Our plan was a good one. Stay in Brussels and go on a few day trips to neighboring countries. Paris we love, so that was on the list. Germany is famous for its Christmas markets, so Cologne quickly made the cut. Bruges was a short trip and I wanted to see it, so that was the third. With just one slot left, Amsterdam narrowly beat out Luxembourg and the schedule was set. Unfortunately, almost nothing went right.
I’m being negative, that’s not quite true. Paris and Bruges were both fantastic, the trains were on time and we spent our time wisely in both cities. Cologne never happened due to an ill-timed strike which paralyzed all modes of transportation except for planes in Belgium. That was frustrating, but there was nothing we could do, so we tried to go with the flow. Amsterdam was different. Everything went right, but at the same time it was all mucked up.
The train roared out of Brussels Gare du Midi train station at O-Dark-Thirty under yet another grey sky. I swear it rained every day we were in the low countries, adding a damp and gloomy feel to everything. Maybe I was being arrogant or just misguided, but I didn’t really plan any of our day trips, except to make the train reservations. Here’s why.
I assumed, mostly correctly, that there would be tourist offices in each train station to help us sort out what we wanted to do in each city. I had done a little preliminary research and had a vague idea of what we should do. For Amsterdam, I even read a blog post by Keith Jenkins of Velvet Escape Blog describing how to spend a day in his hometown. His post was excellent, and provided what little clarity I had that day.
When we finally found the correctly presumed tourist office in Amsterdam, I was lost. It was little more than a booking center for tour groups, we even had to buy the map we wanted. It’s not their fault, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew I wanted to be there, in Amsterdam, the famed city of canals, merchants and a bohemian subculture. The problem is, that sounds great on paper, but in practice it means you kind of just wander around and get in people’s way.
So I took Keith’s advice and we went on a canal tour, what turned out to be a great idea. I usually hate these types of things, huge coaches that thousands of tourists board every day in every major city in the world. The boat cruise was different though, it was intimate, it was special. Amsterdam is a city of the water, and truly the best way to experience it is by floating along the canals.
An hour later we were done and once again, lost. We ate, we wandered, we went to a museum, walked through the famous Red Light District and glanced at our watches. it was 2pm. Our train was scheduled for 6pm. I felt guilty. We weren’t having a great time, just an ok one. Amsterdam was ok, but not great. It seemed dirty and there were a lot of sketchy groups of young guys prowling about. It just didn’t click with me.
And so we left. That’s right, instead of pulling ourselves up and try to find the ‘real’ side of the city, we knew our limitations and hopped on an earlier train headed to Brussels. We were tired, a little dejected that we didn’t like Amsterdam and decided to call it quits for the day. And you know what? That was the best decision we could have made.
Why? Because had we stayed, we would have ended up even more miserable and we would have hated the city, instead of just having a mild level of annoyance and apathy for it. At least now I’ve preserved the opportunity to go back and see the city some other time.
Sometimes it’s best to know your own limitations when you travel and to trust your gut. We can’t all be Rick Steves who, I bet, has bad days when he travels too. We put a lot of stress and pressure on ourselves to HAVE FUN and GET SOMETHING out of our travels, even if it means making ourselves miserable. It’s your trip and don’t let anyway tell you how to take it. Only you know what makes you happy.
Have you been somewhere that you wanted to love, but just didn’t?
24 thoughts on “Amsterdam, How I Mucked it Up”
You’re not alone with this kind of experience Matt. I think the first thing is to have enough time. Nothing increases stress levels and reduces enjoyment than the feeling that the hours are ticking by faster than you’d like. Being overambitious is another one – my inter-railing experiences when a teenager were initially spoiled by trying to do too much. The next key is planning; the shorter your stay, the more vital it is to plan in some detail. And don’t forget to have a plan B! What I tend to do for short breaks is start by deciding what I really don’t want to miss and then check how everything can be linked together with transport and so on. This turns the dream list into the realistic list. Then comes Plan B in case some places demand more time or others less (or are closed…). I then note it all down on a small piece of paper (I know, how old-fashioned!) that I keep in my pocket because as good as you think your memory is it isn’t…and one small mistake on the metro and your schedule is shot. Tourist offices can be good (indeed if you get in touch with the Amsterdam one in advance they’ll really come through for you – if you know what you want) but they are so overcrowded in summer that this will make things even worse. What you need to do is another apartment stay, but in Amsterdam. Or even better, stay on a houseboat on the canals…
Dang! That really sucks that your Amsterdam trip didn’t turn out all that great. At least you got the good canal tour in there. A little planning would have definitely helped out a lot but sometimes things just don’t work out. The important thing is that you can say, “whatever, maybe next time things will be better,” learn from it, and get over it.
