Day 1.  Arriving in Amsterdam

We needed to be up at 03.15 a.m. for our early morning flight to Amsterdam from Leeds Bradford Airport.  Deciding to drive, we left our car at the Sentinel long stay car park, managing to find a discount code to reduce the price slightly.

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KLM Cityhopper Embraer 190 between Leeds Bradford and Amsterdam

Our flight with the Dutch national carrier KLM on an Embraer 190 Cityhopper service departed on time at 6.40 a.m. and in just under one and a half hours we landed into Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.  During the short flight we were served a snack box containing a cheese sandwich, biscuit and water, with hot drinks served slightly later.

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Snack on board KLM Cityhopper flight

On arrival in Schiphol we purchased Amsterdam and region travel tickets from the IAmsterdam Tourist Office (details here).  We actually needed travel cards covering 5 days but only one, two and three day tickets exist so we bought a 3 day and a 2 day card each costing €33 and €26 respectively.  These tickets enable passengers to travel on trains, buses, trams, ferries and the metro.  The cards are valid from their first use and passengers then need to tap in and out of all modes of transport on each journey.  We looked into the possibility of buying the OV-chipkaart but decided against one as these cost €7.50 each which is non refundable, do not have a daily cap, and if there is any money remaining on the card it is very difficult to get it refunded.

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Hotel2Stay, Sloterdijk, Amsterdam

Our accommodation was near Sloterdijk station so we took the train two stops from the airport to our home for the next four nights at Hotel2Stay, a new apart-hotel which had only been open a few months.  As it was only 10.30 a.m. when we arrived at the hotel’s reception it was no surprise that our room was not ready, but we were able to leave our luggage until later in the day.

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Amsterdam Central Station

The hotel was only five minutes walk from Sloterdijk’s transport hub having rail, bus, metro and tram connections available.  Trains into Amsterdam Central Station take only 6 minutes and depart every few minutes, making Sloterdijk a convenient location for our stay.  This was my third visit to Amsterdam, the first time I travelled by ferry from Hull to Rotterdam and last time I flew from Manchester but that was 20 years ago so a return visit was long overdue.

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Boats along Amsterdam’s canals

Glancing at our map, we strolled from the station along Damrak which leads into Dam Square.  Along the way we passed bars, cafes and numerous cheese shops selling round discs of local Gouda and Edam cheese.  I also noticed cannabis flavoured ice cream on offer from a street vendor and erotic sex shops making me wonder what sort of a place we had come to!

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Beautiful old Dutch architecture in Amsterdam

Dam Square was crowded with people enjoying a temporary funfair, a Ferris wheel obscuring our view of the square’s stunning architecture.  From there, we turned left to Oude Kerk (old church) passing De Waag (weigh house) and the Rembrandt House on our way to Waterlooplein.  Rain then started to fall as we crossed the Amstel so we took shelter under the stalls of the Singel flower market browsing the many varieties of flowering bulbs and cut flowers on offer.  Last time I was here I was tempted into buying large bags of gladioli and tulips to plant in our garden at home but this year I decided against further purchases as we have heavy clay soil which isn’t ideal for bulb growing.

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Magna Plaza Shopping Centre, Amsterdam

We then took shelter in Magna Plaza, a neo-gothic masterpiece and the former Amsterdam main post office.  Built in 1895 it is one of the Netherlands 100 Dutch heritage sites.  The opulent interior has retained many original features and since 1992 it has been home to luxury retailers.

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Opulent interior of Magna Plaza Shopping Mall, Amsterdam

Across the road from here lies the Nieuwe Kerk a 15th century church in Dam Square, from where we caught a tram the short distance back to Central Station.  Walking through the station and leaving by its rear door free ferries shuttle across the broad stretch of water known as the IJ (Amsterdam’s waterfront).

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One of the free ferries between Amsterdam and the north bank of the IJ

The IJ is connected to the North Sea to the west and the IJmeer to the east by a series of locks.  Ferries carry up to 310 passengers, cyclists and mopeds and leave every few minutes.  There are three ferry routes departing from outside the station and we chose to travel on the service to Buiksloterweg on the north bank.  Strolling along the tree lined promenade of Amsterdam’s north bank we took a look in the modernist EYE Film Institute Netherlands building which opened in 2012.  This iconic building contains the Dutch film archive and museum of film and has an attractive cafe on its ground floor offering splendid views across the bay to the city centre.

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Amsterdam EYE Film Institute Netherlands and A’DAM Tower

Located next to the EYE is the A’DAM Tower featuring an observation deck and sky bar on its 20th floor, the lift taking just 23 seconds.  Hanging from the sky deck is Europe’s highest swing providing thrill seekers with an exhilarating ride 100 metres high above the ground.

