The historic rivers of Europe, starting with the Rhine in the north and ending with the Danube in the south, form centuries-old trade routes connecting many great cities. Two of my favorites, Amsterdam and Budapest, are joined by these waterways. Both have their own unique history, culture and great art, but are inexorably linked, even now, by the long shadow of the Holocaust and the brutal occupation of the Nazi era. Here is a quick guide to both cities.
Are you in Holland or the Netherlands? Actually, both. Netherlands is the country and Holland is the region. Holland is located on the western coast of the Netherlands and there are two regions, North and South Holland. Amsterdam is in North Holland and is the capitol of the country.
Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport (www.schiphol.com) was recently voted the best airport in Europe by the British magazine, Business Traveler. Whether you arrive or depart from Schipol Airport, leave time to shop and sightsee. There are numerous first rate stores and restaurants and the prices are not outrageous, as is the case at most airports. The Rijksmuseum actually has an annex there. There is also a casino that features more than 100 slot machines and table games, including roulette and blackjack.
In Amsterdam, there are 750,000 people and 600,000 bikes. Because of its small size, it’s an easy city to walk around, but beware of the bicyclists. They are not pedestrian friendly. The city is twelve feet under sea level, with 22 locks holding out the North Sea. There are 1,600 bridges crossing more than 100 canals, with 3,000 houseboats dotting the waters.
On the Ground and in the Water
It takes only 20 minutes from the airport to get to the center of Amsterdam and there are many transportation choices readily available. Taxis are expensive, but the light rail system runs from the airport into town and is cheap. Connexxion is a reasonably priced van service that will take you directly to your hotel.
Public Transportation in Amsterdam
Even if you spend three days sightseeing, you won’t be able to get to all of the museums. The Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt and Van Gogh Museums will keep you very busy. The ghost of World War II still hangs over Amsterdam, as best seen through the eyes of Anne Frank at her family home. Close to one million people per year visit to learn or re-learn the details of the tragic story.
There are 28 public parks in Amsterdam. Stroll through Vondel Park, the largest and most popular park in the city. Walk to the Floating Gardens market; it is a wonderland of flowers, fruits and plants displayed beautifully on houseboats bobbing on the canal.
A Stall at the Floating Gardens
The character of this water-bound city is connected to the canals, so take a cruise to get a feel for the lifestyle. “Love for sale.” OK, I admit that my wife and I walked through the Red Light district. We saw row after row of mostly young women, scantily dressed and displayed in storefront windows. It’s an eye opener (and eye full). Prostitution is legal and carefully controlled. Marijuana and hash are sold in coffee houses all around town. You’re definitely not in Kansas, Toto.
Where to Stay, Eat and Get Information
My wife and I stayed at the new Hotel Movenpick City Centre. It is located on the water’s edge, next to the passenger terminal, within walking distance to the old center of Amsterdam and Central Station and adjacent to the Dutch Concert Hall, Muziekgebouw. It is four-star rated but has many five-star features, including complimentary computer use. The Movenpick is a non-smoking hotel that includes a lavish breakfast in the price. The staff is most accommodating and friendly. Note: Rates are usually cheaper on the weekends. Go to their website, http://www.movenpick-hotels.com and click on Amsterdam.
Try the Belgium fries (frites) sold by street vendors. They are a national obsession. One has a choice of peanut sauce, mayonnaise or ketchup as condiments. Stop by the centrally located Albert Heijn supermarket for local produce, gifts, snacks, lunch, bottled water, wine and/or chocolates.
The Visitor Bureau’s website (www.holland.com) is easy to navigate and very helpful. For savings including museum admissions, free public transportation, canal cruising and restaurants, consider buying the I amsterdam card. Also, pick up a copy of Amsterdam Weekly to see what is going on in town. Note: English is the second language so getting around is easy.
Background: Budapest is known as the “Pearl of the Danube.” It is Hungary’s capital and actually three cities separated by the Danube, but connected by six bridges. The three parts are made up of the Buda Hills and the Old City on the west bank and Pest on the east side. The city population is approximately two million; twice as many people live on the Pest side. There are ten million people in the entire country, which is about the size of Indiana. The language is difficult and, strangely, is closer to Finnish in origin than any other European dialect. Like Amsterdam, the memory of World War II still lingers in Budapest. Through most of the war, Hungarian Jewry was relatively safe. That changed in the last nine months of the war, when over 600,000 Jews were deported and murdered by the Nazis. On the riverfront, a moving bronze sculpture marks the spot where children, women and men were shot and dumped into the Danube.
