8 weeks in Amsterdam: Too Dutch of a good thing?

8 weeks in Amsterdam: Too Dutch of a good thing?
Allison and Kara in Zaanse Schans

Just a quick info: This blog post was written by Allison Walker and Kara Moraw. Due to a missing plugin, the shared authorship is not displayed correctly, so we’re letting you know like this instead.


** This post is intended for future participants in the SoHPC program, and for anyone planning a visit to Amsterdam. **

SURFsara

SURFsara is a member of the SURF cooperative. It brings together many educational and research institutions in the Netherlands to drive innovation and digitization. SURFsara is an institution that provides a variety of computing services: networks, storage, visualization and, of course, supercomputers.

SURFsara’s supercomputer is called Cartesius. It ranks 455 on the TOP500 list and 158 on the GREEN500 list. It offers dutch researchers the opportunity to process their data and compute large simulations on national resources. It is designed to be a well-balanced system for maximum usability.

For the hardware nerds among you, here are the juicy details: Cartesius runs on different Bull nodes with the bullx Linux operating system. The nodes sum up to 47,776 cores and 132 GPUs with a theoretical peak performance of 1.843 Pflop/s. Its power consumption is about 706.00 kW, and in case there is a power cut in Amsterdam, there sits a power generator ready to keep the systems up for 24 more hours. Brace yourself for an insanely high number: This power generator would use 500,000 tons of diesel… Let’s hope they’ll never have to use it!

We have had a really wonderful time working here. The people are lovely, the environment is open, and coffee is better than average. Our only complaint: the air conditioning seems to be consistently a few degrees too cold.

Airbnb

Possibly the most important piece of advice that we can offer is: book your accommodation early! Amsterdam is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe, and the Summer of HPC program takes place during its busiest months: July and August. For a variety of reasons, our accommodation was not arranged until mid June, and as a result we had to pay a pretty exorbitant price! But be prepared, even an early booking doesn’t mean you will get a great deal. Amsterdam is so popular that hosts can pretty much charge what they want. Also, you can’t really be picky about the location – in our case, we’re lucky to live quite close to the centre in Amsterdam West, but on the other hand, cycling to work takes us 40 minutes every day. 

If you know someone in Amsterdam, maybe ask them to look at notice-boards at the University of Amsterdam. It is just across from SURFsara and so is their housing. Maybe you’re lucky and find some student renting out their apartment over the summer.

Bike etiquette

Amsterdam, is the fifth most bicycle-friendly city in the world. There are more than 400km of bike paths, endless parking options and many bike rental companies catering to locals, expats, and tourists alike. Given the distance from our accommodation to SURFsara, the high cost of public transport, and our general eagerness to live this summer as the Dutch do, we chose to cycle to and from work each day (10km and 40 minutes in each direction). We rented some great little bikes through Swapfiets for less than 20 euro per month. Swapfiets is a great option for anyone visiting the city for more than a few weeks: they provide well-maintained biked and a repair service that will come to you.

Our swapfiets bikes
Meet our Swapfiets bikes – Poppy and Sally!

Of course, it’s important to be aware of the rules in Amsterdam. Cyclists rule the roads. They (we) have little tolerance for pedestrians or fellow cyclists who don’t know what they’re doing, so if you don’t learn the rules quick smart you risk getting knocked over:

  • Keep to the right. Cyclists often pass each other, and you don’t want to be the person holding up all of the people behind you on the bike path.
  • Abide by the road rules! Even if the locals don’t…Stop at the lights, watch out for trams and tram tracks, don’t cycle on footpaths, signal when turning, make sure you have good lights. 
  • Always lock your bike (twice). Amsterdam is notorious for bike theft, so take the necessary precautions. 
  • Buienradar weather app was our saviour this summer. Amsterdam is known for it’s rainy and unpredictable weather. It’s always best to check the forecast before heading out on a ride.

Public Transport

Of course, you want to be a real Amsterdam local so you’ll mostly find your way through the city cycling. It’s fast, it’s cheap, and it’s a nice exercise. Oh, and it’s a very good way of getting rid of your sleepy mood in the morning. But you’ll find that summer days in the Netherlands can be quite rainy. You’ll get used to a light rain, but you should really stay off your bike when it’s pouring! Just take your favourite book and catch a tram.

