Amsterdam: History & Dutch Culture

A month ago I had the pleasure of visiting the beautiful city of Amsterdam. Its name just oozes of revel for foreign tourists, and it’s the major cultural epicenter of Dutch culture.

As a New Yorker, I particularly think that Amsterdam is interesting since it’s getting a glimpse into the cultural beginnings of New York before the British came, and I can’t help but wonder how the USA would’ve been different if the Dutch were the major colonial power instead.

Amsterdam canal

Amsterdam canal

Pay a visit to West-Indisch Huis, the building that once housed the Dutch West India Company, which is one of the primary forces of how our world became what it was today. You’re also able to view the dock behind a residential building where Henry Hudson set sail across the Atlantic when he settled and founded modern day Manhattan.

It’s a pretty incredible city despite all that makes it touristy. Yes, there are the coffeeshops and the Red Light District; they are cool to take a gander on your first day in Amsterdam, but I urge that you explore other aspects of Amsterdam after.

Amsterdam's thinnest building

Amsterdam’s thinnest building

The novelty of these things has long worn off in Dutch culture, it’s so normalized that it’s not a big deal. From an outside perspective, Dutch culture is paradoxically a mix of the adorable and the “sin city” aspects. You have the windmills, clogs, tulips, stroopwafels, biking, sprinkles, and canals alongside the legal prostitution, rowdy sex clubs, and legalized soft drugs.

Stroopwafels

Stroopwafels

Clog boat on a canal!! I mean come on!!!

Clog boat on a canal!! I mean come on!!!

Being Dutch means that very little shocks you; they’ve grown to be world famous for their tolerance and embracing of diversity, including immigrants from all over the world and the acceptance of the gay community from very early on (the first to pass same-sex marriage in 2001). If you find yourself here in early August, Amsterdam hosts the only gay pride parade in the world that the floats are on boats!

Although, allegedly some Dutch people do go to coffeeshops in the more local area of Jordaan; regarded by locals as the best area of Amsterdam. There’s also a lesser known Red Light District in the De Pijp area of Amsterdam.

That being said, this was my second visit to Amsterdam so I already knew some things about it. This was my first time in the summer so I really got to enjoy it a lot more. I’ll discuss the sites more in depth in my next post about Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is really meant to be enjoyed at a slow pace. Choose a canal and just stroll down it leisurely (some nice ones include Singel, Herengracht, and Brouwersgracht). One of my favorite things about the city is that its beauty is very different in the daylight and in the nighttime.

Daytime canal

Daytime canal

Nighttime canal vibe

Nighttime canal vibe

Another way to view Amsterdam is through its charming canals. Amsterdam’s canals are an official UNESCO world heritage site, and it’s a completely different outlook of the city. I found it interesting to tour by canal after orienting myself to the city by foot. Certain canals gain a lot of traffic due to small and tight overpasses, in areas you wouldn’t expect.

Something else somewhat unique to Amsterdam is the number of house boats that people live on. They range in how dingy or luxurious they can be. I didn’t get a chance to visit any, but I would imagine it’s rather cold to live on one in the winter!!

AMS by canal boat

House boats

Canal perspective

Canal perspective

Canal ride through Red Light District

Canal ride through Red Light District

I did my canal tour with a Couchsurfer who owned his own boat and gave us a free canal tour, although there’s many canal cruises offered all over the city.

Lastly, you gotta love how diverse Amsterdam is! If Amsterdam were 100 people: 49 people would be Dutch, 16 from other European countries, 9 from Suriname, 9 from Morocco, 5 from Turkey, and 12 would be from elsewhere (thank you LonelyPlanet).

I will post about what to do & see in Amsterdam tomorrow.

Have you been to Amsterdam? What are some of your favorite things about the city?

Portland, the perfect city?

What’s to say about Portland, Oregon? It might just be my perfect city. A city that’s not too big, not too small. A city that’s filled with insanely quirky and interesting people. A city filled with endless moments that are indescribable, like where else can you see an annual naked bike ride that attracts thousands of participants? Or perhaps a mini Marilyn Manson act? Only in the PDX baby.

