Netherlands In a Nutshell: A Train Tour Through Amsterdam, Utrecht and Rotterdam

Greying skies and a light drizzle met us off the ferry at Europoort – standard Dutch weather of course, helping us feel right at home, having travelled from Manchester, the rainy city in the North. Perhaps not the welcome we had hoped for, but we’d come prepared for showers on our short break to The Netherlands. That said, I don’t suppose flat greying expanse of Europoort looks much better in the sunshine! Still, rain macs packed, and a very sad looking damp dog trailing along with us (Pablo’s mood is very much influenced by the weather), we were here and ready to begin our dog-friendly, food focused trip around Rotterdam, Utrecht and Amsterdam.

Rotterdam

What to see in Rotterdam

Kubuswoningen – Rotterdam’s Cube Houses

It’s one of my biggest regrets of my trip that I didn’t allocate more time to Rotterdam. I’d originally built a couple of hours for the city into my itinerary, all because I didn’t want to pass through Rotterdam and only see the Central Station. The one major thing on my list? Photographing one of Rotterdam’s most eccentric pieces of architecture – the yellow cube houses!
The cube houses in Rotterdam were designed and built in the 1970’s as a unique solution to a space problem; creating liveable homes on top of a pedestrian bridge. The angled cube idea was born from thoughts of constructing an ‘urban forest’; a cluster of canary-yellow abstract trees – the concept becomes more apparent when you enter the courtyard, and the circle of cube houses tilt inwards, mimicking a forest canopy. We only managed to see them from the exterior and I’d have loved to have taken a tour inside to get a feel for how the space actually functions as a proper home, as it’s possible to do! (you can book tours of the The Kijk-Kubus or ‘Show Cube’).

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Eating and Drinking in Rotterdam

Rotterdam’s Markthal

Rotterdam is absolutely slaying it on the architectural front, as right across the road from the cube houses is the famous Market Hall. In contrast to the surrounding buildings; all clean-lined, concrete cubes, this gargantuan curved archway, reminiscent of an airplane hangar makes a seriously bold statement. Venturing inside, and this is before you even acknowledge the food offerings, look up! The coolest bit about Rotterdam’s Market Hall is the crazy and colourful printed ceiling, with thirty foot sunflowers and out-sized birds.
But now onto the food… almost an impossible decision when you have a seemingly endless choice. Cured hams, Spanish tapas, French fries, ice creams, doughnuts, Middle-Eastern dishes, burgers, pasta… we went with a fried calamari plate rounded off with a freshly made salted caramel Stroopwafel at the stall opposite. No regrets.

Utrecht

What to see in Utrecht

Postcard perfect canals, Miffy and a hell of a lot of bikes

It’s only been in the last few years where I’ve started to really understand my travel tastes, and I knew before I came to Utrecht that this city would tick a lot of boxes for me. Utrecht is The Netherlands fourth largest city, but it’s still very compact and retains a lot of it’s quaint charm – often considered ‘like an Amsterdam, but in miniature’. I’ve noticed that it’s often the smaller cities that often top my ‘favourites’ list.
If you’re seeking a ‘hidden gem’ in The Netherlands though, Utrecht isn’t it. This picturesque city is far from being ‘under the radar’ as it now see’s it’s own fair share of international tourists. That said, when compared to Amsterdam, a huge player on the tourist stage, it’s going to be a hell of a lot lighter on the normal tourist fodder. Give it another couple of years though, and I think Utrecht’s going to be welcoming more and more of us as the word gets around.

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Our itinerary for Utrecht was mainly focused on sightseeing the city by foot; milling about the main canal and enjoying the cute Dutch architecture, however there wasn’t a chance I was going to miss seeing Utrecht’s very own Miffy Pedestrian Crossing light! Miffy is everyone’s favourite Dutch icon; ‘born’ in Utrecht from creator Dick Bruna. The Miff Traffic Light isn’t the only bunny related attraction in the city; Miffy fans can find traces of the cartoon rabbit all over the place, including at the Miffy museum.
Also, different topic, but sticking with the slightly quirkier ‘tourist’ attractions, Utrecht boasts the largest bike store in the world, which sits under the newly renovated Utrecht station. Gotta be said, probably the best bike store you’ll likely ever see.
The biggest draw for me though was just having the chance to mill about by the canals and in the beautiful squares. Our stop over in Utrecht was the pause-break we needed to relax and kick-back.

