Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Cologne, Bonn, & Düsseldorf – April 2015

Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Cologne, Bonn, & Düsseldorf – April 2015

While we probably wouldn’t have gone back as quick as we did, I had enough frequent flyer miles to get both of us round trip tickets to Europe on Delta. We originally were going to spend 2 weeks in the south of France, visiting Marseille, Cannes, Nice, and Monaco. After having booked our flights, however, certain events in and around Marseille influenced us to adjust our itinerary. We decided to return to the Netherlands for a few days and to spend a week in Germany.

With our new round trip flights in and out of Amsterdam secure, we continued our tradition of upgrading to the premium economy seats on Delta. While the food and service is parallel to the rest of the economy class, the main difference in the extra leg room. On Delta, you get up to an extra 4 inches of leg room, which on international flights makes a big difference in comfort. We also try to reserve the bulkhead seats, which are located in the first row of premium economy. While you cannot have your carry-on baggage in front of you during takeoff and landing, the absence of a reclining seat in front of you is worth the extra price alone.

I also began to search for hotels in various cities and to monitor train ticket prices. As with previous trips, I used to book all of our reservations since its loyalty program rewards you with 1 free night for every 10 nights stayed, with the free night being valued at the median price of the 10 nights.


As with a lot of reward travel, the flight times can be somewhat restricted. We ended up arriving at Amsterdam Schiphol Airport around 11:30 am, which we found to be a much better experience that arriving during the early morning rush (any time before 9am). Not only was it quicker to go through passport control and customs, but since we knew the hotel room wouldn’t be ready until at least 2 pm, there was really no need to rush to get to the hotel. We opted to have lunch in the airport mall area. Since Schiphol is a major domestic transportation hub, not to mention the airlines, the airport has its own mall in it, complete with grocery store, restaurants, clothing shops, bookstores, and 2 Starbucks.

Our hotel for the next 2 nights, the Best Western Premier Hotel Couture, is located in the southwest part of the city, in a neighborhood called Westlandgracht, which happens to be the name of the canal in front of the hotel. The hotel’s location is far enough out of the city center so that you don’t pay the exorbitant markup many hotels charge for being in the city center, and the #2 tram stops right outside the hotel’s entrance. The hotel is also within walking distance (about 5 minutes) of the Heemstedestraat metro station. Since we didn’t need to go all the way into Amsterdam just to come all the way back out to our hotel, we took the train to Amsterdam Lelylaan Station, transferred to the metro for 1 stop to Heemstedestraat, and walked the rest of the way to the hotel. Since our room wasn’t ready, we stored our luggage and headed into Amsterdam.

In keeping with my new obsession, we set out to find the entire collection of Starbucks mugs for the Netherlands. Using the app, we found the next train from Amsterdam Centraal to Hilversum, a quick 20 minute train ride. Like most Starbucks outside of Amsterdam, the one in Hilversum is located in the train station. While not a large city by any means, Hilversum is where the main Dutch television and radio stations have their studios. We then hopped the next train to Utrecht, only 15 minutes away. We then went to Arnhem and Nijmegen before returning to Amsterdam for dinner.

A quick anecdote: Starbucks manufactured the original Nijmegen mug with a picture of a bridge that is really located in Arnhem, which we found out, after talking to the barista at the Nijmegen Starbucks, caused an outrage amongst the populations of both cities. The incorrect mug was taken off the market, and the correct bridge appeared on the new version of the Nijmegen mug. But, you can still purchase the first version on resell websites, which is where I got mine. So I have the complete 11 mug series for the Netherlands.

