We flew into Amsterdam and immediately took a 2-hour train ride to Groningen, a college city that is considered the Capitol of the north. We stayed at a lovely BnB near a large park with a canal (Noorderplantsoen). We walked through the park many times, at all hours of day and night, on our way to and from the city center. In the park we saw LOTS of people enjoying themselves at all times of the day/night. The park contained quiet areas by a canal, benches, sunny and grassy areas, areas shaded by trees, a playground for kids, and multiple paths. I saw people walking dogs, taking naps, having picnics, reading books, tossing Frisbees, and kicking soccer balls. I also saw kids playing in the playground, couples enjoying some quiet time together, and young adults engaged in various games and social activities. One game involved a group of young adults in a circle, the throwing of a shoe, and drinking beer. I do not know what type of game this was but there was socialization, laughter, and general fun going on. People of all ages and backgrounds just enjoying the day.
Activities & Enjoyment
We saw lots of Netherlanders engaging in outdoor and social activities. I’ve been to many spectacular places like Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Oregon Coast, etc. I visited many parks, beaches, and outdoor locations and almost never see this level of activity, except, perhaps, on special occasions such as 4th of July, Labor Day, etc. At some of America’s most beautiful and spectacular places I observed many people fixated on their mobile phones, oblivious to the beauty around them.
When I go to local parks, I see a few people playing basketball or some engaging in some other activities. Outdoor areas in the Netherlands were hubs of activity. I grew up in the 1960s and 70s we spent lots of time outside playing games, riding bikes, skating, etc. Today I don’t see the same level of activity or socializing. Perhaps the different is due to mobile devices, gaming, and social media. I think everyone would benefit by spending more time enjoying life, socializing, and experiencing the real world.
We stayed in very dense and very flat cities with residential, retail, education (colleges), businesses, historical places, etc. Narrow streets and lack of parking made bicycles and scooters the most practical form of transportation. I saw all age groups riding on (or in) bicycles. Bicycle transit has many positives but it also has some negatives, especially for visitors. Pedestrians must ALWAYS watch for bicycles and scooters and stay out of bike lanes. Watch when coming to corners, especially around buildings. Electric scooters and bikes can be very hard to hear. Aggressive bicyclists have little fear or regard for pedestrians. Stay alert and assume that a bicycle or scooter can come from anywhere at any time.
Food & Fitness
The food was a particularly pleasant surprise. Many grocery stores have very nice bakeries offering croissants, breads, rolls, grab-and-go pastry items filled with meat, cheese, vegetables, etc. One of the most common was a meat sausage baked in a flaky pastry (saucijzenbroodjes). I ate many of these and they were about 1 Euro each (about $1). They were like an upscale hot dog that used a flakey pastry rather than a bun.
Grocery stores also offered smaller packages of meats, cheeses, salads, veggies, and spreads. For the price of one sandwich in the US you could supplies and make 3-4 sandwiches. Don’t bother with fast food when you enjoy these affordable food items. These Dutch grab-and-go items taste better, cost less, and are probably healthier. Most Netherlanders looked physically fit. America has a problem with obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Rather than trying to fix these problems with drugs, America should focus on diet and exercise.
Amsterdam (full blog)
While in the Netherlands we stayed in Groningen and Amsterdam. Amsterdam is an amazing city. It is big, crowded, old, modern, contains LOTS of canals, and has something for everyone. Amsterdam was a bit overwhelming for me. I prefer the smaller and quieter locations, but that is just my preference. There is so much to do in Amsterdam that I won’t even try to list them. Before visiting Amsterdam research places to see and then find ways to shorten your list (way too many things to see). We stayed in Zaandam, a smaller and quieter Amsterdam suburb, and there was plenty there. Amsterdam has very old historic places, ultra-modern places, and everything in between.
Groningen (full blog)
About two hours north of Amsterdam is Groningen, the capitol of the north. Groningen is much smaller than Amsterdam but it has LOTS to offer. This college town has narrow streets, dense housing and businesses, old historic buildings, and ultra-modern architecture. Canals surround the entire city center making it (technically) an island. For me, the Groningen area was a highlight of our Netherlands stay.
Some Things to Be Aware of
We did not speak Dutch but that was not much of an issue. Most Netherlanders speak English and most of those speak it very well. With many who did not speak English we were able to communicate ideas using maps, gestures, etc. The translation programs on our phones allowed us to read printed materials in English. In short, our lack of local language skills was not a problem.
Most people (almost all) were very friendly and helpful. However, some people were very terse. Most of these terse people worked in places such as transit stations. We received wrong information from a few employees. Random people on the streets would see us looking at maps and ask if they could help us. We learned lots of valuable information from random good Samaritans.
The one area where we struggled was with public transportation. Their transit infrastructure is very good, but the information about those systems could be much better. After arriving in Amsterdam we immediately had to take a train to Groningen. We stumbled across some transit kiosks but were not sure how to purchase tickets. A friendly attendant at an information booth gave us some quick advice and we purchased tickets and got on the train with only a few minutes to spare. A few simple signs and some better prompting on the kiosk would have made the purchase easier.
On the way back we took the train from Groningen to Zaandam, a suburb of Amsterdam. The rail schedules had various listings for the route. The travel durations varied substantially. I expected to see some sort of display showing arrivals, departures, gate numbers, and times. I could not find any scheduling information. I asked an attendant at the information booth how to get to Zaandam. She told me to go to gate xx. We went there and the sign had the name of a different destination. We waited and I thought that this did not seem right. I went back to the information booth and spoke with a different person. She told me that I need to take the train to Almere, take the train to Amsterdam Central, and then take the train to Zaadam. She even told me the gate number upon arrival and the gate number for each transfer. I wrote the details on the back of my ticket. After she finished a young and very friendly security guard, who heard our conversation, asked me if I got all of that. I read back my notes and he verified that that this was correct. We arrived without any problems, but we required assistance to make the trip. A few large maps and information boards could have made this much easier.
Restaurant etiquette is a bit different than in the States. Restaurants in the US normally provide water immediately after sitting at a table. Only one restaurant in our entire trip provided water. You must buy water and it normally comes in a small bottle and is quite expensive. Often times a draft beer was less expensive than the bottled water. In protest over the price of water I simply ordered beer instead (such hardships to endure). When you do order drinks do not expect to get ice (only one restaurant provided ice). When you finish a meal they do not normally deliver a check. You simply go to the register and pay.
In the Netherlands and Sweden, Coca Cola seemed to be the default soft drink everywhere. I prefer Dr Pepper and it was a bit of a challenge to find. The soft drinks also use sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup. I wish more soft drinks in the US used real sugar.