Public transport in the Netherlands is a bit different from what you might be used to. For trams, buses and metros, you can’t get a ticket based on where you’re going. You have got two options:

  1. Get a one-hour-ticket for 3,20 €. For this, just get in at the front and ask the driver for it. You can only pay by card! 1 € of this amount is a fee because you’re using a paper ticket (shame on you!).
  2. Get an OV-Chipkaart. You can get it at all the bigger stations (e.g. Science Park Station close to SURFsara), and it’s 7,50 €. With the OV-Chipkaart, you check in when you enter your chosen means of transport and check out when leaving. You only pay for the distance travelled, which means at least 1 € less than with a one-hour-ticket because you’re not using a paper ticket. You pay with the OV-Chipkaart itself, it works just like a Prepaid SIM card. You can top it up at a lot of supermarkets and tram stations. For checking into a tram/metro/bus, you need to have at least 4€ credit on it. You can check your credit online. At the end of your stay, you can get the rest of the money you have on it at the NS office of Amsterdam Centraal, as long as it’s less than 30 €. Or just come back within the next five years and use it again!
Trains:

If you opted for an OV-Chipkaart (which we definitely recommend), you can also use it on trains. Beware that to check into a train, you need to have a minimum credit of 20 €. If you buy a one-way or day train ticket instead, you again pay the extra fee of 1 € for using a paper ticket.

Weekend tickets:

If you have friends or family coming to visit for the weekend, these are all good options (depending on what you want to do):

  1. Have them rent a bike. Renting a bike for a day is about 10 € and you can be sure there’s at least three different places to do that on the way from your home to the next supermarket.
  2. The multi-day ticket. It can be bought at all metro stations and is valid in all metros, trams and buses in Amsterdam. There are different options but the 72-hours-version costs 19 €.
  3. The Amsterdam & Region travel ticket. It takes you a bit further than the multi-day-ticket, e.g. to the beach or Haarlem. Again, there are different options but the 3-day-version is 36,50 €. It can be purchased in I Amsterdam visitor centres, at Amsterdam Centraal and other places. Just google it.

Exploring A’dam

As mentioned, Amsterdam is one of the most popular European destinations, and with good reason. The city truly is beautiful and culturally very diverse. The museums, sites, and shopping are enough to draw any adventurer to this beautiful town. Below are some of our favourite experiences as Amsterdam expats:

  • The A’dam tower
  • The flower market
  • Explore the canals (if you’re here during the Pride parade be sure to pay a visit!)
  • Anne Frank house
  • Rijksmuseum
  • Van Gogh museum
  • Stedelijk museum

Food

Look, ‘Dutch’ isn’t necessarily a cuisine that comes to mind when you think about interesting/delicious/exotic dishes. But saying that, we have discovered some delicious treats that are native to the country. Our must-tries are:

  • Bitterballen: breaded and fried meatballs, often served with mustard.
  • Herring: a classic Dutch street food, Herring can be found all over Amsterdam. 
  • Dutch Pancakes: bigger and less fluffy than their American counterparts, these pancakes can be topped with both sweet or savoury toppings. Try out the Pannenkoekenboot (Pancake boat) for 75 minutes of all you can eat pancakes while cruising around Amsterdam.
  • Typically served on its own with onion and pickles, or in a sandwich.
  • Croquettes: you can find these in all varieties; meat, cheese, fish…
  • Cheese (Gouda being the classic Dutch variety)
  • Rijsttafel: directly translated to rice table, this Indonesian food is traced back to colonial history between the Netherlands and Indonesia. This dish is made up of dozens of small and shareable dishes. 
  • Stroopwafel: two waffles with a gooey caramel centre, mmmmm.

Day trips

Something you’ll notice right away is that Amsterdam gets very busy, especially on the weekends. It’s not the ~800,000 citizens, it’s the 18 million tourists. It’s insane how many tourists roam around the city centre, and that’s why Amsterdam stopped advertising the city as a tourist destination. If you’re looking for a quieter weekend, consider exploring other parts of Holland. We got more suggestions from our colleagues here at SURFsara than we could fit into our two months, just take a look!

