Waiting for a tram that wasn’t coming on Sunday in Amsterdam. Photos by Tom Meyers
My train pulled into Amsterdam on Sunday during a marathon. Well, I didn’t realize the Amsterdam Marathon was happening at first. I just realized that something was up with the trams.
I had studied up on the city’s tram system in advance, and knew that to get from Centraal Station to my hotel, the cute-and-simple Museumzicht next to the Rijksmuseum, I could board either the number 4 or 5 tram at the station and hop off next to the museum. Either of the trams would work just fine, and they both ran on Sunday. But it wasn’t to be.
Part of the fun of travel are the events, planned and otherwise, that throw off your best planning. On Sunday there wasn’t a 4 or 5 tram to be found at the station. No trams at all, in fact, were running south along my route. It was windy and starting to rain, and the hotel was nearly three kilometers away. Forget about a taxi.
I didn’t have much of a choice but to shrug and literally roll with it, toting my luggage with the masses down Damrak, the tourist-clogged thoroughfare that leads south from the station, getting a wet welcome from the souvenir shops, fry stands and “sex museums” that line the way.
We all rolled on to Dam Square, the heart of the city, which was blinking and twirling on this rainy morning with a fall carnival in front of the palace, its Ferris Wheel and haunted house understandably empty. We continued south along the wide sidewalks of the Rokin. Bikes whizzed past in the rain, and pedestrians dared the unthinkable—walking along the tram lines, which had pretty much fallen silent.
Next time I’ll rent one of these. (Bikes parked at the impressive three-story bike parking garage next to Centraal Station.)
Crowds picked up as I crossed the four canals ringing the center, the Singel (with its flower market), the stately Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht, all lined with beautiful homes and docked houseboats. It was a great way to arrive in the city, even if the wheels on my suitcase were getting cranky.
Finally, at the Stadhouderskade, the busy street lining the Singelgracht canal in front of the Rijksmuseum, a stream of runners from around the world huffed their ways toward the nearby Vondelpark. A crowd of pedestrians watched and cheered on, then crossed the street in a tight pack, flawlessly orchestrated by the police.
I was a bit soggy when I checked into my hotel and hoisted my suitcase up the 67 comically steep steps to my third-floor room. However, it was worth being reminded again that when traveling, all kinds of events can lead to unplanned marathons of your own. Roll with it.
Cruising Utrecht’s canals on Saturday.
Of course, I should have known about the marathon. Last month when booking my Amsterdam hotels, I was shocked by the high hotel rates for this past weekend. I was arriving on Friday morning in Amsterdam from New York, but the cheapest decent hotel I could find was more than $300 a night!
There was clearly something happening in the city—so I booked a hotel in Utrecht, a short ride away by train and far cheaper. Thus, I spent Friday and Saturday, the first two days of my trip, getting to know that charming university town, while still able to make daily commutes to Amsterdam to explore.
The view from my balcony at the Hotel Admiraal in Utrecht.
It turned out to be a pretty big money-saver. My room was €95 a night at the art-filled Hotel Admiraal, located in a residential part of town and overlooking a large private garden. The room had a small balcony (along with a Nespresso machine that got a workout).
Granted, €95 is still far from cheap, but it’s much less expensive that what was on offer in Amsterdam, where most remaining hotels were going for more than €250 a night (due to, you guessed it, the marathon). Harlaam would have been an even closer option, but I wanted to find out what a buzzing Dutch university town felt like.
It was cute. I wandered its Saturday morning market, walked the canals, visited the Medieval Domkerk, grabbed a tasty club sandwich at the King Arthur restaurant along the Oude Gracht canal and then hopped on a train to Amsterdam.
Intercity trains from Utrecht to Amsterdam leave every 20 minutes or so, and the journey takes about 25 minutes. At €7.20 each way (plus a €1 fee per ticket), the trips aren’t really cheap, and the country’s “Chipkaart” ticket system is not exactly tourist-friendly (to put it mildly). Just know that: 1) most American swipe-style credit cards won’t work at either the ticket machines or the ticket counter (pay in cash); and 2) you must tap your tickets on the yellow machines in the station to validate them before boarding a train and when leaving (otherwise, well, great shame could fall upon you by a ticket inspector).
The view of the Rijskmuseum from the breakfast room of the Hotel Museumzicht.
And thus, yesterday, happily situated in my hotel in Amsterdam’s museum quarter, I started my four-city hotel inspection adventure, one which started with this city’s picturesque canal-side B&Bs, before continuing on to find the best affordable hotels in Munich, Prague and Berlin.
Watch your step! Standing at the top of the stairs at the Museumzicht.
I’m eager to visit and update all of our reviews in these cities, dropping just “ho-hum” hotel listings, while focusing our reviews on the real deals out there. A cheap hotel is easy to find; just do a search and sort by price. However, places that are charming, small, interesting, impeccably kept, central… and affordable? These are a bit trickier to track down.
It’s going to mean a few weeks of climbing steep staircases to reception areas, inspecting bedrooms, snapping photos of bathrooms and trying to read the faces of the guests I pass in the hallways. (Do they seem well rested? Tired? Creeped out by my quizzical stare?)
You can follow along on our Facebook and Instagram pages, where I’m posting photos along the way.
Now, back to hotel inspections. Although this time I might hop on a tram. I hear they’re running!