Amsterdam to Brugge
DOS & DON’TS
What to Wear
Mail & Package Services
Newspapers & Magazines
For More Information
Amsterdam, for example, has lovely gabled houses, priceless paintings and cheery, multilingual people. It also has coffee shops selling cannabis and window prostitutes touting their wares. The Dutch are nothing if not practical about sensual needs and desires, and the Netherlands is as well-known for its tolerance as for its tulips.
The Netherlands’ status as a world power began to erode in the late 18th century and finally came to an end when the French invaded in 1795. After Napoleon’s collapse in 1814, the Netherlands united with Belgium and Luxembourg to form the Kingdom of the Netherlands, although Belgium and Luxembourg later separated from the union and became independent. The Dutch remained neutral through many European conflicts, but they couldn’t avoid World War II: Germany bombed Rotterdam to ashes in 1940 and occupied the country for the next five years. Dutch Jews were especially devastated, even by the Holocaust’s cruel standards: Less than 20% survived the war.
After the war, the Netherlands emerged as one of the most socially progressive countries in Europe, passing laws to protect the homeless, and legalizing gay marriage, euthanasia and the use of some recreational drugs. As part of a recent and controversial law designed to help immigrants integrate into Dutch society, Dutch language classes are now mandatory for most newcomers. The Netherlands is a member of the European Union and home of the United Nations’ International Court.
The Netherlands’ appeal is universal, and ultratolerant Amsterdam is especially attractive to young people. But don’t go looking for mountains or good beaches (there are far better stretches of sand elsewhere in Europe).
In 1670, the Dutch traded New Amsterdam—it’s called New York City today—to the British for Suriname.
The Amsterdam Hilton was the site of John Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s 1969 “Bed-In for Peace.” The couple checked into one of the hotel’s suites, removed all of the furniture except for the bed and then called a press conference protesting the Vietnam War. The room is now a luxury suite with decorations that memorialize the event.
Confused about the capital of the Netherlands? Amsterdam is the official capital, but the queen, the Parliament and most of the ministries reside and work in The Hague, the seat of government. Most foreign embassies are located there as well.
The tulip actually arrived from Turkey in the 17th century.
A country that is about the size of the U.S. state of Maryland, the Netherlands boasts a disproportionate amount of world-class art. There are more than 1,000 museums in the country, 50 in Amsterdam alone, exhibiting the works of some of the most famous artists in history.
You may notice what appear to be rearview mirrors outside canal-house windows. The mirrors allow residents to see who is knocking on the front door before they climb down the steep staircases.
Most canal houses had to be the same width, so the only way for their owners to distinguish their homes (and show their wealth) was to add a gable to the roofline. Some of the more popular types and shapes you’ll see are bell, step and French gables.
Flooding is extensively used for security purposes; some 80% of the Netherlands’ gold is kept below canal level so it can be flooded if thieves threaten.
If a car rolls into a canal, there’s a hefty fee for pulling it out. If a person is in the car, however, there’s no charge because it’s a rescue mission. People have been known to jump into their cars as they roll toward a canal.
The population of the Netherlands is the tallest in the world, with an average height of 6 ft/1.83 m for adult males and 5 ft 7 in/1.7 m for adult females. The average American is 2.5 in/6.5 cm shorter than the average Dutchie.
There also are lots of parks and other outdoor venues to choose from, including open-air museums. Beer enthusiasts should be sure to stop by a brewery for a taste of some world-renowned Dutch beer.
Walking and jogging are favored national pastimes, and the country’s bounty of parks offers plenty of opportunity, and routes of various distances are normally well-marked. Because of the country’s topography, these are gentle pursuits. Those after a more demanding workout should head to the modest elevations of the Utrechtse Heuvelrug, the St. Pietersberg in Limburg, or the sand dunes in Bloemendaal. In-line and roller skating are also popular, as is horseback riding.
With lakes, canals and rivers covering nearly one-fifth of the country, watersports opportunities abound. Swimming is also a good bet. Pool schedules often accommodate school groups, senior swims and, in some places, nude swimming.
Shop for diamonds, licorice, cheese, decorative tiles and wooden shoes. You can spend hours shopping for Delftware. (Royal Delftware is identified by a hallmark, a small pot with a crossed J below it and the word “Delft” written with the D like a backward C.) Other coveted items include antiquarian prints and antiques; the latter can be bubble-wrapped and shipped overseas.