Keukenhof Gardens

The next day we went to Keukenhof Gardens. Feted as one of the largest flower gardens in the world, Keukenhof is also known as the Garden of Europe. Every year from mid-March to mid-May around 7 million tulip bulbs are planted covering close to 79 acres. Located in the town of Lisse, which is southwest of Amsterdam, visitors can travel to the gardens via dedicated bus service from Schiphol Airport, Leiden Centraal, and Haarlem. Depending on your point of origin, you may want to purchase a train + bus + entrance ticket sold on Keukenhof’s website. For a flat fee, you can travel roundtrip to/from any train station in the Netherlands to Schiphol, Leiden, or Haarlem, transfer to the bus, and enter the grounds. The price for this ticket is €35,00 for 2016 and really only offers visitors a discount on train travel if their point of origin requires more than 40 minutes of train travel. Otherwise, I would advise just paying for each leg of the journey separately to save money. Admission to the gardens is €16,00, so for the roundtrip ticket to save you money, your travel price needs to cost more than €19,00. You can find out the exact price of your trip by visiting the website.

Situated on 15th-century hunting grounds, Keukenhof attracts visitors from around the world and for good reason. It’s a site to behold. The gardens visitors see today were established in 1949 as a way for tulip farmers to display their hybrids and to boost the Dutch export industry. Different varieties of gardens and garden styles are presented each year, including an English garden, a Japanese garden, a historical garden, and a nature garden. Each year a specific theme is chosen which is showcased not only throughout the grounds, but in the main display hall. There are several restaurants and several display hallslocated on the grounds, all of which have Wi-Fi connectivity for free. While touring the gardens themselves, however, there is no or extremely limited connectivity.

Regardless of when you visit during the blooming season, it will be crowded. It is quite difficult to take pictures (other than close-ups, of course) without having people in them, although it can be done if you arrive early. To see everything on display, you should budget at least one full day, and this is not an exaggeration. We were there for over 6 hours and did not see everything. If you have the time, we would suggest 2 days to experience everything the gardens offers.


The next morning prior to leaving for Rotterdam, we walked around the Museumplein where the Rijksmuseum is located. We were planning on going inside the museum, but the line was quite long, and we didn’t want to wait. If you have the chance, I would suggest purchasing your tickets to the Rijksmuseum online and printing them out. It will save you a lot of time, and you can just walk right into the museum, store your bags at the coat check desk, and then enter the exhibits. (We did this on the next trip.)


Then we walked over to the Westermarkt area, which can be reached with tram lines 13, 14, & 17. This is a square between Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht where the Westerkerk (West Church) is located.Two tourist attractions are here. First, the Anne Frank Huis, which many visitors want to see, and second, the Homomonument (Gay Monument). Anne Frank’s House is where Anne Frank and her family hid from the German occupiers during World War II. Both humbling and fascinating, you can walk through the multi-level house and experience what this family did. I went through the house back in 1995 on my first trip to Amsterdam, but John has never been inside. The main problem with the old house is that it is not accessible to those with mobility issues. There are extremely steep and narrow staircases visitors have to maneuver to go from one level to another in the old house. The new building, located next to the old house and housing the café, museum, and the current exhibition, is accessible. If you arrive early, you won’t have to wait too long to get in, but the line to enter can quickly become over an hour long.

The Homomonument, proposed in 1979 and finished in 1987 due to the time it took to raise the €180.000 to pay for the site’s construction, is the world’s first monument to memorialize those persecuted because of their sexuality. Made out of 3 large pink granite triangles, each measuring 10 meters on each side, the points of the Homomonument point to 3 symbolic places in Amsterdam. The first points toward the National War Memorial in Dam Square; the second points toward Anne Frank’s House; the third points toward the headquarters of COC Nederland, the Dutch gay rights group founded in 1946.


After the morning outing, we picked up our luggage and took the afternoon train to Rotterdam for the next 3 nights. Rotterdam is the financial hub of the Netherlands and is where the Dutch stock market is located. Not knowing the city at all, I knew we wanted to be centrally located, and I found a great deal on a concierge room at the 5-star Manhattan Hotel Rotterdam located just opposite the Rotterdam Centraal train station. Upon arrival, again, we knew the room wouldn’t be ready. We stored our luggage, purchased a 3 day unlimited RET pass from the front desk, and returned to the train station, which has—you guessed it—a Starbucks where I got the Rotterdam mug. While we waited for our room to be ready, we took the metro to Den Haag, where I bought that city’s mug. Then we took the train to Leiden, a short 10 minute journey, where I bought that city’s mug as well. By the time we got back to the hotel, the room was ready.

