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Another solo traveler in the Netherlands and Belgium

Carrie's recent trip report covers train logistics very well so I will not repeat that information. https://community.ricksteves.com/travel-forum/trip-reports/solo-in-the-netherlands-and-belgium-my-trip-report

In early October 2023, I spent 5 nights in Amsterdam, 4 nights in Gent (Belgium) with side trips to Bruges and Antwerp, and then 3 nights in Leiden (Netherlands) with side trips to Den Haag and Delft. I am in my 70s, traveled solo, and had a great trip. I benefitted from many posts on this forum. I walked 6-8 miles per day and used public transportation.

Flights: I flew on PLAY airlines from Washington Dulles to Amsterdam, with a connecting flight in Reykjavik. I didn’t know anyone who had flown with them and found few reviews so I thought this might be helpful to report. Even with paying extra for carry-on bag and for seat selection, the price was much, much better than other options at the time I booked. It worked out fine; no problems. Flying into Reykjavik, I could faintly see some northern lights. The captain announced that we might see them. For Reykjavik to Amsterdam leg, I had 3 seats to stretch out on. Coming home, the flight from Reykjavik to Washington had phone charger ports for each seat. I brought my own snacks because Play charges for all food and drink and has a very limited food selection.
The one surprise, which was not a problem for me but might be for some people my age, is that to deplane in Amsterdam we had to carry the carry-on bags down the outdoor boarding stairs and then up a flight of stairs inside the airport. For the flight home, we also had this for boarding in Amsterdam and again for changing planes in Reykjavik where it was one degree centigrade. I don’t know what options there were for anyone who had trouble carrying their bags up and down stairs.

In Amsterdam, I stayed 5 nights at the Owl Hotel in the Leidesplein area. As suggested on the hotel website, I took bus 397 directly from Schipol airport to the Leidesplein stop and then walked about a block to the hotel. I chose this hotel because it was one of the cheaper options at the time I was booking, it has an elevator, it is close to museums, and the reviews were good. My single room was very small but I knew to expect that from the reviews. The staff were very friendly and helpful, location was very convenient, and I was content staying there. Coffee and tea were available to guests all day. There was a pleasant garden to sit in as well as a breakfast room. I am not a big breakfast eater so I didn’t pay extra for breakfast but I was really happy to have the morning coffee. I usually picked up a croissant at a bakery after I left the hotel in the morning.

I left my bag at the hotel and went to a nearby café called Small Talk, recommended by the receptionist. I had a Dutch apple pancake and coffee sitting outside on a warm afternoon across from Vondel Park and the museum complex. When I got back to the hotel, my room was ready. After unpacking, I took a walk, following the RS Guide city walk in reverse. The RS walk ends at Leidesplein whereas I started there and continued through Dam Square. Being jetlagged and a bit directionally challenged, I missed some things following the walk in reverse but I got a good sense of the historic center and saw many of the main landmarks.

(continued in subsequent posts)

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Day 2 Amsterdam highlights: I walked along Prinsengracht canal to the Anne Frank House for my 10:15 am reserved time. I had reserved tickets 6 weeks earlier. There were no tickets at all that day for people who showed up without reservations. After Anne Frank house, I did parts of the RS Guide Jordaan walk and additional walking in the Jordaan area. A couple months prior to my trip, I re-read some of Anne Frank’s diary which I had originally read when I was about 12. I also watched the Netflix 2023 series “A small light” which tells the Frank family story by focusing on Miep Gies, one of the Christian employees of Anne’s father whom the family depended on while they were in hiding. I feel that this enhanced my experience of the museum.

I chose to wear my KN95 mask while touring the more cramped crowded spaces when I heard some coughing and sneezing. I also did this another day in the Rembrandt house. I didn’t see anyone else anywhere with a mask while I was in Amsterdam.

The International Theatre, an imposing and historic building in the Leidesplein, has performances in English. I bought tickets online and enjoyed attending a dance performance.

