Chris & Allyson vs. Europe (2013)
Amsterdam Day One: The Cheese Museum. Science Center NEMO. Scheepvaartmuseum. Natura Artis Magistra. Portuguese Synagogue. Leidseplein.
The charms of this Dutch city have enchanted visitors for centuries, in the brief moments when they are not lurching through the streets in a drug-addled haze, searching for prostitutes. The intricate tapestry of its history includes artistic legends, global intrigue and cheese. And countless people have plunged headlong into the romance of Amsterdam's canals, after attempting to dodge the city's endless procession of psychotic bicyclers.
Lets go, Amsterdam!
Your adventure in Amsterdam -- or any respectable European city -- begins in the train station. America was shaped by trains, but threw them under the bus once automobiles hit the scene. Trains are more practical in Europe, where most countries are no bigger than (but far more exciting than) Delaware. The train station is a thriving center where pickpockets and urchins alike can practice their trade on the never-ending procession of newcomers. It is a usually a grand building with many architectural flourishes, and also mysterious-smelling people carrying backpacks that could hold upward of three corpses.
Amsterdam's hauptbanhof (German for "house of odorous drifters") can be reached after a short ride from the airport. It is a cavernous building located on an island near the IJ. The IJ, in case you were wondering, is a bay. In addition to having only two letters, its name is entirely in capital letters, to emphasize that the Netherlands is a foreign and mysterious place. Be sure to take in the architecture. Amsterdam Centraal station was designed in the late 19th century by Pierre Cuypers, the same architect behind the Rijksmuseum -- a building you will almost certainly be forced to visit by a traveling companion.
You're probably toting some luggage, so the first thing to do is drop your bags at the hotel. For the purposes of this tour, you are staying at the Hotel Pulitzer, a glamorous hotel that your wife booked using her Starwood points. The Pulitzer is carved out of 25 historic "canal houses," the famous structures that give Amsterdam its iconic look; it is only a mile from Amsterdam Centraal and just two blocks from the Anne Frank house, which you will also definitely be dragged to. The Pulitzer has an elegant bar, a private canal boat and a courteous staff. It will also be mentioned to you at least 321 times during your visit that the cast of "Ocean's 12" stayed there during filming.
Most important, the Pulitzer has its own coffee shop -- a place for you to fuel up before your exciting first day in Amsterdam. Ordering coffee in a new country can be difficult, particularly for a jet-lagged traveler haunted by her inability to order coffee in Australia the year before. Be patient, speak slowly and leave no doubt in the barista's mind that you are an American in need of help. No matter where you go in Europe, you will meet people who are obligated to help Americans, because something your American grandfather did 70 years ago made it possible for them to be born. They don't know that your grandfather fought in the Pacific, so go with it.
Welcome to the glorious world of cheese.
They'll sell no rind before its time.
At the cheese museum, DO have a cow.
Bikes and canals: The essence of Amsterdam.
Now you're finally ready to experience Amsterdam, a city with world-class museums, cultural institutions and historic sites. But those can wait. Leave the hotel, cross the canal and go one block to the Cheese Museum. Cheese is an important part of Dutch heritage. When the winds blow in off the North Sea, it helps to have a substantial amount of insulating body fat, and nothing makes you fat quicker than cheese. The markets of Gouda and Edam are known throughout the world.
The Cheese Museum honors this heritage with a one-room basement display. It includes a few replica pieces of cheese-making equipment and paintings of cows. And it is conveniently located underneath a cheese shop that will ship your souvenir cheese anywhere in the world. After your five-minute visit, it will dawn on you that you're tearing through Amsterdam's tourist experiences at a horrendous pace. You need to plan a little better, and the good people at the Greater Amsterdam Tourism Council are ready to help you out. Stock up on free cheese samples, because you're going on a quest for an "I amsterdam" card.
The concept is simple: One card grants you admission to dozens of Amsterdam's less-desirable tourist attractions over a three-day period, as well as the city's public transportation. It could be a frivolous luxury; you might buy the card, use it twice and carry it in your wallet as a memento of your trip. But that's not how this guidebook works. If we're getting you an "I amsterdam" card, it will be the GREATEST VALUE OF YOUR ENTIRE LIFE. The trick is finding them. Take a few hours to wander the streets of Amsterdam in search of a card vendor. The less you ask for help -- the exact opposite of our coffee-ordering strategy -- the more of the city you'll get to see. By the time your traveling companion starts entertaining thoughts of drowning you in a canal, you will end up near the train station, where the main tourism office can help you out.
You now hold the key to a fantastic afternoon in Amsterdam, provided your marriage is strong enough to handle the strain! Head east from the train station, walking along the main waterway toward the oddly-shaped green building in the distance. It's designed to look a giant boat, because naturally, it's the science museum.
The science museum, at a distance.
A physics demonstration inside Science Center NEMO.
The cutting edge of Dutch science.
Important educational exhibits for the youth of Amsterdam.
Approaching the Scheepvaartmuseum.
When sails were king. At the Scheepvaartmuseum.
A throwback to the glory of the East India Company.
