Amsterdam: A Whirlwind Layover

Many of my older (and perhaps wiser) friends say that the best way to see the world is by inserting long layovers into long flights. Layovers do sound like a very good idea: they often make plane fare cheaper and a torturously long flight more bearable. So this year, I decided insert a day-long layover in Amsterdam into my 11 hour flight in Israel. In this blog post I will recount my exciting though very hectic day in detail. Feel free to use this as a cursory itinerary for your own day in Amsterdam.

When you only have a day to explore a metropolitan city bursting with interesting things to do, the key to using your time effectively is lots and lots of research. Before my trip I read a few travel blogs (such as this one), posted in a few Facebook groups for advice on what to see, and what turned out to be most helpful, consulted with my friend Phil, who  turned out to be an expert on the city. Since I had such a limited amount of time, I decided to start my day with the things I absolutely had to see, and leave the evening open to do some extra sightseeing if I had the time. My flight left from Newark Liberty International Airport at 6:13 pm and after 7 hours in flight, I arrived in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam at 7:30 am on August 18th, 2016.

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The first thing I wanted to see was the Anne Frank house. Everyone I spoke to highly recommended visiting this museum, but getting tickets was a struggle. Since the house is tiny, the amount of visitors allowed inside is very small and the line to get in is legendarily long (at times a 2 hour wait). It is possible to book tickets online for a particular timeslot but usually they must be ordered months in advance. The one loophole is that it’s usually possible to snag a ticket exactly one day before your visit (the museum throws out a couple extra tickets for the next day the day before). Elated that I was able to do so, I booked a ticket was for 9:30 am.

I took the train from Schiphol airport and arrived at the Amsterdam central train station at 8:15 am. From there I took a scenic 20 minute walk to Anne Frank house. You notice right away that Amsterdam is a city of cyclists – people on bicycles are everywhere and you worry more about being run over by a cyclist than about being run over by a car when you cross the streets. Cycling would definitely be a fun activity to try next time I’m in the city. The city of Amsterdam itself has a horseshoe shape and is home to almost 60 miles of canals. In fact the name Amsterdam originates from Amstelredamme (a dam on the river Amstel). When you walk through the city you are constantly crossing lovely canals. I therefore picked up some coffee on the way and took out my large touristy camera to take lots of pictures.

On the way, I stopped to see the Homomonument, a monument which commemorates gays and lesbians who have suffered persecution. It was unveiled in 1987 and was the first tribute to homosexual people murdered by the Nazis. The monument was unlike any other I had ever seen and despite being such a landmark, was slightly hard to find. I hadn’t seen an image before and expected a monument that is large and obvious. Instead the homomonument takes the form of a flat engraved triangle that blends into the ground (perhaps symbolically so), and unless you are looking for it you probably won’t notice it. The directions of the triangle’s three points are symbolic: One points towards the National War Memorial on Dam Square, another points towards the house of Anne Frank, and the third points towards the headquarters of COC Nederland, a Dutch gay rights group founded in 1946.

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I then headed to the Anne Frank house and went in almost immediately. For those readers who don’t know, the Anne Frank house is the preserved residence where eight Jews (the Frank and Van Pels families and Fritz Pfeffer) hid from the Nazis for more than two years during World War II. Anne Frank, the youngest daughter of the Frank family, kept a diary which was a detailed and emotional account of her life in hiding. Tragically, the inhabitants of the Anne Frank house were betrayed and discovered and only Anne’s father, Otto Frank, survived the war. To commemorate his daughter and educate the general public, Otto Frank published Anne’s diary. It became an international bestseller, symbolic of the crimes committed by the Nazis. Reading and even re-reading The Diary of a Young Girl (The Diary of Anne Frank) before visiting the museum is essential in my opinion. It’s an easy read and the writing is sentimental and very young, but partially it’s the writing’s emotion and naiveté that makes it a heart wrenching and exceptionally powerful account of the atrocities committed during the holocaust.

