Ballenbar. The deep fried balls were fun to eat but rather expensive. Afterwards we got a rather watery smoothie from Yoghurt Barn to wash it down.

An Amsterdam Norm

The drizzle remained constant but we still had an hour before our canal tour so we decided to hang out at a cafe near the meeting point. We ended up in Eetcafé Roem, sipping large lattes and enjoying their free wifi. The room was quiet in a cozy way, when suddenly a women nearby stood up. She quickly flagged the waiter and announced that she saw a rat. So much for cozy – all of us began to eye the floor and double check our bags. The waiter proceeded to crack open the door and said that rats were really common because of the canals. The couple seated in the corner immediately cancelled their food order despite the reassurances that the rats could not access the kitchen. Their concern was understandable and when I spotted the tiny black thing scurrying across the floor, we quickly finished our coffees and headed out. Turns out mice and rats really have been a common and historic problem in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam Light Festival

Our first ever AirBnB experience was a canal tour of the Amsterdam Light Festival, an annual art exhibit of light installations around the canals. In the full darkness of the evening, our guide Rocco took us through the canals and introduced the artworks and provided tidbits about the history of Amsterdam. This year’s theme was “meaning” so many of the pieces were fairly conceptual: like a pair of lips that turned into a heartbeat line depending on which side you viewed it from. We had an intimate group of 4 couples, so there was some great dialogue as we responded to Rocco’s prompts and shared our reactions to the installations. It was a little reminiscent of my school days and performing group critiques in art class. Though the rain cluttered the view, it was still a very cozy and lovely experience.

After the tour we had one last thing to check off our Amsterdam list: Indonesian food! Due to Dutch colonization in Indonesia, there’s a popularity of Indonesian food in the Netherlands. We went to Aneka Rasa, where they specialize in the rice plate, a spread of assorted Indonesian dishes, it looks a little bit like the Korean banchan. The flavors were delicious, though the chicken was overcooked. A few of the dishes were too spicy for me – like the fried rice! That took me completely by surprise, but the plain rice with fried coconut flakes totally made up for it.

utrecht

Utrecht Highlights

We loved Utrecht for its low-key vibe while still getting the Dutch charm and canals. Carl read that Utrecht was voted one of the happiest places to live and most people only work part-time; we definitely received some of the friendliest service we’ve experienced since our time throughout Europe.

One of our evenings in, Carl made a traditional Dutch dish, Stamppot, with the ingredients that our host generously provided. Stamppot is essentially mashed potatoes and kale topped with gravy and sausages. Lots of the Dutch food is good comfort food, who can say no to mashed potatoes? Oh and by the way, I found some top grade chocolate milk here, Milsani chocolademelk, available at any supermarket.

In the downtown shopping area, I was enticed by all the Miffy’s sitting in the window of Groeten uit Utrecht, owned by a delightful old gentleman. Though we’ve avoided any substantial souvenir shopping, I couldn’t resist and bought a Miffy dressed as a pilot for my nephew (whose birth I missed on this trip! *tear*). We walked towards the Dom tower and simply enjoyed the neighborhood around the canal.

That evening we went to Jasmijn & Ik for dinner, recommended by our host. We got there just before kitchen is closing but they accommodated and were extremely nice about it. Jasmijn was like an upscale Asian fusion tapas restaurant. The viet buns, duck breast, and the glass noode salad were our favorites, though the noodles ended up being the spiciest dish. Beware of their jalapeño garnishes too! The house lemonade was actually my favoritest thing.

We thoroughly enjoyed our week in Netherlands. We’d love to come back in spring for the real flowers and to give Amsterdam and Rotterdam a couple more days, but we’re also glad we were here in winter to catch the Amsterdam Light Festival. Browse our photos for inspiration or read on for more things to know before visiting Netherlands and other logistical information. You can also jump down to the details on all the places we recommended.

