Quick Notes on the Netherlands

– While many commonly refer to the country as Holland, this term only encompasses two of the twelve Dutch provinces: Noord (North) Holland and Zuid (South) Holland.

– The three largest Dutch cities – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Den Haag (The Hague) – are each located in the two provinces that make up Holland. This is a likely explanation for the innocent mistake of using the term Holland when one is really referring to the entire country.

– The region that includes Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg is called Benelux.

– Amsterdam is appropriately known as a tourist hotspot for not just the Netherlands but all of Europe. In the warmer summer months, it can get quite crowded, so much so that the national tourism board encourages tourists to visit anywhere in the Netherlands other than Amsterdam. The New York Times recently suggested Delft and The Hague for tourists looking for a quieter and more intimate experience than in Amsterdam. You can read more on that here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/12/travel/traveling-europe-summer-crowds.html

– The most recognizable Dutch staples might be beer and cheese. Heineken is one of the best-known beers worldwide and the village of Gouda gained notoriety for its cheese of the same moniker. Architectural and engineering features such as canals, dikes, and windmills are commonly associated with the Dutch landscape.

– The three largest Dutch cities each pique the interest of tourists for unique reasons. Amsterdam houses historic museums and is shaped by intricate canal paths. Rotterdam is known internationally as an architectural hub, with sleek, bold design influencing the city. The Hague is home to renowned institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The ICC has a relationship with the UN Security Council, while the ICJ is the main judicial arm of the United Nations.

Finding Happiness in Flexibility

Hopefully, the end feeling of any journey is refreshment and joy. The act of travel can be stressful, however. The buzz and bustle of airports and train stations can be more anxiety-inducing than enjoyable, especially in unfamiliar lands. I would count myself among the many who double and triple-check their bags to ensure everything is in order. Passport, camera, laptop, etc. Everything needs to be in its proper place.

It is with that same careful sense that I approach planning a journey. Whether I’m opening a hefty compilation of New York Times itineraries for cities all across Europe or a Lonely Planet guidebook for my own city and country, there is comfort in having a plan for each day. Knowing that I can squeeze in a few hours along La Rambla in Barcelona before departure or that I can embark on a city tour upon arrival in Copenhagen helps me make the most of every minute of travel.

Understanding that I am more comfortable with planned travel, it has come as a surprise that my most enjoyable experiences have occurred when I have welcomed flexibility into my journey. As much as hopping on a bus every hour allows you to see many landmarks, it does not grant you the time nor the clear mindset necessary to truly experience a city.

The flexible travel experience that most notably sticks out to me is the weekend I spent in Lisbon. My university scheduled a week-long study break (with the understanding among even the professors that there was likely more travel to be done than studying), and I had just finished the majority of the week in Barcelona and Valencia. Rather than book a return flight to Amsterdam from Valencia with the rest of my friend group, I chose to fly to Lisbon, Portugal.

With little more than a full backpack and charged phone, I explored Lisbon for the next few days. It would have been much easier to take the tram cars across the hilly landscape and towards the ocean, but it felt much more immersive and rewarding to make the trek by foot. It might seem aimless to stop wherever you would like along the way to a recommended landmark, but you often find the hidden gems of cities if you allow yourself to. In my case, I found street art, incredible viewpoints, streets full of vibrant colors, as well as one of the best cafes I have eaten at in all of Europe. They each caught my attention as much or more than listed landmarks and were only found because I allowed myself the time to stray off the beaten or recommended path.

My greater point in all of this is that I have found it necessary to adopt balance in travel routines. The best-laid plans do not always yield the most memorable results, and building in time to explore aimlessly can be rewarding. Flexibility can turn stress into refreshment, and a more casual approach can bring greater happiness than a rigid itinerary.

An Icelandic Itinerary

In planning for traveling across Europe, I had put together a list of places I’d like to visit in my time here. Iceland was on that list, but given its geographic location and the overall cost to travel there, I figured it was probably not a place I’d get to visit this time around.

Fortunately, a little bit of spontaneity spurred the decision to spend my spring break there. I’m lucky I decided to go when I did. I was able to find a cheap flight to Reykjavik with WOW Airlines. With their recent shuttering, I’d have a lot more trouble finding a cheap flight.

I spent 7 days traveling all over the southern half of Iceland. I’m lucky I went with a Spanish and Finnish friend from my program, because they decided to rent a car when we got there. That made travel incredibly easy, and there’s no way I would’ve been able to see anything other than Reykjavik if I’d gone alone.

One of the best things about Iceland is all of the hidden gems. I’m normally not the type to travel without solidified plans. I used to love knowing what each day would hold ahead of time, but being in Europe has helped me realize that flexibility when traveling can make your experience much more enjoyable. My friends and I only booked hotels or hostels for three of the six nights we were there ahead of time, and had we booked all six in advance, there’s no way I would’ve been able to see some of the hidden gems there. Whether it’s Olafsvik near the Snaefellsness National Park on the West Coast, or Hof near Vatnajokull National Park, there are all sorts of wonderful towns to enjoy.

I would highly recommend a visit to Blue Lagoon. It’s somewhat expensive, but I found it was worth every penny. It was one of the most relaxing experience of my life. The crystal blue hue of the hot spring was breathtaking.

Geysir, Glacier Lagoon, Reynisfjara, and the Golden Circle are all within a day’s drive from Reykjavik, and are can’t miss spots if you’re looking to immerse yourself in the Icelandic landscape. Iceland exceeded every expectation I had for it, and I found it to be one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.