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Frommer's EasyGuide to Amsterdam, Brussels and Bruges

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Arthur Frommer's Easy Guides are designed to respond to travel decisions, and large numbers of travelers decide to follow a visit to Amsterdam with excursions to Brussels and Bruges. Together, the three cities provide a fascinating insight into both contemporary and ancient Europe. The modern lifestyles of the Dutch are on display in an awesome seventeenth century setting, while Brussels and especially Bruges are windows into an even earlier time. Sasha Heseltine captures both aspects of three remarkable European attractions.

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1 The Best of Amsterdam, Brussels & Bruges

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The Best of amsterdam, brussels & bruges

Although they’re miniscule countries, and neighbors at that, Belgium and The Netherlands are light years away from each other in culture, language, and tradition. Belgium is fractured along an historical divide, expressed in the constant regional and political bickering between Dutch- and Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north and French-speaking Wallonia in the south. The Netherlands is also ruptured, but only geographically, between three great rivers: the Maas, the Waal, and the Rhine.

Diversity is the greatest asset of The Netherlands and Belgium, a state of affairs reflected in the three great cities of Amsterdam, Brussels, and Bruges. Amsterdam is tolerant, open-minded and accepting of its multiracial heritage. Brussels is fast catching up, with the presence of the E.U. headquarters turning parts of the city into a polyglot almost as cosmopolitan as London. And delightful little Bruges sits back and looks beautiful, its multilingual natives graciously welcoming of the onslaught of mass tourism that each summer brings.

 

2 Amsterdam, Brussels & Bruges in Context

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amsterdam, brussels & bruges in Context

Despite being buffeted by the worldwide economic storms associated with the early 2010s, both The Netherlands and Belgium escaped lightly in comparison with their Mediterranean counterparts. Both countries continue to enjoy an enviable standard of living and a quality of life that happily reflects that. Their societies become more multicultural by the day—a development that’s seen most clearly in the region’s main metropolises of Amsterdam and Brussels—and these countries are among the most urbanized on earth. For the most part, this has only added to their contemporary vibrancy, but the process has not been without stress. Even Amsterdam’s famed tolerance is showing signs of strain as civic leaders press to clean up the Red Light District and limit the sale of drugs in the coffee shops (p. 111).

Belgium is a small country. Not so small that if you blink you’ll miss it, like neighboring Luxembourg, but small enough that a couple of hours of focused driving will get you from the capital city Brussels to any corner of its realm. Yet the variety of culture, language, history, and cuisine crammed into this meager space would do credit to a land many times its size. Belgium’s diversity is a product of its location at the cultural crossroads of western Europe. The boundary between Europe’s Germanic north and Latin-language-speaking south cuts clear across the country’s middle; the clash of culture has come home to roost in Brussels, where street signage is multilingual although the language most heard in the streets is French.

 

3 Suggested Itineraries

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Suggested Itineraries

The quintessential Belgium and Holland experience is an urban one; not many foreign visitors come for the Belgian beaches and even fewer for the Dutch mountains. On the other hand, their main cities—big and small—stand out even among Europe’s gloriously over-endowed cities for their cultural and historical glories. This doesn’t mean there are no places of scenic beauty; there are many, from the rolling hills of the Belgian Ardennes to the dune-backed North Sea islands of The Netherlands, but they don’t always feature highly on tourist itineraries.

Getting around Belgium and Holland is remarkably easy, both on the intense network of high-speed Thalys or an InterCity Express and by road, although the main arteries are becoming increasingly choked with heavy-goods vehicles and commuter traffic. What will be difficult is sandwiching everything you want to see into your itinerary, so bring as much time with you as you can afford; plan carefully; book tickets online ahead of time for the Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam, plus the Ridderzaal in The Hague; and book a multi-based vacation to see even more of The Netherlands and Belgium.

 

4 Amsterdam

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AMSTERDAM

Open-hearted, welcoming, and prosperous, Amsterdam is a good-time city that merrily opens its arms to all comers. It embraces its tourists, its cyclists, its boat-folk, and its multi-cultural community. It is friendly, unflappable, and approachable; a city confident in its own skin but with one eye fixed on the future, buzzing with creativity and bonhomie.

But it is also a city of surreal juxtapositions; an elegant cityscape of 165 waterways, 1,280 bridges, and thousands of venerable 17th-century mansions exist side by side with the sleazy alleyways of the Red Light District. A city with some of the most impressive art museums in the world that tolerates sex clubs and dope smoking; that has one of Europe’s best concert halls but also a gritty nighttime scene springing up around Westerpark and NDSM-Wharf; and a city that offers Michelin-starred restaurants alongside grungy brown cafes.

It’s a long-outdated cliché to regard Amsterdam as some sort of latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah, for the winds of change are blowing through the streets. Tolerance may be embedded deeply in the Dutch psyche, but even the most open-minded of people can run out of patience. The very existence of Amsterdam’s notorious coffee shops and red-light haunts is now threatened as the city fathers toil to improve its quality of life; druggie haunts have been closed down as have some of the prostitutes’ infamous windows, and smart restaurants, bars, and upmarket independent stores are starting to move in to the pretty side streets of the Rosse Buurt (Red Light District), which ironically hides some of the most unspoiled architecture in Amsterdam.