When we went to Japan a couple weeks ago, I barely did any research. I was super busy leading up to the trip and just really lazy about planning. I figured we’d just figure it out. Everything turned out ok except I’d planned on spending a couple nights in Kyoto and taking the train down. I had no idea how expensive the train was! We ended up paying more for train tickets from Tokyo to Kyoto and back than for our plane tickets to Japan from Korea! I was shocked when we got to the train station but we’d already booked our accommodations and there was no turning back. We definitely would not have gone if we’d known how expensive it was. We did have a great time in Kyoto, though!
That’s great that you listened to your intuition and now you have a reason to return! :)
When I went to Amsterdam in June, I nearly had the same experience. I hadn’t planned anything and I didn’t have a map, as is often the case. But it was like I was trapped in the red light district — no matter which way I walked, I ended up back on the same street! I was determined to break free, bought a map and finally got out and enjoyed the city after that. I still feel that I need to go back — much more to see and do.
Funny…this is precisely how I felt about Brugge when I traveled there last March, even though the weather was gorgeous. I was so depressed by it, I skipped Ghent altogether and returned to Brussels. Funny how you just don’t connect with some places…
Absolutely, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. Btw, I have an upcoming post comparing Ghent and Bruges that I think you’ll find interesting. :)
Amsterdam was certainly not one of my favorite cities, as I had expected it to be. There were things I thouroughly enjoyed about it (architecture, canal tour, Van Gogh Musuem), but there was much I really disliked about it (most importantly the lack of good food). I learned on that trip that I am not a party animal.
It’s funny the different responses people have in cities! I know people who love Amsterdam and those that don’t. I had a less than glowing response to Budapest which has surprised quite a few people.
I knew I should love it, everyone told me I would love it, all the people I talked to loved it, but we (Vienna & I) just didn’t click. When asked why I didn’t like Vienna, I have trouble articulating it- that makes it even worse. I use the words sterile and boring and I feel like I’m being lazy.
Just as bad as this feeling is- the guilt of not liking a place you know you should (or have been told you should) is even worse. For years I never talked about how I didn’t care for Vienna because I was afraid I would lose some ‘travel cred’ if I did say it. Then, one day, I realized travel cred means nothing (and I had none anyway :-) ).
All understandable points here people – we are all different, and we will all react differently to a place. That’s what makes life and travel interesting, right? :-) Travel fred, if there is such a thing, is surely your personal experience and that’s what matters. I think it’s equally valid and important to read negative impressions of places as it is to read positive ones – it provides a balanced picture. I am lucky to have visited Amsterdam 9 times over the last 20 years, and have had experiences ranging from the awful to the amazing. But I stand by my point above – the times I planned in more detail (and especially had an alternative plan) were definitely more enjoyable. These days it’s so much easier to find good information that is up-to-date as well – I had one of my best meals there after a tip I found online. Yesterday I posted an article about using technology to help you travel, you can find it here if you’re interested: http://grownuptravelguide.com/how-tech-can-help-you-travel-a-case-study
That should clearly have been “travel cred”, not “fred” – sorry :-)
I agree with Erik about Vienna… I also just didn’t like it, and I can’t really explain why. We weren’t there for long, and it was a Sunday when we were there, so the place seemed really dead and dull. I was also not well. Maybe all of that added up to my feelings. Who knows.
Another one for me was Athens. At school I studied Art, and loved all of the Greek history and architecture, and it was just one of those things that I dreamt about seeing all my life. That all met expectations (except all of the construction work going on around the Parthenon), but Athens itself was so disappointing. I expected to love it, but it was hot, stinky and dirty. Just a dirty, dirty place. I didn’t like it at all!