Portland stealing it's twin sister city's Austin's motto

Portland stealing it’s twin sister city’s Austin’s motto

Architecture in Old Town

Architecture in Old Town

Old Town Portland

Old Town Portland near Skidmore Fountain

Portland was my first visit to the Pacific Northwest, and I’ve been enchanted. The weather is unlike the northeastern USA with harsh, and cold winters. This winter in Portland it didn’t even snow once! The Pacific Northwest gets temperate winters, with just an abundant amount of rainfall (which contributes to Portland’s amazing greenery in close proximity to the city center). Sure, it may snow in the mountains of Washington and Oregon, but I’ll take a Portland winter over a New York City one any day. One of my favorite spots on my visit was the Pittock Mansion on the inner outskirts of Portland. The drive is beautiful, swerving through steep roads up a mountain, with which you are rewarded with a gorgeous hilltop mansion where you’re able to picnic (we had a delicious vegan picnic with groceries from New Seasons Market) with some views of Portland’s greenery.

Vegan picnic at Pittock Mansion

Vegan picnic at Pittock Mansion

Not to mention there is an incredible variety of food trucks all around the city (dangerous for someone like me). I mean come on…. I had the privilege of trying MAURITIAN food. Who would’ve ever seen that coming? Its cuisine is a mix of Creole, French, Indian, and Chinese. Can you say yum? Be sure to check it out when you come, it’s called Chez Dodo. Portland also has an intimidating amount of organic, farm to table, and vegan/vegetarian foods (of insanely creative varieties). Don’t even get me started on Voodoo Donut! It completely lives up to the hype, luckily I was able to go twice without any insane line. But this place literally has everything, I tried the maple glazed donut, the oreo donut, and the classic voodoo donut which is a voodoo doll complete with a little pretzel which you press into the donut and it bleeds with jelly. They’re also famous for the cock and balls donut, popularized by bachelorette parties in Portland. The aesthetic of the store and the friendly staff, along with the incredible product make this place a classic and just unbeatable. You definitely won’t go hungry in Portland.

Chez Dodo - Mauritian food truck!

Chez Dodo – Mauritian food truck!

Menu at Chez Dodo

Menu at Chez Dodo

Poori on the top, Pulao on the bottom, Delicious all around

Voodoo Donuts!!!!

Voodoo Donuts!!!!

IMG_2374

Voodoo’s interior decor

Creative menu

Creative menu

The selection

The selection

OREO DONUT!!

OREO DONUT!!

Other spots to check out are the N Mississippi Ave and NE Alberta Ave districts, which are filled with quirky shops, tantalizing food carts, outdoor seating restaurants, and much more Portland vibes. Downtown Portland also has Pioneer Square, which is worth a view. Additionally, there’s the Portlandia statue, which is hidden on top of a roof of a building behind some trees, but worth seeking out because it’s much bigger than you’d imagine. It’s also the second largest cast-iron statue in the country after the Statue of Liberty. There’s something almost threatening or menacing about this iron beauty, adding to the charm of Portland.

N Mississippi Avenue

N Mississippi Avenue

N Mississippi Ave

N Mississippi Ave

Pioneer Square

Pioneer Square

Portlandia Statue

Portlandia Statue

Transport in Portland is very easy to navigate with buses, light rail, and ample amount of Car2Go. This was my first experience driving a Car2Go and it was 3 of us, so it was quite humorous all of us squeezing into a smartcar –  felt more like a clown car.

Portland may be in one of the newer states, but it doesn’t mean it’s without its interesting history. Portland was once a den of all types of illegal activity, I learned a lot on a walking tour explaining about underground business and lifestyles in Portland. What’s funny to me is that it seems rather unexpected since the contemporary culture of Portland is very socially conscious, aware, relaxed, and almost wholesome. To see that it was born from a place with a rather sinister history makes it that much cooler to me. The tour was just under 2 hours, you learn a lot about the racist policies that governed Portland and affected its early Chinese, Japanese, and African-American communities. Additionally you learn about the somewhat legal practice of Shanghaiing and how ship captains got away with it, and made profits from it.

One of Portland's many bridges over the Willamette River

One of Portland’s many bridges over the Willamette River

Portland is a prime example of why I’ve been drawn to the culture and the attitudes of the western states. Their ancestors were the opportunists of the time. They rolled with the punches and made their own way in the Wild West. Their laid-back vibe just screams freedom, a healthy antidote to the overworked and sarcastic northeastern culture. I can’t wait to explore the area more.

Have you ever been to Portland? What were your impressions? Recommendations for my next visit?