Photo Gallery

AirBnB

We based ourselves in a “cozy apartment with big garden near city center”; of Utrecht. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Joyce’s. We were warmly received by her mom who also made herself reachable during our stay. The apartment is stylish and comfortable and has everything you could need. It’s a nice location, just off the main street so it’s quiet but not difficult to get to Centraal station (significant walk but doable). When she heard that we enjoy cooking, Joyce generously provided some ingredients to make Stamppot! She also provides a booklet with lots of recommendations and helpful instructions for her appliances. Note that there is limited space for you to hang clothes and there is no extra wardrobe put away your clothes, but we did not find it a problem as we prefer to live out of our luggage. We stayed for about a week to explore Netherlands and highly recommend Joyce’s apartment!

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Logistics

General

The Netherlands can be pretty expensive if you’re out and about, but cooking in definitely helps the budget. We found people to be extremely friendly when interacting in Utrecht and almost everyone speaks English fluently. Biking is big in every city; bikes have priority over pedestrians so keep an eye out for bikes as you walk and don’t block bike lanes: bikers are not forgiving. The weather in the winter was wet and cold; some days were extremely windy. Daylight was about 8:30 am until 5:00 pm, but felt less so on the cloudy days, which was most days.

Lounge access in Amsterdam Airport

Don’t make our same mistake, we missed out on using the lounge at the airport. There are 2 lounges available for Priority Pass holders, both are before security and are specifically not accessible via gate M. We flew Norwegian and they only check in bags 2 hours before flight, so we had to wait for our gate number and to go through security (many European airports don’t show gate numbers until after you get through security). We incorrectly assumed the lounges would be after security and went through only to find out we were assigned to gate M, and weren’t be able to access the lounges.

Vaccinations: Routine Vaccinations

Mosquito problems: None while we were there.

Problems for tattoos: None

Traveling as a woman: Standard Precautions

Getting Around Brussels

We took the tram while in the city and the ticket machines only take coins and card, and unfortunately our Visa card didn’t work.

Getting Around Netherlands

Using public transportation around the Netherlands is fairly simple but pretty expensive compared to other European countries. We purchased anonymous OV cards and topped up as needed. The OV card is valid through all the cities in the Netherlands, so we could use them in Amsterdam or Rotterdam, on any mode of transportation.

While using the reusable card saves on the 1 EUR single-use ticket fee, you have to keep a various amount of credit on the card in order to hop onto each of the modes of transportation. For example, to ride a train, you had to have a minimum of 20 EUR, even if the trip itself won’t cost you 20 EUR (the train ride from Utrecht to Amsterdam was about 9 EUR). That meant that we constantly had to top up the card and when we left we still had a significant amount left on the card. We’ll just have to save it until our next visit – the cards are valid for 5 years. Depending on your time in the Netherlands, it might make more sense to get the single-use tickets.

The OV ticket machines only take coin and card as well, and we had trouble with our card. However we were able to go to the service centers at any train station and have them run our credit card there. Note that bus stations don’t have ticket machines and bus drivers can only accept card onboard.

budgeting

Currency: 1 EUR = 1.15 USD
Tipping is not expected, though it’s not unheard of to tip a little for exceptional service.

Daily Budget

$60-80/person: This was for 8 evenings based in Utrecht with a private Airbnb apartment, and taking day trips out to Brussels, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, requiring quite a bit of train travel (really adds up). Other than those trips out, we cooked most meals in. We visited the Anne Frank Museum and splurged on an AirBnB experience to view the Amsterdam Light Festival via a small boat.

Some typical costs

  • Pancakes: 10-20 EUR
  • Fresh Stroopwaffle: 2 EUR
  • meal out: 20-25 EUR pp
  • AirBnB experience: $82.84
  • AirBnB: $66/night