Day 3: I had a 10 am reserved time ticket for the Van Gogh museum which I bought online a couple weeks in advance. (I’m not an early morning person so 10 am is good for me.). There were no same day tickets available for people without reserved slots. When I was done at Van Gogh, it was raining. Although I hadn’t planned on two art museums in a row, given the rain, and I was so nearby, I went to the Stedelijk modern art museum which was on my 2nd tier of planned sites and didn’t require a reserved time. I knew that the Rijksmuseum would be too much to enjoy on the same day as the Van Gogh. I had some lunch in the Stedelijk café before walking through the galleries. I was glad I fit this in but might have appreciated it more on another day. After the museum, the rain was lighter but the temperature lower. I returned to my hotel to change into dry clothes and shoes, and a warmer jacket.

Day 4: Rijksmuseum in the morning. I bought my reserved slot ticket just the day before. I had been watching the website and knew I did not need to reserve weeks in advance for October. I downloaded the Rijksmuseum app. I concentrated my time there in (a) the hall of honor, (b) best of the Rijksmuseum, and (c) one of the tours on the app that focused on the legacy of slavery and colonialism. (a) was the most crowded with many tour guides in competing languages gathering people around the most famous paintings. However, I was able to get close enough to see the paintings. (c) is something I came noticed as a choice on the app and followed. It took me to various rooms on different floors and parts of the building; much of the time I had not only the art work to myself but often the whole room. There are many pre-set as well as self-selected themes to choose among, and you can follow or skip as much as you wish.

Next, I walked to Waterlooplein. After wandering around a while and getting some lunch, I went to the nearby Rembrandt House. Having just seen the Rijksmuseum Rembrandts, this was a good follow up.

I had booked a red light district “walk and talk” with the Prostitution Information Center (PIC) at 5 pm. PIC provides education for visitors and resources for sex workers. Amsterdam no longer allows walking tours of the red light district so the PIC offers a presentation in their center followed by a self-guided walk, and then an opportunity to return to the Center with questions for a 25 euro cost, booked online. If there are only a couple participants, they may accompany you on the non-tour. In my case, only one other person had reserved and he did not show. I had the full attention and company of two of their staff (who happened to be US expats living in Amsterdam) for probably more than the official 90 minutes.

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I haven't done a trip report before. I hope this has been ok.

Day 5: There was light rain some of the day so I kept putting off a canal boat tour and never got around to it. I know everyone says it is a highlight, but for some reason, it wasn’t a top priority for me. I went to the flower market. In October, it was almost all bulbs and few flowers – as I knew would be the case, but I still wanted to see it. My guidebooks did not have the Amsterdam city history museum’s temporary relocation from the former City Orphanage on Kalverstraat to the Hermitage on Amstel. The Amstel location turned out to be right near Waterlooplein where I had been the day before. I also went to the nearby Jewish History museum and the Portuguese Synagogue (1 admission ticket covers both). I found all of these very worthwhile but probably too much museum time even for me!

Amsterdam to Gent (Ghent)
The next morning I took a train from Amsterdam to Gent in Belgium, with a change of trains in Antwerp. For added flexibility and a little cost savings, I booked the Amsterdam to Antwerp (second class, Intercity) in advance online, but I bought a Belgium senior discount ticket for the Antwerp to Gent segment. I had wrongly assumed that I would need to show a passport for the Belgium senior discount train tickets. It was no problem to buy it from the machines in the Antwerp station. I also had a few minutes to walk around the station which itself is worth seeing. I also scoped out the lockers that I planned to use on the way back so I could spend time in Antwerp on the way from Gent to Leiden later in the week.

To be continued

Posted by
1393 posts

Thanks for your report. Sounds like you had a great time in Amsterdam. I’m curious to know what you thought of the “non-tour” in the RLD.