Another lovely surprise – St. Louis

St. Louis, Missouri is an interesting city at the crossroads of a few regions. Is it Midwestern? Southern? Great Plains? The general consensus is that it’s a Midwestern city, and you know what that means….good food and good beer! Tons of beers come from St. Louis (some good others maybe not so much). Anheuster-Busch, the largest brewing company in the country, is responsible for the births of Budweiser, Busch, Natural Ice, Natural Light, and Michelob. Other microbrews that were delicious were Schlafly and Urban Chestnut; but there are many others. Urban Chestnut Brewery is right in the Grove area with a very ample space to drink and unwind, some of it outdoors.

Gateway Arch

Gateway Arch

Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis

Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. Where the infamous Dred Scott decision occurred, being one of the causes of the American Civil War.

St. Louis also has wonderful architecture, including the plethora of Victorian style homes in the Lafayette Square area, the are in which I stayed. The streets are lined with gorgeous colorful houses, a series of gardens, and a square as its centerpiece (which happens to be the first city park in the country west of the Mississippi River). The houses built during the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair in Forest Park are extravagant and beautiful also.

Lafayette Square architecture

Lafayette Square architecture

Cute house in Lafayette Square

Cute house in Lafayette Square

Forest Park World's Fair house

Forest Park World’s Fair house

Forest Park World's Fair house

Forest Park World’s Fair house

In the downtown area, the Gateway Arch and Old Courthouse cannot be missed. However, an attraction you might not know of is the City Museum. It may have an ordinary name, but it’s an extraordinary experience. It isn’t really easy to describe in words, but it almost seems nostalgic to a time of childlike exploration. It’s an attraction that can be enjoyed by children and adults alike. This place has mazes, tunnels, ball pits, slides, a funhouse among much more. It’s all made of found items and it’s in a reclaimed space of a former shoe factory. This place could easily keep you busy for 3-4 hours. They also conveniently have restaurants on-site for when you work up an appetite.  It’s a true marvel to the city and a phenomenal example of a local business.

Exit from one of the tunnels in the City Museum

Exit from one of the tunnels in the City Museum

Outdoor obstacle course

Outdoor obstacle course

Largest pair of underwear in the world on display at the City Museum

Largest pair of underwear in the world on display at the City Museum

Our host on one of the many slides

Our host on one of the many slides

Finally, there is a marvelous amount of street art in the Grove area. This is probably some of the best graffiti that I’ve ever seen outside of San Francisco, NYC, and Berlin. The Grove is the gayborhood of St. Louis; it’s got a lot of restaurants and bars down the strip, many with their own personal business street art.

Welcome to the Grove

Welcome to the Grove

Street art in the Grove

Street art in the Grove

Famous graffiti artist in STL - his signature is the one eyed face, it's all over the city.

Famous graffiti artist in STL – his signature is the one eyed face, it’s all over the city.

Street art in the Grove

Street art in the Grove

More street art in the Grove

More street art in the Grove

Even more street art in the Grove

Even more street art in the Grove

Have you been to St. Louis? How was your experience there?

Long Island Gold Coast Part 2

Sticking to the Gold Coast theme, I also had the pleasure of visiting Oheka Castle about a month ago in Huntington, NY. It is the second largest private residency in the United States at an impressive 115,000 square footage. It is no longer a residency, and is now converted into an upscale hotel and as a site to host special events such as weddings (Kevin Jonas and Joey Fatone both had their weddings here). Scandalously enough, I learned after my visit that the owner of the castle, Gary Melius, was shot 3 times in the parking lot a mere 3 days before my visit.

I have lived on Long Island for the majority of my life, and have been around the area of these 2 estates several times, but never made it. Now I’m glad that I was able to put aside some time to explore my area more, which enriches my understanding of the history of Long Island and how it forms such a unique culture. Long Island is in the shadow of New York City, yet life remains very suburban and simple despite its proximity to the city. The island is massively overcrowded and traffic is an accepted reality of everyday life. The population is steadily on the rise, and in a place so starved for space it’s interesting to see the wide open acreage of estates such as this.  

 

Long Island Gold Coast

We all want to be able to travel more, but what to do when we’re in the stages of saving money to travel again? Well I like to look for adventure locally in the meanwhile. I’m blessed to be from the New York City area, so there’s are plenty of options in such a small area. Many may not be as fortunate. However, adventures are what you make it and there’s always a place that you have overlooked for years or just postponed going to. On your days off when you don’t have anything to do, try and do one of those things! I made a list of places that I’ve been putting off for years and have been slowly checking them off.