details

Brussels, Belgium

Fritland, fritlandbrussels.be/en, Rue Henri Maus 49, $ – Popular spot to get fries, we didn’t find it particularly special.
Grand Place, 1000 Brussels – Stunning square where you can see City Hall and museums
Waffles along Rue de l’Etuve, near Manneken Pis, $ – Multiple shops, all priced about the same and same quality. Lots of them will continuously make waffles and have them sitting and ready, so the trick is to look for one with a high turnover rate so you’ll get the freshest waffle possible.
Corné Port Royal Bruxelles centre, corneportroyal.com/en.htm, Rue de la Madeleine 9, $$ – Multiple locations, we really appreciated the friendly service we got at this store, we didn’t have to wait long but the guy still gave us complimentary chocolate for “making us wait”, and gave us more freebies with our order.
Botanical Garden of Brussels, environnement.brussels/fiche/jardin-botanique, Boulevard Saint-Lazare, 1210, Free – Small beautiful garden outside even in the winter, inside the building there are paid bathrooms
Noordzee – Mer du Nord, noordzeemerdunord.be, Rue Sainte-Catherine 45, $$-$$$ – Try their fresh oysters, when we visited the shop itself was closed but they had a stand in the nearby Christmas market.
Chez Leon, chezleon.be/en, Rue des Bouchers 18, $$ – Don’t really recommend, the food was very bland and it felt very touristy, I felt unwell from our dinner, might have just been the quantity of mussels consumed.

Kinderdijk, Netherlands

Kinderdijk, kinderdijk.com – The trail is free to walk around. Ticket prices to the museum vary depending on season. Check their website to make sure they are open, as weather and maintenance affect their hours.

Rotterdam, Netherlands

Cube Houses, kubuswoning.nl, Overblaak 70
Market Hall, markthal-en.klepierre.nl, Dominee Jan Scharpstraat 298, $-$$ – Food Market with food stands, cafes, restaurants. We recommend gözleme from Ekmekci and a salted caramel stroopwaffle from Goudstroop, but avoid the taro milk teas from YOYO! Fresh tea bar and the sushi from Sushi Sushi.
Luchtsingel, luchtsingel.org/en/about-luchtsingel

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Anne Frank House, annefrank.org/en/museum, Westermarkt 20, $ – Photos are not allowed in the museum. Tickets must be purchased online, you can no longer purchase them at the door.
Pancake Bakery, pancake.nl, Prinsengracht 191, $-$$ – We had the savory pancake with ham, cheese, and mushrooms, and a sweet pancake with apple and cinnamon ice cream, recommend them both!
Rijksmuseum, rijksmuseum.nl, Museumstraat 1, $ – Free to visit the small garden outside and there’s often street performers in the tunnel.
Vondelpark – Expansive public park with beautiful ponds.
Dehallen Amsterdam, dehallen-amsterdam.nl, Hannie Dankbaarpassage 47, $-$$$ – The Maker Store and Foodhallen are located here, as well as a cinema and a neat denim shop. Foodhallen has free bathrooms but expensive food stalls, look for signs as some take only cash or card or only local cards.
Eetcafé Roem, roemlunchroom.nl, Prinsengracht 126, $-$$ – Little cafe that we waited out some rain, we saw a couple tiny rats, the owner said it was normal for rats to come in from the canals, and that when it was time to close he would open everything up and shoo the rats out, preferring not to kill them.
Amsterdam Light Festival Art Tour, amsterdamlightfestival.com/en, $$-$$$ – This year’s Amsterdam Light Festival ended January 20, 2019, but can you still take a lovely canal tour with our friend Rocco through his romantictouramsterdam.com company.
Aneka Rasa Restaurant, anekarasa.nl, Warmoesstraat 25-29, $$ – An Indonesian restaurant that specializes on rice table style eating (think Korean banchan or a spread of sample plates). We had the Rice Table Aneka, which included meat. Check their website, sometimes if you reserve online you can get a discount.

Utrecht, Netherlands

Jasmijn & Ik, jasmijnenik.nl, Kanaalstraat 219-221, $$ – Don’t rely on the hours listed on Google, it seems to be wrong. If you’re spice intolerant like me, beware of the garnishes, they tend to use jalapeño slices. Try their house lemonade, it was delicious!
Groeten uit Utrecht, facebook.com/Groetenuitutrecht1, Zadelstraat 28, $-$$ – delightful souvenir shop with a friendly owner and lots of cute Miffy products

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