Outlets such as Blokker (http://www.blokker.nl) and HEMA (http://www.hema.nl) offer good value. Blokker sells homewares and DVDs and also offers an online digital photo service. HEMA sells everyday items such as stationery, kitchen articles, makeup and a basic clothing collection that is handy if you’re looking for no-frills T-shirts, socks or gloves. Most HEMAs have a small coffee corner with snacks. Higher-end department stores include De Bijenkorf (http://www.bijenkorf.nl) and Vroom en Dreesmann (popularly referred to as V&D). Both De Bijenkorf and V&D have eateries that are perfect for lunch or midafternoon munchies.
The Netherlands’ many open-air street markets provide a unique shopping experience. Markets may be general purpose or specialized, touting antiques, art, books, organic products and stamps. Among the bric-a-brac, the die-hard shopper can sometimes find genuine treasures.
Schiphol Airport has one of the largest duty-free shopping centers in the world—you can buy cheese and tulip bulbs there (if you missed earlier opportunities) and chocolate (if you’ve already eaten what you planned to take home). Be sure to get to the airport early if you want to do some shopping, as security procedures take some time.
Shopping Hours: Monday 1-6 pm, Tuesday-Friday 9 am-6 pm, Saturday 9 am-5 pm. Markets close at 4 pm on Saturday. Late-night shopping in Amsterdam, Maastricht, The Hague and Utrecht is on Thursday until 9 pm. In Rotterdam, late-night shopping is on Friday until 9 pm. Bigger stores in major cities are open from noon to 5-7 pm on Sunday.
If you need a quick sandwich, go to a shop offering broodjes. In many places, french fries are sold on street corners. The best are called vlaamse frites (Flemish fries), made from cut potatoes rather than potato pulp pressed into the shape of a french fry. Don’t forget Dutch pancakes (pannenkoeken), usually eaten for lunch or for dessert. They’re much larger (though thinner) than their North American counterparts.
Many restaurants offer a tourist menu, which usually means modest prices. And if you can’t read the Dutch menu, ask for an English version—some restaurants will have one. Strolling around the larger towns, you may notice little food shops calledautomatiek. They’re fresh-food vending-machine operations with kitchens in the back and food propped up behind glass panels. A euro or two will usually purchase anything from the local snack kroket (deep-fried meat ragout covered in breadcrumbs) to hamburgers and fries.
If you tire of Dutch food, go to an Indonesian restaurant offering rijsttafel, a buffet that can include more than a dozen dishes as well as rice. Expect to find spicy fish and meat, vegetables and fruit, and various sauces.
One inexpensive type of restaurant you will see throughout the Netherlands combines Chinese, Indonesian and Surinamese foods. Popular Indonesian dishes arenasi goreng (fried rice with chicken or pork), bami goreng (fried noodles) and gado gado (steamed vegetables with a spicy peanut sauce). From Suriname comes roti kip (a curried chicken served with potatoes, long beans, bean sprouts and a thin chickpea-flour pancake).
For real Dutch courage, try jenever, the delicious Dutch gin. It’s much milder than the English version and is served in little shot glasses. Also sample the berry-flavored gin called bessen jenever and beerenburg, a herbal liqueur. (The best beerenburg comes from Friesland.) If you want to go overboard, try a kopstoot, a glass of jenever with a beer chaser. The name means “a smack in the head.”
Beer drinkers should experience a part of real Dutch culture by having a drink in a brown cafe. Some of these traditional Dutch bars have been around for centuries, and their dark, warm interiors provide a great setting where you can soak up the ambience.
Schiphol Airport, by the way, may be the only airport in the world where you can get real hot chocolate—in a porcelain cup—at 5:30 in the morning.
Business travelers from North America will find the Netherlands one of the most comfortable countries to visit in western Europe, because Dutch culture is in many respects quite similar to that of the U.S. and Canada. The Dutch pride themselves on speaking English (and usually two to three additional languages) fluently. For many businesses, English is the preferred (if not mandatory) language.
Appointments—It is not necessary to use an intermediary to make contacts or schedule meetings. The Dutch mainly do business by appointment. Business appointments should be made as far in advance as possible—anywhere from several days to several weeks before your visit. Keep in mind that in summer many Dutch businesspeople are away on extended holidays. Punctuality is important in business dealings, although the Dutch are usually flexible and tolerant of delays because of traffic jams and road-construction detours. An excuse for lateness that you will usually hear at least once is “the bridge was open,” because boats usually have priority over car traffic.