Markthal and Cube Houses

One of our favorite things to do while traveling is seeing how the city’s residents live, where they shop, and things the normal visitor might not see. The Markthal is one of those places. This building is a multi-use space where people live and shop for food. The upper floors contain apartments, and the ground floor houses 96 different food vendors. The Markthal also has several restaurants, a grocery store, a liquor store, and a drugstore. The airy architecture and interior painting help to distinguish this building. We had several meals here over the course of our 3 night stay.

Across from the Markthal is one of the architectural wonders of Rotterdam: the Cube Houses. Designed by Piet Blom, the cubes are tilted at a 45 degree angle and rest on a hexagonal pylon allowing people to walk underneath.


After the Markthal, we took the tram (line 8) to Euromast. Located next to the Parkhaven, a harbor off the main river that runs through Rotterdam, the Nieuwe Maas, the Euromast is 185 meters high. At a height of 100 meters is a restaurant and a two-level observation deck. From here, you can ride the Euroscoop, a rotating, glass-enclosed ride that takes you the additional 85 meters to the very top of the Euromast. The Euroscoop is included in the price of admission, and the view is amazing. But if you suffer from vertigo, you may want to forgo this part of the attraction. The Euromast is open late for those who want to see the city at night.

Right beside the Euromast is the Sjømannskirken, a Norwegian church serving the needs of Norwegians living in Rotterdam. While not open to the public outside of service times, behind the church is Het Parc, spacious garden through which anyone can walk.

Den Haag & Delft

The next day we took the metro
E-line to Den Haag and went to Scheveningen, which is a popular beach with the Dutch. While it was certainly too cold to actually swim, a leisurely stroll down the boardwalk on a sunny day is a great way to relax. All along the beach, restaurants offering many cuisines line the boardwalk. Most have glass partitions to keep the wind and sand out of the outside dining area. There are also indoor seats for very cold days. One of the highlights of the beach is the newly renovated pier. Originally opened in 1959, the pier has 2 levels: an enclosed lower level and an open-air upper level. A fire damaged the pier in 2011, and it went bankrupt in 2013. During our visit the pier was closed, but there are plans to reopen it after extensive renovations.

We then took the tram from Den Haag to Delft and visited the Royal Delft Museum. The tram will take you to the train station in Delft, but from there you have to transfer to a local bus or walk to the Royal Delft Museum. We chose to walk through town, which ended up being somewhat out of the way, but we saw some very architecturally interesting buildings. Once we got to the museum, we opted not to take the tour, but looked around the shop for a while. We walked back to the train station via another route which was much shorter than the original route we took. We then took the train back to Rotterdam.

That evening we walked around the harbor in Rotterdam by the Nieuwe Maas and took pictures of the Erasmusbrug (Erasmus Bridge). Named in honor of Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch Renaissance humanist, social critic, and theologian, the bridge connects the north and south sections of Rotterdam. The bridge opened in 1996 and is a combined cable-stayed and bascule bridge. The bridge’s single pylon helped to earn it the nickname “The Swan”.

The next morning we had breakfast at Bagel and Beans. We then got the train to Hoek van Holland to visit Het Keringhuis. Near the entrances to all the major waterways from the North Sea, the Dutch have constructed storm surge barriers to eliminate the possibility of the Netherlands being flooded in the event of a major storm. Het Keringhuis is one of these surge barriers, and since 1996 visitors can see how the barrier works via a behind the scenes tour. The exhibit, which received a complete overhaul in 2010, demonstrates how the barriers (1 on each bank of the river) would protect the low-lying nation were a ferocious storm to arise. The hour-long tour, given in English on the weekends, allows visitors to walk around the grounds and to walk under one of the massive barriers. The only challenge to visiting Het Keringhuis is its location. From Rotterdam, you take a local train to Hoek van Holland, which is the nearest train station. From the train station, you either have to walk or take a taxi, as the barriers are 2 miles from the station. And we walked it – both ways. If you choose to walk it, opt for the path along the raised dyke as opposed to walking through the city itself; it will save you about 20 minutes.