A Tribute to the Murdered Jews of Budapest
On the Ground and in the Water
Once again, three days are not enough to see everything. Walk the riverfront of the historic Danube to the classic Chain Bridge which was completed in 1849. Spend time wandering around Vaci Street, a pedestrian-only shopping area that is also the banking center of Budapest. Take a guided bus tour to see the Parliament Building, the Castle District, Fisherman’s Bastion and the Citadel. Visit the Hungarian National Museum, the RoyalPalace, the Millennium Monument and Hero’s Square. In Pest, you will find the Parliament building, the Jewish Quarter and the “Great Synagogue,” the largest in Europe still in use. The arts are rolled into a terrific venue, under one roof, at the new Palace of the Arts, which anchors a dramatic urban redevelopment in Budapest. The impressive lobby is shared by three main venues: the Ludwig Museum, the National Concert Hall and the Festival Theatre. All feature state of the art, high quality acoustics and comfortable seating. The concerts, movies, plays, ballet and art exhibits can accommodate up to 4,500 people. There are snack bars, a restaurant, an Internet café, a gift store and bookshop for shopping or just browsing.
The Danube and Budapest
There are 123 thermal springs in the city. Every day, 70 million liters of thermal water bubble throughout Budapest. Gellert Hall is the largest and best known of the spas and it is worth a trip. One can select from a vast array of spa features. There are thermal baths, saunas, a swimming pool and a solarium; beauty treatments plus dental and medical services are also available. Get in the water!
Where to Stay, Eat and Get Information
We stayed at the 165 room Art’otel (www.artotels.com) which pays homage to the arts by way of American artist Donald Sultan. The hotel is comparable to a one man show of his works with over six hundred pieces on display throughout the public areas and in every guest room. It is very guest friendly, features state of the art technology and offers an extraordinary buffet breakfast that is included in the rate. Their signature restaurant, Chelsea, serves an eclectic array of international, Mediterranean, Asian and regional food. The hotel is a 10 minute walk from the World Heritage Site Buda Castle and three blocks from the metro station. Hint: request a room overlooking the Danube for a panoramic view of the city and the famous bridges of Budapest.
View from the Art’Otel
Eat at the historic Gerbeaud Haz. Established in 1884, it features a beautiful restaurant located in a covered courtyard, plus a beer house and a confectionery café. World class chocolate is made on the premises and their pastries are legendary. All around town, coffee houses and inexpensive outdoor food kiosks abound. Visit the Central Market Square which was built in 1896. It is the perfect place to pick up a snack, cheese, locally grown fruits and vegetables, gifts, salami and/or kolbas, world famous Hungarian paprika and, of course, Tokay wine. It also offers a great opportunity to people watch.
Paprika Stall in the Central Market
Contact the Hungarian Tourist Bureau (www.gotohungary.com) for trip information and ideas. Consider buying the Budapest Card from the Tourism Office for savings that include museum admissions and restaurants (www.budapestinfo.hu). They also offer the free Budapest City Guide. Pick up a free copy of Where (www.wherebudapest.com.bu) or Key to Budapest (www.keytobudapest.com) for listings of activities. There is excellent public transportation that includes subway, trolley and buses. Take “company” cabs not private ones; they are regulated and safer. The minibus shuttles to the airport are frequent and inexpensive. Budapest’s Ferihagy International Airport is tourist friendly and easy to navigate.
Travel Hints to Make Your Vacation Easier
DK Publishing produces outstanding, beautifully detailed travel books that include maps, hotel and restaurant information, attractions, things to see and places to visit. They are excellent planning tools. Their guides to Budapest and Amsterdam were trip essentials and, afterwards, looked great on our bookshelf. They can be ordered online at http://www.dk.com.
Essential Travel Books from DK Publishing
Arrive early to all of the museums to miss the crowds and purchase tickets. Rent headsets; they will be your educational, electronic guide. Internet cafes abound in both cities and are relatively inexpensive. In Amsterdam, the Euro is used and the Florint is the currency of choice in Budapest, although they will accept Euros. Upon departure you will, most likely, be stuck with the coins of the country you are visiting, and banks won’t exchange them for U.S. dollars. Here’s a suggestion: have fun shopping in the airport. My experience is that most of the shops will be happy to take your leftover change even if it totals a bit less than the full retail value of candy bars and/or souvenirs.
Someone recently told me that there were two types of luggage, lost and carry-on. Fact: more bags were lost by the airlines in 2007 than in any other year. Keep your bags close by and pack lightly. My Boundary Day Pack by Eagle Creek (www.eaglecreek.com), complemented by their award winning Hovercraft 22 inch roll-on, allowed me to travel throughout these two great cities without ever checking through my belongings.