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Northwestern Europe Adventure

Amsterdam and Brussels, June 2024 (Part 1)

By Joe Bowden

In just two trips across the Atlantic, I’ve found Europe a fascinating and engaging continent. Some places see huge tourist crowds, and others offer enriching experiences while flying under the radar. I discovered both on my most recent vacation - the ever-popular Amsterdam, and stunning Brussels.

Getting in

I traveled with my brother, his wife, and my 17 year-old nephew. We flew JetBlue nonstop BOS-AMS on an overnight flight - flying time about six hours. We flew in Mint Suites, which was an excellent experience. Your seat comes with its own door, it reclines to a fully-flat position for sleeping, and you have a huge personal entertainment console. I found the food tasty and the Mint Condition cocktail to be delicious (if a little sweet for my liking). Given that we departed at 10:30pm and arrived in Europe at about 11am, I didn’t take full advantage of the entertainment and decided to knock off for a couple of hours’ sleep. The amenity kit earplugs, slippers, and eye mask were all very useful.

Conclusion? Fly Mint if you have the means. There are other options flying BOS - AMS, but from what I’ve heard, Mint is probably the best. For comparison, last summer, I connected in LHR on British Airways and flew their Club World lie-flat seat on the BOS - LHR and LHR - BOS legs of my trips. While JetBlue doesn’t have its own lounges like British Airways does - and the Boston BA lounge is excellent - the in-the-air experience on JetBlue more than made up for the lack of a lounge. The seat was much more modern, and the experience was even more comfortable.

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (pronounced “skipple”) is one of the world’s busiest airports, and you’re likely to walk a considerable distance between your arrival gate and passport control. (It took us a nearly 20-minute walk to get there!) Otherwise, it’s a clean and well-organized airport, and English is universally posted on signage there, which makes navigation very easy. Departing the airport, we walked across a single crosswalk and took Bus 397, which took us to Leidseplein (our stop) in about 30 minutes. You can prebook round-trip tickets for about 11.5 EUR, or you can simply tap your chip-enabled credit card at the reader on the door at the start and end of your journey. (This tap card setup was universal in both Amsterdam and Brussels, which was extremely convenient.)

Amsterdam - Museums

We began our tour with the Van Gogh museum - dedicated to the famous Dutch painter and those inspired by him. While crowded, it offered a great opportunity to get up close and personal with his work. Buy timed-entry tickets in advance, particularly during peak season.

On Wednesday, we visited the Rijksmuseum, which is the national museum of The Netherlands. It’s situated in the Museumplein, which is less than a 10-minute walk from our hotel in Leidseplein. If you’re into art history or cultural enrichment, you could easily spend a day and a half here. However, many visitors will be more than satisfied with a few hours’ tour of famous Dutch artists such as Rembrandt. National museums throughout Europe tend to follow a format for how they’re laid out, but if you focus on the local masters and their works, then you can get the most bang for your buck time-wise.

Straat was a unique exhibition - a museum of street art (or “graffiti”). It’s in Noord (north of Amsterdam Centraal, which is how it’s spelled in Dutch), and you can take a ferry from Centraal to get there. The building is an old industrial facility with very high ceilings and a somewhat open-air feel to it. It was far less crowded than any of the “traditional” museums, and provided a big contrast to all the Renaissance art we’d seen at the Rijksmuseum.

On Thursday, we took a brief visit to the Stedelijk, a modern art museum located adjacent to the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. If modern art and design are your thing, then this is the place for you. It was highly political, but thought-provoking. It was a good way to kill an hour or so before the big event - our helicopter tour.

Amsterdam Helicopter Tour

We took an Uber out to HeliAMS for an hourlong helicopter tour of Amsterdam and its surroundings. We strapped in and flew a counterclockwise pattern that took us over the city center, northeast to old towns and agricultural areas, northwest to classic (but still operating) wooden windmills, and out over the dunes of the seacoast before touching back down again.

HeliAMS was a thrilling experience. Our pilot, Jasper, made us feel very comfortable and gave us a smooth ride. He also pointed out many of the landmarks along the way, and he generously answered our questions. What was interesting to me was that sightseeing tours aren’t HeliAMS’ primary business - they do a lot of corporate transportation and industrial aerial surveying. I’d highly recommend riding in a helicopter at least once in your life, and this is a great place to do it.

Out and About in Town

Amsterdam is flat and criss-crossed by canals, which provide much of the city’s unique character. It’s a very walkable city. Cycling is extremely popular and a primary method of transport for many residents. That said, be extremely careful when crossing streets or walking, particularly in areas where the delineations between bike lanes and crosswalks are not well-defined. Unlike cars, bikes approach with very little sound, so you have to look both ways and watch where you walk. While I felt great biking in Copenhagen, I wouldn’t recommend that visitors attempt to ride here. The locals, while otherwise very friendly, have little patience for urban-cycling novices.

Public transit is extensive and easy to use. You can simply tap a contactless credit or debit card at the reader to get on, and tap it again to get off. Note that the streetcars do not have air conditioning - it was over 80 degrees when we visited, so our rides weren’t particularly comfortable. Beyond that, they’re very modern, and screens tell you about upcoming destinations and your estimated time of arrival.

Virtually everyone in Amsterdam speaks and / or understands English. However, most street signage is exclusively in Dutch. Your smartphone’s map apps will be very helpful here, and most people can probably help you to get where you’re going if you ask.

Food and Drink

Amsterdam is famous for bitterballen and stroopwafels. The former are battered deep-fried spheres of meat and / or cheese, and the latter are thin waffle-like wafers with a caramel filling between them. Both are enjoyable, though I am not sure I would go back just for those. Most of the bitterballen we had were from our hotel lounge’s dinner offerings, and stroopwafels are available everywhere. (I took home some gluten-free stroopwafels from the Albert Heijn grocery store close to the hotel, and they were quite good.)

Our first night, we ate at Cafe Restaurant Amsterdam (Cradam). It’s in an atrium-like building outside of older structures. The food was quite good, though it was unique in that, if you ordered seafood, you often had to do a lot of your own processing. (They’d serve an entire cooked fish, bones and all.) I was the only one who didn’t get seafood this time around, and the Merguez sausage entree was delicious.

I love European food halls, and the Foodhallen Amsterdam was a memorable and enjoyable experience. The atmosphere and liveliness of the place surpassed the experience one could have just sitting in a restaurant and waiting to be served. Half the fun is walking up to the different vendors and trying to figure out what you’re going to order. Wine is cheap and plentiful from the centrally-located bar, and every stall seemed to have standout food items. We ended up taking two trips to the Foodhallen and mostly getting different items each time.

Part 2 will feature my adventures in Brussels, and the experience of taking international trains in Europe. Stay tuned!


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