Being so familiar with Amsterdam, and having so many things there I loved to do, I knew, with only one full day on this trip, I’d have to be selective in what I was going to do with that day. I whittled down a large list to four of my favorite activities.
So it was that, after a late night at Cafe Gollum, Toni & I found ourselves on the 7 A.M. bus to the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, in Amsterdam’s southern suburbs.
On my last trip to Amsterdam in 2004, I’d heard about this excursion from some fellow travelers I’d met. I balked at the necessity of getting up at 6 in the morning to catch the bus out to the sight, but in the end decided it sounded too one of a kind to miss. I certainly wasn’t disappointed.
The Netherlands are known for their flowers, and this building at Aalsmeer is the epicenter for the shipping of these flowers all over Europe, and also other parts of the world. The reason for the early start time is that, due to the need to get the freshly cut flowers out for delivery to their retail locations, most of the business takes place early in the morning. When the hall opens for tourists at 7, the floor is already a frenetic buzz of activity. The tour is self guided, with visitors taking in the scene from a catwalk above the floor.
One of the most fascinating features of the tour is the ability to watch how the auction itself happens. There are two huge auction halls, complete with desks for the brokers and their agents to sit and work at. The flowers are sent in via a conveyor system, and all the pertinent information is available on large screens above the carts of flowers. For anyone who thinks the business of flowers must be a fairly uncomplicated one, that is proven as a myth by the sheer amount of information available to the buyers at Aalsmeer. (A full post on Aalsmeer, including transportation logistics, is on the way.)
Our second excursion of the day was to the Albert Cuypmarkt, a four block long street market located near the Heinekin Brewery and an area called De Pijp. One of the best features of this market is that it is used by local residents, not just tourists. I visit the market on every trip I make into Amsterdam, as I’ve found it’s the best (and cheapest) place to find commonly used items, great street food, and the most affordable souvenirs (since it’s away from the main tourist streets). It’s also a great way to get a feel for how the Dutch live. Most of what people see in Amsterdam is not typical of the Dutch, and since most visitors never make it outside the city (which is the best way to find the real Netherlands), this can provide a small glimpse into the Dutch.
After picking up a few necessities and souvenirs, we hopped a tram and headed over to our next stop in the western canal belt.
I’ve told many people who ask me for advice on Amsterdam that one of the essential experiences there is renting a bicycle for at least a few hours and seeing the city from the local’s perspective. It can be an intimidating proposition. Besides dealing with an unfamiliar city, the idea of navigating through the crowds of vehicles, pedestrians and trams has scared away many of the people I’ve recommended it to. The first couple minutes can take some getting used to, but once you have the hang of it, it’s really quite easy.
I’ve only rented from one place in all of my trips to Amsterdam- Bike City in the neighborhood known as the Jordaan. Not only do I find them competitively priced, with great service, being slightly outside the center of the city is perfect for someone who needs a few minutes of getting used to the experience before venturing out into the more crowded districts. The Jordaan is an area of pleasant backsteets, small canals, and botique shops, perfect for a first time biking in Amsterdam.
We started out by biking one of the easy bike paths along one of the city’s ring roads, winding up in the open spaces of Vondelpark. This is another perfect spot to try out biking for those intimdated by the city’s busy streets.
During our three hour ride we covered a large portion of the city, crossing the hectic central Dam area like old pros, we biked out by the zoo and into the less-explored eastern canal belt.
It really is a pleasurable way to see the city. Most of the main streets have at least a bike line, if not a full bike-only path. While much of Europe is known for aggressive driving, the Dutch are most courteous to bicycles, since it is the preferred mode of transportation for so many people.
In the evening, we went for another long stroll- always my favorite thing to do in Amsterdam. The weather was pleasant- I’d seen only the lightest of sprinkles in my two days, a rarity on a visit to Northern Europe.
I was glad I’d given myself a couple days in Amsterdam, revisiting a city that I will always love. It has it’s own energy, a feel different than that of many of the other great cities of Europe. I have no idea if I’ll ever be lucky enough to make it back there, but it’s good to know that if I do, it’ll still be the great city I’ve visited in the past.
While done with Amsterdam, there was one more stop in the Netherlands before starting the Eurail portion of the trip- a visit to the famous Keukenhof Gardens the next day.