A little more strolling along the waterfront followed and after taking the ferry back to Central Station we returned by train to Sloterdijk where we were able to check into our room.  The studio was just as described, very well equipped and with stylish furnishings.  The hotel has a rooftop terrace, sauna, gym and cosy lounge area.  After settling in, we popped out to a nearby supermarket for a few things and later returned to Amsterdam Central by train.  Sloterdijk is rather like a modern version of London’s Clapham Junction with trains departing every few minutes.

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Studio room at Hotel2Stay Amsterdam Sloterdijk

Our evening walk took us from the Central Station down Warmoesstraat to Waterlooplein and after stopping off for drinks we caught the metro back to the railway station to return to our hotel for the night after an enjoyable first day in Amsterdam.

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Day 2.  A Day of tulips and cheese 

Breakfast was not included in the room rate and at €15 per person we thought quite expensive, especially as it’s actually taken in the building opposite.  Instead, we decided to nip out to the Spar supermarket a couple of minutes walk away and buy some croissants, ham, eggs and yoghurt ourselves as our studio had a fully equipped kitchen and dining table.

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Entrance to Keukenhof Gardens

A sunny start to the day so a visit to the Keukenhof Gardens was our plan.  Shuttle buses run from Schiphol Airport which was only a short train ride from our base in Sloterdijk.  I’d checked in advance to note that the buses depart from Schiphol Plaza outside the Arrivals Hall but as this area is huge it took us some time to find the bus stop we needed which was labelled with a giant inflatable tulip.  What we hadn’t anticipated though was the length of the bus queue, it was as long as the eye could see but thankfully as soon as one bus filled up, another one came into position and the queue moved swiftly on.  Combo tickets covering both admission to the gardens and the 30 minute shuttle bus could be purchased but as we already had regional travel passes we just needed to pay €16 each to enter the gardens.

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Tulip displays at Keukenhof Gardens

The gardens are open for only eight weeks each year between mid March and mid May and last year attracted 1.1 million visitors, 75% from overseas.  Keukenhof is huge, covering 32 hectares and although there were many people around, it never felt overcrowded.  The skilful planting with such colourful flowerbeds was amazing and I think that everyone would enjoy a visit whether they were interested in gardening or not.

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Colourful planting at Keukenhof Gardens

In order to ensure that Keukenhof has a new look each year the plants are dug up and harvested after flowering and a further 7 million new bulbs are planted each autumn in different layouts.  The bulbs are supplied free of charge by bulb growing exhibitors enabling them to showcase their products to such a large audience.

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Hyacinth borders at Keukenhof Gardens

In addition to viewing the colourful bulbs, there were several pavilions to explore.  In the Beatrix pavilion we found exquisite orchid displays whilst the Willem Alexander pavilion focused on varieties of lily.  The large, centrally located Oranje Nassau pavilion displayed the use of plant bulbs and cut flowers indoors with some stunning arrangements for us to admire.  The gardens have several attractive cafes with both indoor and outdoor seating depending on the weather and we had no difficulty finding a table for our morning coffees.

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Keukenhof Gardens, the Netherlands

It was around 2.00 p.m. when we left the gardens and at that time there was no queue to return to Schiphol by bus.  A short rest followed back in our hotel and then, as it was still sunny, we decided to make a late afternoon visit to the small town of Edam, famous for its cheese.  To get there we took the train into Amsterdam Central (6 minutes) and then caught Bus 314 from the rear of the station.  Buses run at approximately 15 minute intervals to Edam and the pleasant journey with canal side views most of the way took around 30 minutes.

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Edam main street, The Netherlands

Edam was smaller than I had expected but what it lacked in size it made up for in charm.  Narrow lanes with drawbridges cross canals, many homes having gardens backing onto the water and some, even, with their own moorings and boat.  The centre of town has numerous small shops many selling the local Edam cheese.  I hadn’t realised that it’s available in several varieties, on tasting I preferred the one’s made from goat and sheep’s cheese best.

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Cheese shop, Edam, The Netherlands

Near the ornate town hall is an unusual, wide humped backed bridge over the canal which has some attractive wrought iron seating.  Feeling thirsty, we found a pub with a sunny, canal side terrace where we enjoyed a couple of beers.  From our seats we spotted several geese, ducks, grebes and one black swan all waiting eagerly as one little boy was feeding them some bread.

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A typical Amsterdam canal with bicycle

It was approaching 6.00 p.m. so we decided to make a move and return to Amsterdam and, after eating, we enjoyed an evening stroll starting from where we ended the previous night at Waterlooplein.  Our walk led us along the wide Amstel canal through to Rembrandtplein, a lively part of town with bars and cafes spilling out onto the pavement.  A coffee stop followed before we raised the energy to walk back to Central Station for the train back to our hotel.