The museum is relatively small and depending on your interest level, you can spend from 1 to 2 hours there. When the Nazis discovered the Jews in the hiding place, all the original objects and furniture were removed and disappeared. When the Anne Frank house was established as a museum after the war though, Otto Frank asked that the rooms remain unfurnished as they were left by the Nazis, to commemorate all the terrible losses of the holocaust. It was a wise decisions – the lack of furniture only adds to the emotional rollercoaster that walking through the house is. To me it was unimaginable that eight people could live for 2 years in the tiny, cramped rooms of the house without making noise or ever stepping outside. The sliver of window that Anne writes about in the diary, their only physical connection to the outside world, is a heartbreaking symbol of how much these people endured.  There are some interesting historical objects exhibited in the house: the original bookcase that hid the entrance to the hiding place and Anne Frank’s original red and white checkered diary. There are also lots of photographs: the people who brought supplies to the hiding place (the helpers), the inhabitants of the hiding place, the Frank family before the war. Moreover many of the rooms have video interviews with Otto Frank, people who knew Anne before the war, and various historians.

After I left the Anne Frank house I wandered over to Westerkerk, the largest protestant church in Holland. It’s noted for its beautiful organ and its 275ft tall tower that you can actually climb to get an unmatched view of Amsterdam (I unfortunately didn’t due to time constraints). Westerkerk is right near the Anne Frank house, and in fact, she mentions the church several times in her diary. Also, the famous Dutch painter, Rembrandt Van Rijn, is buried in an unmarked location somewhere in Westerkerk (he had impoverished himself at that point and received a poor man’s funeral). The church’s modest interior definitely rings of protestant values – it’s very plane though large and completely different from the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches I’ve been in.

What I loved about Amsterdam is that it’s such a walkable city. I many different part of the city in my one day there and never once used an uber, bus, or tram for intercity transportation. Therefore, after Westerkerk, I took another quaint 30 minute walk to my next destination – the Museumplein (a square with the major museums of Amsterdam). On the way, I strolled through Jordaan, a very picturesque neighborhood near the Anne Frank house and Westerkerk. Jordaan used to be a working class neighborhood but has now become one of the most posh and expensive areas of Amsterdam to live in. The paysage of cute, classic houses on a pristine canal, that so many associate with Amsterdam, is exactly how Jordaan looks. An interesting fact is that many houses here have a stone tablet in the front, displaying the family sign or the profession of the inhabitants. The area is home to many galleries, specialty shops and restaurants. Phil actually suggested that I visit a brown café (casual pubs featuring drinks and snacks) called ‘T Smalle in Jordaan but unfortunately I didn’t have the time.

 After some walking, I also passed through the Leidseplein, a lively square in Amsterdam, which apparently used to be a parking lot for horse-drawn traffic (perhaps created so citizens to avoid the tricky craft of parallel parking a horse). But honestly unless you go for the active nightlife or a particular restaurant, Leidseplein isn’t particularly notable. I also passed by Vondelpark, a large park in Amsterdam (the equivalent of our Central Park I guess), but didn’t have time to explore it. When I got to the Museumplein, I hopped onto one of Amsterdam’s famous canal cruises, which leads you all through the city by waterway with audio narration throughout. Though the cruise came highly recommended, I didn’t really like it. The audio wasn’t particularly interesting with too little actual information and too many corny jokes. My biggest issue though was that the seating on the boat was inside a closed cabin so you couldn’t feel the lovely breezes from the water, and had to view the city through a murky window. I guess it’s a fun activity for first-time visitors who have plenty of time on their hands, but I would have preferred to just wander.

After the cruise I had lunch at Café de Jaren, a casual restaurant that Phil had recommended, which was only 15 minutes away from Museumplein. The restaurant was lovely – there were lots of locals and delightful seating right on the bank of a canal and overlooking the city. There I ate a classic Dutch lunch: an ossenworst (raw beef sausage) sandwich with pickles and mustard accompanied by a frosty glass of beer. It ended up being very cheap – I paid a total of 10 euros.

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My next destination was the world-famous Rijksmuseum, located right on the Museumplein. The museum is the largest in Holland and houses a collection of 1 million objects. It’s particularly famous for masterpieces from the Dutch Golden Age, many painted by Rembrandt Van Rijn, Johann Vermeer and Franz Hals, amongst others. Since the museum is huge and one would probably need multiple days to see everything, I organized my time there by looking only at some major paintings that the museum is known for (most of which are conveniently located in the Gallery of Honor). Here I will talk about a few.

