Amsterdam – Exploring the city on a short morning layover

(Note: I wrote this on the plane right after leaving the city, and only just got around to publishing it now — almost a year later.)

This morning, en route back to the US for the summer from Astana, I was stamped into my 30th country, the Netherlands. I booked a KLM flight from Astana to Detroit with a 7 hour layover in Amsterdam, and with that much time its insane not to go into the city and wander around the old city centre.

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Taking the train from the airport to Amsterdam Centraal station is probably the easiest airport-to-city transport experience ever. A return ticket from/to the airport is only 9.20€ and the trains depart from platforms under the arrivals hall. The airport also has tons of luggage storage options so you don’t have to lug around a carry on through the city.

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Dutch anarchists

Amsterdam Centraal station is very aptly named, as its in the heart of the historic city centre. Walking straight out of the station will lead you along the main street, Damrak, and its beautiful canals. If you are lucky like I was, you can see the buildings reflect off of the water like a mirror. It was a very calm morning with few people around which made the view all the better (but honestly who would be voluntarily be wandering around at 7:30 AM?).

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Following Damrak will take you to the Dam Square, and continuing roughly in the same direction from that point you’ll reach the Rijksmuseum and the famous IAMsterdam sign after crossing a few canals. Along the way you can stroll through the Bloemenmarket to see the tulips and tulip bulbs for sale from the surrounding countryside. If you are as lucky as I was, you may witness a bicyclist crashing into a Mini Cooper in what is quite possibly the most Dutch thing ever.

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Bloemenmarket

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Once you reach the museum, you’ll see that the park/square has a number of other musuems inside of it, such as the Momo Museum and the Van Gogh Museum. The Momo Museum had a Banksy exhibition and a couple of pieces were visible from the street, which was super cool (also free wifi that worked from the park outside).  Unfortunately, due to the early morning timing of my layover I wasn’t able to go into any of the museums and have enough time to make the ticket worthwhile.

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Rijksmuseum

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Banksy Museum

Running along the canals parallel to Damrak are a number of beautiful streets, including some which hold the infamous red light district. I walked along one of these roads on my way back to the train station, though this street mostly held restaurants with a few sex oriented businesses scattered about. The bulk of the district was one street/canal over, though I did see some of the stereotypical glass rooms as I was walking along (all empty, as business is probably not so great at 9 AM on a weekday – almost everyone wandering around were over 50 and in a tour group).

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I went back to the airport after about 3 hours of wandering around in order to make it back for my connecting flight. For anyone looking to explore the city on a layover — and you’d be crazy not to — be sure to be back at the airport 2.5 hours early because security is incredibly strict and slow. Immigration is quick and easy for US/Canadian/etc. citizens with self-service lanes, but the rest of the security process took seemingly forever (why is it necessary to remove every charger from bags?!), so don’t waste too much time on the land-side of the airport.

Frankfurt and Mainz – 24 hours in Germany

On August 8, 2016, I left the United States for a two year MA program in Astana, Kazakhstan.  This obviously isn’t the most common international grad school destination, so I’ll be writing a lot of later posts about life in the steppe.  However, right now I’d like to focus on what happened between that flight out of Chicago to when I landed in Astana.

I flew out of Chicago just before midnight on an overnight flight to Frankfurt, Germany on Lufthansa.  This was both my first flight on Lufthansa and my first visit to Germany.  I have to take a moment to mention that I managed to snag both the bulkhead seat AND and empty row for this flight, which is pretty much what everyone dreams of on an overnight transatlantic flight.  I managed to get some decent sleep with this arrangement, and I arrived in Frankfurt more refreshed than one normally is after such a flight.  Thus began my 24 hour layover in Germany.

When I originally booked my flight, I had intended to just book a hostel and wander around the city.  However, in a wonderful twist of fate, one of my best friends from my exchange program in Singapore over two years ago was living in the nearby city of Mainz for university.  Thanks to this, I got to visit a good friend acted like my personal German tour guide and gave me a free place to stay overnight.