After 5 nights in the Netherlands, we took an early morning train from Rotterdam to Amsterdam Centraal, where we transferred from a Dutch train to a German ICE (Intercity Express) train for our 3 hour trip to Cologne, Germany. The ICE is a German high speed train, equivalent to France’s TGV. We got our one-way tickets for €39,00 each by booking directly with Deutsche Bahn. We purchased what is known as a Sparpreis Europa (Saver Fare Europe) ticket and is available for journeys to/from Germany from/to 16 other European nations. These tickets are not available for all trains and come with specific restrictions, like the inability to transfer the ticket to another train at an earlier or later time without incurring a fee. But if you plan your trips like we do, these cheap fares will save you a lot of money on train travel in Europe when compared to buying a Eurail Pass, which is a great deal if you are the type of traveler who wants to come and go as you want.

Our ICE called at Amsterdam, Utrecht, Arnhem, Oberhausen, Duisburg, Düsseldorf, Cologne, and Frankfurt. Once we got to Cologne, we purchased a public transport pass for a week that would get us to the neighboring cities of Bonn, Aachen, and Düsseldorf. KVB is the company that runs public transportation in Cologne, and it partners with VRS to allow people to buy 1 ticket that covers both the local and regional trains. In Cologne, like most other German cities with more than just bus service, there are S-Bahnen and U-Bahnen. The former operates above ground, and the latter runs underground.

The first afternoon in Cologne we went to the Cologne Cathedral. Then we went to the Starbucks at the Cologne train station where I bought 10 mugs.
img_2410-109152906_stdThe first night in Germany we wanted to have a German meal. We asked the hotel concierge for suggestions and ended up going to Hausbrauerei Päffgen. Something we didn’t know prior to going in, but quickly learned, is that people seat themselves in Germany. If there’s an open table, you can have it. But you have to watch out for small cards on the table that signify that the table is reserved from a certain time. The food was good and hit the spot.


The next day we took the S-Bahn (S16) to Bonn. You can also take S18 to Bonn, but this route is inland while S16 runs along the river. With our KVB/VRS combination ticket, we had unlimited travel between Cologne and Bonn. S16 took about an hour to reach Bonn, but traveling along the Rhine River for most of the way was worth the extra time.

When we got to Bonn, we walked past the Bonner Münster, a Catholic church built between the 11th and 13th centuries. This is one of the oldest surviving churches in Germany. The church once served as the cathedral used by the Archbishop of Cologne. We walked through Münsterplatz and found the Bonn Information Center located on Windeckstrasse, right next to TK Maxx. (Yes, this is Germany’s version of the American store TJ Maxx.) We bought a city map and picked up some brochures, then set out to find Bonn’s most famous tourist attraction: Beethoven’s House.

Beethoven’s House

Having been a lover of classical music since the 1980s, it had always been a dream of mine to visit the birthplace of one of the best composers to ever live. After a 15 minute walk from the information center, we arrived at Beethoven-Haus at Bonngasse18-26. If you don’t want to walk, you can also take either the 62, 66, or 67 tram to Beethoven-Haus.
Founded in 1889, the Beethoven-Haus Association works to promote, to preserve, and to memorialize the composer’s life and work. The museum and archives house the largest collection of Beethoven’s work in the world. In addition to the museum, the adjoining digital collection contains more than 6,100 documents and over 1,600 audio files which can be accessed on site or via the Beethoven-Haus’ website (in German and English). Visitors must store all bags in the lockers provided since the only thing you can carry with you is a camera. Some of the ceilings in the house are quite low; at 6’2” I found myself ducking frequently to avoid hitting either the ceiling or the archways between rooms. There are guides throughout the museum to show you the advised route to take through the rooms.

