Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Belgium + The Netherlands: Days 7 & 8 -- Amsterdam

We spent the end of this wonderful summer vacation in Amsterdam and while we were sad to leave Antwerp, we were all excited to get to the last stop! We packed a lot into four days here, so I split this visit into two posts. We'd booked ahead (and then changed to a little later) our Thalys train tickets to Amsterdam. The train couldn't have been easier and it was nice to have some forced downtime.

I thought we'd seen a lot of bikes in Belgium, but it seemed like every square inch of Amsterdam was covered in them -- turns out most people who live there have several and keep them in different parts of the city to use. The kids were immediately on it and begging to rent bikes before we'd even arrived at our hotel. But after seeing how people bike around Amsterdam, I decided to count ourselves lucky with our Belgium biking and nixed their plans.

I'd booked a family room at the super hip Hotel Pulitzer, which is located in the Jordaan neighborhood and literally down the street from the Anne Frank House. We checked in and turned around quickly to make our reservations at the Van Gogh Museum (you absolutely need reservations and can book up to four months in advance -- do it!).

We set out walking to Museum Quarter, stopping at the Rijksmuseum along the way to play some chess in the garden. The Rijksmusuem is huge and purportedly has the best collection of Dutch Masters. Even though I thought the kids would love to see some Vermeer (Chasing Vermeer was a favorite book of both a few years back), they'd kind of had their fill of Dutch Masters in Brussels so I thought we'd pass this time.

I'd booked late afternoon tickets to the Van Gogh, but it was still the most packed of any other museum we'd visited on the trip. We grabbed audio tours for the kids and Kane in particular was obsessed with the art. Cami liked it, but she's more of a modern art gal and we'd both spied the Stedelijk and Moco museums and were sort of jonesing to visit those. Don't get me wrong, the Van Gogh was amazing and we spent quite a bit of time there going through each floor. But by the end, I'd hopped on my phone and purchased tickets to Moco for after.

The main Moco exhibit when we visited was Banksy - Laugh Now (an unauthorized exhibit of private collections) and everyone loved it. We've seen a few of Banksy's works here and there, but this was a huge collection.

We came up with an awesome Halloween Banksy costume for Cami on the visit!

We hung in the garden for a bit afterwards, waiting to walk to our dinner reservation.

On our walk to dinner, we stopped to see what we could pick up for an Amsterdam vacation home. I'd made reservations at Café Wildschut and it was PACKED for happy hour when we got there, so I'm not sure our reservation actually did any good. We waited for a table outside while the kids voiced their displeasure over the number of people who smoke in Amsterdam. We finally nabbed a decent table, although still downwind of smokers, and ordered. The cafe was great, but definitely full of locals who were friendly and curious as to how we'd found the place.

We made a long trek back after dinner, stopping to reward everyone with ice cream from IJscuypje right by our hotel. Full and happy we crawled to bed to rest up!

We had a great breakfast at our hotel (was included and was a huge amount of delicious food) and then got out early the next morning. I'd bought tickets for the Anne Frank House three months to the date earlier, setting my alarm for 5 a.m. and purchasing in the darkened Philly hotel room where everyone else slept for Kane's summer lacrosse tournment. Tickets routinely sell out immediately for a particular day, and we didn't have a ton of flexibility on when we were going to visit. So I made sure I didn't screw that up! Anyway, three months later, I knew this visit was going to be heavy, so I made sure everyone got some fresh air in the gorgeous morning Amsterdam light.

The musuem was so incredibly well done and thought provoking. The kids handled it all well. I was crying at the introductory session (which you have to sign up for separately and is totally worth it) and didn't really stop throughout. The kids knew a lot about WWII and Anne Frank already and we'd read the book together before our trip. But it was mindblowing to walk through the same rooms and imagine how the Holocaust could have possibly occcurred not so long ago all the while thinking about how the US is acting at home and in the world currently. I didn't want to the kids to be unnecessarily scared, but I wanted them to really think about things meaningfully. And I think they did.

We left in a bit of a daze though and thankfully popped into Nieuws Amsterdam not too far away, which is a random mix of novelties and home goods. It was really difficult to figure out how to mix back out into the world after the Anne Frank House and this shop sort of forced us to giggle a bit and pick out random gifts for people. We kept walking back to our hotel and stopped in to change. We grabbed a quick lunch at Casa Peru and then hit up the stores in the 9 Little Streets District, including a bunch of vintage stores where Cami got the cutest Dutch Boy cap.