Day 3.  Haarlem and Zaanse Schans Windmills

Our morning was going to start with a short train journey to Haarlem but noticing the train terminated less than ten minutes later at the seaside town of Zandvoort, we thought we’d head there first before returning down the line to visit Haarlem.

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Zandvoort, The Netherlands

Unusually for us, we hadn’t researched Zandvoort, otherwise I doubt we would have bothered going.  The resort, if one could call it that, lies just a few minutes walk from the station but it held little appeal and was totally lacking in charm.  We ventured along the promenade which had a few kiosks selling the usual seaside paraphernalia and one or two beach bars which appeared to be closed, the resort had the same feel as Cleveleys in north west England, having seen better days.  I’m sure it looks more appealing in midsummer when the beach bars are open and people are relaxing on the beach.

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Haarlem, The Netherlands

So, after a stroll through Zandvoort we returned to the station for the short journey back to Haarlem, the capital of the province of North Holland.  The city lies at the centre of the Dutch flower growing district being close to Keukenhof Gardens and the bulb fields of Lisse and Hillegom.  The medieval centre is a ten minute walk from the station along cobbled, narrow car free streets.  Crossing the broad canal into the old town we found that Haarlem had plenty of the charm that it’s neighbour Zandvoort lacked.

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Haarlem town centre, The Netherlands

Beautiful tall Dutch terraced houses lined the canal with more fine examples of Dutch architecture in the main square.  I’m sure the square usually looks photogenic but sadly like Dam Square in Amsterdam, it was filled with a funfair and Ferris wheel obscuring the buildings behind.  Haarlem’s shopping centre extends over several streets and has many interesting small shops and cosy cafes.  After having our morning coffees in one of these little cafes we returned to our hotel in Sloterdijk for some lunch, the rail journey taking less than 15 minutes.

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The broad canal in the centre of Haarlem, The Netherlands

After a little rest I suggested we set of by train once again, this time to Zaandijk Zaanse Schans to visit the working windmill village at Zaanse Schans.  Getting there from Sloterdijk took only ten minutes and then it was a further 15 minute signposted walk to the windmills.  Zaanse Schans is a preserved village of traditional houses, windmills and warehouses providing a glimpse of life in the Netherlands in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The surrounding region was an industrial area with hundreds of windmills which were used to power the milling of paper, mustard, oil and other products.

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Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

Wandering through the village is free but admission charges apply to enter individual museums, workshops and windmills.  We enjoyed viewing these characterful houses and looking at the windmills in such a pretty setting.  It’s a bit touristy with coach loads of tourists on guided tours but I’d still recommend a visit as it’s a charming open air museum and very photogenic.  I noticed that tours to Zaans Schans from Amsterdam cost about €35 but it can be visited easily and at a fraction of the cost by train (15 minutes from Amsterdam) and is included in the regional travel ticket.

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Zaanse Schans, The Netherlands

For our evening stroll we headed back into the centre of Amsterdam and boarded a tram to Leidseplein and from there wandered along to Vondel Park which had many cyclists.  We spotted a heron scavenging in a wheelie bin and saw yet more colourful tulips.  Leaving the park as it was falling dark we stopped for drinks in one of the cosy bars along Leidseplein before wandering the streets a little more then returning back to the hotel for the night.

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Vondel Park, Amsterdam

Day 4.  Marken and Volendam 

Our plan for the morning was to take the train into Amsterdam Central and then travel from there by bus to the village of Marken.  Buses run half hourly (No.315) and depart from behind the railway station, this journey being included in the regional travel ticket.  It was a pleasant ride out to Marken, the bus making good progress and seldom stopping on its way.  The latter part of the journey being along a narrow causeway connecting the village to the mainland.  To visit Marken’s picturesque small harbour it’s necessary to alight in the bus station but the bus continues a little further after that.

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The path leading from the bus station to Marken harbour

From there, a narrow lane passing alongside typical Dutch houses leads towards the harbour, the pathways being decorated with bunting giving a festive appeal.  There’s a small museum detailing the town’s history and traditional Dutch clothing style of the area featuring winged caps and brightly coloured striped skirts.

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Marken harbour

Arriving at the picturesque small harbour with its characterful wooden houses it was easy to see why the village attracts so many visitors, it’s one of the oldest fishing harbours in the Netherlands and in its heyday regularly accommodated up to 200 fishing boats.  We strolled around the harbour admiring both the boats and the traditional houses many of which now have National Heritage status.

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Marken to Volendam ferry

Instead of continuing by bus we decided to cross Markenmeer to Volendam on the Marken Express ferry which has sailings every 40 minutes.  One way tickets cost €8.50 per person, this service being excluded from our regional ticket.  Choosing to sit on the open, upper deck to enjoy the views we had to contend with a stiff breeze which caused most passengers to seek shelter downstairs in the saloon.