After we visited the Beethoven-Haus, we wanted to grab a quick lunch. We found, by chance at the end of Bonngasse, a city market where various food carts and restaurants were. Ironically enough, the area is simply called Markt. This section of Bonn is completely pedestrian, so you will have to walk through it to get there. We chose to eat at a wurst food truck, where I had and enjoyed my first currywurst. At the eastern end of the Markt stands the Bundesstadt Bonn – Altes Rathaus, the old city hall.


After lunch we walked to the other reason for day trip to Bonn: the Haribo Store. Located a couple of blocks south of Markt on Am Neutor, this is the sole store in the world for Haribo products. There are 5 factory stores in Germany, but this is the only store front. This two-story shop sells everything Haribo makes, including merchandise. John is a huge Haribo fan, so going to Bonn without visiting the store would not have been acceptable at all.

After the Haribo store, we took regional train back to Cologne. We went to eat at an Asian restaurant on Breite Strasse. For dessert we found a gelato shop at the corner of Tunisstrasse and Breite Strasse where you can get a scoop of gelato for 1 euro, which is a great deal.

Kölner Seilbahn

The next morning we took the Kölner Seilbahn, a skyway gondola that crossed the Rhine River. On a clear day this trip affords visitors fantastic view of Cologne from above. Even though it was a cloudy day when we went on the cable car, the journey still gave us amazing views. From a practical standpoint, it is much cheaper to purchase a roundtrip ticket than a one-way ticket. But an even better deal is a combination ticket that includes the Seilbahn, the Zoo, and the Aquarium. These combination tickets must be purchased at the Kölner Seilbahn.

Kölner Zoo

Located across the street from the Kölner Seilbahn is the Cologne Zoo. If you’re into animals or just want to leave the busy city behind, the Cologne Zoo is a great place to spend a couple of hours watching animals from all over the world. The zoo offers visitors the opportunity to watch animal feedings throughout the day; check the zoo map you get at the entrance for exact times. We got to see the animal keepers feed the penguins. We also spent time at the flamingo and hippo exhibits.

Botanical Gardens

The botanical gardens are located right next to the zoo, which if you’re looking for a free activity, is a great way to spend some time. A full visit will take about an hour or so, depending on how long you spend in each section.


Chocolate Museum

Just south of the city center, on an island in the Rhine River, sits the Schokoladenmuseum (Cologne Chocolate Museum) presented by Lindt. The museum traces the history of chocolate from the Aztecs and Mayas, through the Baroque Age and the Industrial Revolution, to the refined chocolate industry of today. The visit is well worth the 9 euro price of admission, and the museum sells family tickets for 25 euros for 2 adults and all of the couple’s children under 16. Also, if you happen to visit the museum on your birthday, your admission is free!
As part of the production tour, visitors have the opportunity to make their own piece of chocolate bark (at an additional cost). You can customize the bark as you wish from a variety of toppings and the type of chocolate used. There’s also a café where you can sit and have a dessert, or a shop where you can purchase all sorts of treats.


The next day we took the train to Düsseldorf to get the Düsseldorf Starbucks mug. After striking out at the Starbucks in the train station, we asked the barista where another one was. She directed us to the one on Blumenstrasse off Königsallee. As it turns out, Königsallee (King’s Alley) was Düsseldorf’s equivalent to Avenue Montaigne in Paris. All of the high-end designers have stores along this street which is divided by the Stadtgraben (City Canal).

After walking the length of Königsallee, we walked into the pedestrian section of the city and found an open-air market on the Marktplatz. Lined to the north by the Altes Rathaus and to the south by the city’s municipal building, this open-air market offers not only food stands, but food trucks and home goods shops with plants, herbs, and artisan soaps. We even found a food stand selling Florida grapefruits.