Although it isn't awash in Dutch history, Science Center NEMO offers an authentically Dutch experience. Be sure to check out NEMO's extensive collection of dead small animals in jars. Then move on to the exhibit on teenage sex that includes numerous posed wooden models and giant tongue puppets to help you simulate French kissing. Remember, you're a guest in a foreign land -- respect their completely godless and unclean culture! Since you didn't pay full price for admission, rush through anything that makes you uncomfortable. Your reward is on NEMO's roof, where a delightful café awaits with beautiful views of central Amsterdam; you can take in the views while wondering how on Earth you ended up a science museum less than 12 hours after starting your vacation.
The next stop along the water's edge is a little more relevant to the history of the Netherlands. Europe is filled with countries that were once the most powerful nations on Earth. And we're not just talking England, France and Germany. Portugal was obscenely influential for a time, Spain was once a superpower, and thanks to a paperwork error, Andorra once used its goat-based economy to bring Western Civilization to its knees. In the latter stages of the 17th century, the Netherlands was an unrivaled economic powerhouse. The Dutch used superior shipbuilding and farming to become the world's greatest traders. Dutch merchants ferried goods across the globe.
The Scheepvaartmuseum offers a nostalgic look at the era when Dutch boots pressed on the throats of lesser nations. Dedicated to maritime history, the museum is located in a 17th-century naval storehouse, an imposing square building located in the middle of the water. After crossing a small bridge, you can explore collections that wallow in the glorious aspects of maritime supremacy. There are galleries for figureheads, model ships, navigational equipment and nautical-themed paintings; they are both informative and small enough that mildly uninterested traveling companions won't wish for the salty eternal embrace of the sea.
The highlight of the Scheepvaartmuseum is the Amsterdam, a full-size replica of an 18th-century Dutch East India Company cargo ship docked alongside the storehouse. Considered by some to be the first multinational corporation, the East India Company (VOC) dominated trade with Asia for several generations. The most prized cargo was spices, which were originally brought on board to mask the smells of men who spent four months at sea. Ships such as the Amsterdam were the workhorses of the global economy, despite being barely larger than the lifeboat of a modern cruise ship. Exploring its cramped lower decks takes visitors back to an era when everything must have reeked horribly and people were much shorter.
Amsterdam's very historic zoo.
A camel in the middle of northern Europe.
The elegance of Amsterdam's Portuguese Synagogue.
Some of the religious swag in the Portuguese Synagogue.
There's still more to see, if no one in your party is yet having a psychotic episode! The Scheepvaartmuseum is a short walk from the Plantage neighborhood, the home to Amsterdam's zoo -- another "I Amsterdam" attraction. Natura Artis Magistra dates to the 1830s. Similar to zoos in all parts of the world, it draws throngs of white-trash parents pushing 7-year-olds around in strollers. It boasts an impressive collection of animals with unusual noses, including anteaters and tapirs.
And if you enjoy creatures with unusual noses, be sure to stop at the nearby Portuguese Synagogue. Despite the rampant anti-Semitism in the universe, as evidenced by both the last sentence and World War II, this remarkable structure has survived. The synagogue was built by Iberian Peninsula Jews who fled Catholic persecution in the late 17th century. Several renovations later, it remains a stately and elegant house of worship, hidden from street view by high walls. The basement galleries are filled with artifacts for the protection and presentation of Torah scrolls. The synagogue today is an attraction for people of all faiths; visitors might mingle with Catholics or Jews from the Upper West Side while walking along the sand-covered floors.
If visits to the above attractions were timed correctly, your body should begin forcefully shutting itself down at the same time as the Portuguese Synagogue. Travel back to hotel via one of Amsterdam's convenient trams and freshen up. If you have the energy, it's still possible to enjoy some of Amsterdam's thriving nightlife. The Leidseplein is a hub of evening activities, and it's a leisurely walk from Hotel Pulitzer. For many years, smelly backpackers, marijuana enthusiasts and pickpockets from around the world have descended on the bars and restaurants of the Leidseplein as the sun begin to set. It is truly an international experience. Americans can enjoy food at an Irish bar, served by a half-Spanish, half-Scottish waiter. This is why we travel.
With two weeks of vacation in front of you, there's no need to overdo it -- 43 tourist attractions in one day is a perfectly respectable start to your European adventure. After dinner, make your way back to the hotel. There's plenty of excitement ahead, and you're going to need your rest for the inevitable moment when your wife takes a swing at you after forcing her into museum No. 132.
The Canals of Amsterdam. The Netherlands is a country reclaimed from the water. Dutch ingenuity and engineering have transformed soggy lowlands into soggy (but economically viable) islands and plains. The canals of Amsterdam offer a striking illustration. Historic central Amsterdam is located where the Amstel river meets the IJ. In ancient times, a moat was constructed around the "old city" for defensive purposes. As the city expanded, newer "ring" canals were added, creating thriving conduits for the city's maritime-based commerce. Today, those canals are a major tourist attraction, and the stately "canal houses" built along them give the city its iconic look. Also, the canals are a fantastic place to puke as you come down from a bad trip.
Watch Out! Bikers! You haven't really experienced Amsterdam until you are almost killed by a bicycle. Biking is the most common mode of transportation in the city, as many of the city's residents are people who moved there to escape student loan payments. Bicyclers are extremely aggressive, and they weave along both sidewalks and roads. Do not attempt to ride a bicycle in Amsterdam if you have not already informed all the people in your life how much they mean to you. Also, you might notice that bikers in Amsterdam don't do that thing where they roll up one pant leg. That's because American hipster bikers are actually being d-bags and have no real reason to roll up their pants, other than wanting to look different.