So yesterday I did one of those things and I drove a whopping 17 minutes from my house and went to the Old Westbury Gardens here in Long Island, New York. I even went for free thanks to a pass from my local library. The OW Gardens houses a rather large mansion known as the Westbury Mansion which is a legacy of the Gold Coast era that developed in the late 1800s and peaked during the 1920s on the 16 mile stretch on the north shore of Long Island from Great Neck to Huntington. You may be familiar with this era through the classic book, The Great Gatsby. It is also the filming location of many famous films such as North by Northwest and Cruel Intentions.

The mansion was gorgeous, filled many lavish pieces from the time period. What struck me as something peculiar was in this mansion-turned-museum they had mannequins in every room dressed as the previous owners would have, adding a more visual dimension to how these people lived in their wealth. The estate is a vast 160 acres and it has its very own lake and also many beautiful, expansive gardens. It boggles my mind that I was born and raised only 17 minutes from this opulence, but at the same time I could drive 17 minutes and be in the worst neighborhood in the South Bronx. Only in NYC my friends. 

Traveling for cheaper – how to save on accommodation

It really flabbergasts me every time when people are so amazed at what I do when I travel. There’s nothing new about budget travel. It’s not innovative, it’s not up-and-coming, and it’s just plain practical to me. As with many industries in this world, marketing is created to have us perceive travel in a certain way. Do you really think that in far off destinations like the islands in southern Thailand, Bali, Barbados etc. that the only way to travel is by a 5-star all-inclusive luxury resorts? Is that what the locals do when they’re traveling within their own country? The sky is the limit in terms of options for the way you can travel. You have the ability to make your own decisions while you travel. If you decide that’s through a hotel, so be it. But there are plenty of other options that can save you money and allow you to travel for longer periods of time, or more frequently. I’ll take the latter choice, every time. Here are a few of the basic options that could save you a buck and help you travel better. 

  1. Hostels – Of course there’s the classic option of hostels – to which I always get the responses “OH MY GOD, haven’t you seen the movie hostel?? I would never stay in one of those places, I could get killed!” Well…first off how do you think those places stay in business if all their customers are getting killed off? I’ll get into this further in another post. But, hostels are a great value option. Most cost around $25 a night in a shared dorm (depending on the country some can be way cheaper). Most people who are staying in hostels are looking for the exact same thing as you – just to have fun and make memories while traveling. Your setting already proves that you’re like-minded in this way, and through my experiences I’ve met amazing individuals in hostels whom I had great nights out with, great days exploring the city together, and have even kept in contact down the line and hosted/been hosted by them later on. Hostels are a great way to meet lifelong friends on the road!
  2. AirBnB – another great budget option if you want to have a little bit more privacy and you wanted to just make a trip with your friends. It is a very reputable website which allows you rent out someone’s apartment or a room in their apartment for a much cheaper price than a hotel. You read through people’s profiles and access whether they are a good match based on the location of their apartments, the pictures of their apartment, and you have access to previous reviews that they have from customers who have rented out their apartment before. (Other rental sites include wimdu & roomorama).
  3. CouchSurfing – my personal favorite. Another aura of negativity surrounds the idea of CouchSurfing to the untrained eye. “Stay at someone’s place with them? What if you stay with a crazy ax murderer?” Another silly fear that I find humorous because I’ve made amazing connections with my time using CouchSurfing. Just like AirBnb, you scout out people’s personal profiles so you already have an idea whether your host is a good match for you based on their interests, you get to read about their past experiences in previous reviews, and of course any good profile has pictures of the individual (many include them traveling to different locations so you can see they’re looking for the same things as you) . And obviously you will already be communicating back and forth with your potential host to explain the details of your trip and you’ll get a sense of who they are before you even meet them. I’ll include a separate post about the great connections I’ve made through CouchSurfing in another post. 

I am the Wanderlust Guru

Welcome to the Wanderlust Guru blog. My name is Nicholas Dragone and my life has been completely shaped by travel. Nothing fulfills and exhilarates me more than discovering new places, meeting new people and making connections, learning about new cultures, and having adventures grand or small. If these are things that you are interested in as well, you’ve found a new home in this blog.

I’ve been urged for years to create a travel blog; most recently was this past Easter Sunday by a distant relative to document my travels better. So I will discuss my overall impressions, give recommendations, and just generally hope to inspire people to travel more such as I have with my friends, relatives, and acquaintances. 

Happy travels! 

Get lost,

The Wanderlust Guru