While we didn’t spend a lot of time in Düsseldorf, we know it’s a city we would like to return to at some point in the future. We then took the regional train back to Cologne.

The next day we returned to the river area and took an hour-long cruise down the Rhine River. The docks for the river cruises are located just north of the Deutzer Bridge. We took the one-hour panorama cruise (Panoramafahrt Köln), which is a great way to see all the city’s main sites. We are big advocates of any type of city cruise as both a way to relax for approximately an hour and not have to walk and a means to see all the major tourist sites. We would advise doing these cruises on a clear day so that you can take clear photos. The day we went, the sun was shining, and there were few clouds in the sky.

Old St. Alban Church

After the cruise, we walked around the old center of Cologne and happened upon Old St. Alban Church. Originally constructed around 1172, the church was refurbished during the Middle Ages, and the church’s tower was built in 1494. The outer façade was completed in 1896.
The church suffered a near-complete blown out from a bomb during World War II, and it was not rebuilt. Only some of the outer walls and inner support beams still stand today. In 1954, the region’s Cardinal asked that the ruins become a memorial for those lost during the war. In the church’s interior, a reproduction of the sculpture “Trauerndes Elternpaar” (Grieving Parents) was installed in 1954. Since churches were supposed to be safe havens during the war, many parents would send their children to the church for safekeeping. The sculpture, situated in the middle of the ruins, is of a grieving father and mother kneeling who have realized their children have died as a result of the bombing.

NS-Dokumentationszentrum der Stadt Köln

This museum, housed in the former headquarters of the Cologne Gestapo between 1935 and 1945, is the largest regional memorial in Germany for Nazi victims.
In the final months of the war, several hundred people were murdered in the building’s courtyard. The museum is also dedicated to historical research and teaching about Cologne’s history during the Nazi era. The permanent exhibition depicts the political, social, and communal life in Nazi Cologne, and the temporary exhibit while we were there displayed the architecture of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The jail cells in the building are some of the best preserved in Germany since the building did not suffer much damage from Allied bombings. As with all sites of remembrance in Germany, admission is free. The German government pays for the operational budgets of all memorials as part of its wartime reparations. In 2000, the museum received a special recommendation for the prestigious European Museum of the Year Award.


After our time in Germany, we still had two nights before we flew back to the States. We took the train back to Amsterdam and stayed at a hotel near Schiphol Airport. After checking in, we took the complementary shuttle to the airport to walk around and have dinner.

Panorama Terrace

While at the airport, we found the observation deck, which is located before security. Visitors can go up to the airport’s roof and have dinner at the diner or spend time on the open-air panorama terrace, which overlooks the airport’s aprons. On the terrace, there is a life-sized Fokker 100 that visitors can enter at no cost. This airplane used to be in operation, but has been converted into an aviation experience, complete with air traffic control recordings, the original plane’s seats, and views into the baggage hold.

Zaanse Schans

On our last day in the Netherlands, we went to see the windmills at Zaanse Schans.
There are 2 ways to get here. You can take the train to the Koog-Zaandijk train station and walk through the town of Zaandijk; the walking portion takes around 20 minutes. You can also take the 391 bus from Amsterdam Centraal, which runs every half hour.

This area houses windmills, houses, barns, and museums constructed in the typical Dutch wooden style that date to the 18th and 19th centuries. You can easily spend half a day here walking through the old village, shopping, and visiting the windmills. While it is free to walk around the village, some of the windmills and the museum charge admission fees. Also, you should check the village’s website to make sure the attractions you want to see are open as not everything is open every day.
One of the highlights to us was the Museumwinkel Albert Heijn. This is the original Albert Heijn supermarket, now ubiquitous throughout the Netherlands that opened in 1887. It contains the original furnishings and stock from the 1880s. The shop was moved to Zaanse Schans from its original location in Zaandam.

Author: TTG Michael