Amsterdam

We were only in Amsterdam for a short time on our way to Germany, just long enough to meander through the postcard-perfect city and dodge bikers every few seconds. One thing I noticed immediately is that it must be nice to be an Amsterdamer. Amsterdamers are tall, beautiful, and lean (must be all that biking!), and it’s hard to imagine anything too unpleasant happening in such a progressive, affluent town full of flowers, art, and open markets.

The very existence of Amsterdam is an engineering feat. The Dutch used windmills to pump excess water into canals, creating pockets of dry land on which they built an entire city from scratch. Meanwhile, the canals became an essential part of the transportation infrastructure. What started as a small fishing village in the 12th century grew into the world’s richest city during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century.

Since Amsterdamers’ property tax was based on the width of their homes, most houses are tall and narrow, but extend quite far back. The city’s iconic gables are merely facades to enhance their sharply pointed roofs. The most popular gables are the point, bell, step, spout, neck, and cornice gable.

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If a house is considered historic, owners need special permission and a lot of money to renovate. Some lucky Amsterdamers were able to simply tear down their house and replace it with a cheaply-made modern building — as long as it was done before the 1980s, when the city started enacting stricter building codes to preserve a cohesive architectural style. Other Amsterdamers either missed that window of time or had more money, so they recreated historic-looking homes that were completely modern inside.

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Amsterdam has just as many bikes as residents, and it’s famous for being an ideal city for biking — flat, with bike lanes everywhere. In fact, the number of bikes almost felt overwhelming, as we had to look right and left multiple times any time we wanted to move, just in case a bike suddenly appeared. The amount of effort required to simply cross the street actually reminded us of Marrakech‘s rowdy medina. We must be the only people who think Amsterdam is like Marrakech!

For the past few years, local politicians have been trying to discourage more tourists from coming.  It’s not hard to see why. For a city that has only 850,000 inhabitants yet is inundated by 17 million tourists a year, Amsterdam reminded me of Venice in more ways than one. Amsterdam has been nicknamed “Venice of the North” due to its impressive number of canals, but another undeniable similarity between the two cities is that they are both turning into a sort of Disneyland, with an atmosphere catering more to tourists than to locals. To curb tourism, the government has stopped the development of new hotels and capped the number of days people can rent out their homes on Airbnb.

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Despite the over-tourism and menacing bikers, I couldn’t help but be charmed by Amstserdam. Like Santorini, I came for the photos but was considerably more impressed by Amsterdam’s history and development. If you have any interest in urban planning, you’ll be awed by the layout of this city. If you appreciate Van Gogh, Rembrandt, or Vermeer, you’ll love its art museums. And if you don’t mind biking in sardine-packed bike lanes, this is your place. It’s easy to see why Amsterdam continues to rank as one of the best cities to live in. As for me, however, I’d rather live in the next city on our trip: Munich. Vaarwel, Amsterdam!

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Eat Rijsttafel (Indonesian rice table) for at least one of your meals. Indonesian food is popular here since Indonesia was a Dutch colony from 1602 up until World War II. You’ll be served a lavish spread of dishes and sauces. Begin with a mound of rice in the center of your plate and surround it with a small sampling of each dish. We had a great meal at Sampurna.
  2. De Silveren Spiegel is a romantic restaurant with an affordable tasting menu that allows you to experience Dutch food actually done well — because you can only eat pancakes, bitterballen, and herring so many times, right? Don’t forget to make reservations.
  3. Roam around Jordaan for quintessential Amsterdam. Originally a working-class neighborhood, the Jordaan has become one of the most desirable parts of the country. Rembrandt and Anne Frank lived here.
  4. Take a canal cruise at night.
  5. If you’re a history buff, check out the Amsterdam Museum, which was once a 500-year-old orphanage but now contains thorough exhibits of Amsterdam’s history. Their point-and-sync audio guides are fun to play with — just aim your audio guide at one of the red buttons, wait for a beep, then listen.
  6. We enjoyed our stylish hotel, Sir Albert Hotel, located in the southeast neighborhood of De Pijp. They left funny little notes in our room and offered us a free glass of champagne every time we entered the lobby. We were upgraded to the top floor and had a balcony with a view of Amsterdam’s comically flat skyline.
  7. Book your tickets to Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Anne Frank House in advance.

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Paris

11737901_10206536273022122_919776619389307333_nPoor Paris. The city never had a chance. After vibrant, chaotic Italy, Paris felt drab, with monotonous architecture, excessively wide avenues, and food of variable quality. It was the start of “The Rest of Our Trip” — our post-Italy vacation — and Brighton, Oxford, London, and Madrid would have to deal with this unfair comparison, as well.11750632_10206511006030463_6132587985024735098_nWe stayed in République, which we were told was “the Williamsburg of Paris.” When we arrived, we could see why. Our Airbnb was right by a popular hangout for bobos (Parisian hipsters). The apartment felt just like our apartment in Brooklyn — extravagant on the outside, dated and tiny on the inside, with a view of another building. Just like home!

