Raw herring, with pickles and onion, one of the national dishes of the Netherlands available on an Eating Europe food tour in Amsterdam

Lekker! An Amsterdam Food Tour by Foot and Boat

A collage photo of me chowing down on several different foods on the Eating Europe Amsterdam food tour.

You might have heard it said that Dutch food is…umm…boring. Well, I joined Eating Europe for their Amsterdam food tour of the Jordaan neighborhood, including a private boat trip through the historic canals of this so-beautiful city. And I’m here to tell you…you heard wrong. This tour will fill your mouth with rich flavors, your tummy with delicious food, and your mind and heart with history and wonderful memories.

This post contains affiliate links. If you click on a link for an item or service I recommend and make a booking or purchase, I may get a small commission on that sale. It won’t affect the price you pay. Also I was offered a discount on this tour to be able to write about it for you. But that has not affected my opinion. My enthusiasm for this experience is genuine.

One of my favorite Dutch words is “lekker.” It means delicious, tasty, good to eat. I love the way it rolls off the tongue, like you’re savoring the taste of it: “lllekkkkkerrr.”

Another thing about the word lekker. It can encompass many things besides food. A sweet girl is a lekker meisje. To tell someone to sleep well, you can say “Slaap lekker.” After spending an afternoon tasting typical Amsterdam Dutch food in the city’s atmospheric old neighborhood and on the city’s wonderful canals, I can say without equivocation that Eating Europe’s Amsterdam food tour makes for a lekker ervaring: a delicious experience all around.

You can learn a lot about a culture by eating their food. Even more when you have a great local guide leading you to some of the best of it while regaling you with stories about the neighborhood, its history and legends and tales of the locals. That is what Eating Europe does so well. In Amsterdam, they offer several different tours. I joined the four-hour Jordaan and Canals Food Tour, and I easily decided that for visitors, it was one of the best things to do in Amsterdam.

Where and What is the Jordaan?

A view of a prtty amsterdam canal, from a bridge with, of course, a bicycle and, of course, flower boxes hanging from the bridge railing. SYour Amsterdam food tour takes you along canals and narrow streets.
The Jordaan area of Amsterdam has its share of lovely canals…with, of course, bicycles leaning against the railings, and, of course, flowers in boxes attached there too.

Back in the early 17th-century, Amsterdam was booming and bursting at the seams. As wealth poured into the city from its world trade, new houses, streets, and neighborhoods were being built. And all that growth meant carpenters, stonemasons, bricklayers, and other manual workers also poured in. The Jordaan was built to be the working-class neighborhood for that influx, with tall, skinny houses on narrow streets. Over the centuries, it became more and more crowded and less and less desirable. In fact, it was a slum, so bad that after World War II, the city began making plans to tear the whole thing down and rebuild from scratch.

Fortunately, wiser heads and preservation activists prevailed, and the Jordaan was not only saved but eventually became one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city. Today it is both hip and cozy, a destination and a community. And eating your way across this diverse and fascinating ‘hood is one of the best ways to experience it.

Cafe Papeneiland: Life is Short. Eat Dessert First

The initial meeting point for the tour was at what might just be the prettiest and most photographed corner in Amsterdam, where the Prinsengracht meets the Brouwersgraacht. And our first food stop on that corner was Café Papeneiland. And a worthy beginning it was. One of the oldest eating establishments in the whole city, this café is over 400 years old. It is what the Dutch call a “brown café” of bruine kroegje. They’re named for their brown wooden walls, stained from centuries of tobacco smoke and good conversation. (Not to worry; smoking is no longer allowed in restaurants in Amsterdam). The bar taps are vintage porcelain whimsies, the windows glazed with leaded glass. An antique stove heats the room in winter.

The bar at Cafe Papeneiland is a work of art unto itself. This is typical of the “brown cafes” found in the oldest parts of the city.

These neighborhood kroegjes are an extension of local people’s living rooms, where they meet to chat, drink, argue, laugh, talk sports or politics, and find out what the neighbors are doing.

They also come to Café Papeneiland for the apple pie, and that is exactly why we were there, beginning our walking “meal” with dessert. And why not? Many people claim this is the best apple pie in town. President Bill Clinton certainly thought so when he stopped in one day for a piece and went home with a whole pie to have in his hotel room.

Dutch apple pie is not what we think it is in the U.S. Nor is it the same as good old American apple pie. The crust is more crumbly and cake-like than its American cousin, and the fruit more lightly cooked. Thin slices of apple piled high, very high, are laced with raisins, cinnamon, less sugar than you’d expect, and a bit of lemon juice. The result is a dreamy, not-too-sweet confection that calls out for a dollop of whipped cream and gets it.

The apple pie with whipped cream at Cafe Papeneiland, some of the best in town, and a perfect way to begin your Amsterdam food tour. Yes. Life is short; eat dessert first.
The apple pie at Cafe Papeneiland is some of the best in Amsterdam and the surprisingly perfect way to start an Amsterdam food tour.

Meeting Hungry New Friends

As we chowed down on our pie and coffee, we had a chance to get to know each other a bit. We were a group of nine from four countries and a range of ages. It was a friendly group of people who all loved to eat. That was enough.

