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  • Jennifer

The Netherlands & Bruges, Belgium: Canals, Waffles, and Lots and Lots of History

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

Amsterdam

Bikes and waffles. Everywhere. And, of course, canals. Welcome to Amsterdam!!

The weather upon our arrival in the city wasn't great, and it barely got any better our whole time in Amsterdam, but we made the best of it! Starting with a boat ride through the city's canals on a wine and cheese tour. Although it was pretty gray and cold, the boat kept us warm and dry and the wine and cheese were never ending, so we got to see the city and get a great idea of what lay ahead of us during our time there.


From our canal view we got a first hand look at the lovely but seriously crooked buildings in Amsterdam. These tipsy buildings are super thin (in the 17th century taxes were levied based upon how wide the frontage of a home was so wide homes incurred higher taxes) and built on wooden beams that sink over time. They look pretty unstable but we were assured that the city makes sure these homes won't topple over.

On the tour, and later walking around the city, we noticed several bikes decorated with beautiful flowers scattered beside fences and on bridges. We learned that these were placed there by the flower bike man, and it's a very sweet story. The bike-decorating began when a man's wife had trouble finding her bike at Amsterdam Central due to years of suffering from epilepsy, which affected her ability to remember where she parked her bike. Her husband decided to decorate her bike so she wouldn't forget it and then decorated other abandoned bikes along the route to help her find her way home. What a great story, and every time we saw a flower bike we smiled thinking about this sweet gesture!

We knew that there were some "must see" things to do in Amsterdam, like the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. But we decided to visit alternatives to these top sites (full disclosure, we messed up and didn't get tickets to the museum far enough in advance so they were sold out...lesson learned). Instead, we got our art itch scratched at Rijksmuseum, the national museum of the Netherlands that boasts more than 5,000 pieces dedicated to Dutch arts and history.

So, while we didn't get to see a museum dedicated to Van Gogh, we did get to see some famous works, including Rembrandt's The Night Watch and Vermeer's The Milkmaid, as well as some Van Gogh pieces. With so many works of art to see you can spend hours here, and we did.


Our next museum, Verzetmuseum (Dutch Resistance Museum), was a little off the beaten path but so worth visiting. Dedicated to the days of the German occupation of the Netherlands, it was sobering and captivating. Filled with hundreds of stories of people of different political arms who fought against the Nazi occupation, the museum recreates the atmosphere of the streets of Amsterdam during WWII. We can't speak to the Anne Frank House experience, but we would absolutely recommend a visit to Verzetmusem to understand that time in the country's history and the impact on its people.

With a day of rain forecasted, we booked an excursion outside the city to see a working windmill, learn how wooden clogs are carved, taste some local cheese, and enjoy some local chocolate making and hot chocolate (yes, it was that cold and rainy). Zaanse Schans is a neighborhood in the Dutch town of Zaandam, and it houses historic windmills (one of the last ten still in operation) and distinctive green wooden houses that were relocated here to recreate the look of an 18th/19th-century village. Even in the rain, it was a fun, if wet, day and only a short ride from the city.

In 1873, Gerard Heineken started his brewery in Amsterdam, and since we like ourselves a cold Heineken, we decided to check out the Heineken Experience. We decided to sign up for the tour and rooftop bar, and we're glad we included the rooftop because the tour itself was a little...underwhelming. Not that they didn't try, but it was so over the top ridiculous we were left scratching our heads: A room that promises to make you feel like a beer, "Are you ready to be brewed and bottled?"

Really? Someone convinced Heineken to spend a lot of money on fancy ideas but the execution was seriously confounding and not all that great. But, two beers at the end of the tour, that was nice! The rooftop deck was the best, with a view of the city and, finally, sunshine! If you love Heineken, by all means check it out and definitely opt for the rooftop after the tour, but this doesn't hold a candle to the Guinness experience in Dublin.

