FEATURE

Paris and Amsterdam, Together

When Erik Torkells told his sister, Molly, he'd take her anywhere in the world as a 40th-birthday present, she picked Las Vegas. Clearly, there was work to be done.

Spanjer & Van Twist, a canal-side café in Amsterdam (Emily Nathan)

My sister and I spent our formative travel experiences together, most of which involved long family RV trips around the western U.S. But while I got bit by the travel bug, even becoming the lucky editor of this magazine, Molly never traveled much. She found plenty of excitement in getting married, moving across the country (and back), having two kids, and starting a teaching career.

For her 40th birthday, I thought it'd be fun to take her somewhere. After all, the only times she had left the U.S. were on a graduation cruise to Ensenada and a family drive to Vancouver. "Think about where you'd like to go!" I e-mailed her. "London? Iceland? Tokyo?" I was feeling like Brother of the Year. A few days later, she e-mailed her choice. I took a few deep breaths, and pointed out that while, yes, it was her birthday, and yes, I'd said she could choose the destination, the idea was to go somewhere she'd never been--basically, anywhere but Las Vegas.

Molly thought about it some more and realized she was intimidated by the unknown: different languages, passport bureaucracy, foreign currency, and so on. She said she needed to get over her fear, and that we could go to Europe. She'd let me decide exactly where.

I chose Amsterdam because it's so easy to navigate, making it the perfect place to dip a toe in--besides, it's where I went on my first trip to Europe. And then we'd go to Paris, because it's Paris.

If you were to ask her about the experience now, a few months after the trip, she'd probably say that it was discombobulating being the student, not the teacher--let alone having her little brother be the one in charge. For six days, I was a cross between George Patton and Napoleon Bonaparte. We didn't just see Amsterdam and Paris: We conquered them.

Any little brother worth his salt torments his sister long after he should've stopped. In that spirit, here, for her review, are my 11 lessons on how to explore a city.

Do what you want to do, not what everyone says you should do. The more I travel, the less interesting I find the official attractions, preferring spots that feel more alive. But I knew Molly's friends would think me a heretic if we didn't go to the Van Gogh Museum and the Red Light District, Sacré-Coeur and the Eiffel Tower. And anyway, I like some of that stuff--I'm a total sucker for the Eiffel Tower light show that happens nightly on the hour. I just don't want to spend my whole trip checking things off someone else's list.

My sister and I, happily, share a gene that makes us enjoy a museum in half the time others do. (We were probably the only people at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum who were relieved that the collection had been condensed so the building can be renovated; it'll be back to full size in 2011.) If we're interested, we dawdle; if not, we bail. We also spent little time at the Van Gogh Museum, the Louvre, and the Centre Pompidou, where the exhibits couldn't compete with the escalators.

Instead, focus on what you like. After leaving the hot, crowded Louvre, we found the Tuileries gardens to be a relief. As was the Musée de l'Orangerie, where the fact that we could see everything in one visit--including Monet's Water Lilies--somehow made us want to. My favorite Paris museums, though, were devoted to a single artist: the Picasso Museum; the Rodin Museum, where I suffered acute real-estate envy, and where one sculpture, Eternal Idol, was so sexy I blushed; and the Atelier Brancusi, in a building right outside the Pompidou. All I want for Christmas is a mini Brancusi to use as a paperweight.

Molly, it turns out, is more engaged by attractions that show how people used to live--such as Amsterdam's Museum Van Loon. Willem van Loon cofounded the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and grew very rich; the Van Loon family now opens its canal house to visitors who want a glimpse of 18th- and 19th-century life. We both were moved by the Anne Frank House; it helped that we went at 7 p.m. on a Sunday, when there was no line and few visitors (it's open until at least 9 p.m. from mid-March to mid-September).

Molly liked the Museum of Bags and Purses much more than I did. It had previously been in the suburbs, but just reopened in a 1664 canal mansion. One purse on display--and available in the gift shop--had a trompe l'oeil impression of a revolver on it. We agreed it wasn't ideal for a teacher.

Wander! I love not having a clue where I'm going; if I stumble on something good, I feel like I discovered it. When we rented bikes from Bike City and rode to the Eastern Docklands and beyond, we really got off the guidebook grid. It was refreshing to reach areas we'd never have walked to, even when there wasn't much there, and also to move at a different pace.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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