We'd done a lot of shopping for Cami in Antwerp and we'd promised Kane that we'd get him a proper football jersey in Amsterdam. We grabbed the kids waffles at Kwakman and set out to shop for Kane. But then we happened upon the most fabulously random off-the-wall store we'd ever seen: Kunstboer. They make custom apparel neon and metallic, dog and cat flare. We wanted to buy everything! Cami grabbed a great hat and we said we'd be back. Kane was really itching for an AJAX jersey. We walked to Smit-Cruyff and hooked him up!

We were rushing a bit to get back to the hotel and change for dinner. I'd made reservations at Restaurant Blauw to check out Amsterdam's Indonesian food scene and was really excited. We popped back into Kunstboer for some more gifts and then starting booking it back to the hotel. I was distracted and Cami and I got separated from the boys. I am notoriously (and obnoxiously, ask my husband) hyperaware of being safe. I am highly suspect of everything. But on our walk back, someone stepped on the back of my sandal and I went flying. He bent down to pick up my sandal, steadying me as he did so. I was pissed and my foot hurt, so we just kept moving, but I knew something was off. As soon as we got back to the hotel, I knew my wallet had been stolen. And then I was pissed at myself. I'd been so careful the whole trip and I almost never take my entire wallet out with my when we're traveling. Fortunately we handled all the main things in just about 30 minutes, moved our Blauw reservation to the following night, and were on our way to Satchmo for a super yummy, really fun outdoor dinner.

Can't keep the Greens down! (although a good reminder to be careful and trust your gut!). I'll share our last two days in Amsterdam and the last of this vacation posts when I get through the photos!

Friday, September 13, 2019

Belgium + The Netherlands: Days 5 & 6 -- Antwerp

Although Bruges may be the holder of my favorite vacation day, Antwerp was definitely my favorite city in Belgium. I think this blog post I'd scoped ahead of our trip totally nailed it: "I see this as a city which sits culturally somewhere between Paris & Scandinavia and it has a hipster scene which feels less about display and all the more alluring for it." I absolutely loved it and wish we'd had more time there than anywhere else on our trip.

We made some adjustments to this city visit on the fly based on our first few days in Belgium. Our transfer ride to Bruges was so easy that I decided to book another from Bruges to Antwerp. I found a ride in just a few minutes with Daytrip, which is kind of like a European Uber for longer rides and even sightseeing trips. It was incredibly easy and reliable and I totally recommend it if you find yourself if need of a ride like this!

After getting stuck at a barge coming through bridge on the outside of the city, we were quickly on our way and at the door of our Antwerp B&B. I happened upon Boulevard Leopold randomly while looking for a larger hotel suite that could accommodate a family and decided it was so quirky and opposite of where we'd normally stay that we had to do it. And it was amazing! Boulevard Leopold is a 19th century house in the middle of the still functioning Jewish quarter in Antwerp. We were able to nab the Master Suite and had a whole apartment for ourselves.

I generally loathe how B&Bs make you feel forced to make nice with random people, but Martin who owns and runs Leopold could not have struck a better balance between being helpful and accommodating and then disappearing. There were a few other guests while we were there, including some models in for a photoshoot (the B&B has lots of photoshoots, including one in our apartment shortly after we left). Kane could not make heads or tails out of the scantily-clad leggy ladies and when I prompted him about it after, he said he thought they'd come to breakfast in their pajamas!

But we actually arrived mid-day in Antwerp and Martin directed us to nearby PAKT, a former industrial site turned a sustainable, creative hub surrounded by rooftop gardens. It's in the middle of what appears to be a block of warehouses, so it took us a minute to find it, but it was super cool! We grabbed a quick outdoor pizza lunch at Standard and then grabbed moon pops for the kids from Racine. We explored PAKT a bit more and popped into a crossfit gym to inquire about a drop-in workout (although we ended up not needing to go!). Emboldened by our bike ride in Bruges, we decided to rent Velo bikes right outside of PAKT (everyone needs their own account, so it took a bit to get it set up on our phones, but then we had no problem).