Our neighborhood
Our neighborhood

We felt like locals in Paris more than in any other city on our trip: We did our laundry there (after spending about ten minutes trying to figure out the laundry machines, until a kind Asian woman came to our rescue). We picked up pastries from our neighborhood boulangerie and ate them at a nearby park for breakfast. Best of all, we got to celebrate Bastille Day, or La Fête nationale, surrounded by proud, well-dressed Parisians. I highly recommend planning your travels around each country’s independence day; you’ll see each country at its best.

Pastries from our neighborhood boulangerie
Pastries from our neighborhood boulangerie
Feeling very Parisian on Bastille Day
Feeling very Parisian on Bastille Day
Vive la France!
Vive la France!
Epic fireworks show
Epic fireworks show at the Eiffel Tower

Meanwhile, we made sure to do the obligatory touristy stuff. We visited the Louvre, where we saw everyone’s favorite statues, Venus de Milo and Nike of Samothrace. We took photos with the Eiffel Tower, both from up close and from afar. We ate macarons from the original Ladurée and were disappointed (am I the only one who thinks the Ladurée in Soho is better?). We roamed around Montmartre and walked on the same cobblestone streets of art legends like Picasso and Renoir.

Louvre
Entering the Louvre
Mona Lisa and crowds
Mona Lisa and crowds
Montmartre
Montmartre

As with all touristy activities, some were overrated, while others I’d adamantly recommend. Here are those that were completely worth the hype:

  1. The view from Notre Dame. Don’t be daunted by the two-hour wait, which one local warned us about as we stood in line. It was a nice day, plus it gave me enough time to walk across the river to the Pierre Hermé in Marais and pick up a box of macarons. When we finally entered Notre Dame, the wait seemed negligible. You not only have the best view of Paris, you also get up close and personal with the gargoyles and chimera on top of the cathedral. My favorite photos taken in Paris are from the top of Notre Dame, with the gargoyles — some silly and some intimidating — in the foreground, and the iconic skyline of Paris in the background.

    View from Notre Dame
    View from Notre Dame
  2. The view from Arc de Triomphe. Because it is located at the center of a dodecagonal (12-sided) intersection, the observatory gives you an interesting perspective of twelve avenues and the city’s contentious urban planning. Paris is so symmetrical!

    View from Arc de Triomphe
    View from Arc de Triomphe
  3. Batobus. Parisians do rivers well. The River Seine is more like Venice‘s bustling Grand Canal than New York’s East River or London‘s Thames. You can find cool Parisians having picnics right on the edge of the river, and numerous private and tour boats sailing across. We bought a two-day Batobus pass, so we could hop on and off. The boat is slow but is a picturesque way to get to different sites around the city.

    View from our batobus
    View from our batobus
  4. Île Saint-Louis is an island in the middle of the Seine, connected to the rest of Paris by four bridges. Originally a place for grazing cattle and stocking wood, it has become quite touristy due to some famous restaurants and its charming 17th- and 18th-century architecture. Île Saint-Louis quickly became one of our favorite neighborhoods.

Oddly, one of my most memorable experiences in Paris was having an argument with Anthony (yes, we do argue sometimes, which I know surprises everyone who knows us personally). The argument was trivial, as they always are, and you’d think it would be a bad memory — but it wasn’t. We felt very Parisian, bickering and philosophizing as we meandered through the 9th arrondissement. It was like a scene from one of our favorite movies, “Before Sunset,” which, of course, takes place in Paris.11231092_10206841459171585_3478290316693055700_nIn the end, our time in Paris wasn’t bad — in fact, Anthony loved Paris — but it didn’t make my heart swell like Milan, Florence, and Positano had. Lesson to learn? Go to Paris before Italy. Up next? England. Hey, Brighton!11892106_10206856011495384_6094143515559220022_n Tips for future travelers:

  1. Don’t buy your tickets too early. I know, this goes against my usual advice. It’s typically a good thing to make reservations far in advance, but at Musée d’Orsay, it turned out that I had purchased our tickets so early that they were expired by the time we tried to use them. I should have read the fine print that they would expire three months after purchasing them. I guess a safe rule would be to make reservations 2-3 months in advance?
  2. Contrary to the stereotypes, the French are not rude or snobby to tourists at all — just don’t act like an arrogant know-it-all when you butcher their language. In our experience, most Parisians were charmed that we attempted to speak what little French we knew. This is especially true in touristy areas.
  3. For you Brooklynites: Tell a Parisian you’re from Brooklyn, and they’ll think you’re the coolest person ever. It’s true! Many cities in Europe (e.g., Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen) wish they were Brooklyn because Brooklyn is supposedly the hippest label right now. While our default answer to the question “Where are you from?” has always been New York, we learned to specify “Brooklyn” when we were in Paris because that answer is much more impressive to them.