Utrecht:

We went to Utrecht on a sunny Sunday to avoid the crowds in Amsterdam. We took a train from Amsterdam Centraal which cost us about 9€ and arrived there within an hour. Something to have in mind about day trips on Sundays: Most of the shops open between 11 and 12. This means that until about lunchtime, the city is sleepy and quiet. If you want to enjoy a nice walk through the centre, just arrive before that, but if you’re out for a shopping trip, don’t bother arriving before 12.

After grabbing a coffee at Anne&Max, we stumbled upon the Domtoren, a gothic bell tower of 465 steps, and the Domkerk itself. Around the corner, there is also a cozy little garden. From there on, we just wandered around, but there’s two places you should definitely check out: De Zakkendrager is a restaurant with an exquisite Bittergarnituur, a collection of Dutch food. This was our first taste of Dutch food, and we loved it! Later, we stopped at the famous Dapp Frietwinkel for some Dutch fries (eat them with mayonnaise, that’s what makes them Dutch). Allegedly, you can get the best fries of all Netherlands there!

The Hague:

The Hague (or Den Haag, as the Dutch call it) is a bit further away than Utrecht. We took a train from Amsterdam Sloterdijk for about 12€ and arrived an hour and a half later. From the station, it’s a quick walk into the centre. Our highlights were the Peace Palace (home to the international law administration) which has two towers that look like they were inspired by the Disney castle, and the Binnenhof and Buitenhof, two historical squares just where the parliament and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands meet. We also enjoyed some herring just in front of Binnenhof – we were told this is where the politicians go for lunch, and we can’t blame them: it was delicious.

Haarlem:

Haarlem is a lovely town right next to Amsterdam: It’s perfect when you have a friend visiting for the weekend or just aren’t up for a full day trip. You can easily bike to Haarlem, but if you choose to go on a day with winds gusting up to 90km/h like us, you might want to opt for the train instead. The Sprinter from Amsterdam Sloterdijk costs 3,70€ and is there in less than 10 minutes. South from the station is the Nieuwe Gracht where the historical centre begins. East from here you can find a beautiful windmill (you can also enter it, but that’s 5€), and then turn west into the centre. All the surrounding streets and alleys are lovely, quiet, cozy and adorned with greenery. Towering over all the houses is the Grote Kerk (big church), or St. Bavokerk, which was definitely worth entering. It’s a beautiful and very unique cathedral built in the 16th century.

Zaanse Schans:

Zaanse Schans is apparently a ‘must do’ when in Amsterdam. After reading about its popularity and crowds, we chose to take a day off work and cycle the 15km to this beautiful little town. It is famous for its historic windmills and distinctive green wooden houses. While there, we visited the wooden clog carving workshop, the cheese factory, and the chocolate workshop. We also stopped into the saw-mill: one of the six still-functioning mills in the town.

While this town was indeed quaint and interesting, be aware that the crowds are very overwhelming. Honestly, our day-trip felt more like a visit to Disneyworld than a visit to a historic Dutch village. It’s worth the visit, but it’s also worth timing your visit to avoid peak crowds (ie. choose a weekday and visit in the evening).

Windmills in Zaanse Schans
Windmills in Zaanse Schans
Other places worth a visit:

There is a lot more places worth exploring around Amsterdam. Here are a few which we had on our list, but didn’t have the time to visit:

  • Giethoorn (little Venice of the North!)
  • Rotterdam
  • Naarden
  • cycling up to Marken along the coastline

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Hey everyone, I’m Kara, studying Computer Science in Bonn, Germany. While at university I mostly lean towards courses on IT Security topics, I am excited to work in HPC this summer. This summer, I will be in Amsterdam figuring out how to add encryption to PCOCC, the private cloud tool they have running on their supercomputer. When I’m not studying, I am normally checking on the beautiful balcony/mini-garden my boyfriend and I have (there’s always so much to do!) or fumbling with a telegram bot for planning board game nights a friend and I started programming. I love playing board games and Pen and Paper, also reading and playing music.

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