Eating and Drinking in Utrecht

Bitterballen at Belgisch Biercafé Olivier Utrecht

Hands down, my favourite bar from the whole trip. Welcome to Olivier. They even have their own resident cat, much to the annoyance of our miniature dachshund (I had to sneak off for feline cuddles; Pablo would have disowned me, had he have known).
This place is honestly worth a visit, just to have a look inside; a converted church complete with the alter, vaults and even an organ. But since you’re here, you must stay for the beer. Olivier has a really extensive beer menu with some superb Belgian varieties. This was the first time we’d tried Bitterballen (a type of Dutch fried meatballs), so we ordered it as a beer snack to go alongside our Tripel.

Drinks at Beers and Barrels

Again, I wish I’d spent more time in Utrecht; the city is crammed full of cool restaurants and bars, including many tucked down by water level in the old vaults. Beers and Barrels is a lively, dimly lit and super cosy basement bar that specialises in great beers and meat dishes. After stuffing ourselves with beer snacks at Olivier we couldn’t force down a burger as well. Such regrets!

Poffertjes at Vredenburg Market

On our second day in Utrecht we headed over to Vredenburg where they were holding a street food market. If it wasn’t pre-noon I’d have probably tried more, but enjoying a deliciously unhealthy breakfast I opted for some Dutch Mini Pancakes (Poffertjes), in a traditional style; dusted with icing sugar and topped with butter! Perfect!

Amsterdam

What to see in Amsterdam?

Take A Boat Trip on the Canal

Having first visited Amsterdam over a decade ago as a eighteen year old University student on a budget mini-cruise, I felt as though I didn’t have any ‘real’ memories of the city. Sure, I would say that I’d *been* to Amsterdam, but does having a hot chocolate at a non-descript café near the station, taking a lot of NSFW selfies at the Sex Museum and finishing off the four-hour long trip with a tour of the Heineken brewery, really ‘count’ as such? Some real genuine Dutch experiences there, huh Michaela?
Second time around, I had a smidgen more time to play with. Of course, with us traveling with our dog, we gave places like the Anne Frank House and the Rijkmeusum a miss, but we didn’t feel as though we were missing out by opting to explore the city on foot and then choosing to take a boat tour to discover Amsterdam from the canals.
Booking a boat tour was the most expensive thing we did on our Netherlands trip (a steep 21 Euros each). We even paid a little extra to take a smaller ‘open’ boat, captained by a local guide, rather than learning about Amsterdam through an audio guide. Honestly? Best decision by far.
Our skipper was a friendly, funny Dutch local with a wickedly dry sense of humour and a clear unwavering passion for Amsterdam and The Netherlands. The 90 minute tour of Amsterdam’s waterways took us via some of the smaller canals as well as past some of the city’s more famous sights. The boat-chat was diverse, ranging from standard canal-talk; looking at the history and unique architecture of the city, to the more meaty subjects such as the effects of gentrification, thoughts about Airbnb in Amsterdam, legalisation of marijuana, why we’re all lying about ‘what we’re really here for’ and the Dutch relationship with mayonnaise on frites; “fucking drown em’ in it!” (We were encouraged to watch Pulp Fiction as our homework).
A Boat trip was easily the quickest and nicest way to sightsee some of the big sights in Amsterdam centre, such as the Dancing Houses, Rembrandt’s House, the oldest house boat in Amsterdam, and even the Zoo!

Eating and Drinking in Amsterdam

Dutch Craft Beers at Brouwerij ‘t IJ, Biercafe Gollem and Het Elfde Gebod

From our hotel in Waterlooplein we were only a short distance from Amsterdam’s only windmill which doubles up as a brewery; Brouwerij ‘t IJ. It’s a very well known brewery from Amsterdam, but our tour guide from earlier joked that tourists just can’t pronounce the name, so we are best off pointing at it or ordering the ‘ostrich’ beer – in reference to their quirky logo. Anyway, the ostrich beer tastes good. Try for yourself an order a beer flight for under 10 Euros.
Quickly establishing a theme for our day in Amsterdam we moved from the brewery down to the west side of the city near the Singel canal, one of Amsterdam’s most famous and stretches of canal. Just off to one side is Biercafe Gollem on Raamsteeg where we stayed for much longer than planned. Despite it’s strange name, this traditional Dutch pub is super welcoming and the bartenders relished in recommending different beers from all over Europe. Since I stuck to Belgian beers in Utrecht, I consciously picked only Dutch beers in Amsterdam – say ‘Hi’ to the newest fan of Oedipus beers!
After an extended session there, we went East and struck gold in Het Elfde Gebod, to continue the craft beer evening.

