There are lots of reasons to visit Amsterdam and I chose probably the nerdiest one-- the art. There dozens of world class museums within the compact city and most of them are covered by the Museumkaart, Amsterdam's Museum Card. I bought my pass at the big one - The Rijksmuseum, the first stop on my self-directed museum crawl. I spent a good four or five hours exploring the museum before taking a late lunch and continuing on to the Stedelijk and Van Gogh museums.
The Night Watch,' one of the most famous paintings in the world. It draws quite the crowd (I preferred the Vermeers, which are almost like miniatures in comparison.) I also made sure to track down the gorgeous Cuypers Library. You can't browse the stacks or study without prior permission, but the view from the balcony on the 2nd floor is a pretty great consolation. Another highlight was the gallery of beautiful and intricate Doll Houses.
I love to visit museums when I travel solo. I can really take my time viewing the art, without worrying about keeping pace with a companion. And if I want to skip a piece, or even a whole wing of a museum, it's totally cool. Though traveling alone can be stressful, especially when things go wrong, at museums I never feel self conscious when I'm on my own. I really appreciate it when cities offer passes that make it easy to visit multiple museums or attractions. But they're an investment. You really have to do your homework to make sure the pass covers the right length of time and attractions you actually want to visit. I chose the Museumkart, but Amsterdam also offers the Iamsterdam city pass which includes public transportation and a canal boat ride, but not quite enough museums for my liking (no Rijksmuseum or Anne Frank House.)
For me, the math on the Museumkaart just made sense. Because I was spending a week in Amsterdam, I made a list of the museums I wanted to visit and researched their admission prices. Once I added the entrance fees up, I knew the €65 Museumkaart would be more than worth it. I would have spent €106 if I had bought each ticket individually. The card also encouraged me to visit smaller, less well known churches and museums like Oude Kerk (The Old Church,) Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Dear Lord in the Attic Museum,) Museum Van Loon, and FOAM Photography Museum. The Museumkaart is geared towards Dutch residents so there's no English website, but I found the Amsterdam.info site to be a great resource for information about the card. It's good for a full month and gets you into museums all over Holland, nice if you're touring outside of just Amsterdam. The card must be purchased in person at one of the participating museums. If you're an art lover, history fanatic, or just spending an extended period of time in Amsterdam, then the card is an excellent value.
Amsterdam Museum Pass, I headed across town to check out the Spui Book Market (Vereniging De Boekenmarkt op het Spui). Even on a drippy autumn day the market was quite busy. No wonder, it's a short and scenic walk from Amsterdam's Dam Square. Book lovers will find plenty to browse. And if you're just looking to pickup an atypical souvenir it's a nice place for that as well. I enjoyed looking through the vintage maps, records, and postcards, I'm kicking myself now for not buying a tote bag while I had the chance. Open Fridays, rain or shine, from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. After your shopping is complete, make sure to stop for a stroopwaffel and coffee at Lanskroon.
I picked up my cookies at the Pierre Hermé shop in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood. The elegant little macarons are made from two almond meringue like cookies which sandwich a creamy ganache or icing layer. I chose three, the Infiniment Vanille and the shimmering Pistache et Griottine, an amazing flavor combination of pistachio, ceylon cinnamon and griottine cherry. Plus an oversized mogador macaron, tart passion fruit cookies filled with decadent milk chocolate. So good. I visited twice during my trip and didn't even bother with Ladurée (Paris' other famous macaron emporium) until I got to the airport for the flight home.
I was also eager to try another famous French pastry, the Canelé. While not a Parisian thing, Canelé are a Bordeaux specialty, one of my favorite food blogs recommended the Pierre Hermé version. And it was delightful. Edges crisp with burnt sugar with a light, vanilla scented spongy-custard interior.
The only thing more French than the Eiffel Tower is the Arc de Triomphe. The traffic around Paris' second favorite monument is intense. A dozen boulevards, including shopping mecca, the Champs-Elysées, converge in a roundabout from hell. To get to the Arch, pedestrians take an underground tunnel that bypasses the mess at ground level. I visited in the early evening and there was no real line to speak of, but I did use my Paris Museum Pass to get faster access. There's no elevator and the dark, seemingly endless, spiral staircases are a bit daunting.
The view is totally worth it. There's the hustle and bustle of the Champs-Elysées to the east. Then, to the north, the hills of Montmarte and the glowing white dome of Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Looking west you'll see the metropolitan business district of La Défense with it's own Grande Arche, a modern counterpart to the Arch de Triumphe. And of course, to the south, you can't miss the Eiffel Tower. I recommend visiting an hour or two before sunset, when the city takes on a golden glow and and the trees cast long shadows over the wide boulevards and architecture.