I was surprised at how much I ended up loving Amsterdam.

And no, not for all the reasons people love to tease about Amsterdam. :-)

The architecture is stunning in an entirely different way from Paris. Who would have thought black buildings would be so beautiful? Especially in its more northern climate, and the gray cold day we were there, the city is breathtaking in its monochrome simplicity.

The row houses form these neat little lines, but each has a bit of character on its own, while all share a rather straightforward facade — much less ornament than we saw in Belgium, Paris, London or Italy.

Since we had such little time, we took a tour with Sandeman’s New Amsterdam Tours and had Ged as our tour guide. It’s advertised as a “free tour” but it’s actually more of a “pay what you can” scenario. I have to say, we were more than pleasantly surprised — it was a fabulous tour. Ged was an upbeat, interesting, and knowledgeable tour guide. I highly recommend it!

Houseboats and bicycles line the canals. It’s funny how this city of canals feels entirely different from a city like Venice. I did a little research, and it seems that Amsterdam’s canal rings were more planned than those of Venice — a few centuries ago, they systematically laid them out. I think Venice is more just what happens over time when there isn’t a lot of planning to it. Both have their place, but the designer in me quite loved the neatness of Amsterdam.

I kept wondering what those hooks were about. Apparently, they built their houses so narrow that getting furniture and other goods up the stairs was pretty impossible. So, they all have these hooks on the top to allow them to use a pulley system to bring items in through the windows.

I was delighted with this little sign…

..and with this awesome motorcycle…

…and this ingenious method for transporting kids and groceries.

We were only there for the day, and ended it with a train ride back to Paris which took a little under three hours if memory serves correctly. I am so glad we made the detour trip to check out a few other places because it’s pretty incredible how, only a couple hours’ train ride away, it’s an entirely different world. Even though the States have regional differences and nuances from state to state, it’s definitely not as drastic as what you find in Europe.

And on the subject of travel, hop over to Dannielle’s blog…she is embarking on a whirlwind six week tour of the US which will bring her to Charleston in early February. I am so excited to meet a fellow blogger in person and to follow along as she discovers the USA!

happy tuesday, lovelies!

Hello lovely blog readers and happy 2013! I’ve missed you and hope you all enjoyed a wonderful holiday season. I’m pretty exhausted after trekking around Europe, but I’m so glad we decided to do something a little different for the holidays this year. Nothing is so inspiring to me as new places and cultures, nor so refreshing to the spirit as time with loved ones.

I hardly know where to begin as there are so many things I want to share. Shall we start with a few travel tips?


Five Tips for Far Away Travel

1. Rent an apartment.


This has been a huge one for us. You generally have to be in one place for at least five days, but truly, you can’t get to know a place in less than that anyway so it shouldn’t be an issue.

The first time we traveled to Europe, we stayed in a hotel and it was fine. They made the beds up for us and had room service, but it was tiny and touristy. So next time, in our research, we came across the apartment option and decided to go for it. I wouldn’t do it any other way now. Why, you ask?

  • Kitchen: when you are gone for awhile, it can get really tiring to eat out every meal. Especially breakfast. Having a kitchen – even a teeny one – allows you to stock up some food items and unwind a bit in your PJ’s if you’d like. It’s a huge money saver.
  • Cultural immersion: these are usually in areas that are at least a little less touristy and where people actually live. It’s a great way to see the place as it really is.
  • Space: they are almost always at least a little bigger than a hotel room.
  • Privacy: ’nuff said. It’s just kind of nice.
  • Possible bonus: washer/dryer. Although I have always had a rough time with European models…they are very unlike our behemoth American models.

We have used a few companies before and I would highly recommend all three: Sleep in Italy, Vacations in Paris, and A La Carte Paris.

2. Coming back to the US takes awhile.

If you are flying back into the US and have to make a connection (i.e. New York to Charleston), plan a decent layover and plan on running. Coming into the States from a foreign country is quite cumbersome — you go through passport control, pick up your checked bags, go through customs lugging all your stuff, re-check your bags again, and then have to go BACK through TSA security, not to mention find the terminal your flight is going to be in (which will probably be miles away). Both times we’ve had to make a connection, we have found ourselves running at breakneck speed to make it, despite having a 2 hour layover.

3. Learn the city’s transportation systems.

2011-11-28 11.41.40

When we first went to Paris, we thought we would do one of those “hop on, hop off” bus tours as a way to get around. On a whim, we got brave the first day and gave the metro a try instead and never ended up doing a tour. Then, because we were in London for only a day, we decided to do the hop on/hop off, but we ended up spending more time in traffic than actually getting where we wanted to go.

If the city has a good system, like the Paris metro, it’s so much more freeing to feel confident that you know how to navigate the place in which you’re spending time. I always feel kind of nervous when I’m entirely dependent on some tour group and am worried I wouldn’t know my way without it. It’s such a better feeling to know you can handle the place on your own.

Not only that, but it’s another great cultural experience. Sure, there are plenty of tourists riding around too, but there are also lots of locals going about their day.

4. Pack light + smart.

Get over it and wear your jeans a few days on the trip. You won’t regret it when you’re lugging your bags through the airport.

Also, with all the rules they have nowadays, look that up ahead of time and make sure you put everything you will have to remove from your carryon (Ipad, camera, liquids), in an easy to grab spot. Wear easy to remove shoes too if you can manage it.

Psst….don’t forget to put an extra set of clothes in there too. I learned that one the hard way – it’s not a good feeling to find yourself in Mexico with nothing but a lousy carryon that has no change of clothes in it.

5. Slow down.

Returning to a city for another visit has major upsides – it’s not nearly so intimidating as it was the first time and there is so much less pressure. It’s really easy to fall into the sightseeing whirlwind the first time you visit because you don’t know when you’ll be back. The first time we came we definitely did that, so on our return trip I felt so much more able to soak in the culture and pass the time more naturally.

If you can possibly manage it, try not to spend the whole time monument hopping – it’s just as important to soak in the feel of the place as a whole.

bonus tip: ask friends!

Ask around – you never know who will have been there and have tips to share. New Life in Spain was kind enough to send me a lovely email with Belgium tips!

Have any to add?

I’d love to hear about your travel experiences and tips – share in the comments!