“Sometimes it’s best to know your own limitations when you travel and to trust your gut.” Whilst I really enjoyed the post, Matt and I admire your honesty about your almost total lack of research, I have to use this blog as a case study in why it’s so important to research your destination before you go.
I quite recently read a blog which completely trashed guide books and promoted precisely this kind of travel – turn up, look around, talk to other travellers you find there. Crap.
Research, plan, decide what you want to see and where you want to go. As Andy (above ) has said, give yourself plenty of time and have a Plan B too. If, after all that, you still don’t click with a place – so be it. But at least you know you’ve given it your best shot.
Another enjoyable read, Matt – cheers :)
Thanks Andy, if you are a longtime reader of this site then you know that I am an incredible overplanner. I’ve been trying to relax a bit more though, as seen in Amsterdam. Even if I had planned I don’t think it would’ve mattered that much. We just didn’t care for the city.
I am sorry you didn’t get a good time! As a citizen of the Netherlands I do recognize the feeling. I know a few people who live there, but they are working a LOT, they hardly see their own city. That doesnt help the atmosphere there. But what is typical Amsterdam is I think this: the most unexpected person, or (in other cases) the most sloppy and beercan-ish person around us often suprisingly helpful.
I felt that way my first time in Bangkok. I learned that it was too big for just ‘winging it’, but I stuck around long enough to find a few interesting things and learn a little about the transportation system. The next time I was there I was able to enjoy it a lot more, building on what I had learned the first time.
I’m glad you had the chance to go back and build on your first time experience, so many of us don’t get do-overs. One day I’ll head back to Amsterdam I’m sure and get to know the city a lot better.
I found your post really interesting. But I have a different point of view to offer.
Maybe I’m a bit strange, but I sometimes (just sometimes) like to travel completely without researching and without much time in one place. I’m a bit either-or. I love spending weeks or months in one place. I love long train rides. But I also like short stops with no plans at all. If I have just one day I try my best to get lost, actually. I enjoy walking around and taking in the air of a different city without trying to accomplish anything in particular. I stop for coffee when I need to use the bathroom, and for a meal when I get hungry. I can ask for directions or use my iphone if get really lost.
Not all cities are well suited for this kind of meandering, of course. A day in Venice while waiting for a train was perfect, in my opinion. It’s so compact and there’s something nice to lay eyes on everywhere, though I can’t see myself staying on without something specific to do (like the film festival or a workshop). Paris is a great walking city, though I’ve spent four years there, so I know that city in a completely different way.
I’ve actually only been to Amsterdam for half a day when I was in transit. It’s a bit like just sampling, just having a taste. But I feel that such a short time span requires a complete lack of ambition to have maximum fun or get something out of it, so in a way we’re talking about the same thing. Just following instinct is sometimes the way to go, and leaving is allowed.
Oh my, i never knew amsterdam could be daunting for toerist aswell! I now live in amsterdam for about 3years, but only started loving the place since 2 of those years..i grew up in a little town up in the north and never really wanten to live here but i found an internship and a place to stay in the same week so i had to go. Now i love this town, after figuring out how it works. So i hereby invite you to amsterdam, and dare you to go on a bike and ill show you how wonderfull it can be :)
Funny, the first time we went to Amsterdam I hated it, I never wanted to go back and felt the same way as you. It was dirty and too many sketchy looking people. The second time we went, because you always have to give a place a second chance, it was awesome and it’s now on our favourites list. I think because we went in knowing what it was it was different and we were able to have fun. I hope the next time will be better for you.
So sad to hear! Love, love, love Amsterdam! My favorite time of year is late Spring and Summer. Having lived there for 4 yrs we have some favs.
I didn’t like Amsterdam, the food is terrible looks like dirty, the weather is boring, houses very very old! Tourists lost with maps every streets.
If I can offer one piece of advice to all visitors of Amsterdam it is this: get the hell out of the Red Light District/Dam Square and find the real, amazing city beyond all the tourist crap. Shop at the Albert Cuyp market. Picnic in Vondelpark. Rent some bicylces (not the cheesy tourist ones) and take a ride through North Amsterdam to the countryside. See how the people really live and soak up the loveliness.
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