I just got back from a trip to the Netherlands. I was last there in 1990 and hated it, so I'm happy to report that I had a wonderful time. To be brief, Amsterdam (4 nights) was very nice; Utrecht (2 nights) was very nice); Delft (4 nights) was just meh. After one day in Delft, I was ready to take side trips (I had planned to take as many or as few side trips from my base cities as necessary). So, I went to The Hague, which was only of interest for its museums. Be aware that the Mauritsaus just closed for a multi-year renovation that seems to be afflicting all Dutch museums. I was able to see Girl With A Pearl Earring (a sign at the Mauritshaus explains where it will be and when, including out of the country for some time). Leiden was very nice, and I wished I had stayed there. Even though Delft and Utrecht also have universities, Leiden was the only place where I saw students, or that felt like a "college town." I found Keukenhof to be "too much of a good thing" - beautiful flowerbed after beautiful flowerbed after beautiful flowerbed after beautiful flowerbed. Despite clear effort to make them all different, the effect was a bit numbing, and the indoor pavilions extremely claustrophobic. I'm glad I saw it once, but wouldn't go to the expense or trouble of going again. Rotterdam was quite interesting, with striking architecture. I also wish I had an overnight there. The city is not like any other in Holland; it reminded me of a smaller Frankfurt. If you go, be sure to get the tourist office's free Architecture Walking Tour brochure; this is also a free map, since they charge for their other maps. And the Cube House Museum was well worth the small charge; it's not on the Museum Card. However, the Museum Card is still a phenomenal deal; I must have used double to triple its 45 euro cost. continued...
continued... I used the Anonymous OV Chipkaart (instructions on a tripadvisor FAQ), which probably isn't worth it for most people, but definitely made my trip easier, as it's good on trains between cities as well as trams and buses within them, and is much cheaper than individual tram and bus fares (it calculates to the cent, and most fares were about a euro). However, it costs 7.50 euros to buy, and you lose 2.50 euros if you get the remaining balance refunded. One other note: all of Holland, not just Amsterdam, has VERY steep stairs EVERYWHERE. My mother has a phobia about these, and she would have been miserable, as there often isn't an elevator. It would also be a problem for the mobility-challenged. I heartily recommend Rick's book for Amsterdam, The Hague, and Delft, but I had to supplement for Leiden, Utrecht, and Rotterdam - I wish he had covered these better.
Hotel info: None of my hotels were in RS book. Amsterdam: Amistad Hotel. This is a gay (straight-friendly) hotel in a great location, on a quiet street near Leidseplein. The room was plain (not as pretty as the one pictured on the website). The breakfast was great and included, and they had free WiFi (not a given in the Netherlands, as hotels like to charge for it). I'd stay there again. BTW, I had great difficulty getting a hotel in Amsterdam, as many books list the same places RS does, and they are small and fill up fast. Many others were either very expensive, or looked shabby. If you want to go to Amsterdam, particularly on a weekend, book NOW. For example, the Amistad has a 4 night minimum on weekends; that's how popular the city is as a "weekend break," particularly for the English. Utrecht: Mary K Hotel. Lovely place, great location in central Utrecht, free WiFi, extremely comfortable bed, large bathroom - can't say enough good things. Breakfast is not included, so I didn't try it. Would DEFINITELY stay here again. Delft: Again, RS recommendations were booked, so I stayed at Hotel Juliana, south of the center in a nice residential area. The hotel was fine (nice included breakfast, free WiFi, lots of lights in room), although the room was small (standard "European" size, which was a shock after my larger room at the Mary K). However, this was an inconvenient location for getting to Delft's center, and VERY inconvenient for the train station given the massive station construction. I wouldn't stay there again, unless I had business at the university (as most of their guests do).
Thanks for posting, Harold!
A few further tidbits: For some reason, it seems that all train stations and all museums in the country are being renovated - at the same time. I knew about the Rijksmuseum and the Stedlijk in Amsterdam, but not the Mauritshaus in the Hague. And of the five train stations I used, four were undergoing renovation (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft, and Utrecht - the last to a lesser extent). If you're toting luggage, it's a real pain. Rick says that the Dutch eat meals at the same times we do. Maybe in Seattle, but not in New York. Dinner in Holland is quite early by NYC standards (6-7:30 PM or so). Eating at 8:30 or 9 PM was often a solitary experience - at restaurants that were packed two hours earlier. Mary K, who ran my hotel in Utrecht, said that the Dutch, being boring, ate early and then ran home to watch TV. I could actually see this was true, since the Dutch famously don't have curtains in their windows. Lunch was at a more "normal" (to me) time - noon to 1:30 PM or so. What I would do is have dinner at my day trip city, before returning to my base for the night - this worked well.
