A famous Dutch city that’s full of surprises

With nearly 50 million people arriving each year on more than 100 different airlines, the first thing I noticed at Schiphol Airport is how Amsterdam brings together people from all over the world.

Far from its loose reputation as a mecca for druggies, this Netherlands capital is a metropolis of art museums and historic houses mixed with cheesy souvenir shops down alleys straight out of a Harry Potter movie. Indeed, there seems to be something for everyone in this city of approximately one million that serves as a jumping off point for Europe, the middle Eat and beyond.

It seemed as if this Dutch city was laid out before me as I left Amsterdam Centraal, the brick behemoth serving as the main train station. I do not speak Dutch so I approached this trip with some trepidation but quickly found that there is no language barrier as the locals are friendly and nearly all of them speak English. In a store on Nieuwendijk, one of the many walkable streets in the city’s urban core, I heard two employees speaking to each other in English…so even the Dutch don’t always speak Dutch.

“Watch out for the bikers” is the pre-trip warning I received from a friend when I mentioned I was visiting Amsterdam. It became immediately apparent that was sage advice: the city is full of people trying to navigate the streets on bikes, scooters and motorcycles.

At the same time, cars zigzag over Tramkaart lines (the city’s public train system) so crossing the street can be a dizzying experience. I also passed a “coffee shop” down the first alley I navigated, which I learned is code for a place to get marijuana. (If you really want coffee, seek out a café.)

A couple of questions and a map later, I took in some of the row houses leaning in the soft soil as I made my way down the canal lined streets to the Anne Frank House. Opened as a museum in 1960, visitors can walk through this unassuming warehouse where workers attended to their business completely unaware of the eight people hiding upstairs during World War II.

It’s an incredibly moving experience to stand in the actual room where one of the world’s most famous books was written amid her family’s desperate struggle to survive the horrors of the Holocaust.

Conveniently, the city’s two main art museums are located within one block of each other and both have reopened after extensive renovations. The Rijksmuseum, first opened in 1885, brims with paintings from Dutch masters including Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” and Vermeer’s “Milkmaid.”

If tortured souls who drink absinthe and cut off their ears intrigue you, you can see classics like Zonnebloemen (Sunflowers) and Zonsondergang bij Montmajour (Sunset at Montmajour) at the Van Gogh Museum. And what would a trip to Amsterdam be without an obligatory windmill reference? The most impressive one I saw was the De Gooyer Windmill, built in 1725 and the tallest one in the city.

I visited in December, when the temperature was a moderate 45 degrees but daylight hours were short. Standing on the train station platform, I noticed most women were wearing fashion scarves and boots and, as in the United States, nearly everyone was looking down at their smartphone. (Although “mobile” is the term they more commonly use for cell phone, as in “just call me on my mobile.”)

Public bathrooms can be hard to find and every one I used charged around 50 Eurocents for the privilege. Some train station bathrooms are not heated and the water in the sink is ice cold, which makes you answer nature’s call in a hurry!

Starbucks is incredibly prevalent although orange flavored drinks seemed to replace the peppermint specialties found around the holidays in Minnesota, my home state.

One of the culinary delights in Amsterdam is the abundance of Indonesian food, a legacy of Holland’s colonial days. Located on Rembrandtplein (“plein” is Dutch for “square”), Indrapura Restaurant serves rijsttafel or “rice table,” an enormous selection of samples ranging from minced chicken and shrimp to fried potatoes and pickled vegetables. Each comes in a small saucer that is placed on a stainless steel pallet with gas burners underneath to keep the food warm.

I was also delighted to see peanut butter as an option for breakfast, something that can be hard to find in other parts of Europe.

As I entered the train station to return to Schiphol and ultimately the United States, I stopped to turn around for one last glimpse at the city laid out in front of me.

With almost 100 gates, the arrival and departures board at the airport can be overwhelming. Over the loudspeaker I hear, “Miss Vander Zaden on flight 546 to Dubai, you are delaying the flight.” Yes, you never know what you’ll see or hear in this crossroads of the world.