Oh and you definitely win the prize for most creative spelling of the name of the Stedelijk Museum. Well… I least I guess that’s what you meant when you wrote “ Stetjlak modern art museum” :-)

Posted by
2782 posts

Hey CD in DC, glad to see you decided to write a report. 😊 It’s interesting to hear more about Amsterdam since I only did a day trip there.

I can’t wait to read the rest. I’m starting to collect notes for my return trip. I cannot get these countries out of my head. 😊

Posted by
6850 posts

Lots of great information, CD! I can't wait to read the rest of your report!

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380 posts

Gent
I stayed 4 nights at a B&B that I loved, t’Koetshuys. It is in the Patershol neighborhood half a block off of Oudburg. Oudurg is a street with many restaurants, bars, and cafes with cuisines from many parts of the world. Per the host’s directions, I took a tram from the Gent Sint Pieters train station to the Gravensteen castle stop then used my phone gps to find the B&B, a 5-10 minute walk from the tram stop. My room was probably larger than my Amsterdam and Leiden hotel rooms combined. The house is nicely renovated and decorated. There are only 3 guest rooms. I was not aware of any other guests while I was there. The rooms were on the first floor which means one flight of stairs, but these were “normal” stairs, not steep winding ones. There were all kinds of goodies for breakfast including fresh fruits, cheeses, chocolates, jams, breads, a pot of coffee or tea. Eggs, cooked as you wish were offered but I don’t eat eggs. Everything was served in cute little dishes or containers. The host was very friendly and helpful. She apologized for her poor English, but we had no communication problems.

I should note that this place is cash only and has shared baths. I knew this when I booked. Also, no TV. I realize these might be dealbreakers for some people but were fine for me. There are 2 bathrooms (one with shower and sink; one with tub, shower, sink and toilet) for the 3 guestrooms, but I seemed to have them all to myself.

I went to the Tourist Information center which is near the castle, bought the Gent card, and found out about a free walking tour that evening. Whereas I had concluded before my trip that the various Amsterdam tourist cards were probably not worth it for me because it seemed one would need to do at least 3 major sites or activities within 24 hours to break even, the Gent card was a no-lose deal for my plans. I used it for a discount admission for the Gent Alterpiece, a canal boat tour (since I missed doing one in Amsterdam), the Gravensteen castle tour, several other sights, and 5 or 6 tram rides. While I walked everywhere in the historic core, I used the tram to go to and from the MSK fine arts museum, to and from the train station for my day trip to Bruges, and on my final trip to the train station. On the trams, you don’t actually do anything with the card unless a conductor asks to see it. I didn’t realize this at first and tried to get the ticket or card reader to read it.

Walking tour: When the tourist office mentioned the evening “free” walking tour, I thought that would be a good way to start my time in Gent, even though in principle, I tend to dislike the “free” / pay by tipping tour model as a way of paying the guides. I am curious if anyone else has done any of the Legends tours. They offer tours by locals in Gent, Bruges, Antwerp and Brussels, according to their website, which I looked at after the tour. The evening tours focus on “the dark side” with lot of gory details about crime and punishment in the middle ages. The 2 hour walking tour was highly entertaining. I was happy to tip the guide; I felt he gave us an excellent performance. The tour was in English; the other participants were from all over the world which added to the fun. I got to see parts of Gent that I wouldn’t have known to look for. We also had some really nice photo ops of building lit up at night taken from spots you wouldn’t otherwise know of. He also gave recommendations on places to go, things to see, etc. Because the theme is legends, we are more or less warned that what we hear may or may not be historically accurate. I am a little conflicted on what I feel about that although I am aware of the argument that much of what is presented as accuracy is but one perspective.

Posted by
2871 posts

Thanks CD in DC for a great trip report. I bookmarked it (and Carrie’s) to help plan my 2025 trip. Time to revisit the Netherlands after 50+ years.

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3941 posts

I’m waiting for your report on Leiden. We’ll be staying in Rotterdam next May for 6 nights. We’ve stayed in Amsterdam before so we wanted to change it up.

