Travel Week 1 Pt. 1: Amsterdam

The first travel week for our core courses was the last week of February, from the 21st to March 1st. Those of us scheduled to travel during Travel Week 2 had the week off, so I decided to take 2 small trips on both weekends.

I went to Amsterdam for the weekend of 2/22-2/24. This was my first time traveling solo. I decided to go to Amsterdam as it’s quite tourist friendly and close to Denmark–so the flight tickets were fairly cheap. Not to mention, how beautiful it is! And so interesting.

I think people tend to confuse Denmark and the Netherlands, as I’ve had a few people ask if I could speak any Dutch upon learning that I’m studying in Denmark. There were some similarities between both cities I noticed from a tourist perspective, and so I’ll try to ponder the reasons the two are confused with my limited knowledge.

Edit: I’ve also since realized that the “quintessential” Dane and Dutch has blonde hair and blue eyes so maybe that’s another reason.


Can you believe Denmark and Holland are the only two places in the world who have water?

Just kidding. Both Amsterdam and Copenhagen are known for their canals, which make for popular tourist attractions in both cities. They were all throughout Amsterdam wherever I walked. Maybe it’s because I explored Amsterdam more centrally, but I found the canals rather ever present there as opposed to Copenhagen. Still, one of the most famous symbols of Copenhagen is the strip of colorful buildings along the canal in Nyhavn. I learned on a brief tour of Amsterdam that the city is built upon water, with large wooden stakes in the ground or “piles” acting as a foundation. 


Both Amsterdam and Copenhagen (again, moreso Amsterdam) have, to some degree, a weird, hard to understand, not-legal-but-we’ll-turn-a-blind-eye policy/history toward marijuana. In Copenhagen, it’s definitely not a thing throughout the city. It is, however, within the small proximity of the Freetown Christiania commune, in the Christianshavn neighborhood of Copenhagen. Pusher Street can be found within this weird deviation zone, which is really just a sketchy walkway where guys sit behind stalls and sell various forms of weed and you’re not allowed to take pictures. It’s a highly contested area of the city, which has been subject to consistent, random police raids. Honestly after living in Copenhagen for two months, it seems a bit surprising and out of character for the city to have an area like that, as this is a city that gives people tickets for crossing the street without a walk signal. Freetown has quite an interesting background, which originated when some counter-culturists inhabited the area (initially abandoned military barracks) in the seventies and declared it a new self-governing society, quickly becoming a manifestation of the hippie movement. On my tour of Amsterdam, my tour guide explained that the city underwent a heroin epidemic in the seventies that made the Red Light District unwalkable. Many people reasoned that weed dealers were hooking their patrons onto harder drugs, and that coffee shops would be a safe way for the public to seek out safer drugs like marijuana. Surely that’s a simple way of explaining a complex issue, but to paraphrase my tour guide, the opium epidemic was mitigated almost entirely when policies of tolerance toward cannabis were enacted in the Netherlands. 


Something really amazing to me as a Chicagoland area resident where biking as a means of transportation seems like a daunting extreme sport is that bikes are EVERYWHERE in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Oftentimes, the bike lanes are even separated physically from the car lanes by some sort of concrete barrier (which seems perhaps important for implementing biking as a legitimate form of transportation). I felt pretty prepared as a tourist in Amsterdam as I’d gotten used to watching out for bikers while walking the streets of Copenhagen. There wasn’t much of a difference I could point out in the biking cultures because of my short stay in Amsterdam, but I will say it’s greatly refreshing that some of these European countries, especially those of Scandinavia I noticed in particular, take our everyday impact on the environment as individuals and a collective seriously. I’ve yet to see any place in the states as bike-friendly as these two places but I hope it increasingly becomes deemed a necessary attribute of the infrastructure of our cities. 