I'd planned several museums for the following day, so we decided to stick to the outdoors and rode in search of the Art Nouveau and Victorian architecture districts. The kids liked the architecture but they were much more into just riding bikes. After navigating a few streets with both Joel and I screaming and sweating, I finally safely landed us at Koning Albertpark close to our B&B.

Do you divy up duties while traveling? I am primarily the planner and the navigator -- I have the sense of direction. Joel handles all the day-to-day interactions with local people -- he has a penchant for communicating in other languages I do not understand at all.

We headed back to Boulevard Leopold for a little rest. Our tour in Bruges reminded us how big of an asset a tour guide can be -- especially when traveling with kids. I try not to overbook us ahead of time so that we can be flexible, but I'd also booked us a private tour of Antwerp while we were in Bruges. I thought the kids would love the Legends of Antwerp tour I'd found and I was right. We met our tour guide at Grote Markt (and were immediately glad we'd stayed out of the touristy area all day).

Our wonderful guide Anna took us on a 2-hour walk throughout the city, telling the kids legends as we went, including the symbolic significance of hands to the city and the sad story of Nello & Patrasche (pic at top of post). It was a great way to get our hands around the city layout. We'd worked up quite the appetite after all the bike riding and walking and I was very glad I'd made a reservation at Fiskebar in the south of the city away from all the touristy stuff. Fiskebar was touted as the best seafood in the city and we sat among locals and ate the most bizarre (to us) seafood tower I'd ever had. The kids were troopers and tried all kinds of shellfish we'd never had -- cockles, snails, clams, and other  bivalves. And they were rewarded with insanely delicious creme brûlée.

We woke up the next day in time for Martin's delicious breakfast and Kane school me on how to properly eat soft-boiled eggs and soldiers (he watches a lot of Gordon Ramsey's cooking shows so I'm glad he's picked up something else beyond curse words). Then we headed out to our first museum of the day: MAS. Located in the city's revitalizing Old Dockyards neighborhood, this beautiful modern tower (designed to look like stacked shipping containers and secured with over 3,000 metal hands "holding" the tower together) had a variety of cool exhibits showcasing Antwerp and Belgium's history of trade and cultural exchange.

Most of the exhibits were really interactive and almost each one had some specific activity that appealed to the kids. We could have spent much more time here than we did, but we had an additional museum planned for the day. So we spent a few hours on the exhibits and then made sure to take in the view from the top.

The Red Star Line Museum portrays the "other end" of Ellis Island, which we'd taken the kids to a few years earlier. The Museum has a scavenger hunt activity for kids that lets them follow along the harrowing journey of a young girl as she tries to get to America. It was remarkably well done and a really timely visit given the current state of immigration in the United States and the President's abhorrent treatment of those seeking shelter in our country.

We walked to nearby Brood & Co. for lunch and, softened by a lunchtime brew, we acquiesced to the kids' begging to rent bikes again. We grabbed Velo bikes and I took a minute to find an actual bike path to our destination -- we were heading to the train station to change our train tickets to later the next morning -- we wanted more time in Antwerp!

Everyone did much better on bikes this time and we made it there in no time. You can really see why bikes are the way to get around the city. We switched our tickets, located where we had to be the next morning, and then set out to check out the diamond district. The kids had a fabulous time window shopping and picking out all manner of ridiculous jewelry for me.

But I knew that Antwerp was also a fashion hub (hello Antwerp Six!) and I wanted to do some real shopping. It turned out that we mostly shopped for Cami and Joel -- the city's unique sense of style was just so Cam. She cleaned up at Space and Bellerose. Joel loved Denham and we spent a lot of time there chatting with the nicest guy who gave me suggestions for a stationary store (I had the hardest time finding someone who knew what I was talking about, but he was like, "you mean a hipster stationary store?" He got it) and wrote down a bunch of recommendations for dinner away from the tourist hordes (turns out, we had the right neighborhood with Fiskebar). After a quick visit to Stationary Stad Leest (a pop up of a local bookstore) and quirky Flying Tiger (a chain, but still cute), we headed to eat at recommended Dansing Chocola, which was delicious. We did the long but now familiar walk back to Leopold for a great close to our stay in Antwerp!

Other things on my list!

Activities + Sights:

Food + Bars: