The Netherlands is well-known for well, tulips and clogs and cheese and uh coffeeshops that don’t sell coffee. However, it is also a very beautiful and safe country to travel in (arguably outside of Amsterdam), and perfect for first-time solo travellers.
For my 9-day trip from London where I am based at the moment, I flew in via Eindhoven, took the train up to Rotterdam, and began my journey in earnest from there, making my bases in The Hague, Utrecht, and Amsterdam.
Obviously, people mainly speak Dutch, but virtually everyone is fluent in English. In fact, you’ll find the best non-native English speakers in the world in this lovely little lowland.
Now, the Netherlands is known throughout the world for their cycling citizens, but they also have a pretty darn good national railway company. It is confusing at first glance, but trust me, everything makes sense once you’re there. So first things first, I’d recommend getting an ov-chipkaart as soon as you possibly can. Head immediately to a yellow and blue shop at any railway station. It’s usually headed with Information / Tickets / Ticket Winkel (very useful Dutch word to know – it means shop). The card costs €7.50, but if you’re making more than 8 individual trips on any form of public transportation, you’ll save money – anyone without a chipkaart pays €1.00 extra for a ticket. If you’re doing most of your travelling by train, I’d suggest immediately topping up with €50.00, because you need to have a minimum amount of €20.00 in your card in order to pass through the gantries. Unfortunately, it is also quite expensive to travel by rail, so you’ll find yourself having to top-up again pretty soon.
Having taken trains in the UK, France and in Belgium, what I like about trains in the Netherlands is that it is absolutely safe to be sitting alone in a compartment (can’t say that for the Belgian ones, unfortunately). Almost all of my rides had a ticket inspector (which is bad for fare evaders, but makes sure that there are no opportunistic beggars harassing you for cash).
Topping up your chipkaart is easy. Just go to the ticket shop and state the value you want in the card. If it’s closed, you’ll have a bit of trouble if you’re out of spare change – the ticket machines only accept coins. If this happens, you need a bit of luck on your side. I went into a HEMA shop at the station and asked the cashier if she could change my Euro note into coins for me. And she graciously agreed. Phew. If this doesn’t work out for you, you’ll have to rely on the sympathy of strangers to see if they’ll be willing to help you top-up with their Dutch bank cards.
At the end of your trip, assuming that you end your journey at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, you can get whatever amount you have left in your card back – for a small fee of €1.00 at the ticket counters. I know, but it’s better than having more than €20.00 sitting in there. I’m sure you can get your money back at all other counters in the country, but be wary of their opening hours.
Cars drive on the right, as is the usual in Europe (don’t know what’s with Britain). Compared to Londoners, the Dutch are more gracious when it comes to road etiquette. However, as a pedestrian, you have to be responsible for your own safety. Bikes normally come zooming down the road at insane speeds, and it is hard for riders to swerve or do an emergency brake without endangering their own lives. So look both ways before you cross, and look out for hand signals from riders – left arm out means turning left, and right arm out turning right. In my experience, people generally follow the lights, but my Airbnb host told me nobody does that. So play by ear when it comes to crossing, but I’d err on the side of safety.
You won’t miss Albert Heijn. It’s literally everywhere. I first fell in love with this supermarket chain in Ghent, because compared to Carrefour Express in Belgium, things are a great deal less expensive. Look out for the blue AH signs and people carrying their signature blue shopping bags. It is, however, quite expensive compared to budget choices like Aldi and Lidl, but great for convenience. They have great cheese and special offers, and the cashiers are very very nice to tourists.
Other grocery-shopping choices include Jumbo and Plus, but I’ve only seen them once each in Utrecht.
Having been in London for the past four months, I’ve found eating out in the Netherlands to be quite reasonable for your wallet. But I usually buy from food stands and takeaway stalls, so that could explain it. Be sure to try the raw herring – it’s as delicious as they say, and perfect if you fancy raw fish. But my favourite has to be kibbeling – fried fish in spiced batter with tartar sauce. It’s amazing, smoking hot and oh-so-sweet, especially on a cold, wet day. Other than that, fries with oorlog sauce (mayo and satay sauce with a sprinkling of raw onions), and of course, fresh stroopwafels make the list of must-eats in the Netherlands.