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380 posts

Gent, continued
By the end of the walking tour my first evening in Gent, it was after 10 pm, I was hungry, but most of the restuarants I passed on Oudburg on my way back to my B&B had closed their kitchens though not their bars. I found a friendly place (didn’t write down the name) with outdoor tables and a selection of 150 beers that also had some food. The waitress helped me select a beer to try and suggested a bowl of cheese. I asked if there was bread or crackers with the cheese; she laughed and said people there eat big bowls of just cheese with mustard. She ended up also giving me a plate of bread at no charge because she said they don’t keep the leftover bread at the end of the night. The rest of my time in Gent, she would wave whenever I walked by and I did get back there for a final beer on my last night in Gent. (Tracked down the name of my favorite beer garden -- Yo's Place at 15 Oudburg.)

The highlight of my stay in Gent, and maybe of my whole trip, was the Gent Alterpiece, aka Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, in St. Bavo’s Cathedral. I booked my tickets online the day before with a 10 euro discount because I had the Gent city card. People who arrived without reserved time slots waited in a separate line but did get in. Although I expected to appreciate the historical significance and technical prowess of the work, I did not expect to emotionally resonate with 15th century religious art as much as I did.

I did the augmented reality option recommended by several people on this forum. I am glad I did. It is something I might not have chosen if I hadn’t read the posts. On the question of is the AR hokey or worthwhile, I would say a little hokey but a lot worthwhile. The hologram of the bishop welcoming you and the holograms of the not realistic looking assistants in the artist’s studio were a bit hokey. The details of the painting that could not be seen well with the naked eye were amazing. In booking the AR ticket, you choose between different amounts of time for your tour but the price is no higher with the longer tour and no one checks how long you stay.

Dining in Gent: I enjoyed Souplounge for lunch and Brasserie Bridge for dinner (delicious beef stew). Both were recommended on the Belgium part of this forum while I was there, and were also recommended in one or more of my guidebooks.

At least a dozen restaurants I looked up were closed on Sundays and/or Mondays. On Sunday early evening I went to t’Kanon, a bar and café right near the cannon, with extensive outdoor seating overlooking a canal. From what I read, the place had been a traditional local bar for many years that closed during covid. It was bought and reopened by 3 young women who have received high reviews for their food and beverage menu. I had their shrimp croquette and a tomato, cheese, and olive pastry. They have created their own beer which I thought I wanted to try but the waiter told me that unless I liked really sour beer, best to try something else. I’m not sure I even know what sour beer is so I took his advice. The food was quite good and the setting was very nice. This was the only place I ate in Gent or elsewhere where I had to pay when ordering, long before I received any food or drink. The waiter explained that this policy was only for the outside tables. On Monday, I had eaten a large pot of mussels for a late lunch in Bruges. For a lighter dinner back in Gent, I went to Little Asia on Oudburg, recommended by someone on the forum. I had a Thai soup and vegetable steamed dumplings. It was good but not anyhing special.

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7506 posts

Thanks for your report. When you bought your train ticket from a machine in Antwerp, did you have any credit card problems? Is your card normally "Signature Priority" at home in the US? Did you need to enter any kind of PIN in the Antwerp machine? I'm asking because years ago, US credit cards were a real problem in Belgium. Are you willing to give the bank or product-name of your card? Thanks.

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380 posts

Tim: I had no problems with my credit card (Capital One master card) in the Antwerp station ticket machines or anywhere in Belgium or the Netherlands. In the various hand-held credit card readers I encountered, sometimes I could just tap while other times I had to insert or try a couple different things.

Dutch-traveler: I have corrected my creative spelling -- thanks for pointing it out. I very much appreciated my "non tour" visit with the Prostitution Information Center folks.

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206 posts

CD, thank you for your excellent report, this is so helpful! We will do Best of Europe tour in April 2024. We will spend extra days in Haarlem, with plans to visit Amsterdam before the tour begins.