Personal Introductions—A handshake is a common form of greeting between men and women. Kissing three times on alternating cheeks (left, right, left) is a traditional Dutch greeting (and parting) custom for people of the opposite sex and often those of the same sex, although it is more common among women than men. This custom also extends to familiar business partners, though you should allow your Dutch acquaintance to take the lead in this regard. If he or she does initiate the greeting, you should reciprocate: Failing to do so could be taken as an insult.
It is appropriate to stand when someone is being introduced to you—to do otherwise could be interpreted as a snub. Business cards are used in the Netherlands in the same way as in North America. There is no need to have your card translated into Dutch. It may surprise you that many of the cards you receive from Dutch colleagues will be in English. Refer to your acquaintances by their titles and last names until they invite you to do otherwise.
Negotiating—Business is usually conducted in the office. Although the Dutch are generally reserved and formal, how quickly people get down to business in a meeting varies with the age (and/or upbringing) of the person with whom you are dealing. You may find business conversations with younger people more informal in tone. There may be time for small talk before a meeting, but it usually ends once the business discussions have begun.
Business Entertaining—Meals are usually treated as a break from business proceedings or a celebration of an agreement, although they can sometimes be part of the meeting. Lunch and dinner are the most common meals for business gatherings, with dinner probably the most popular. A business breakfast is rare. Business lunches usually occur between noon and 1 pm, and a business dinner typically begins around 7:30 pm. Business meals are most likely to take place in a restaurant. If you are ever invited to a private home for a meal, consider it quite a compliment, as Dutch people tend to keep their homes private, open only to close family members and friends.
It is appropriate to eat everything served. If there is something you do not like and you leave it on your plate, then you may be asked if you would like something else. Occasionally you may need to eat with your hands, but limit it as much as possible, and follow the lead of your hosts. While alcohol is quite prominent in the Dutch and European culture, it is not considered unusual if you don’t drink. To say “cheers” in Dutch is proost (rhymes with boast). Quite often in small gatherings where people actually clink their glasses, it’s appropriate to look people in the eye when you clink. Unless you have been specifically invited out to eat at the invitation and expense of someone, expect to pay for your portion of the bill. Tips are included in the price of the meal in the Netherlands; however, you may wish to round up if you had very good service.
Body Language—When engaged in conversation, the Dutch usually maintain some distance between one another. Friendly gestures such as a pat on the back are not common, because the Dutch are usually rather formal in relationships. Be careful about pointing at or touching your index finger to your forehead between your eyebrows while looking at someone, as this gesture may be taken as a sign that you are referring to that person as an idiot.
Gift Giving—It is not especially common to give gifts in business situations, but it is a very impressive move. The kinds of business gifts that are considered appropriate are fine wines or other spirits. It may be a good idea to find out what your business host enjoys. The amount you spend on a business gift should depend upon how big an impression you wish to make. When it comes to fine wines, for example, many Dutch people know by the label what’s fine and what’s not. The Dutch standard for the price range of gifts starts at about 20 euros for a gift for ayoung manager. If you are given a gift, you should open it immediately in the presence of the giver. Thank-you notes are appropriate and appreciated, preferably handwritten.
Conversation—The most common topic of small talk in the Netherlands is the weather. The Dutch also love to talk about politics. (There are 15 to 20 political parties in the country, depending on the time of year and the type of election, and political talk shows are very popular on Dutch television.) Your Dutch acquaintances will probably enjoy the chance to discuss politics with a visitor, but exercise some caution to avoid problems. It’s usually wiser to ask questions about Dutch issues rather than stating opinions.
Dutch authorities have a tolerant attitude toward the sale of soft drugs, but they can only be bought and consumed in controlled areas, such as at a coffee shop (not to be confused with a brown cafe). Buying any drug on the street or carrying drugs across borders will be as severely penalized as in other countries.
For the latest information, contact your country’s travel-advisory agency.
For more information, contact your country’s health-advisory agency.
DOS & DON’TS
Do be aware that “coffee shops” are cafes where soft drugs can be sold and consumed. If you’re looking for a snack and a cup of coffee, go to a cafe or eetcafe.
Don’t take a camera when you tour Amsterdam’s red-light district—the working girls have been known to throw photographers into canals, camera and all.