A long-time friend lives in Amsterdam and we were lucky enough to meet up with her for drinks and dinner one night during our stay. After a few hours of reminiscing, she convinced us that we couldn't leave Amsterdam without visiting the Red Light district. We'd seen lots of posters rallying against the City Council's proposal to relocate the Red Light District to an "erotic center" outside the city, so we were curious to see what was creating such an uproar. Well, it was quickly clear that there is nothing like it! Women recline or stand in slim store windows like items waiting to be purchased - it was surreal. No photos of the district here but definitely worth checking out for the sheet spectacle and unreal nature of this area of the city. :)


We spent the rest of our time wandering the city, including De Negen Straatjes (The Nine Streets), an area in the middle of the canal belt that has lots of quirky streets and quaint cafes, boutiques, and shops, browsed the stalls at the Albert Cuyp Market, and revisited the park in the Museumplein (or Museum Square, home to the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum).

At the end of the week we felt like we'd walked every inch of every canal, and we still never tried a waffle even though they seemed to be the food of choice here! Instead we opted for a local Dutch apple pie, and that was a very tasty decision.


Don't leave before a slice accompanied by some whipped cream, it was the perfect side to a mug of hot chocolate (yes, again, it was that cold in July).


After exhausting the city and never actually figuring out our way around the maze of canals, it was time to leave and head to our next stop in the Netherlands, The Hague!


The Hague, Netherlands

After a quick one hour train ride we arrived in the third-largest city in the Netherlands, The Hague. We really didn't know much about The Hague other than its reputation as the home of international law and arbitration, but we decided to stop here on our way to Bruges, Belgium. What a great idea, because we loved it!


You've probably heard about The Hague because it's considered a city of international peace and justice and is the location of several bodies of international law and arbitration, including The International Court of Justice, which is the main judicial arm of the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and around 200 more international governmental organizations.

But as soon as we arrived we could tell there was so much more to this city. There are canals and cobblestoned streets, and the international nature of the city is apparent everywhere. Our hotel, the Hotel Des Indes, was located just on the outskirts of the main shopping area along a beautiful street lined with trees, a park, and a few embassies housed in lovely old and stately buildings.


The Hague is a perfectly sized city, with the dining and shopping you'd want from a city but a laid-back pace and quaintness that made it feel truly comfortable. We quickly found our way to the semi-bustling shopping area, passing Noordeinde Palace, one of the three official palaces of the Dutch royal family, along the way. Unfortunately, you can't visit the palace because it is an active royal residence. That's okay, though, because there are lots of other things to see and do here!

First up, the Peace Palace. This place was fascinating, as well as beautiful. There is a great visitors center that explains the history of the Peace Palace, from its inception and funding by Andrew Carnegie to its current role as the seat of international law. This is where the International Court of Justice, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Hague Academy of International Law, and the Library of the Peace Palace, one of the most renowned libraries in the field of peace, are located. The Court investigates and prosecutes offenses that include genocide and war crimes, for example the trial of the former Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic. Other disputes are also settled here, such as hearings for international disputes about land and natural resources.


The interactive exhibits are incredibly informative and the whole experience was absolutely fascinating! You can take a guided tour of the palace and its gardens, but you need to reserve this at least two weeks in advance, much to our disappointment. It was still worth it to learn about this amazing and consequential place, and if you are lucky enough to find yourself in The Hague, you must go!

So where do you go after learning about war crimes, international law, and global efforts for peace? The beach, of course! The Hague is located on the North Sea, and all it takes is a lovely tram ride to get to the shore (we caught the tram right outside the Peace Palace). The long stretch of beautiful sandy beach and boardwalks is a lively place, with kiteboarders racing across the water and lots of people enjoying sand-side restaurants and bars. We enjoyed a delicious lunch beside the North Sea after a walk along the boardwalk. It felt like a world away from the slight bustle of the city and is an enjoyable side trip.