I guess I wanted to compare these cities to preface why I liked Amsterdam a lot: it felt like an edgier Copenhagen. With the waterways and bikers everywhere, it had a similar feel. Still, Amsterdam was more ~soft grunge~ in a lot of places (older looking buildings), and just had a general vibe of being more rough around the edges. Everything is so orderly and composed in Copenhagen, whereas people and things felt a bit more free-flowing in Amsterdam. 


my room

I arrived on a windy Saturday morning and got to my airbnb around noon after deciphering Amsterdam transportation with the help of an airport train timekeeper, and always, Google maps. Upon arriving, my airbnb hosts, a Dutch husband and wife, welcomed me inside, made me a delicious latte, and sat with me at the table, pointing out their recommendations for the area. I felt quite ambitious on the first day about all I could see and visit on a two-day stay. Something I only slightly regret is that I had a few things planned throughout the weekend in the city before my arrival. So when they suggested I take a trip to see quintessential Dutch windmills or explore Haarlem (only a 15 minute bike ride from my stay) that day, I couldn’t just flow with their exciting recommendations, which sounded much more enticing in their words than what I just described. 

Rooftop Jazz at ZOKU

Nonetheless, after sitting and chatting at their kitchen table for awhile, working on an essay I had to write and hearing about my host’s artistic pursuits, I ventured into the city, about a 20 minute train ride to the center, for my first scheduled experience: The Rooftop Jazz Club.

This is the first ~experience~ I booked on Airbnb experiences, and it’s essentially self-explanatory: I went to a building and took an elevator to the top floor, full of people I would learn were from all over the world. It was a cozy, dimly lit room full of comfy chairs and a bar right to the side with drinks and snacks. In the center, two acts would perform, the first singing Portuguese jazz songs and the second, recreating a lot of Stevie Wonder. This was truly a lovely introduction to Amsterdam, as the crowd was so warm and welcoming. It was a rainy and windy day but a lovely spring day in Chicago terms, and I was able to talk to other guests on the balcony between sets. I was exhausted by the end, and my phone nearly died from trying to film all the best parts. There was a lot of them. I ventured back to my home in Heemsteede and fell right asleep. 



The next morning I woke up early and went back into the city for my other pre-scheduled activity, a tip-based walking tour of Amsterdam, also booked through airbnb. The weather of the weekend left much to be desired, and I naively underprepared for the weather, so throughout the walking tour I wore one of those ridiculous rain ponchos except it wasn’t raining, the wind was just blowing relentlessly hard, and so I used the poncho as shield layer of sorts, but it was very noisy and I had to clutch it tightly to keep it from blowing everywhere. Besides that being slightly embarrassing, our tour was very interesting, beginning at a church in the Red Light District across from windows with women in them. A plus of Amsterdam’s tolerance toward prostitution is the ladies are self-employed and never work under pimps. So for them, from what my tour guide detailed, sex work seems much safer than in many other places. Our tour guide shared many interesting insights into the city’s edgier tourist attractions. He also gave us history lessons, pointing out the old Dutch East India Company headquarters, one of the pioneering prototypes for corporations (wooo…) and told us how the city is built on water due to stakes in the ground, and how this foundation is at risk because of climate change. He also gave us some descriptions of the impact of the Holocaust on the city. Overall the tour was quite insightful and helped me to see layers of complexity while venturing through the city.

I went to a cafe called Latei which was so nice, where I ate a hummus and aubergine sandwich with an oat milk latte. Here, I sat and worked on my essay about Audre Lorde in Berlin, and how her poems explored that a place is a very different experience for each individual body that inhabits it. This is another insightful idea to have in mind when visiting a new place; how our experiences and concepts of a place are truly unique to us. I wrote and waited to meet up with a friend of a friend named Shaan, who studies at a university in Amsterdam. We hung out for a bit and got street fries, which were incredible. I would love an order to carry in lieu of a bouquet on my wedding day.


I slept in quite late on Monday, my last day, and ended up doing yoga at a local facility called Delight Yoga, which was delightful. I went to another cafe afterwards, this one in Haarlem, where I just relaxed and tried to absorb my busy weekend before taking off for the airport. I ate many stroopwafels during my stay, one big one complimentary of my tour guide and a few little ones complimentary of my airbnb host. I grew quite an affinity for them and kept buying bags of them at Flying Tiger upon returning to Copenhagen. 

I didn’t do a lot of cliche, when-in-Amsterdam touristy things during my visit, (Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House, Rijksmuseum, etc.) which I’m a bit sad about. Nonetheless, I had a really lovely visit and hope I can return someday. I was surprised how enriching such a short stay could be. This was my first solo-travel adventure, and it’s made me not only want to travel more often when alone, but also seek out similar experiences to these in the places where I feel more familiar. 

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