We spent a week at the end of July in Amsterdam and Haarlem - two short city breaks packaged into one trip.
In Amsterdam we stayed just north of the Vondel Park, just off Jan Pieter Heijestraat. We chose a location based on AirBnB availability, but weren't disappointed. There was vibrant street life with lots of cafes and restaurants to explore. The vibe was relaxed and mostly residential. Our AirBnB had the classic steep stairs to get up to the flat door.
We enjoyed Cafe de Toog, The Golden Brown Bar for Thai food, Fenan Klein Africa for Ethiopian food and friendly service! There was more than enough on the main street to explore.
Once you are off the main tourist streets the walking is pleasant, where you can still admire old wonky houses, then head back to the park for a fresh mint tea and some snacks.
On the first two days we visited the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. I'd been to both before, so there was less pressure to beat the crowds. Both museums were busy and had to be booked in advance. We walked around the Honours Gallery at the Rijks, and then to the Medieval art gallery on the ground floor which seemed to be the quietest part. It was good re-visiting the Van Gogh museum after our recent trip to Arles and seeing the locations he painted in real life.
The Jewish Museum was our visit on the third day. It is worth spending some time here for the social history, and to get an appreciation for the effects of the war on the Jewish community in the Netherlands. There were screens showing video interviews with Dutch Jews talking about their different experiences and opinions. I was struck by the feelings of a lack of acknowledgement that the Jewish people felt in the immediate aftermath of the war. The particular horrors inflicted were subsumed into the general distress and upheaval. For some this drove them closer to religion, for others away to a shelter of a quiet life.
Top tip: if you are going to be in Amsterdam for a few days, and can plan in advance, then you might want to check out the Netherlands Museumkaart. It gives you access to many museums for the equivalent of ~3 or 4 entry prices for an entire year. If you sign up in person you get a temporary pass which is good for 5 entries. You need to get the full membership card posted to you, so planning in advance is key. We'll likely do this the next time we visit, as it means you can visit the same museum several times in shorter bursts, which is often a nicer way to see things. Note: you still need to book a "slot" in advance for some museums, but tickets are generally available.
I really enjoyed Amsterdam for a relaxing city break. Once you are out of the center it seems to be a nice pace of life. It's a global city: we ate New Zealand-style brunch, Brunch at Locals, brunch in a quiet square, marvelled at the cycle lanes, and lazed in the park. The city seemed really family friendly, with many many children being driven around in cargo bikes, bike seats on single bikes, or just hopping onto a bike rack. Transport is very easy and efficient with the trams and metro. If only Edinburgh could learn some lessons!
After Amsterdam we moved on to Haarlem, just a 20 minute train journey from Amsterdam. If you are travelling by train the "NS" app is an easy way to plan your journey. We met up with Gordon and Amy and spent a few more days here. Haarlem is a beautiful place - canals, little back streets, a nice range of shops and dining, plus some history. I went running every morning.
Our AirBnB had an interesting style. I think the owner was a painter, so the walls had lots of art, including some (what looked like) historic family portraits. Is Dutch interior design is under-rated? Modern, cosy, functional. Taking the best bits of minimalism and adding some comfort? Walking around Haarlem it was sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a design-shop window and a private front-room window!
We spent a day at the beach at Zandfoort, 15-20 minutes on the bus from the center of Haarlem. Zandfoot has a touristy center, and the beach front was somewhat dilapidated, but it was a relaxing way to spend an afternoon. Had we not had both pregnancy and injury in our group we'd maybe have rented some bikes to cycle to the coast. Next time!
The next day was rainy, so we checked out Teylers museum in the center of Haarlem. It was fun, some rooms of fossils, rooms of scientific instruments, and rooms with art. The audio guide is worth picking up, as it provides a lot more context to the displays. I have been reading about the Bourgeois with scientific and economic development, with some focus on the Dutch, so it was good to see the evidence and artifacts of this progress in person.
Outside of the museum we caught a bit of a RedBull event, with folks trying to pole-vault over the canal. Is this a Dutch tradition? Who knows. It was fun to watch a few minutes in-between rain-showers.
We spent our last day back in Amsterdam, chilling in Vondel Park. It's a nice place to spend some time, with a couple of nice cafe-bars in the center. Thanks Netherlands - we hope to return soon!