Amsterdam and Lisbon 2023

Peter Himler
Travel Insights & Images
10 min readNov 17, 2023

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When one thinks of Amsterdam, the image of its gritty red-light district invariably comes to mind. Yes, that district still exists — it’s known as De Wallen — and it still draws thrill-seeking bros and gawkers sneaking sideways glances at the semi-clad, government-authorized prostitutes beckoning passersby through their oversized, street-level windows.

Past impressions aside, Amsterdam today is an impossibly clean, architecturally glorious city with a myriad cultural, culinary, and arresting land and waterscapes that should elevate this stop on your bucket list of must-visit cities. It features 60 miles of canals, hand-dug in the 17th century to a depth of ten feet, and 881,000 bicycles (for the city‘s 780,000 residents) — of which 12,000–15,000 are fished out of the canals annually.

Every city has its pedestrian challenges. Post-COVID New York, for example, has seen an excessive rise of electric bike delivery services whose drivers are immune to traffic signals. It results in all kinds of injuries for those stepping off the curb while texting, including nine deaths in 2022 and 12 this far in 2023. Lisbon, which we’ll get to later, doesn’t have a bicycle culture, mainly because the city rivals San Francisco in its topography. Complicating matters are Lisbon’s trademark mosaic tiles that colorfully line the streets and sidewalks, but make walking in the rain (or ice) treacherous indeed without the right boots.

Bikers, Bridges, and Canals in Amsterdam

Amsterdam, on the other hand, is first and foremost, a biking city, but that’s where the pastoral imagery ends. The bikers in this city (literally everyone!) have this uncanny need for speed that creates dangerous conditions for anyone straying off the narrow sidewalks. We arrived on a cold, rainy Friday morning in early November, which didn’t deter those pedalists speeding along in their rain slickers, many holding umbrellas.

On that morning, after checking our bags at The Dylan Hotel, a charming, centrally located luxury boutique hotel designated as one of the Leading Hotels of the World, we explored the neighborhood before making our way to one of the two museums for which we had a reservation (a necessity). It was raining when we entered Rijksmuseum and blue-skied when we left.

The rear entrance of The Rijksmuseum

For fans of the Dutch Masters, few museums rival The Rijks. The Rembrandts and Vermeers alone make this a must-stop for anyone visiting Amsterdam, even for those with only a passing interest in fine art. Here are some images, which include Rembrandt’s famous “The Night Watch“ (bottom left), that was only viewable behind a glass enclosure.

Oh the light in these Vermeers!
Johannes Vermeer’s “Woman in Blue Reading a Letter” and Rembrandt van Rijn’s self-portrait as the Apostle Paul (1661)
Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” alongside Bartholomeus Van der Helst’s “Company of Captain Roelof Bicker and Lieutenant Jan Michielsz Blaeuw”

Following The Rijks, the cold, overcast weather returned for our one-hour canal cruise. Fortunately, the rain subsided allowing us to lift the plastic window covers for better viewing of the bridges, houseboats, and magnificent homes that lined the waterways. The cruise operator provided much-needed blankets and paid drinks, for those who imbibe.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam

A visit to Amsterdam would not be complete without heading over to the flower district where we purchased a couple of bags of indigenous tulip bulbs — from a relatively smaller collection of those that U.S. Customs permits to be brought into the country. They carry a special stamp. Of course, our Global Entry back to JFK/New York didn’t bother asking what we brought in, so we could have packed a few “illegal” bulbs. Next time.

That evening, we dined at a buzzy fish restaurant called Pesca. Upon entering, the maître’d instructed us to hang up our coats before handing us a sardine can on which she scribbled our table number with a Sharpie. We were then instructed to hang out by the bar until it was our turn at the fish market, aka “Theatre of Fish,” at the restaurant’s entry.

La Pesca/Amsterdam

The fishmonger walks you through what’s available that day and the prices. We made our selection and then were directed to the Sommelier to choose our wine or beverage. At our table for two, we were communally flanked by a couple from Delaware and another from Detroit. The food arrived in two shifts and was tasty, but not great. Theatre is the draw to this restaurant. One word of caution, the fishmonger added two items that we considered, but hadn’t actually ordered. Ahhhh, maybe that’s their M.O.?

We were off to the Van Gogh Museum the next day, which also required advance ticket purchase. We strongly recommend renting the headset (for $4) that allows you to stroll the works of art at your own pace and click on only those you wish to learn more about. I’m sure we listened to audio descriptions of 90% of the pieces in the permanent collection and special exhibition over our three-hour+ visit.

It was in one of these audio clips that we learned that the son of Vincent’s dear brother Theo, also named Vincent, established the museum in honor of his uncle who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest…as if cutting off his ear after a fight with his roommate Paul Gaugin wasn’t enough. Here is a selection of his many self-portraits, which he painted primarily because he couldn’t afford to hire models and purchase canvas.

Of course, We can only take so many Van Gogh headshots. The range of his work displayed in this museum was something to behold. We learned that while he was in Paris (or was it Arles?), he was churning out one painting per day! Here are some that caught our eyes:

How could you not fall in love with Amsterdam?

On to Lisbon. This was our third visit to Portigal’s capital city situated on the southernmost part of the European continent. We returned to town for the Web Summit, which is Europe’s, if not the world’s largest technology conference. I was invited to moderate two on-stage sessions and to judge and mentor the founders of some early-stage companies.

To give you a sense of the size of the conference, it draws 70,236 attendees from 153 countries, including more than a fair share of bold-faced names.

We arrived in Lisbon on a Sunday morning after a two-hour flight from Amsterdam. This conference this year was held later in November than in previous years, i.e., the third week of November vs. during daylight savings and election day back in the U.S. I remember in 2016 not sleeping the night America lost its mind and elected Trump.

We stayed at the designated speakers’ hotel, The Intercontinental, which had a splendid breakfast buffet, but was not all that close to the event venue (45+ minutes by car with no traffic). It was only a 25-minute downhill walk to the core shopping/tourist area and plazas. Web Summit provided daily transportation to and from the Altice Arena, and Uber in Lisbon is a bargain — compared to New York. No ride exceeded 7 euros and most were in the 4–5 euro range, even with the terrible daytime traffic.

We heard it had rained the previous week, but when we arrived, the sun was shining, temperatures hovered around 70, and higher in the afternoons. It was simply delightful for mid-November. I have a couple of other posts from our previous visits to Lisbon, but in a nutshell, it, too, is a visually stunning and safe city with much to absorb.

Lisbon Street Scenes

We did have a small mission while theere: find some mosaic tiles for use outdoors at our L.I. home. We certainly came to the right city, one known for its elaborate ceramics, called Azulejo, dating back centuries. Entire buildings are covered with them inside and out, not to mention the streets and sidewalks. We visited 4–5 stores, gleaned a lot of information, and took a bunch of photos. See sampling here:

In the end, we found what we were looking for to hand-carry back with us with no VAT since the tiles are considered second-hand. In our case, these (below right) are from the early 19th century. We also did some holiday shopping at Luvaria Ulisses, one of Europe’s oldest and most distinctive silky soft leather glove stores where there’s always a line.

Luvaria Ulisses (glove store) and 19th Century Tiles We Purchased

We did have a chance to dine at the highly rated Bairro do Avillez, a very distinctive and well-reviewed eating venue with a celebrated chef. We decided on the spur not to splurge at Pateo, the more famous of the three restaurants in the vast space, and opted for a pizza on the second-floor balcony. Well, we are Americans, after all.

Bairro do Avillez

It’s easy to understand why Lisbon has become a magnet for anyone seeking a better life. The climate is delightful. The streets are safe. The panoramas are spectacular. And the food, especially the seafood, is among the best in Europe. Barbara also took a side trip to Nazare and Fatima. I’m not sure we’ll return next year, but you never know.

Safe travels.

All photos: Peter Himler w and iPhone 14 Pro

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Peter Himler
Travel Insights & Images

Founder, Flatiron Communications; President, PCNY; Editor, Medium; Blessed w/ 3 exceptional sons & a most fabulous wife; Music & tech; Maker of the sauce. #NYC