We also had the chance to learn about our guide. Eating Europe has a high reputation for the quality, knowledge, and sheer fun of their guides. Some are professional chefs. Or historians. Or people who have lived here forever.

Our Eating Europe Amsterdam guide, Mirka, opens the door to invite us to visit a hofje.
Our Eating Europe Amsterdam guide was Mirka, who grew up in the Jordaan and knows every corner of it, including the hofjes. Here she invites us to visit the Suijkerhofje, built in 1670.


Our guide that day, Mirka, definitely added to that fine rep. She was born and raised in the Jordaan and knows every corner and alley of her childhood playground. Throughout the tour, she regaled us with Amsterdam history, family stories, childhood anecdotes, and the secrets behind some of the doors and shopfronts.

One Amsterdam secret she showed us was one of the hofjes dotted throughout the Jordaan. These are courtyard gardens surrounded by small houses, mostly built in the 17th-18th centuries as almshouses or housing for single elderly women. Mirka led us from the busy street through a nondescript door and down a corridor into the tranquil garden of the Suijkerhofje, built in 1670.

Colonial Tastes on an Amsterdam Foodie Tour

But on to more food. Our next noshing stop was designed to remind us that the Netherlands has a strong history as a colonial power. Its empire spread from Indonesia to the Caribbean. And those more exotic foods have had a strong influence on Dutch eating habits. We headed up the street to a toko, or takeaway counter, called Swieti Sranang, which specializes in food from Suriname and Indonesia.

I didn’t know what to expect of the Surinamese food served here, but it was complex, different and delicious.

The owner, Henk, and his Indonesian wife, Juliet, greeted us with huge smiles and began handing food around. Juliet was born in Indonesia and grew up in Suriname, and she does all the cooking herself. We tried two different foods here, standing at the counter or outside in the sunshine. The first was a sandwich called broodje pom, from Suriname, made with chicken, apple, and malanga, a South American root vegetable, topped with a complex sauce-of-many-spices that was punchy, tart, and delectable. We followed the sandwich with baka bana, a broiled sweet plantain covered with a spicy peanut sauce. I fell in love with satay/Indonesian peanut sauce right here in Amsterdam many decades ago and will eat anything covered in it. The plantain was a new one for me, but spectacular.

The Basis of Dutch Cuisine: Meat and Fish

Having had our dessert and more, it was time to back up to the two main pillars of Dutch food, meat and fish. These, along with greens and root vegetables, are what you’re going to find on steaming platters coming out of most Dutch grandma’s kitchens.

Sausage and other meats from Butcher Louman, probably the best butcher in Amsterdam. Photo by Eating Amsterdam

As we walked along the narrow streets, Mirka told us more stories about growing up in the neighborhood. She even showed us the house where she lived as a child, pointing up to her attic bedroom window, high up in the gable. The Jordaan was a wonderful place to grow up, she claimed.

One of her stories included shopping for meat and sausages at Butcher Louman, which she claimed to be the best butcher in Amsterdam. Now coming up on 130 years in business, it has customers not just from the neighborhood but from all over the city, who happily travel here for the quality of the meat. In fact, later in my visit, I ate in two restaurants that both stated proudly on their menus that their meat came from Butcher Louman.

We ate sausages here, one dry and deeply flavored. The second was an ossenworst, a raw sausage of which I was more than a bit skeptical. But it turned out I loved it. It was not actually raw but lightly smoked, with a smooth, fine texture similar to liverwurst. I’d eat it again.

And of course, there was fish. The Netherlands has been a seafaring nation for hundreds of years, after all. We walked a few blocks to the Urker Viswinkel. And since the first fish everyone must try here is herring, the owner, Dirk, brought out a big platter of the stuff. There are a couple of traditional ways to eat herring in Holland. You can eat it head first, holding it by the tail above your open mouth and chomping away as you lower your hand. We went the other direction, with the fish cut into chunks with perky little Dutch flag toothpicks stuck in them, surrounded by chopped raw onion and pickles. Stab, dip, and eat. I love Dutch herring, even though the first time I had it I was doubtful I would, knowing it was eaten raw. But actually, it is more like Japanese sashimi. It is partially “cooked” in brine, leaving it with a light, sea-fresh taste and a firm texture.

Herring! You can't have an Amsterdam food tour without herring, shown here in chunks speared with Amsterdam flag toothpicks, surrounded by chopped onion and pickle slices.
Delicious briny herring, like the Dutch eat it–with pickles and raw onion.

We followed the herring with kibbeling, which is white fish—most often cod—dipped in beer batter and deep fried. Think classic fish and chips style, but the best you’ve ever had. The fish was flaky and steaming, the batter crisp but not too much. It was served with a garlic sauce for dipping that I think I could have made of meal of all by itself.

Kibbeling, breaded and deep fried cod, it's like the best fish and chips you've ever had.
The garlic sauce we ate with kibbeling was amazing. Photo by
Zoetnet on flickr. CC license.