Don’t buy any tulip bulbs unless there’s a customs declaration form included that will allow them to be imported into your home country.
Don’t call the Netherlands “Holland,” since that term specifically refers to only two of the 12 provinces that make up the country.
Do watch for bicycle stoplights if you rent a bike.
Do invest in an annual museum card, which are sold at museums and provide discounted admissions, if you are planning on visiting several museums.
Do try to catch the Eleven Cities Ice Skating Tour, a 125-mi/200-km race along canals in the northern part of the country, if you’re in the Netherlands in winter. The race takes place only if the ice is thick enough to support the weight of the skaters, who typically number more than 1,000. Conditions have been right only 15 times in the past century, but the race is wildly popular nonetheless.
Don’t walk along bike paths.
Passport/Visa Requirements: Canadian and U.S. citizens need only a passport, and no visa is required for stays of up to three months. Reconfirm travel document requirements with your carrier before departure.
Languages: Dutch, Friesian and English, as well as German and French.
Predominant Religions: Christian (Roman Catholic, Dutch Reformed), Jewish, Islamic.
Time Zone: 1 hour ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (+1 GMT). Daylight Saving Time is observed from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in October.
Voltage Requirements: 220 volts. 50 Hz. Telephone Codes: 31, country code;
The official currency of the Netherlands is the euro. Banks tend to charge lower commissions than the bureaux de change in tourist areas or hotels. Otherwise, head to an ATM (available at the airport and on almost every street corner in the city center) to withdraw funds in the local currency. They accept most major foreign bank and credit cards.
If you need to exchange foreign currency or traveler’s checks, you can do so at banks. Most are open Monday-Friday 9 am-5 pm, though a few don’t open until the afternoon on Monday. Some banks are also open Saturday mornings, but few give cash advances against credit cards (for this you’ll need to go to an exchange bureau or to an ATM). Some of the exchange bureaus have bad reputations—their honesty is suspect (signs outside such offices often list the selling instead of buying rates), and they charge commissions of up to 9%.
Cash is the most commonly accepted form of payment; however, because of pickpockets it is not advised to carry large sums on your person. Payment by such credit cards as Visa and MasterCard is more commonplace in department, High Street and chain stores, as well as in pricier food and beverage outlets. Supermarkets and the majority of brown cafes, street cafes and coffee shops are strictly cash only.
Small change comes in handy if boarding a tram or bus without a strippenkaart (multiple-ride pass). Visitors should purchase train tickets before boarding the train. Those who don’t risk a hefty penalty charge.
Some larger stores have a streamlined process: They handle most of the paperwork and then mail the refund to you, sometimes minus a fee. Shopping in stores with the Holland Tax-Free Shopping sign can also speed up the process. It might be worth it to use a private VAT-refund service such as Global Refund, which has offices at Schiphol Airport. Although you pay a fee, you can obtain an immediate refund in cash or have it credited to your credit card.
If you are traveling to other countries in the EU, you can claim your refunds only at your exit point from the EU. For example, if you’re traveling on to Austria and France and are departing the EU from Paris, you must claim the VAT refunds from all three countries at the airport in Paris.
Tip taxi drivers 10%. Additionally, some public restrooms have an attendant on-hand. In these cases, when using the restroom, tip the attendant 0.50 euros.
The Netherlands is a damp country. The running joke is that it only rains two days a year—the rest of the time it pours. Rain can arrive unexpectedly on what starts out to be a sunny day. Therefore, a raincoat and folding umbrella are often necessary. In summer, the humidity can become oppressive.
What to Wear
Because of cobblestoned streets and uneven pavements, women should be very careful if wearing high heels. Flat, non-slippery footwear is best for biking.
To call the Netherlands from outside the country, first dial the international dialing code of the country you’re in, then the Netherlands’ country code, 31, then the area code (don’t dial the first zero unless you are using a mobile phone) followed by the local number. Local numbers are usually seven digits long. Mobile numbers throughout the Netherlands begin with 06.
Wi-Fi is available in luxury hotel lobbies and bars, some cafes and at the airport, generally for a fee.
Mail & Package Services
Newspapers & Magazines
Also available are a couple of local English-language magazines dealing with news and cultural events in the Netherlands. These include Roundabout and Expats Magazine. The Expatica Web site is a great source of online news. http://www.expatica.com.