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The quayside, Volendam

Approaching the quayside at Volendam made it all worthwhile though as the harbourside looked gorgeous lined with an assortment of typical wooden pointed houses greeting us as we moored on the jetty.

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Tempting Dutch waffles

On disembarking from the ferry we found lots of these traditional buildings to be bars and cafes and it was not long before we were settled on a cosy terrace sipping our cups of coffee and unable to resist the temptation of Dutch waffles.  Whilst sitting there watching throngs of tourists saunter past we spied a heron close by almost begging for food from a herring stall.  It was very surprising to see a heron amongst so many people as they are known to be shy and usually spotted at the water’s edge rather than on a busy promenade.  The local herons have obviously worked out its easier to scavenge for food on dry land.

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One of the heron’s on Volendam’s seafront scavenging for food

Deciding we needed to make a move, a walk along the seafront and in the inviting little shops followed.  Volendam has its own cheese factory offering free demonstrations of the cheese making process for the locally produced Edam and Gouda varieties.  Being a lover of cheese this proved very interesting especially as tastings were available too.

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Assistant in traditional Dutch dress, Volendam Cheese Factory

We were so pleased that we’d decided to visit Volendam, it’s such a charming little place, a little touristy like Marken and with a few too many tour groups blocking the way but it’s certainly worth a visit.  In Amsterdam we had noticed half day tours advertised visiting both Marken and Volendam costing €50 per person whereas we had only paid for the ferry as our bus journeys were covered by our travel ticket.  Visiting these small towns had been easy by public transport and returning back to Amsterdam from Volendam centre took only 30 minutes with buses running every 15 minutes.

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The small beach, Volendam

Later, after eating dinner we intended to explore Amsterdam’s Jordaan District but it started raining heavily so we jumped on a passing tram and rattled along the city streets watching the world go by from its rain spotted windows.

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Wooden clogs for sale in Volendam

Day 5.  Our final day in Amsterdam

A slower start to our final day in Amsterdam staying around the hotel until our 11.00 a.m. checkout time.  Hotel 2 Stay had been a good choice, spacious studio rooms coupled with maid service and only a 6 minute train journey from Amsterdam Central with trains departing every few minutes.  Sloterdijk is described as an up and coming district, it’s a very safe area with full transport links and several hotels including a Mercure and Holiday Inn.  There’s also a branch of Spar on the station forecourt, which was convenient for our morning croissants.

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Lelystad, The Netherlands

Looking at our map for ideas of how to spend our final day, the only direction we hadn’t yet explored was north east, so we hopped on a train into Amsterdam Central and then connected four minutes later to Lelystad, the limit of our Amsterdam and Region travel ticket.  The journey took about an hour, most of which was scenic, the train passing canalside homes and nearing Lelystad the Oostvaardersplassen Nature Reserve.  From the train window we spotted dozens of deer and horses roaming on the reserve, it would have been interesting to take a walk there but the train did not stop nearby.

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Boat traffic on Amsterdam’s canals

On reaching Lelystad, we found ourselves to be in a suburban town of 1970’s architecture.  The shopping centre straddled several streets and in one of the squares a Saturday food market was taking place so we passed some time browsing the stalls and sampling yet more cheese and olives.  Upturned umbrellas hung across the streets adding a splash of colour but I’m unsure of their significance, only assuming it rains a lot in Lelystad.  Our plan had been to stay for lunch but as we had finished our tour of the town a little earlier than expected, we headed to the station for the next train back to Amsterdam where we soon found the perfect cafe for our late lunch.

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NEMO Science Museum, Amsterdam

A stroll through the maze of narrow, canalside streets without much of a plan followed, just stopping when and where something took our interest.  The Prinsengracht district was particularly lively with families enjoying the afternoon sunshine.

On our way back to Amsterdam Central we walked along the Oostbank as far as the public library and Science Museum.  Views across the water were good, and would have been even better if there hadn’t been some large cranes marring our view.  It was then time to return to Sloterdijk to collect our luggage and head back to Schiphol Airport for our 10.00 p.m. flight back home.

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Departure Hall, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport

I was intrigued by this huge clock hanging in the departure hall.  The image of a man projected on to the clock face appears to paint the hands of the clock and then wash them off again every minute.  Schiphol covers a vast area and we passed our time until boarding wandering around the airside shops and then having a snack in one of the many cafes.

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Snack served on board the KLM Cityhopper service

We returned to Leeds Bradford airport on the KLM Cityhopper service, our flight taking only one hour which sped away as we were served drinks and snacks by the very pleasant cabin crew.  The end of another enjoyable break in the Dutch capital.