Eating Afloat: We Head to the Water for More of our Eating Amsterdam Food Tour

It was now time for that promised canal ride, and I was ready to sit for a bit. We strolled over to the gorgeous Hotel Pulitzer, on the Prinsengracht, and boarded their private salon boat, called “Tourist.” A beautifully restored and maintained wooden salon boat built in 1908, it has an interesting history in itself. In 1946, when Winston Churchill visited Amsterdam to celebrate the end of the war, he and Queen Wilhelmina rode through the canals in this very boat.  Stepping inside, it feels like Sir Winston himself might greet you. The carpet is original. The teak glows, the brass is polished to a high sheen. And Captain Ton, in his epauletted uniform, smiled us aboard.

Inside, red upholstered banquettes line both sides of the boat with a table down the center already set with plates of cheeses and Dutch cider and champagne ready to be poured.


As we left the dock in front of the hotel, Capt. Ton steered us carefully up the Prinsengracht and through the system of canals. Since “Tourist” is so much smaller than the big canal boats you see plowing through the water all day, it can easily clear the lowest bridges and nose up into many of the smaller canals, leaving its younger but bigger brothers behind. Seen from the water, Amsterdam is even lovelier, if that is possible, and “Tourist” can get you up close and personal with her. As we floated by the elegant gabled canal houses, nibbling on a creamy young cheese and a three-year-old strong gouda that was divine, our gallant captain described what we were seeing out the windows.

The interior of the 1909 saloon boat "Tourist" glows with polished brass and teak, maroon upholstery, marble and beveled glass. Here she is set with white linen, with cheese and a bucket of champagne awaiting her guests for the Eating Europe Amsterdam Food Tour.

All set with cheese and chilled champagne, “Tourist” awaits her Eating Europe Amsterdam Food Tour guests. The view of Amsterdam from the canals is incomparable.

One of those very narrow canals took us past the back of the Holtkamp Bakery. Capt. Ton steered us right up to the edge where a young woman waited with a bag. As he thrust out a hooked pole, she handed off the bag and he hauled it in. I was excited, because I’d heard that Holtkamp made some of the best bitterballen in Amsterdam, and yes! That’s what was in the bag.

A bowl full of bitterballen, just waiting to be speared by a toothpick and dipped in mustard. This is the real typical Amsterdam food.
Bitterballen ready to be speared, dipped in mustard and popped hot and fresh into waiting mouths. Photo by Takeaway-CC by SA 3.0

What are bitterballen? They’re delectable little balls of deep-fried gravy, usually made with beef or veal. The gravy is chilled so it can be formed into balls, then rolled in a crumb coating and fried. Served up with mustard for dipping, they are probably the most common, most popular bar snack in the Netherlands and much better than the name would make you think. There is nothing bitter about these yummy treats. The name refers to the fact that they are often eaten with a local drink called bitters. Instead, we had ours with beer from Brouwerie ‘t IJ, the famous windmill brewery in Amsterdam (and whose beer is so much better than Heineken). The bitterballen were still hot, right from the fryer, and so so good.

A plate of Dutch poffertjes, puffy little mini-pancakes with a glob of butter to melt into them, and dusted with powdered sugar.

After about an hour on the water, you’d think we were done with this afternoon’s adventure. But there was one more stop to make. After climbing back on land at the Pulitzer, we strolled a little way up the canal to another brown café, De Prins, for our final treat of the day and one of my very favorite things to eat in Amsterdam.

Poffertjes are heavenly little pillows of buckwheat pancake dough, cooked in a special pan and served up hot, slathered with melting butter and dusted with powdered sugar. I could eat them daily (and have been known to do so when I am in Amsterdam).

Finally we were done. Mirka waved us all goodbye and left. But our group had bonded over the last four hours together. We ended up sitting on a while at De Prins, chatting, exchanging contact info and suggestions we’d gleaning about what else to do in Amsterdam. There also might have been the fact that we were so full of excellent typical Amsterdam food that we couldn’t walk and needed to let it settle a bit.

In a narrow street in Amsterdam's Jordaan, a woman sits in her open front doorway, reading a book and enjoying the sun.
Sunny days in Amsterdam are for enjoying, however and wherever you can!

I can’t recommend enough this experience of tasting the city with an Eating Amsterdam food tour with Eating Europe. Everything about it was professional, friendly, efficient, and top notch.

Eating Europe now offers a range of food tours and cooking classes in several European cities, with more being added every season. Going to Portugal? Try a tour of Lisbon’s eats and street art in the Baixa and Mouraria neighborhoods. Or dive into a Porto Food & Wine Tour. In Prague, you can dine in the cafe where Albert Einstein ate. Or check out their other tours, night crawls, and cooking classes in London, Rome, Florence, and Naples and Paris and Strasbourg, in France. Eating Europe Food Tours covers them all. And I can’t tell you how anxious I am to taste test them all.

Need to Know: Eating Europe’s Amsterdam Food Tour–Jordaan and Canal Tour

  • Your tour might not be a duplicate of mine. Depending on season and day of the week and the vicissitudes of small, family-run businesses, some providers might be different from the ones described here. But they will all be well chosen and equal in substance to what I experienced.
  • COME HUNGRY! You will be enjoying something like a dozen different tastings, plus coffee/tea, wine, cider, and beer. You want to start on empty.
  • They can make adjustments for vegetarian travelers if you let them know in advance.
  • Except for one hour on the canal boat, this is a walking tour. It’s a flat city walk at an easy pace, but you should wear comfortable shoes.
  • The tour runs rain or shine. If it looks gray or damp, take an umbrella and/or a raincoat with you.
  • This trip involves stairs and stepping into and out of the boat and is not suitable for people with serious mobility problems.