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Milan

Anthony and I just came back from a 22-day trip to Europe. We visited Italy (Milan, Venice, Florence, Pisa, Rome, Naples, Pompeii, Positano, Amalfi, and Sorrento), Paris, England (Brighton, Oxford, and London), and Madrid. These next few posts will cover my experiences in each city, as well as some tips for future travelers.

Initially, I hadn’t wanted to go to Milan; in fact, the only reason we started our European trip in Italy’s fashion/banking capital was because it was the cheapest city to fly into from JFK.

After landing at MXP, we had some trouble buying our Malpensa Express Train tickets. The ticket machine by baggage claim wouldn’t take either of our credit cards and didn’t accept cash. We must have looked like such stereotypes: two anxious, disoriented Americans scurrying around helplessly at the airport. Fortunately, Anthony asked someone for help (“Parla inglese?”), and we were directed downstairs, where there were more ticket machines. The next machine we tried accepted cash, so I was grateful that we had brought a couple hundred euros with us. We rushed down to the platform and just made the train about to shut its doors. About 35 minutes later, we were dropped off at Cadorna, right in the center of Milan. It’s infuriating that New York doesn’t have a convenient train to the airport, thanks to taxi lobbying (and, more generally, American capitalism).

Riding the Malpensa Express Train to Milan! He's all ready with our Rick Steves guide book.
Riding the Malpensa Express Train to Milan! He’s all ready with our Rick Steves guide book.

As soon as we exited the station, that’s when it hit me. It’s hard to explain, but it reminded me of the same feeling I got when I first visited New York years ago — that overwhelming sense of passion and vitality and a need to live there. All around us were different modes of transportation: Fiats and Smart Cars, Vespas, jaywalkers, street cars, bikers. Beautifully-dressed men and women (in heels!) biked around the city, often using BikeMi, Milan’s public bike sharing system. The city was a lovely mix of grand old buildings and modern designer shops. Out of all the Italian cities that stole my heart, Milan turned out to be the only one in which I could realistically imagine myself living.

Milano Cadorna station with BikeMi bikes ready to be rented.
Milano Cadorna station with BikeMi bikes ready to be rented.

Using my Google Maps (thank goodness my T-Mobile plan gives me unlimited texting and data all over the world!), Anthony found our hotel effortlessly. One thing I’ve learned on this Euro trip is that we’re the perfect traveling pair. I did all the research and planning beforehand, while Anthony navigated in each country.

I plan, he navigates.
I plan, he navigates.

Our hotel, Hotel Star, was located on a side street just off a major pedestrian-only road. I’m glad I knew what the outside looked like, so it was easy to spot Hotel Star’s orange sign. The hotel was recommended by Rick Steves, and though it was probably our plainest hotel room, the location (just a few blocks from the Duomo and Galleria) couldn’t be beat. Another thing I learned from this trip is that Rick Steves is my idol. Almost all of his advice has been spot on, and I only hope he’ll expand his travels to Asia since that will be our next trip.

View from our hotel room -- just like Brooklyn!
View from our hotel room — just like Brooklyn!

I wanted the first dinner of our trip to be nice, so we ate on the top floor of La Rinascente, an upscale 150-year-old Milanese retail chain, now with eleven shops all over Italy. I had heard that this particular shop has a direct view of the Duomo, which seemed like a fun way to start off our adventure.

View of the Duomo from dinner at La Rinascente
View of the Duomo from dinner at La Rinascente

La Rinascente is located on Piazza del Duomo, which also houses Milan’s beautiful Duomo, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, and a bunch of palaces. Italy does piazzas well. It’s really unfortunate that the U.S. values cars over humans and has nothing in comparison to the huge open squares we’ve seen all over Europe. Piazzas are the perfect place to socialize, cool off on a warm summer day, and appreciate the surrounding architecture. Italians are known for enjoying life, and being in a piazza is the easiest way to witness that stereotype first-hand.

Piazza del Duomo
Piazza del Duomo

After entering La Rinascente, we made our way to the seventh floor, where eight restaurants are located. We decided on Maio because the seating looked great and the prices were reasonable. We were escorted to a table right up against the Duomo, which had to be one of the best seats in the house. I started off with a glass of rosé — because we’re in Europe! Every restaurant we went to in Italy gave us a bread basket, and they varied in quality. Those that were extremely good, offering at least two types of bread and crispy breadsticks from Turin, were usually not complimentary; we noticed a small fee on our bill afterward. Another thing we had to get used to paying for was water. Since Italians prefer sparkling water, we had to ask for “acqua naturale,” and sometimes our servers interpreted this as free tap water, and other times our servers interpreted this as bottled still water. But think of it this way: you don’t have to tip in Italy!

