Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Day Trips from Amsterdam

Traveling further afield from Amsterdam? You can try the well-known tourist destinations in Belgium like Bruges and Ghent, or Antwerp and Brussels. Yet there are several options for quicker day trips within the Netherlands, whether your tastes lean towards modern urbanism or pastoral tulip fields.

Amsterdam Day Trips: Rotterdam

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Cube houses in Rotterdam
Rotterdam, less than 90 minutes by train from Amsterdam, is the largest port in Europe. The massive waterfront is worth a look, and boat tours are available (9.25 Euro for adults from the company Spido). The strategic harbor made the city a target of World War II bombing campaigns, thus nearly completely destroying the city center. What resulted was Rotterdam’s famous modern and experimental architecture on a scale not found in other major Dutch cities (or anywhere else for that matter).
The innovative 2,600-foot Erasmus Bridge, nicknamed ‘The Swan’, links the northern and southern sides of the city. The Cube Houses, are nearly impossible to describe (think a normal building tilted 45 degrees), but a definite must see in the city center. The quirky Kunsthal (translates as ‘art hall’) combines rotating exhibits of art, photography and fashion in a building designed by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen (art, including Brueghel, Magritte and Dali) and Netherlands Architecture Institute are both located on the Museumpark, and are notable.
Located elsewhere are the Maritime Museum and Wereldmuseum (ethnographic art from throughout the world), they are also recommended. Rotterdam is thoroughly diverse with immigrants flowing from former Dutch colonies in Suriname and Indonesia, as well as émigrés from Morocco and Turkey. In January the city hosts the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and in July the North Sea Jazz Festival.

Amsterdam Day Trips: Utrecht

Utrecht, the Netherlands’ fourth-largest city and home to its largest university, is about 30 minutes by train from Amsterdam Centraal Station. It is also historically a Dutch religious center. The Dom Tower is a 368-foot church tower in the city center, from the top of which Amsterdam is visible on a clear day. A 17th-century storm destroyed part of the church while still under construction, and now the tower stands separated from the rest of the church. The city center alternates between medieval grandeur and a sort-of outdoor shopping mall.
Notable are the recessed cafes and restaurants that line canals (especially the Oudegracht) with the street level above. This is unique from canals in Amsterdam, which sit below the streetscape without the lower platforms lining their banks. There are several museums in Utrecht, but try to time a visit with the frequently free (or cheap) cultural happenings sponsored by the city, usually on Sundays. The Rietvald Schroder House is dates from 1924 and represents the De Stijl movement of art and architecture. It now houses a museum and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visits to the house are possible Thursday through Sunday, reservations are recommended, and shuttles run from Utrecht’s Centraal Museum.

Amsterdam Day Trips: The Hague

The Hague (or in Dutch, Den Haag) is about one hour by train from Amsterdam. It feels different than either Amsterdam or Utrecht, notably because of its few canals, wider streets and more open layout. It is the permanent home of both the International Criminal Court (ICC, which prosecutes individuals accused of war crimes for example) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ, which settles disputes between United Nations member states), and the location of Dutch parliament. Both courts are available for visits.
The ICJ is housed in the Peace Palace, built in the early 20th century with financing provided by Andrew Carnegie. In the ICC’s modern building one can watch a war crimes trial from a viewing box. Queen Beatrix resides in the Paleis Huis ten Bosch in a forest just outside the city. All international embassies are in The Hague, giving the city an orderly, diplomatic and bureaucratic feel. The city is home to the M.C. Escher Museum, displaying the labors of the well known graphic artist whose twisted and thought-provoking works are frequently featured in dorm-room posters the world over (7.50 Euro admission for adults).

Amsterdam Day Trips: A taste of the countryside

Cycling is the Dutch way to travel and the simplest excursion is to rent a bike, take the train 15 minutes west to Haarlem and then cycle through town, eventually meandering into the country side. Just west of Haarlem is Zuid-Kennemerland National Park, about 15 square miles of forest, dunes and beach. Biking around the country inevitably brings you into small rural villages which can be a treat in their own right.

Amsterdam Day Trips: Keukenhof Tulip Gardens

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Tulips in Spring
In the spring, the tulip fields west of Amsterdam are a must see. Keukenhof, near the town of Lisse, is the largest flower garden in the world. It is literally a massive park (run by the Dutch flower industry with an industrial sized admissions charge, but impressive enough) that is open to the public only from the end of March through mid-May.
Buses travel to the site from nearby towns of Haarlem and Leiden, which are accessed by train from Amsterdam. Freelance touring of tulip fields on bike is also an option. In fact a ride through the country side anywhere between the cities of Haarlem and Leiden should bring you into a colorful palette of flowers. Stripes of tulips in all colors give the fields a surreal feeling. Again, the flowers only bloom seasonally, so spring is the best/only time to visit.
The same region in the summer is beach territory. In fact the area encompassing the tulip fields and coastline is colloquially called Duin en Bollenststreek (the Dune and Bulb Region). Large sand dunes and beaches run along the entirety of the coast. The best known resort area is Noordwijk aan Zee. Take a train from Amsterdam to Leiden or Voorhout for an easy connection.

Amsterdam Day Trips: Windmills

And if it is windmills you seek look no further than Zaanse Schans, about 20 minutes by train from Amsterdam. The area is something of an outdoor museum, with old homes, shops and most importantly, traditional windmills. The first Albert Heign is here (a Dutch supermarket chain, this landmark would be comparable to say the first McDonald’s or Hershey factory, but Dutch-ified).