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A collage of headshots of me stuffing my face at various stops on the Eating Europe Amsterdam Food Tour - Pinnable image
Pinnable image -- "Come & eat Amsterdam" with small photos of some dishes.


While you’re here, take a look at some of the other wonderful experiences you can enjoy in and around Amsterdam and the Netherlands.



The dutch Pea Soup, or "snert' at Moeder's Restaurant in Amsterdam, is the closest I've found to homemade.

Traditional Dutch Pea Soup Recipe–the Taste of Family and Memory

In a country not famous for gourmet food, real Dutch Pea Soup stands out as one of the Netherlands’ great contributions to the culinary world. Hearty, filling, and redolent with the scents of peas and pork, of memory and home. This old family recipe takes me back to an Amsterdam apartment and a dinner table surrounded by love.

The Oranjebrug--Orange Bridge--over the Browersgracht canal in Amsterdam, in summer.

Ah, Amsterdam, you are so beautiful, especially with the green of summer and fresh flowers all around.
Is it any wonder I fell in love with you all those decades ago?

Food and Memory–Lifelong Triggers

Many years ago, I lived in Amsterdam. Beautiful city… city of my heart. It was my first time traveling outside the US, my first time living so far from my family. I had a dream job doing what I always wanted to do, a nice place to live, and a busload of wonderful friends, both Dutch and other ex-pats. It was then I fell in love with Holland and the Dutch, a love that has never faded.

When my dream job ended after several months and I could no longer afford my own place, a Dutch friend, Inez Hendriks, invited me to move in with her. It was another step in my education in “being Dutch.” Every Tuesday, Inez went home to her parents’ apartment for a family dinner. Once I moved in, I was “family” too. So of course, I was expected for Tuesday dinner as well.

Mevrouw Hendriks was a good, basic home cook. One Dutch specialty after another appeared on her lace-covered table—hutspot (a one-pot meal of potatoes, carrots, onions and a smoked sausage or meatballs), stamppot (potatoes mashed with a vegetable, often kale), kibbeling (chunks of white fish breaded and fried), pork chops, sausages, stewed pears. But my favorite, the one that always had me thinking “I hope… I hope…” as Inez and I strolled together along the canals toward her house, was Erwtensoep, the thick and smoky, traditional Dutch Pea Soup. It’s so much a part of Dutch family meals that it has a nickname… snert.

A bowl of hearty Dutch Pea soup, so thick it's more stew than soup.  This is what the Dutch call Erwtensoep, or  more commonly "snert."

Of course I don’t have a photo of Mev. Hendriks’ Dutch Pea Soup, after all these decades. But this is close… a bowl of goodness so thick it’s more stew than soup. Photo by the Master Experimenter on flickr. CC 2.0 license

Dutch Pea Soup had been a favorite of mine almost since the day I arrived in Amsterdam. During my days of being pretty broke, I often stopped into a workingman’s café for lunch of a steaming bowl of erwtensoep met broodje, pea soup and a soft white roll spread thick with butter. I slurped it up surrounded by Dutchmen young and old, mostly dressed in blue coveralls and wearing soft caps, hurrying to get the last drops before heading back to work. Back then, such a lunch cost less than a dollar. It was a filling and tasty meal.

Some cooks add potatoes to the peas, some dump in schunks of carrot. Fancier cooks might add a few dollops of sour cream on top. But to me, Mev. Hendriks’ homey snert was the best. Always the best.

Memory can play tricks on us. On recent visits, I’ve never managed to find Dutch erwtensoep in any Amsterdam restaurant with quite the same richness and depth of flavor as Mev. Hendriks’. Is it because hers was seasoned with love and a warm welcome that really did make me feel like family? Was it because it’s hard to find a restaurant in Amsterdam with a traditional tablecloth trimmed in lace, with white lace curtains at the windows, and with the perfume of Mijnheer Hendriks’ scented pipe tobacco still hanging in the air? Perhaps.

Eating Dutch Pea Soup at Moeders

The Dutch Pea Soup, or "snert' at Moeders Restaurant in Amsterdam, is the closest I've found to homemade.

Try this Dutch Pea Soup–Erwtensoep–at Moeders, in Amsterdam. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to Mev. Hendriks’ home-made snert. Served with fresh bread and a little pot of house-made hummus.

I continue to search for the real thing on every trip back. The closest I’ve found is served by my favorite restaurant in Amsterdam, and it’s got just the right name: Moeders… Mothers. It offers a slightly modernized take on traditional Dutch food. It’s smallish, with tables pushed close together. The dishes and glassware are mismatched and homey, walls are lined on every side with photos of mothers… brought by years’ worth of patrons wanting to add their mom to this great altar to motherhood and mom’s cooking. See my full review of Moeders here.