Wine every night in Italy.
Wine every night in Italy.

My risotto alla parmigiana was made with parmesan and pearls of balsamic vinegar. Anthony ordered polpo del mediterraneo, which is octopus with chickpea hummus, papaya, and valerian leaves. It wasn’t as good as some of the mind-blowing meals we’d soon have all over Italy, but Maio definitely gave us a taste of glitzy Milan. We watched as groups of well-dressed Italians streamed into the restaurant as the night went on.

Risotto alla parmagiana
Risotto alla parmigiana
Popolo del mediterraneo
Poplo del mediterraneo

After dinner, we roamed around the piazza, making our way to Milan’s Duomo. It’s stunning, isn’t it?

Milan's Duomo
Milan’s Duomo

We didn’t spend too long at the Duomo, since we’d be returning to it at the end of our trip. The magnificent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II beckoned us in. The Galleria is one of the world’s oldest shopping malls and was named after the first king of Italy. American shopping malls are such a disgrace to this place, which has open-air, glass-vaulted arcades, a huge dome in the center, and mosaics depicting Italian history. Luxury stores and restaurants are the only businesses allowed in the structure. Apparently, when McDonald’s tried to renew its lease here, the mall denied it and instead opened up a second Prada store in its place.

Beautiful mosaic tile floor at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II
Beautiful mosaic tile floor at Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Besides designer shops, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II also houses my favorite gelateria in the world — and we had gelato almost every day in Italy. While Ristorante Savini serves overpriced food, its fantastic gelato is served from a neighboring stand. For only €3, I was given a huge serving of the most complex pistachio gelato I’ve ever had, with a wafer on top. Anthony’s madagascar vanilla gelato was even better — and when is vanilla worth talking about?

Savini's pistachio gelato. That's a small!
Savini’s pistachio gelato. That’s a small!

After I had taken enough photos of my gelato and the beautifully-lit Galleria, we made our way back to our hotel. I fell in love with the winding streets, many of which have restricted access to cars.

One more shot inside the Galleria
One more shot inside the Galleria

Later that night, I woke up at 4 am, not because I had any issue with our hotel room, but because I was too excited. Unsurprising for someone who used to be so excited for my first day of elementary school that I used to sleep with my backpack. After a couple of hours of lying still eagerly, Anthony finally woke up at a normal hour, and we went downstairs for our complimentary breakfast. It was so lavish! We had gotten there as soon as the breakfast opened, so a woman was still bringing out more and more trays of food. Italians don’t really do breakfast — think coffee and a pastry. We would learn (and get sick of) this later, but for our first breakfast in Italy, Hotel Star did well. I was amazed by the assortment of bread, meats, spreads, and cookies. I picked up a sugar cornetto, pâté, parmareggio, nutella, speck, toast, and milk (since I was too lazy to figure out the self-service espresso machine). At one point, scrambled eggs and bacon were brought out, which we would never see at any of our other hotels. Hotel Star sure knows how to cater to Americans.

Italian breakfast. For my next course, I had a more American style breakfast of eggs and bacon.
Italian breakfast. For my next course, I had a more American style breakfast of eggs and bacon.

After breakfast, it was soon time for us to go to catch the train to Venice. If only I had known I’d like Milan so much! We checked out of Hotel Star and walked about 40 minutes to the train station. You know we’re New Yorkers because that walk was nothing, and it was a great way to see Milan and fall in love with it more. We passed through the swanky district near La Scala and the more business districts where impressive women in 3-inch heels glided across cobblestone streets.

Milano Centrale is one of the primary railway stations in Europe, connecting Italy to France, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, and Germany. I was glad I had booked our Trenitalia tickets online. Trenitalia is the main train operator in Italy. For traveling to different cities, this is the most efficient way of getting around. We had reserved seating that shared a table with an old American couple from the Bay Area. I caught up on my lack of sleep the night before and woke up in another world. Ciao, Venezia!

Trenitalia to Venice
Trenitalia to Venice

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Make sure to have some euros when you arrive in Europe. You never know where the nearest ATM will be, and you can’t always depend on plastic.
  2. Some hotels, especially in these old cities, can be difficult to find. Do your research and figure out exactly how to get to them and what they look like from the outside. Lots of hotels realize how tricky this can be and will give you directions, while TripAdvisor is a great place for advice and photos.
  3. If your travel plans are set, book your Trenitalia tickets in advance. It’s cheaper, you’ll have more time options, and your seat will be reserved.
  4. When you are only in town for a night or two, location is key. Initially, I had made reservations at an Airbnb, hoping to get a real Milanese experience, but it would have taken us 30 minutes to reach all our sites. I ended up cancelling the reservation and finding a hotel just a few blocks from everything. Save those live-like-a-local experiences for when you have at least five days in the city.