We were only here for a few days on our Amsterdam-to-Bruges stopover, so we spent the rest of our time strolling the streets and taking in this lovely city. Our hotel was located in what felt like a really special area, and on our last night, right around the corner, we enjoyed what Joe thinks is one of the best meals ever. If you read his review for Dekxels you'll think he tripped and fell into food fairy land, where otherworldly cuisine is served by impeccably trained angels (it really was awesome). It was a great last meal before continuing our journey to Bruges, Belgium.

After three days in this surprising city, it was time to say goodbye to The Hague and hop on another train for a three hour ride to Bruges, Belgium!


Bruges, Belgium

Why Bruges? A few years ago we watched the movie In Bruges. If you haven't seen this, go watch it now! So good!


And it made us want to see this city for ourselves (but without the two hired assassins played by Colin Farrell and Brenden Gleason). Although our days here ended up being spent in a lot of rain, it was definitely worth the trip!


Bruges is the capital of West Flanders, located in the Northwest of Belgium, and it's pretty magical. There are canals, cobbled streets, and ancient buildings that make you feel like you've stepped back in time. We decided to rewatch the movie In Bruges on the train ride to refresh our memory of the city, so when we arrived we were ready to see everything in the film!


Our hotel, Duke's Palace, is the former residence of Burgundian aristocracy and the aristocracy didn't like to walk too far so we were right near the Markt (Dutch for "market," as you can imagine), which is the central square of Bruges. Right away we felt like we were in the movie, with the medieval Belfry tower soaring high above the square (we'd love to tell you what happens here but we'd spoil the movie, watch it!!).


There was so much to see during our days in Bruges so we set about seeing! First up, a canal boat tour, which was great because the canal goes through the entire city and you can discover everything you want to go to later on: The Cathedral, Lovers Bridge, the Lake of Love, and the beautiful buildings lining the canal. After the boat ride we walked up the 366 steps of the Belfry for a bird's eye view of the square and the city. And, we finally gave in to the waffles, waffles everywhere and tried a Belgian waffle dipped in chocolate.

We wandered, quite by mistake, into a church tucked beside the beautiful city hall building - there we so many people loitering we wanted to see what was so special. Turns out, it was the Basilica of the Holy Blood, a church that contains (what is claimed to be) a phial with a cloth soaked in Jesus Christ’s blood. Well, okay! We'd found another location from the movie! We waited in line to step up on the platform where the cloth is contained, so we could check that box for our visit.

When the sky cleared we headed to the 2be Beer Wall, a place with an extensive offering of beers and a fantastic terrace overlooking the canal. Our beer exploration didn't end there, though, because we also visited De Halve Maan brewery, which has been brewing beer since 1856! We crawled through old wooden rooms, climbed steep, thin ladders into the brewery's attics, and learned about the history of this storied brewery. We even climbed all the way to the roof for an amazing view of the city. As far as brewery tours go, the history of this one made it pretty cool.


Right around the corner from the brewery, and across Lovers Bridge, is the Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaerde, a preserved beguinage (a community of lay religious women who lived in community without taking vows or retiring from the world). Once you walk through the gate you are in a tranquil courtyard surrounded by lovely white buildings, it is very cool and a definite go-to when in Bruges.

Of course, before leaving Bruges we had to sample more Belgian beer, so we headed to Le Trappiste, or, more accurately, we headed down into Le Trappiste because this bar is deep in an 800 year old medieval cellar! With 26 beers on tap and 150 in bottles, we had a lot to choose from but we managed to sample a few during our visit.

From Amsterdam to The Hague to Bruges, we'd completed our Netherlands to Belgium road trip. The weather could have been better but that didn't dampen our fun as we immersed ourselves in history, new cultures, new beers (and one waffle), an old friend, and created lots of lasting memories. Now it was time to say goodbye and take the train to Brussels to catch a flight to Salzburg for our month in Austria! Bye, Bruges!


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