For Dutch news in English, your best bet is in Amsterdam. Look for the Amsterdam Times newspaper. Your best source for information about all nightlife and cultural options in Amsterdam is Amsterdam Weekly. It offers a wealth of information on what’s going on in the city, plus lifestyle articles that give an insider’s view of the city. It’s distributed free at many cafes, bookstores and other places expats tend to congregate. Also helpful is a publication called Day by Day—What’s On in Amsterdam. It is published monthly and is available at many hotel desks. You can also find a copy at a VVV tourist-information office. The Hague’s Living in The Hague is published in English every six to eight weeks.
Trains from the airport into the city are frequent and convenient—the tracks are right down the escalator. (Be careful of pickpockets on these trains.) An excellent ferry service connects the Netherlands with Great Britain, and rail service reaches the rest of Europe.
Cruises and boat charters are relaxing ways to see the country. Dutch trains are comfortable and one of the most efficient ways to get around. In the cities, passes are available for local bus and tram travel.
The cheapest way to use the public transportation system is to purchase an OV-chipkaart, which is valid throughout the country. There are three types: disposable, anonymous and personalized. The disposable will probably be fine for most visitors. Buy them at GVB ticket and information offices, from GVB ticket vending machines, and from drivers and conductors (note that they can only supply the one-hour and two-hour disposable tickets). When you start your journey, you have to check in at the gate or one of the yellow card readers. Do this by putting the card in front of the reader until you see a green light. At the end of the journey, check out by again scanning the card. You must check out and in again if you are changing from bus or tram to metro. For additional details, see http://www.holland.com/global/Tourism/article/The-OVchipcard.htm.
We don’t recommend renting a car in Amsterdam as it is much easier to use public transportation: Automobiles are not allowed in parts of the city center, parking space is scarce (and very expensive), and there are heavy fines for illegal parking.
For More Information
Netherlands: Tourist offices are found in most cities in the Netherlands. The main visitors center for the National Board of Tourism and Conventions is located at Vlietweg 15 in Leidschendam. Phone 31-70-370-5705. http://www.holland.com.
In Amsterdam, the tourist office located in the Central Train Station on Platform 2B is well-marked and is open 8 am-8 pm. Phone 31-20-201-8800. http://www.iamsterdam.com/en/footer/about-iamsterdam.
U.S. and Canada: Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions, 215 Park Ave. S., Suite 2005, New York, NY 10003. Phone 212-370-7360. Fax 212-370-9507.
Canada: Embassy of the Netherlands, Constitution Square Building, 350 Albert St., Suite 2020, Ottawa, ON K1R
1A4. Toll-free 877-388-2443. Fax 613-237-6471. http://www.netherlandsembassy.ca.
U.S.: Embassy of the Netherlands, 4200 Linnean Ave. N.W., Washington DC 20008. Phone 877-388-2443. Fax 202-362-3430. http://www.netherlands-embassy.org.
Foreign Embassies in the Netherlands
Canadian Embassy, Sophialaan 7, 2514 JP The Hague. Phone 31-70-311-1600. Fax 31-70-311-1620. http://www.canadainternational.gc.ca/netherlands-pays_bas/index.aspx.
U.S. Embassy, Lange Voorhout 102, 2514 EJ The Hague. Phone 31-70-310-2209. http://thehague.usembassy.gov.
Blue Mondays by Arnon Grunberg (Random House U.K. Distribution). Grunberg was just 22 years old when he penned this impressive novel set in Amsterdam’s sleazy Red Light District.
A Widow for One Year by John Irving (Ballantine Books). Several scenes from this best-selling novel take place in Amsterdam.
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (Plume). Chevalier creates an imagined life for the subject of the famous Vermeer painting by the same name.
My Dam Life: Three Years in Holland by Sean Condon (Lonely Planet Journeys). Condon weaves a side-splitting yarn in this account of life in the Netherlands.
Rembrandt’s Whore by Sylvie Matton (Canongate Books). The fictional monologue of Hendrickje Stoffels, Rembrandt’s mistress.
The Undutchables: An Observation of the Netherlands, Its Culture, and Its Inhabitants by Colin White and Laurie Boucke (White-Boucke Publishing). The book on every expatriate’s bookshelf and recommended to all visitors interested in understanding more about the Dutch psyche.
Dutch & Belgian Food and Cooking, by Janny de Moor and Suzanne Vandyck (Anness).