Museums and Attractions
This is where most of your expenses will go. Museums in the Netherlands are exorbitantly priced. With free museums all over London, this was a rude shock to me. It costs €11.00 for students to get into the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, €11.00 for Mauritshuis in The Hague, and a whopping €17.00 to jostle with the crowds at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Audioguide excluded. If you’re not a superfan of the artworks, I’d suggest skipping the €5.00 guides and making your own way around the museum. Many of the works are equipped with well-written descriptions. Bless the Dutch and their virtually perfect command of the English language.
However, if you have a smartphone, do download the Mauritshuis app for a free audioguide. There is excellent free wifi in the museum for this purpose. It’s a bloody fantastic app, and you’re free to go for the highlights or just wander around listening to descriptions of the paintings that you fancy.
The Netherlands is a very safe place to travel alone. The streets are clean and there is a distinct lack of social problems, e.g. homelessness, as compared to other European cities. I was only approached for spare change once in my entire trip, and no drunken people were out shouting on the streets at night.
The Dutch love their visitors (or at least are able to pretend they do). Any passing interest in Dutch culture and lifestyle is appreciated, and they’ll make the effort to acquaint you with more interesting nuggets of information. For example, I learnt that pepernoten (deliciously addictive spiced cookies) is only sold at Christmastime, and it’s used as a lure for Santa Claus (you put it into your stocking). Also, Santa has a highly-problematic assistant called Black Pete, and the Dutch are torn between wanting to keep their tradition and being progressive.
Service staff and cashiers always wish you a nice evening in English once they glean that you’re a tourist.
However, there is a certain degree of racism (as it is everywhere in Europe. Now, I am a Singaporean of Chinese descent, and while the things people say to me aren’t as hurtful as slurs hurled at other races, they are annoying at best. Loads of “nihao” and “where are you from” accompanied by condescending or leery gazes. Also “nihaonihaonihao” spat at your feet. Or “China”, “Cheeneese”, and any other variations of the word “Chinese” possible. A group of young male tourists walking behind me at the Albert Cuypmarkt in Amsterdam were saying things about the market turning into Chinatown (I was the only Asian at that point in a 10 m radius) and speculating on the reason a Chinese person would go to a market on a weekend (first, stop assuming that every Chinese-looking person is from China; second, the answer: the same reason you do – for food and a glimpse of culture). I didn’t want to waste my energy telling them to sod off. I’ve also met a Chinese girl at a hostel who was followed by a car full of guys calling out “Where are you from?” while she was walking on the streets of Rotterdam. The harsh truth of the situation is this: most of these perpetrators are white tourists or members of other minority groups. This is NOT to lump them all into a bad group, but you just have to be aware that if you look Chinese, you do not sit nicely with even the other minorities in Europe. It sucks to think that everybody hates you because of certain things associated with Chinese tourists. Whenever these things happen, I begin thinking maybe my having small eyes is an offence in itself.
Nevertheless, this shouldn’t throw you off travelling altogether, because the Dutch are extremely friendly to solo travellers and especially when they realise you can’t speak Dutch. In fact, they’re very happy to converse with you in English, and are very helpful should you need assistance. My trip to the Netherlands has been one of the best trips I’ve taken, because I’ve never felt any threat to my safety and also because of the overwhelming friendliness of the people.
The Netherlands is NOT a cheap destination. Accommodation gets booked out months in advance, especially in spring, when every traveller flocks to see the tulips. For my trip, I stayed mostly in hostels, but also in Airbnbs when hostel beds cost more than those. On hindsight, it was an extremely good decision, because my hosts were very hospitable and gave very good advice on places to visit. I was even taken on a night-time walk around a neighbourhood in Utrecht to see different Dutch houses, and that was pretty memorable.
As a guide, a decent hostel costs €25.00 per night, even soaring above €70.00 in Amsterdam during peak seasons, and Airbnbs range from €25.00 upwards. If you like having a bit of downtime, I’d recommend staying out of Amsterdam city centre (hint: it’s also cheaper!).
For meals, I usually go for takeaways that cost under €5.00, and visit the supermarket most of the time. Even so, I’d recommend setting aside at least €50.00 per day, because the cost catches up on you unawares. If you’re not a fan of museums, good news for you, you can greatly reduce the amount spent on sightseeing. Be sure to take along some emergency cash though, keeping in mind that you need a €20.00 deposit for your chipkaart and in case of any emergencies. You definitely don’t want to go asking for money from strangers on the street. It’s just not nice when there are others who need the cash more than you do.