 

5 Side Trips from Amsterdam

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side Trips from amsterdam

The Netherlands may start with Amsterdam, but it certainly doesn’t end there. This crowded little country has much more up its sleeve, from the stately pleasures of genteel Hague, which is after all the country’s political capital, to the laid-back charm of Haarlem. You can step back in time to visit a Holland almost forgotten at the open-air museums of Zuiderzee and Zaanse Schans, or look to the future among the gritty, urban architecture of Rotterdam. There are chart-topping art museums to discover in virtually every city, beaches to stroll in Scheveningen, and blazes of color to admire in the bulb fields of Lisse.

Most of the side trips suggested below can be achieved as a day out from Amsterdam; however if you really want to get a feel for the ultra-modern vibe of Rotterdam or the provincial gentility of The Hague, then a stay of at least 1 night is recommended, so a couple of eating and sleeping options have been included in both cities. You might choose to spend an entire day among the flower displays at Keukenhof (only open btwn. Mar and May) but others may prefer to see iconic Holland in a day, combining Keukenhof with a visit to the exceptional Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem. Likewise a jaunt to the pottery factory at Delft or the botanical gardens at Leiden can easily be appended to a stay in either The Hague or Rotterdam.

 

6 Brussels

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brussels

Brussels was kicked into the world spotlight when it became the capital city of the European Union in 1992. This is an honor that has both brought great wealth to parts of the city and caused decades of aggravation as fine old neighborhoods were torn down to make way for the soulless contemporary architecture of the E.U. quarter as well as the building of sometimes unnecessary boulevards to improve commuting time through the city.

So the Bruxellois have mixed feelings about their city’s transformation into an international power center. At first the waves of Eurocrats swelling the residential ranks brought a cosmopolitan air—and money—to somewhat provincial Brussels, but many people nowadays wonder whether the city has lost its soul. After all, this city doesn’t only mean politics and business. This is the place that inspired Art Nouveau and Surrealism; it worships comic strips, and prides itself on its ancient skills with handmade lace. It has one of the most glorious art galleries in the world as well as countless other enticing museums. Brussels is a gourmet destination, famed the world over for its haute cuisine, fine confectionary, and craft beers.

 

7 Bruges

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bruges

Graceful Bruges has drifted down the stream of time with all the self-possession of the swans that cruise its canals. To step into the old town is to be transported back to the Middle Ages, when Bruges (Brugge in Dutch) was among the wealthiest powerbases in Europe. Despite the city’s turbulent past and two world wars fought around it, Bruges and its glorious monumental buildings have remained untouched by the passage of time; it’s so picture-book perfect that in 2000, UNESCO awarded the entire city center World Cultural Heritage status.

Bruges is the capital town of West-Vlaanderen (West Flanders) province, and is the pride and joy of all Flanders. Medieval Gothic architecture is the real deal here, along with a layer of Romanesque; a touch of Renaissance, baroque, and rococo; a dab of neoclassical and neo-Gothic; and a smidgeon of Art Nouveau and Art Deco. But Gothic is what Bruges does best, in quantities that come near to numbing the senses—and likely would do so if it wasn’t for the distraction of the city’s contemporary animation. To what does it owe its Gothic glamor? In the 15th century, Bruges was a center for Hanseatic League trading, and with the growth of its wealth it acquired the rich heritage of civic buildings that you see today: guildhalls, exchanges, warehouses, and the residences of wealthy merchants.

 

8 Side Trips from Brussels & Bruges

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side trips from Brussels & Bruges

Brussels and Bruges may be Belgium’s Big Two visitor destinations, but to ignore the delights of other cities would be doing both yourself and this cultured country a huge disservice. Although not many places can match Bruges for sheer medieval good looks, Ghent and Antwerp make a jolly good attempt, and many Belgians consider them the true heartland of Flemish culture; certainly when it comes to contemporary dynamism, they are hands-down winners.

Historic Mons is the capital of French-speaking Hainaut, the green and pleasant, lake-speckled land that stretches along most of Belgium’s border with France. 2015 sees the city take on the mantle of European City of Culture for the year, so this polished little city has been all spruced up. Geared up as a partner city in this City of Culture honor is handkerchief-size Mechelen in Flanders—your chance to discover a hitherto little-known Flemish treasure house. And given that the years 2014 through 2018 see the centenary of World War I, now’s an appropriate time to attend the emotional Last Post service in Ypres to commemorate those who died in the trenches of Flanders Fields.

 

9 Planning Your Trip

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Planning Your Trip

Granted, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Bruges are not hard cities to come to grips with; they are containable in size, they have excellent public transportation systems, and most people speak English. Nevertheless, all trips overseas benefit from some advance planning, whether it is organizing accommodations or making a sightseeing itinerary. This chapter is designed to help you on your way, but don’t forget, if you get stuck, the local tourist organizations in all three cities pride themselves on being able to solve any conceivable travel conundrum.

The information in this chapter is intended to cover trips to all three cities so it’s valuable reading whether you are visiting one, two, or all three of them. Yet, close together though they are, each city has its own unique traits. For additional help in planning your trip—when to go, what the weather’s like—and for more specific on-the-ground resources in Amsterdam, Brussels, and Bruges, see the “Essentials” and “Fast Facts” sections in chapters 4, 6, and 7.

 

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