But when I want true Dutch Pea Soup, the one that brings back that cozy apartment, soft Dutch accents, and my struggles with the language, I make my own using Mev. Hendriks’ recipe. I’ve been carrying it around the world for over 45 years and through more than a dozen moves. She was a “handful of this and pinch of that” cook, so her measurements were guesses. But I’ve made this soup several times and they seem to work. The celeriac/celery root is a crucial ingredient to get the flavor true, but it may be difficult for some to find. You can substitute chopped celery hearts with the green tops and a bit of celery seed. It won’t be exact, but it will be close.

Mevrouw Hendrik’s Echte Hollandse Erwtensoep (Real Dutch Pea Soup)

(Copied from a page in my journal, dated December 8, 1971)


  • 750 grams/1½ lb. dried split peas
  • 1 medium celeriac (celery root), diced
  • 2-3 large green onions, chopped
  • 1 med. onion, finely chopped
  • ½ lb sliced pork (with fat) or one ham hock
  • 1 med. beef cutlet or 1 lg. slice ham, cooked
  • 1 large smoked sausage, sliced into large chunks
  • Salt, parsley & garlic powder


Wash the peas and let them soak for a few hours. Then bring to a boil over medium heat.
Add the celery root, green onions, and onion. Stir well. Let cook 1-1½ hours, stirring occasionally, until peas are soft.
Add sliced pork or ham hock and the beef cutlet or ham, shredded into small pieces. Cook another 30 minutes.
During the last 10 minutes, add the sliced smoked sausage.
Season with salt, parsley, and a little garlic powder to taste.
Serve with soft white rolls slathered with good butter.

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The tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk against a bright blue sky

The Iconic Tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk–Photo of the Week

The Amsterdam Westerkerk, or Western Church, is a much beloved symbol of the Dutch capital. The crowned spire of its tower, the Westertoren, is the tallest church steeple in town, and you can see it from almost anywhere in the city center. It has been a beacon, a time-teller and a source of reassurance for Amsterdammers for hundreds of years.

The tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk against a bright blue sky

The Westertoren, or tower, of the Amsterdam Westerkerk, the most important
Protestant church in the city and a much beloved icon for Amsterdammers.

A Symbol of Reassurance

More than four decades ago, I began a life-long love affair with Amsterdam. I lived in the city for a year, and put a lot of effort into trying to learn Dutch.

One day, when I was house sitting for a friend in the Jordaan neighborhood, I decided it was time to try to read something in Dutch, preferably something not too difficult but not a children’s book either. If it could be something I was already familiar with in English, so much the better.

The obvious answer was Het Achterhuis, Dagboekbrieven–the original version of The Diary of Anne Frank in the language in which she wrote those pages.

Not far into the book, I came across these lines:

In this quote, in the original Dutch, Anne Frank talks about hearing the bells of the Westertorn.

Saturday, July 11, 1942
Dear Kitty,
Father, Mother and Margot still can’t get used to the chiming of the Westertoren clock, which tells us the time every quarter of an hour. Not me, I liked it from the start; it sounds so reassuring, especially at night.

I put the book down and smiled, because those same damn bells had been keeping me awake night after night in the apartment I was sitting, just a few blocks from where Anne and her family hid all those years ago. That simple line in a young girl’s diary personalized her experience for me more than anything else had.

The Bells of the Westertoren

The bells of the Westertoren, the tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk, have been chiming the quarter hour, accompanying lovers, reassuring frightened Jews, helping people get to work on time and generally punctuating the days and nights of Amsterdammers for almost 400 years. And they still do.

The Amsterdam Westerkerk was built between 1620 and 1631 in Renaissance style. It’s the largest church in the Netherlands built for Protestants and is still in use by the Dutch Reformed Church today. The 278 foot (87 meters) tower was added in 1638.

A Trip to the Top

For those able to handle very steep and narrow stairs, and a lot of them, the climb up the Westertoren, the tower of the Amsterdam Westerkerk, can be a highlight of your visit to the city. You must go on a guided tour, as you will not be allowed to climb it alone. You actually ascend only about halfway, approximately 40 meters (131 feet). The guide will stop at each landing to give some history of the building and point out things you might miss on your own (as well as providing a brief catch-your-breath mini-break, much needed by me!)

You’re not allowed to take a bag or anything with you but a camera and maybe a notebook in your pocket. Your bag will be safely locked away during the tour. Once you begin the climb, you’ll be glad you’re not wrestling a bag or anything else. You need both hands to climb the steep stairs.

Note to Older Women Travelers: The steps begin as a narrow spiral staircase with rope handles. Nearer the top, they turn into straight-up stairs that are really more like ladders, extremely steep. Apparently, people had much smaller feet in the 17th century, because the step treads themselves are narrow. Wear well-fitted shoes, take your time and concentrate on your footing. Also, it’s probably not a good idea to wear a skirt if you don’t want to give those below you a free show! Coming down, you’ll find it easier to descend backwards.

The Best View in Town–and Bells!

At the top of the climb, step out onto the balcony. Prepare to be awed by the view, a seemingly endless 360° panorama of Amsterdam, with views of the canals below, the rooftops, the parks, and everything in between. A short block away, you can look down at the tiny windows of the attic where Anne Frank sat and looked at the tower’s clock, one of the few things she could see. Also, take a minute to look up. Just above you is the coat of arms of the City of Amsterdam, with its white XXX, a design you’ll notice all over the city. The top of the tower is crowned with the Imperial Crown of Maximilian I of Austria, which is also part of the city’s arms.