My friend met me at the airport arrivals hall, and after a brief time finding the luggage storage desk, we took the train to central Frankfurt from the airport.  The train to the city is incredibly fast and easy to take, and I’d recommend it for anyone spending more than a few hours on a layover in the airport.  The train station itself was really cool, at least for someone who has only visited Europe once prior.  The industrial look in the inside is just something I really love.  The outside is also nice, though not the most beautiful building on the planet by any means.  It’s a relatively short walk from the train station to the city centre – literally just straight out the front door on the pedestrian street and then a few blocks.  The pedestrian street had food stalls, little shops, and hundreds of bicycles parked everywhere.

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Frankfurt train station

After about a 15 minute walk, we encountered the giant Euro statue in the park near the European Central Bank.  This thing is incredibly gaudy and I honestly don’t understand why it’s even necessary, but it did make for some striking photos.  The park marks the beginning of the financial district, where the shorter stereotypically European buildings shoot up into massive skyscrapers.

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We left the park after a few minutes and made our way toward Frankfurt Maintower, one of the city’s tallest buildings and home to an observation tower.  The ticket to the top was €6.50 and well worth it for the view.  You can see the entire urban sprawl and the surrounding landscape.  The juxtaposition of older style buildings with modern glass and metal skyscrapers is especially visible from this vantage point.  After a 15-20 minute visit we made our way back to the ground and toward the old city centre of Frankfurt.

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The old city from Maintower

After walking through a large plaza with a statue of Gutenberg, we turned into the curvy streets of the old centre.  This area is quite different from the rest of the city, with little sidewalk cafes, old style architecture, and even a painted chunk of the Berlin Wall from an art gallery.  The Goethe house museum, located in the famous author’s birthplace, is right on the edge of this district of the city, which we walked by but didn’t enter.  Just around the corner was entered St. Paul’s Church, which while no longer an active church, was the historic site where the German constitution was written.  There isn’t much original stuff left in the building as it was gutted during World War II, leaving only part of the outer structure intact.

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St. Paul’s Church and nearby monument

Just around the corner from the church is the centre of the old city, a square called Römerplatz.  This square is lined with German style buildings which were rebuilt, like the church, after being destroyed in WWII.  Along with the beautiful architecture, there’s also 17th century fountain and a 13th century church.  It would be very easy to sit in one of the cafes along this square and enjoy the views for quite a while.  It reminded me vaguely of a small scale version of Prague’s Old City, though nowhere near as grand.

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Römerplatz

There are many interesting streets and alleys which lead out of the square, one of which we took that led us to the riverbank and the Iron Footbridge, a pedestrian walkway across the Main River.  Rather than crossing the river, we ended up turning around and heading back into the old city to continue seeing the sites.  Our next stop was the Frankfurt Cathedral, another of the many post-WWII reconstructed buildings.  The inside looked very new and quite plain, though there were some hints of the deep history of the church in the traces of old murals along the walls.  After visiting the church, we took a short break at a nearby cafe to rest for a few minutes before trekking through the rest of the city.

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From the church plaza, we made our way toward Zeil Street, a well known shopping street in Frankfurt.  Along the way I was able to try my first German bratwurst, which was delicious with the brown bread and mustard.  The shopping street was packed with people, a stark contrast to the previous streets we had walked in the old centre.  While I had no interest in shopping, we did stop to admire the insane architecture of one of the My Ziel mall which had a huge wormhole built into it.  A short distance from this mall was the Main Guard Square, which is the main center of the city.  From this square you can again see the contrast of old and new architecture in the city.

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German bratwurst
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My Zeil mall
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Main Guard Square

Our last stop in Frankfurt was Eschenheim Tower, a building I noticed on my travel guide app that looked really interesting.  This tower was an old city gate that looks like it was transported out of a Disney movie castle.  It now sits in a small little park and apparently has a restaurant inside of it.  Once we stopped by the tower, we started heading back to the train station.  Along the way, we stumbled by the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, in front of which was a cute interpretation of the bull and bear statues.  We managed to make our way toward the opera house, which was a really beautiful building surrounded by a huge square with stunning architecture.

