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Trip Report: Something's Fishy in Amsterdam

Where: Amsterdam, Netherlands

Who: Features Editor Caroline Costello 

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When: January 2013

High Points: Amsterdam is one of my absolute favorite destinations. For me, a trip to the Dutch capital city is worth contending with the heavyweight crowds and airfares during summer, and the unfavorable weather during winter. My trip took place during the latter. Winter in Amsterdam is a whitewashed world where canal boats cut through sheets of ice, bikers mock death on slippery streets, and the snowmen are anatomically correct.

Since I'd been to Amsterdam several times already, I sought out new activities. And by "activities," I mostly mean museums. Amsterdam has 40 of them, so it takes a traveler a few visits to get through the bulk of the good ones. Some of favorite ones that I've previously visited include the Tassen Museum of Bags and Purses, the Cat Boat (not a museum but go there anyway if you like cats) and Museum Willet-Holthuysen.

This time, I paid a visit to the new Het Grachtenhous, a museum dedicated to the story of the canal ring. Now my brain is filled with trivia about Amsterdam's waterways. For example, did you know that many of the city's canal houses lean a touch forward? Scholars aren't sure why, but some surmise that the houses were built this way so that furniture wouldn't scrape the front of the buildings when lifted on pulleys attached to hooks on the houses' gables and deposited through the windows. This theory, though, doesn't explain why the backs of the canal houses also lean out. Visit the museum and make your own conclusions.

A second institution in which I wandered, the Amsterdam Museum, is housed in a former orphanage that dates back to 1524. It's one of the world's few museums (I assume) that the preserves the aromas of an earlier time: There's an exhibit featuring dried, salted cod hanging from the ceiling, just like the kind Dutch seafarers would bring along on voyages during the Golden Age. I will never forget the smell.

If you're at the Amsterdam Museum this summer, stop by the Golden Age exhibit. I was fascinated by the contemporary portraits by Hendrik Kerstens of the photographer's daughter. The subject was photographed wearing trash styled to look like 17th-century Dutch headpieces—kind of like this.

Low Points: "Wear waterproof shoes," said no one to me before I left for my trip. My leather boots lost the battle against the snow. They were blemished with salt stains throughout my stay. I felt like a slob.

When it snows in Amsterdam, the snow is there to stay on the ground until it's good and ready to melt. No one shovels or plows. The only reason anyone moves any amount of snow is to construct one of those obscene snowmen. If I could do it all over again, I probably would have packed a pair of Wellies or just postponed my visit until after Easter.

Savings Strategy: My Amsterdam savings strategy is threefold: Use public transportation (or your feet), seek out cheap eats, and find budget accommodations. All are easy to avail in Amsterdam. There's no reason to take a cab to the airport if you're staying within the city's canal ring. A ticket from Central Station will run you 3.90 euros (about $5).

Affordable restaurants and cafes are everywhere. For the cheapest healthy meal in the city (fresh juices, colorful salads, and vegetable soups that stick to your ribs), try De Bolhoed on the Prinsengracht canal.

Pro tip: Attempt a conversation with your bartender, who will no doubt speak perfect English. I've noticed that bartenders in Amsterdam will liberally top off friendly patrons' drinks at no charge. Brush up on local politics and ask a few questions.

Where to Stay: I divided my stay at two properties: For a few nights, I had a room at the Radisson Blu. It was perfect in every way—location, service, accommodations, amenities—except for the price. Although 200- to 300-euro nightly rates are what one should expect to pay for heated bathroom floors and a Bacchanalian free breakfast buffet at a name-brand property in the heart of the canal ring.

My subsequent stay on a houseboat was equally enjoyable and half the price. Read more about my night in a houseboat here.

If You Go: Taking a winter trip? Wear weam, waterproof shoes. During every other season? Book your stay well in advance: six months or more to get the best accommodations.

Have a question for Caroline about her trip to Amsterdam? Leave a comment below.

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(Photo: Amsterdam via Shutterstock

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