Amsterdam Centraal Station has been a construction zone mess for 5+ years now. It's related to the new metro line being built underneath the city center. It's a major engineering project, and it involves building a new station complex underneath the current station. Not an easy task for a city that's below sea level;)
There's actually a small museum about the project at Centraal Station.
Michael: Rick had mentioned this about the Amsterdam station in his book. And Delft is putting its entire station underground - also a major, multi-year project. And Utrecht is trying to undo the damage from the Hoog Catherine, a shopping mall attached to the station that was state-of-the-art in the 1970's, but is now tired and cuts the station off from the city. And...I don't even know what they're doing in Rotterdam. BUT - did they ALL have to be doing these at the same time as MY visit? <g> Similarly, I understand why old museums need to be renovated, and that this takes years. But did they have to be doing so many now, when I wanted to see them? I would have accepted it better if I weren't taking so many daytrips from Delft station, which was a particular pain to use. The others weren't so bad, but it was striking to use Leiden station, and be able to walk out without dodging construction. I had forgotten that this was the way it was supposed to be!
I didn't know about Utrecht. Glad to hear they're doing something about that shopping mall, it was always depressing having to walk through it to get to the centrum. I remember reading something about the Rijks Museum restoration a while back.....The museum didn't need or want it, for some reason it was forced on them by the Dutch Government. It was only supposed to take two or so years, ten years later they are still working on it. Supposedly it's a bit of a national scandal.
Got back from NL today. I thought these two items might be of general interest. (2 posts) Credit Cards: We just drove from Cologne to Amsterdam over ten days. While we had no problems with our American credit cards in Amsterdam, they were of very limited use anywhere else in the Netherlands. For example, The Floriade, perhaps the biggest tourism roll-of-the dice this year, does not accept "swipe" credit cards, but only Chip-and-PIN. Two of the biggest attractions that aren't near Amsterdam, Het Loo palace and the Kroller-Muller Museum, have duct-tape over the swipe slots in their dual-mode card processors. Our (larger) hotels all cheerfully accepted American credit cards. But we didn't find a restaurant that took them until we got to Amsterdam. And this included worldly Den Haag. Luckily, we had stocked up on Euros in Cologne, where we don't have to pay a fee on our Bank of America ATM cards. But when I asked our NJ branch manager to agitate with the brass for a Chip-and-PIN card, she looked at me like I'd grown a second head. Not Invented Here!
Water in Schiphol: As you know, security rules can change unexpectedly. Here's some useful news from Amsterdam's Schiphol on May 6, 2012: We discovered on check-in that all security screening was at the (United, in our case) gate. I imagine this was to meet US TSA requirements. I learned at the information desk that we could buy 33-centiliter (and no larger) water bottles from a stand that had duty-free material and have them zip-seal the water as if it were liquor. I didn't feel cheated paying 4 Euros for a liter of water - that's cheaper than airport water purchases at Newark! Imagine my surprise, after getting patted-down into the "clean" gate area G7: United had a white-box chilled water dispenser, with a spout and cups, in the waiting area. (For long deleays ... ? ...) I could have refilled the empty half-liter empty I had just thrown away. I'd been planning to fill it in the Star Alliance lounge that turned out to be before the gate security. At Newark, I use a fountain, but of course there aren't any in Euro airports.
As to Tim's post about swipe cards: I saw many, MANY taped-over swipe slots in machines all over the Netherlands. And in addition to chip and pin credit cards, they have a different chip and pin system for their debit cards, where one can store value right on the card (rather than taking it out of the checking account, as in the US). This kind of "debit card" is the ONLY kind of card accepted at many places (particularly grocery stores). So, when you see a machine, it's not just that they may not take a swipe and sign CC; the store may not accept CC's at all. Have cash ready at all times, and save a lot of grief. Rick did mention this in his book, but it's still a shock that places that, in theory, want tourist's money, are making it hard on tourists (the train system is another example; the machines only take C&P or coins; paying with cash at the window has a 50 eurocent surcharge!). I am somewhat surprised to hear about the Kroller Muller and the Floriade - but not as surprised as I would have been before I actually went to the country. They REALLY like holding on to money there (also reflected in what I paid for hotels relative to what I got, compared to other countries).
On Dutch bank card facilities, I'll try to the current situation. They are phasing out any sweeping function for both credit AND debit cards. Only pin-and-chip will remain. That's been rolled out in many local chains and merchants already. Don't expect to be able to use swipe credit cards in any automated reader and in most stores as well from late 2013 in Netherlands. Hotels, car rentals and other establishments that work with different systems are exceptions likely to stay for the time being. As for the "card-stored function", it is called chipknip. Dutch debit cards have this dual function. In certain places that have only "offline" readers such as vending machines - for instance -, they will only accept chipkinp. However, they are slowly deploying more online debt card readers. Supermarkets and many stores do not accept credit cards of any category.