Up in the tower, you also have a chance to see the magnificent bells of the Amsterdam Westerkerk. They’re among the biggest in the city and were cast by the master bell makers of the 17th century, the Hemony Bros. According to the current carilloneur, “The name Hemony is as much associated with bells as Stradivarius is with fine violins.”

Volunteers from the congregation still ring the bells by hand for Sunday services and special occasions, such as Dutch Remembrance Day. The largest bell, weighing in at 4000kg, is never rung for fear the vibrations will crack the walls of the tower. The carillon is the only one in Amsterdam that still rings out the time for the entire 24 hours every day. On Tuesdays at noon, the city carilloneur plays a delightful hour-long concert on the carillon. You can hear it from many blocks away.

The guided tour up the tower is offered Monday through Saturday from April to October. They only take up 6 people at a time, so you may have to get your ticket and then wait a bit. The first tour of the day begins at 10 am, and that’s when you are most likely to get in straightaway. The tour lasts 30 minutes and costs 8€. Tickets are only sold on the same day; no reservations are possible. Take cash because they do not accept credit cards.

Be Sure to Visit the Amsterdam Westerkerk Too

While you’re waiting for your tower tour, take a few minutes to explore the interior of the church. The Amsterdam Westerkerk is spare, characteristic of most Dutch Protestant churches. But it is lovely in it simplicity. With chairs instead of pews set out on the flagstone floors, wooden barrel-vaulting high above and some lovely stained glass windows, it’s a peaceful place. Since there are no tall buildings adjacent to the Amsterdam Westerkerk to block the sun, light pours through the 36 large windows to set the whitewashed walls aglow in a glorious “light effect.”

There is also a beautiful Duyschot organ, brass chandeliers, and the usual unassuming pulpit. Rembrandt was buried in the Westerkerk in 1669 but in an unmarked pauper’s grave. As was the custom then, his remains were removed after 20 years to make way for other poor people. There is a memorial to him in the church.

Access to the tower is obviously not accessible for wheelchairs and other people who have difficulty with stairs. The church itself, however, is accessible, though the flagstone floor may be a little uneven in spots.

When you’re looking the things to do in Amsterdam, make sure you take time to see this icon of the city and soak in some of its history. And if you can possisbly manage the climb up the tower, do it. You will be well rewarded for the effort.

The Amsterdam Westerkerk–A Symbol, a History, a Haunting

On July 9, 1942, Anne Frank, her mother and her father, walked through the pouring rain toward her father’s business and its hidden hiding place in the attic of the Achterhuis–the house behind. (Margot would arrive directly from school on her bike.) They sloshed through the city, wearing as many layers of clothing as they dared and carrying as many useful items as they could pack into school bookbags and shopping bags without looking too conspicuous. Their walk took them directly past the Amsterdam Westerkerk and its crown-topped tower.

Today, the tower continues to play out its place in Amsterdam’s history, comforting the people, marking the hours, and celebrating their joys with its magnificent bells.

For more information and a schedule of events, check the Westerkerk website.” It’s in Dutch but pretty easy to understand. If a specific date on the calendar says “kerk gesloten,” that means the church is closed that day. It also lists who will be playing the organ for Sunday services and the free Friday lunch concerts (April to October and highly recommended) and any other performances being offered. The acoustics of the church are marvelous.

The church itself is open year-round Monday through Friday from 11 am to 4 pm. From April 1 to November 1, it is also open on Saturdays. (Hours are sometimes shortened in the off season and shoulder season.) Sunday services are held at 10:30 am, in Dutch.

The Westertoren/Tower opens for tours at 10 am, Monday through Saturday, from April 1 to November 1. The last tour begins at 7:30 pm. 8€ entry fee, cash only.

The church entrance is at #279 Prinsengracht; the tower entrance is just a few feet away. Tram lines 13 and 17 stop right at the corner, at the Westermarkt/Anne Frank House stop.

Pin it for Later- So You Don’t Forget:

Visiting the Amsterdam Westerker and Tower-pinnable imageLearn why Anne Frank loved the bells of the Amsterdam Westerkerk and Tower - pinnable image

Dutch citizens celebrate as British soldiers with the 1st Canadian Army liberate the Netherlands in May, 1945.

Remembrance Day in the Netherlands: The Power of Silence

In Holland, Liberation Day is for celebration. But Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, “Dodenherdenking,” is for the silence of deep and painful memories, the solemnity of “We Will Never Forget.”

Liberation Day is celebrated in the Netherlands on May 5th. It marks the day in 1945 when the Germans surrendered in Holland and the occupation of the Netherlands officially ended, and with it the long nightmare of World War II for the Dutch people.

Liberation Day, Bevrijdingsdag, is marked by celebration. It’s a national holiday, a happy day, a day for fun and picnics and laughter and parties. Everyone gets the day off from work. There are music festivals throughout the country. The day’s festivities end with a major concert on the Amstel River in Amsterdam. The people celebrate their freedom, democracy and joy.

Dutch citizens celebrate as British soldiers with the 1st Canadian Army liberate the Netherlands in May, 1945.