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Eschenheim Tower
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Frankfurt Opera House

As we walked along one of the main streets in the city, we wandered past the Deutsche Bank Twin Towers, which were strikingly beautiful as they reflected the deep blue sky and fluffy white clouds.  Since neither of us were entirely sure of how to get back to the train station in the best way, we ended up stumbling through Frankfurt’s red light district, which was incredibly bizarre for someone who has never lived somewhere where this was a normal thing.  Though there were few people there as it was early afternoon, the signage and hotel names were hilariously sexual, as if teenage boys came up with names that sounded erotic.  Thankfully the district is quite small and very near the train station, so we just made our way through quickly and hopped on a train to Mainz.

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Deutsche Bank Towers

Mainz is a quaint little university town not too far away from Frankfurt, and conveniently close to the airport.  This city is where Gutenberg invented the printing press, and as such it holds the Gutenberg Museum in the city centre.  The town is very walkable, and so we made our way along the beautiful old streets and I admired all the architecture.  We walked through this square with a crazy statue for Carnival in which everything is doing the opposite of what it should, like cats being in the water and fish flying in the air.

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Mainz city centre

In the centre of the city stands the most stunning piece of architecture in the city, Mainz Cathedral.  This church was founded in 975 CE, which is mind-blowing.  Interestingly, the church is constructed in different styles, including Romanesque, Baroque, and Gothic, due to various stages of construction over history.  The inside of the church is incredibly beautiful and holds an impressive collection of art.  Beneath the church are some ossuaries which hold the remains of archbishops and other significant figures from history.  There’s also a small courtyard inside of the church with gardens, around which are arched walkways with old statuary.

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Mainz Cathedral
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Inside the cathedral

As we continued walking in the city, we made our way to the Rhine River and walked along its bank for a while.  There is a very nice walking path along the river which makes for a pleasant stroll by the water, and there were many people taking advantage of it.  After a short walk along the river, we headed into another part of the old city.  There was this very interesting building which had been painted to look quite old, and the sign on it said that the town had been there since 500 CE.  I though the church was already old, so this part of the city just blew my mind.  My friend didn’t even think about how old everything was, while I was pointing out all of the years on the signs we walked by.

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Sunset over the Rhine
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The town has been here since 500 CE

Not far from this building was the shopping district and primarily pedestrian part of the city.  The buildings in this area look very similar to the Römerplatz in Frankfurt but a lot less touristy.  They hold shops and restaurants which were not really aimed at tourists like those in Frankfurt, which was a nice change.  As we walked through here at sunset, the colors on the buildings were wonderful and the atmosphere was perfect.  Because we walked so much in the city so I could see everything in the daylight, we missed our opportunity to get dinner at a lot of places in the city.  Since there were few options, I ended up eating a sampler platter of local cheeses and pretzels — something I can’t really complain about, as it was pretty good.  The first was called Spundekäse, which was like a whipped and creamy cheese, while the second was called Mainzer Handkäse, which was a local specialty cheese that was marinated in vinegar with onions.  I was given a sampler platter with half portions of each cheese and it was entirely too much cheese for one person to consume, though I did my best to do it anyway.

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Old city architecture
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Cheese dinner

The following morning, after eating a wonderful breakfast of fresh local rolls and butterkäse, we set out to walk around the city for an hour or so before I had to return to the airport.  It was then that we visited the church, as it had been closed before our arrival the prior evening.  This took up most of our time as the building is huge and there is a lot to see.  After that, however, we walked back toward the train station where we took the 20 minute ride back to the airport.  After I grabbed my bag from the luggage storage desk, my friend helped me get to the proper gate and terminal for my flight before we parted ways (and I encountered the most frustrating security line ever).

Though I was only in Germany for 24 hours, I feel like I had a really good visit and saw quite a bit of the Frankfurt area.  I hope to be able to visit Germany again soon, but this trip was a great teaser of what a future trip could hold.