We will reserve the Anne Frank House and Dutch Resistance Museum one day, and have already reserved Corrie Ten Boom House in Haarlem.

With the group there will be a tour of the Rijksmusem or we could do that with our free time, whichever works.

Regarding your bus trip from Schipol airport to Amsterdam, did you pay for the bus using a credit card to tap in? How did you store your credit card in between taps- in a purse? We wear money belts under our clothes so it’s not so simple to get it out. Some pockets don’t have zippers so the card could fall out. Just wondered if you had a crossbody bag or purse? Or a neck wallet maybe?

When you dropped off your bag at your hotel in Amsterdam, did the staff lock it into a room until your room was ready? Did you carry a day bag or purse while you were out and about? We expect to arrive well in advance of our room being ready so we plan to leave the bags as you did. We need our day bags to carry rain gear and water, etc.

It seems from what you wrote that you didn’t need them, but did you happen to notice the storage lockers at the Anne Frank house? I wonder if they are large enough for 35L bags or just for small items. One can’t expect they will be available though, and they may be reserved. Thank you again, seems like a wonderful trip. You went to so many museums on the same day-my head just can’t absorb so much at once. I admire your energy.

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380 posts

Pastelholic: Yes, I used a credit card to tap on the bus from the airport. I found that throughout my trip there were so many places that didn't take any cash even for just a coffee that it wasn't practical to have all credit cards in my hidden waist travel wallet. I always had one credit card in a pants pocket. I packed one pair of pants that conveniently has 2 zipper pockets. For the other 2 pairs of pants, I made sure before I packed that a credit card would be reasonably secure in a front pocket. For women's pants, the pockets are not always deep enough, so it was worth testing them out. I kept my bank debit card in the hidden wallet with my passport.

I use a crossbody/shoulder bag that can fit at least two of the following: umbrella, small water bottle, ipad, guidebook, packable rain jacket, but it doesn't fit all of these at once. I try to use a purse/day bag that won't have to be checked at museums (see Anne Frank house note below.) I don't remember the exact luggage storage set up at my Amsterdam hotel -- I think it was a closet behind the reception desk maybe. But I do remember that it felt secure enough. I could have kept my under the seat packable zipper tote bag with me with extra items while waiting for my room if I had felt the need. My prescription meds were still in my crossbody purse as they were for the plane trip.

On bag storage at the Anne Frank House, this is what their website says:
"The museum has a cloakroom where you can leave your coat, bag, umbrella, or buggy. Only bags that are smaller than an A4 sheet of paper can be carried inside. We do not have room to store large bags and backpacks, suitcases, or other large items. Please leave your luggage at your hotel or deposit it at Amsterdam Central Station, otherwise, you may not be able to visit the museum. "

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Daytrips to Bruges and Antwerp

I have no quarrel with all those who prefer to stay over in Bruges, but for me Bruges was the perfect day trip. The train to and from Gent was easy, didn’t require advanced booking, and cheap with the 7.80 E senior ticket. There was a tourist information center with paper maps in the Bruges station. I also use google maps but I like having a hard copy map too. Signs directing you to the center were well marked inside the station and outside. It was an easy walk to the center; trams are also available.

In addition to fully enjoying walking around the beautiful squares and canals, I was happy to find the Groeninge fine arts museum (several Van Eycks, Hieronymus Bosch) open on a Monday. An older guidebook had indicated it would be closed. The Our Lady church with a Michelangelo sculpture was close by. I had mussels for lunch on the Vismarkt (fish market) square, then walked to the De Halve Maan Brewery. I decided not to do the brewery tour, but relaxed in their courtyard with one of their own local beers. Next, was a short walk to the beguinage and then Lake Minnewater. From there, it was just a short walk back to the train station.