British soldiers from the 49th (West Riding) Division—the Polar Bears—attached to 1st Canadian Army,
liberate Utrecht, the Netherlands in May, 1945.

Remembrance Day in the Netherlands Comes First

But for the Dutch, the rule has always been, “First commemorate, then celebrate.” And so the day before all the fun and festivals, May 4th, is the day to remember all those who died or were murdered in World War II and in every armed conflict since. Remembrance Day ceremonies are still taken very seriously and are held throughout the country, with the major one taking place at Amsterdam’s Dam Square, where wreaths are laid by the King and Queen.

Wreaths laid in Dam Square for Remembrance Day in the Netherlands. One has flowers in red, white, and blule, for the Dutch flag. the other has orange flowers for the Royal House of Orange.

Wreaths are laid at a memorial ceremony at Dam Square. The red, white, and blue flowers reflect the colors of the Dutch flag. The orange ones are the national color of the royal House of Orange.

Remembering My Remembering

My own memories of Remembrance Day in the Netherlands are smaller, more personal than the pomp and royalty on the city’s main square. But perhaps the more powerful for all that.

It was 1971 and I had been living in Amsterdam for only a few weeks, but I was already in love with the country and the people. I was not on Dam Square that day. I didn’t see Queen Juliana lay a wreath or hear the bugles play. I didn’t watch any of the pageantry or hear the solemn speeches—which I would not have understood anyway as my Dutch was non-existent at the time. I was not part of any crowd. But what I saw was much more meaningful to me.

It was a beautiful spring day in Amsterdam, I recall, with flowers spilling from every window box and a few flat-bottomed white clouds dotting an unusually blue sky. The windows were open in many of the flats, their so-Dutch white lace curtains ruffling slightly in a spring breeze.

I was walking along the Rozengracht near where it crosses the Prinsengracht. I was on my way to meet a friend for dinner at a favorite café and hoping we’d be able to find a table outside to enjoy the beautiful weather. The Dutch are such inveterate sun-worshippers, they were out in force, filling every available seat of every terrace café I passed.

People at a terrace cafe in the sun in Amsterdam

Today, as in 1971, Amsterdammers love sitting outdoors at a terrace cafe canalside on a sunny day in May.

A tour boat slid quietly up the Prinsengracht canal, leaving a small wake where the sunlight glistened off the water. Moms pushed strollers and prams along the cobblestones. A young couple bicycled past on their traditional old-fashioned Dutch bikes, each with one hand on the handlebars and the other clasped between them, in perfect balance. The café patrons laughed and chatted over their drinks—a koffee, a pilsje, a jenever.

And the World Stopped

The sky was still light at 8 pm, the sun sailing low in the sky when, almost as if the earth took a deep breath and held it…everything and everyone in the Netherlands simply stopped.
Cars pulled to the side of the road and stopped. A tram moving down the middle of the street slowed and rolled to a complete stop mid-block. Pedestrians stopped walking and stood like relaxed statues. People in the sidewalk cafés put down their cups, their forks, their glasses of pils.

A waiter stepped from inside to the doorway, looked out and stopped. A streetsweep stopped and leaned on his broom, looking down at the now-clean cobblestones beneath his feet. The pair of bicyclists back-pedaled to brake to a halt, still holding hands. On the humped bridge over the canal, a couple leaned on the railing, completely still.

My shadow across the pavement stopped too, as I took in the whole, still, surreal scene and its meaning.

Conversations stopped. Laughter stopped. The sounds of tires on cobbles and wheels on steel tracks stopped. The clatter of cups and glasses and forks stopped. Everything except the breeze, the soft ripple of water in the canal, and the cooing of pigeons just stopped.

For two minutes, no one spoke, no one laughed, no one moved. Instead, they stopped and they remembered. They remembered what their country had suffered.

In the silence, they remembered the ones who died—the Jews sent to be exterminated, the Dutch fathers and brothers and sons sent to become slave labor in the German munitions factories who never came home, the Dutch Resistance fighters who saved so many lives but could not save their own. They remembered the Dutch citizens who died in Japanese concentration camps in Indonesia. They remembered the Dutch children and the old people who died from hunger in the last brutal “Hunger Winter” of the war.

And they remembered every Dutch citizen who has died in armed conflict since World War II because the world has not yet learned to live in peace.

For those two minutes of silence, I stood there, feeling the low-angled sun on my face as I listened to the quiet lapping of the water. I realized I was only a two-minute walk from the very building where Anne Frank and her family had hidden from the Gestapo for years until finally they were found only months before the war ended and sent to the concentration camps, where most of them would die. I realized what these people, this country—like so many others in Europe—had been through and how fortunate we in the US had been to escape so much of that suffering.

The tower of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, where the bells toll for Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, along with all the other church bells in the city.

The bells in the tower of the Westerkerk in Amsterdam began to toll, like all the bells in all the churches in all the cities in the Netherlands for Remembrance Day.

When the two minutes of silence were over, the church bells began to ring. The sound seemed to come from every direction. I was less than a block from the Westerkerk, and those bells seemed to sound almost inside my head. All the bells from every church in Amsterdam tolled out the memory of their loss and the end of their suffering. It filled the air and it filled me, that sound of relief that it was finally over.