Stroopwafels at Van Wonderen

By this point in the trip, my body had acclimatised to it’s daily Stroopwafel, so I began to crave the caramel syrup. I’d heard about van Wonderen, unfortunately so had a few dozen other people, so the queue was snaking its way out the door. Persevering with the crowds I eventually picked up a large freshly-made Stroopwafel dipped in melted chocolate and ginger biscuit crumbs. As beautiful as it looked and as good as it tasted, the price point was much higher than other wafel houses, and to give my honest opinion we probably should have saved a few Euros and our time and gone elsewhere. Stroopwafels are stroopwafels…

Try Beef Krokets at Valsetten Frites

I can’t be the only one who didn’t know about the Dutch obsession with krokets? Regardless, I am now overjoyed to have these in my life! And don’t @ me, but yes, I did try a McKroket from McDonalds, okay? I get mild amusement from trying the different variations of a McDonalds menu when I’m abroad. When I asked for two McKrokets, my server actually cackled and belted out ‘great choice!’, a little too enthusiastically – so I’m guessing that’s me reaching peak-tourist. No shame! 
That aside, I did also head over to Valsetten Frites, for a take-out Beef Kroket in a bread roll. The guy behind the counter handed us each a packet of mustard and instructed us to ‘squash’ the krokut in the bun before eating, if we wanted to chow down on it in the ‘Dutch fashion’. Verdict? Infinitely better than the Golden Arches.

The Netherlands: The Logistics

Dog Friendly Travel from the UK to The Netherlands

For our dog friendly holiday, it’s never completely straightforward travelling with a dog from the UK to Europe. Usually we take our car and travel via the Eurotunnel which is pretty easy and quick. As we didn’t want to take our car this time, our options were limited, but we ended up booking the P&O Hull to Rotterdam route (overnight ferry crossing) as foot passengers with a dog kennel.
Travelling by ferry is not my favourite mode of transport, as it tends to be quite long, basic and not very cheap. It helps when you’re travelling overnight as the time flies, but I’m always a little disorientated when I disembark.
Still, the Hull to Rotterdam crossing got us from A to B and even though it was little more complex travelling ‘sans’ car, as foot passengers with a dog, we did manage to get to Rotterdam without too much hassle.
At the moment, if you’re travelling with a dog as a foot passenger, your pet needs to be booked into the onboard kennels on the car deck, which are basic but secure. We were allowed to check on him as long as we were escorted by a staff member. We were told that P&O were going to start offering dog-friendly cabins, which, if true, is fantastic news!

Dog Friendly Accommodation in The Netherlands

We stayed one night in the dog friendly ibis in Utrecht, which was a 20 minute walk from the central station and in a quiet residential area. In Amsterdam we chose the Motel One in Waterlooplein – it was important for us to be within walking distance of all the main sights. I’m yet to be disappointed with a Motel One, they’re always great value, super comfortable and really well designed. We booked both of these through Booking.com, which has a ‘pets allowed’ toggle to search for dog friendly accommodation. I love it; we never have any problems with finding hotels that allow Pablo, as continental Europe is very accepting of guests with pets.

Getting around The Netherlands by Train

Getting around the Netherlands by train is very easy, if a little more expensive than other European countries. We didn’t pre-book any travel but instead looked up the train times on the day via Trainline.eu and paid for our tickets direct at the station.
The Netherlands is a super compact country and you’ll never have to waste much time on public transport getting from city to city: Rotterdam to Utrecht is 38 minutes, Utrecht to Amsterdam is only 26 minutes and finally Amsterdam back to Rotterdam is around 40 minutes to an hour.
Pablo, our dog was free on all trains because he was able to sit on our lap or in a bag (the criteria for free pet travel across The Netherlands). Larger dogs are required to carry a ticket (around 3 Euro).

So yes, my Dutch adventure was a success, based on my loose criteria that I left The Netherlands feeling full and happy! Sure, this style of ‘fast’ travel wouldn’t be for everyone but I really enjoyed dipping my toes into Rotterdam, Utrecht and Amsterdam, getting a feel for each city and of course, trying all the Dutch food!

Have you ever been to Rotterdam, Utrecht or Amsterdam? Ever done a rail-adventure around a country? Ever thought about travelling with your dog? 

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Writer of This F.P. Planet travel blog. Proud dachshund mother. A Real weakness for craft beer and cheese boards...

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