Battle of Waterloo by Jan Willem Pieneman (1824): This painting is massive (18×27 ft) and impresses you with its sheer size, the complex details, and the myriad of interconnected portrayals from the famous battle. The painting is a composition of events that did not actually happened concurrently: it portrays the Duke of Wellington bathed in sunlight and smiling at the news that Prussian troops will soon arrive to reinforce the Anglo-Dutch army. The Prince of Orange, the wounded “hero of Waterloo” lies on a stretcher and smiles at the news as well. Apparently, some of the surviving officers from the battle, particularly the Duke of Wellington, actually sat for Pinieman while he made preparatory portrait sketches.

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The Milkmaid by Johann Vermeer (1658): This painting is one that most people would probably recognize upon seeing it which tells you how iconic it really is. It depicts a sturdily-built woman wearing a crisp white linen cap and a blue apron, pouring milk from a jug into a bowl. The painting is full of thematic elements particularly the ethical and social value of hard work and allusions to female sexuality (especially since maids were often painted back then as objects of corrupting lust). The lighting, color and compositional elements are also notable especially the tactile realism of the scene presented. What draws me in is the mysterious expression on the maid’s face: one cannot tell if it’s one of annoyance, contemplation, fantasy or romance and you can spend many enjoyable hours puzzling over it.

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The Threatened Swan by Jan Asselijn (1650): This painting portrays a ferocious and riled-up swan attacking a curious dog. The painting is thought to symbolize (and became a symbol) of the Dutch national resistance (though it is not clear if the creator actually intended it as such). Even without the history though, I found the painting a marvelous action shot. It’s full of trepidation, anger, anticipation, tension almost like someone paused a movie right at the breath-taking climax.

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The Night Watch by Rembrandt Van Rijn (1642): This one is the Mona Lisa of the Rijksmuseum, but unlike the Mona Lisa, it’s doubtful you’ll be disappointed by this painting’s size (12×14 ft). The Night Watch is housed in a special hall and there you can pick up a brochure that describes its many characters and elements in detail (great idea Rijksmuseum). This painting is a portrait of the militia company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq and was revolutionary for its time. Instead of painting a static portrait as was the standard, Rembrandt made the painting explode with action, color and interplay of light and dark. Interestingly, light and dark are used not only aesthetically but to strategically identify the important characters in the scene.

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The final stop on my layover was yet another art museum, this time the Van Gogh museum. The museum is located right near the Rijksmuseum on the Museumplein. This art museum was incredible (I liked it even more than the Rijksmuseum perhaps). Vincent Van Gogh was a brilliant Dutch post-impressionist artist known for his vivid colors and ability to make everyday scenes come to life. The museum has an incredibly rich collection and is full of all kinds of lively, human and colorful paintings that so characterize Van Gogh’s style. They are arranged in a way that traces Van Gogh’s life and the different artistic phases that he went through. The museum also houses some paintings of Van Gogh’s contemporaries and has some interesting descriptions of how they influenced the artist. The Potato Eaters, Sunflowers and Bedroom in Arles are some of the more famous paintings there. Unfortunately the museum does not allow taking photographs but I did manage to snag one before I was yelled at to put my camera away.

Outside the Van Gogh museum I walked around the Museumplein itself. I looked at the famous Amsterdam sign (in front of the Rijksmuseum) and enjoyed sitting on the huge grassy field between all the museums.

By then it was 7:00 pm and already time to return to the airport (by bus 197) and so my hectic layover had concluded. Of course I did not see all there is to see in Amsterdam as one would need weeks to do that. I didn’t get to see the Rembrandt House, other fascinating museums, the notorious red light district, and did not visit a “coffee” shop. But I did discover that Amsterdam is really a unique European city and a wonderful destination – it’s picturesque and lively, walkable, full of culture, food, and fun. My verdict on layovers is as follows: they can be fun as an introduction and a good way to see something particular in exciting, metropolitan cities. But one day is definitely not enough to really discover the heart of a city and travelling to Amsterdam again is definitely on my bucket list.

Hope you enjoyed this entry. More to come soon. As usual, all photographs are originals and I therefore apologize for the bad quality of some on the paintings. Till next time!

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