The next day, I took the train to Antwerp, checked my suitcase in a locker in the train station. The lockers are right behind the tourist information center. I explored Antwerp for 4-5 hours. The four Rubens paintings in the Our Lady church were a highlight. I had enough time for a guided walking tour, but not enough energy or motivation at that point. I did check out the MOMU fashion museum for a contemporary change of pace. I was curious to walk around the diamond district near the train station because I had once watched some of the Rough Diamonds Netflix series set in Antwerp. As I had read, there isn’t much to see from the street. It sort of reminded me of the NYC diamond district.

For Gent to Antwerp, I just did the senior discount ticket for within Belgium. I booked my Antwerp to Leiden train ticket online 3 days in advance for an advance discount rate. This ticket was for a specific time (4:40 pm if I remember). I had to change trains at Schipol airport which was quick and easy. My Antwerp to Schipol train was a little delayed getting to Schipol but it didn’t matter that I took a slightly later train to Leiden from Schipol than what was on my ticket.

Leiden

I stayed at the IBIS hotel across from the Leiden train station. The single room was tiny and charmless, but comfortable and very convenient. I bought some food at a Jumbo supermarket down the block to eat in the room because I was tired. The hotel reception mentioned that there was a microwave available if I wanted to heat anything but I didn’t need it. Although the IBIS was fine for my needs, the “larger” double room I peaked into looked like it might not have enough floor space off the bed for 2 people to move past each other.

Next morning, I explored Leiden a bit, starting with the Wednesday market in the center. By this point in my trip, I knew I would not get to any other historic windmills so I visited the one in Leiden which is a museum. The bottom floor is furnished as it was when it was the mill operator’s family residence. As you climb up, there is a film on the history of this and other windmills in the Netherlands, and other artifacts and explanations on other floors. It was interesting and I’m glad I took the opportunity to see it.

Although there is more to see & do in Leiden, nothing else was on my must-see list whereas the Mauritius museum in Den Haag was one of my tip priorities. I knew I could easily combine it with Delft, but I decided to jump on a train to Den Haag that afternoon and save my last day just for Delft.

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Delft. It rained the whole day I was in Delft but mostly light rain. I was glad to be wearing my waterproof hooded rain jacket and my water resistant ankle boots. I followed the walking tour suggested in the RS guidebook which I had as an ebook in the kindle app on my iphone. Both the phone and the paper map I had picked up were getting pretty wet. I own a waterproof clear plastic phone cover with a lanyard that I bought for a trip to Ireland a few years ago. Unfortunately, I didn't think to pack it for this trip. At the point that the RS guide took me through the Prinsenhof museum courtyard, there was thunder and harder rain so I ducked into the museum for a while. Although I hadn't planned to visit it, I got drawn in by a temporary exhibit about Jan Schoonhoven, a lifelong Delft resident and internationally famous artist of the 1960s-70s (whom I'd never heard of). I was not initially much interested in his work, but a film showed how his abstract grids were inspired by Delft paving stones, bricks, windows, etc. I enjoyed walking around Delft despite the weather. The train to and from Leiden was super easy.

Eating in Leiden. Dinner at the Engelenbak restaurant in Leiden was probably the best and most upscale foodie meal of my trip. Giant pancake at Oudt Leyden was fun. De Bruine Boon was a friendly cafe with heatlamps and an awning for outdoor seating comfort on a damp chilly evening, with a canal and windmill view; food was ok.

Travel from Leiden to Schipol airport for my flight home was quick and easy. I mistakenly sat down in a red seat not realizing that was first class within the same car as the blue second class seats. I didn't see any difference other than the cushion color but maybe there was more room. My plane was delayed a bit. My parting image of Amsterdam was of small children speaking different languages exuberantly coming down the slide in the waiting area.

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2782 posts

I mistakenly sat down in a red seat not realizing that was first class
within the same car as the blue second class seats. I didn't see any
difference other than the cushion color but maybe there was more room.

An easy mistake to make. Most of the time, 1st class was 2 seats across from 2 seats. Usually, it’s 2 seats across from 1 seat. I was so surprised. I was like, how is this different???