Slowly, the world around me woke up again. The tram began rolling down its steel tracks once more. The tour boat resumed its easy float along the canal, pointing out to people from all over the world the magic of this beautiful city. Cars moved, bicycles rolled again, people started walking. Conversations and coffee resumed in the cafés.

The ceremony of Remembrance Day in the Netherlands was over for another year. Normal life resumed and I continued on my way, off to meet my friend, hungry for my late dinner.

But I was not quite the same person. I never would be again.

If you are planning to visit Holland and your timing is flexible, consider planning your trip to coincide with Remembrance Day in the Netherlands, May 4th. The silence, the remembrance, the respect the people still show for those who died–and are still dying today from the idiocy of war–will leave you moved, and touched. Then stick around for the parties, the fun, and the pure joy of Liberation Day.

A World War II walking tour is a deeply enriching way to learn more about Amsterdam and the Netherlands during the war. I really enjoyed this one, which covers the story of Anne Frank and includes a visit to the Jewish Historical Museum. Or learn more about Amsterdam’s struggles during the Nazi occupation in the early 1940 and how people endured events like the February Strike and the hunger winter. Hear the story of Anne Frank, her family, and their strife during this dark period of time on this fascinating tour.

Pin it For Later: Pin image for Remembrance Dahy in the netherlands, showing floral wreaths at the war monument in Dam Square, Amsterdam.

The Skinny Bridge--Magere Brug--in Amsterdam

POTW: Amsterdam’s Magere Brug, the Skinny Bridge

The most famous bridge in Amsterdam is lovely, but the “Skinny Bridge” is not really all that skinny anymore.

There’s a reason Amsterdam is called the “Venice of the North.” Riddled with canals and the Amstel River as it is, it has more bridges than any other city in the world… yes, far more than Venice. All this water criss-crossing the city wherever you look calls for hundreds—thousands—of bridges. Some accounts put the number as low as 1250, others at twice that. Apparently, Venice rings up a measly 400. Perhaps Venice should be called the “Amsterdam of the South.”

Arguably the most famous of those hundreds of Amsterdam bridges is the Magere Brug, which translates as the Skinny Bridge.

The Skinny Bridge--Magere Brug--in Amsterdam

The delicate drawbridge called the Skinny Bridge
is the most famous bridge in Amsterdam.

“Throughout the city there are as many canals and drawbridges as bracelets on a Gypsy’s bronzed arms.”
~Felix Marti-Ibanez, Spanish author

The pretty and delicate-looking white wood structure is a double-swipe “bascule” bridge, which means it uses a counterweight system to make opening and closing its two drawbridge “leaves” easy. That’s a good thing because it opens and closes a lot—on average every 20 minutes throughout the day. A common and perfectly legitimate excuse for being late for an appointment in Amsterdam is “The bridge was open!”

Those of us from the true Nomad Women generation might remember the bridge from the 1971 James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. Ah, for the days of the only real James Bond—and we all know that was the one and only Sean Connery. Seldom mentioned in stories of the bridge is its unhappier memory. It was used as an accumulation point for Dutch Jews about to be shipped east during the Nazi occupation of World War II.

The Skinny Bridge’s first incarnation was built over the River Amstel in 1691. It was apparently so narrow two pedestrians could barely pass each other when crossing the span, creating its popular nickname. If you take one of the famous rondvaart canal boat tours—and you really should—the tour guide will likely tell you a charming but apocryphal story of its name. It goes something like this….

A Delightful Story

Once upon a time, there were two sisters whose family name was Mager. They loved each other very much and insisted on meeting each morning for that much beloved Dutch custom of koffie en koekjes. But getting to each other for this coffee-and-cookies tradition was difficult because they lived on opposite sides of the River Amstel. And so they built a bridge to connect with each other more easily… Poof! The Magere Brug came into being.

The truth is more prosaic, as it so often is. With commerce burgeoning during the 17th-century Golden Age, there was always a need for more means of getting around, running hither and yon, doing business, moving things, making money.

The Skinny Bridge has been rebuilt a few times over its life, first in 1871, when the decrepit little old thing was also widened to allow for more traffic. Fifty years later, the city tried to replace it with a steel and stone construction, but the outcry from the tradition-loving Dutch was loud and long. The new-fangled design was scrapped. The last reconstruction was in 1969, still keeping to the original design. Since 2003, the Skinny Bridge has been closed to all traffic except pedestrians and bicycles.

The bridge is high enough for the low-profile rondvaart boats to pass under it, and it’s pleasant to stand in the center of the span and watch them float past below, especially in the evening when both the bridge and the boats are illuminated.

A Bonus Photo – The Skinny Bridge at Night

The Skinny Bridge in Amsterdam, lit up at night

Amsterdam’s Skinny Bridge is illuminated at night by some 1200 white lights.
Photo copyright Nico Aguilera. CC License

You can find the Magere Brug/Skinny Bridge between the Keizsersgracht and the Prinsengracht, where the Kerkstraat meets the river on the east side and connects it to the Nieuwe Kerkstraat on the west. Take trams 9 or 14 or metro line 54 to Waterlooplein, then walk toward the Amstel. If you need to ask directions, you’ll find that virtually everyone you meet in Amsterdam speaks English.