I read an article about how the preparation and anticipation for a trip brings you almost as much pleasure as the trip itself. Well, in this case I had a scant three weeks to get ready.
I busied myself ordering Lonely Planet Encounter guides for Belgium and Amsterdam. (I highly recommend the Encounter series: a bit of history, the main tourist attractions and just enough restaurants to feed you described in a pithy manner. Plus, they fit in your pocket.) I read The Undutchables (Did you know the Dutch are incredibly forthright?) and subscribed to newsfeeds from Belgium and the Netherlands (which consists a lot of how their soccer team is doing). I pre-bought tickets to the biggest museums which ended up saving us a lot of time at the Anne Frank Huis and money at the Rijksmuseum (1/2 price for ING bank card holders).
By time I got there I was ready with lists of things to do, beers to drink and sites to see. That said, I'm a pretty laid-back traveler, so if we end up having a two hour lunch because we're playing with the cute dog at the bar - totally fine. I did run out of time to see visit some breweries that were on my list and resistance museum, but I didn't have many regrets other than those. Plus, I got a lot of good sister time, which is rare these days when we live nine states away.
-Belgian beer Every beer was an epiphany! We sought out the best beer joints and delighted, drank everything that the bartender recommended it. Ah the trappists! Back home, sadly each bottle goes for $4-8, but at least I can relive a bit of the experience. Our biggest mind-f* was Cantillion, where they ferment the beer spontaneously from yeast in the air!
-Belgian food From the chocolate shops to fancy restaurants with fireplaces, to dog-filled pubs where no one spoke English. I enjoyed every morsel. One of my favorite meals was my last at Le Circus - where I chose beer from a 15 page menu, enjoyed a big chunk of vegetarian lasagna which watching a 1980 David Bowie concert.
-Brussels Christmas Market Brussels' Grand Place was recently voted the most beautiful square in Europe. Fill that with a holiday market and tree. Add in a lightshow on the palace every hour and what you get is really spectacular.
-Bikes in Amsterdam I subscribe to H.G. Wells thought that "Every time I see an adult on a bicycle , I no longer despair for the future of the human race." So I was in absolute heaven in Amsterdam. I could have sat for hours just watching all the Chic Cyclists. Instead Katie and I rented bikes and joined them.
-Boats in Amsterdam Our first night in Amsterdam, we oriented ourselves to the city on a cheap boat tour. At night the canals are lit beautifully. You also get a perfect view into the house boats that line the canals, decorated in perfect ikea style, and filled with families eating perfect dutch dinners. If there's anything I like better than bikes, it's water.
-Dancing I haven't had that great of a dancing high in America in a while. Our night out dancing with a live band in Brussels with Madame Mustache was fabulous.
-Amsterdam Brewery Tours Our first was Da Prael. Located in an old 17th century canal house, Da Prael is part brewery, part non-profit. It employs several dozen people with mental disabilities and teaches them skills. The two of us had our own tour guide, who was incredibly enthusiastic, if not confused as to how to English speaking girls found their brewery. We chatted with the brewers, tasted green beer out of the tanks and got to climb up ladders to look inside the brew kettles. Our second brewery, Brouwerik 'IJ wasn't nearly as tasty, but it was in a windmill and had a fun guide.
-Museums We spent almost no time in churches, but what trip to Europe is complete without some museums? Unfortunately the Rijksmuseum, which houses the Dutch masters, has been under construction, so the selection we saw was limited. Van Gough was excellent. But the best had to be the Musical Instruments Museum. It's housed in a gorgeous art-deco glass department store. When you enter, you're given wireless headphones and as you step in front of each instrument case, you hear the instruments. There's also a cafe on the top floor with reasonably priced gourmet food and gourmet views to match. (Check out the website to see views of the building.)
And of course, the Ann Frank House was an experience. It was moving and well-curated. At the end you could do an interactive video experience which would pose complex societal questions and ask you to vote. (Like is it okay to racial profile if the round-up actually found most of the people were illegal immigrants?)