We’re about out of the early rounds of the World Cup now, with teams going home after hearing one too many shouts of Gooooooaaaaallll! On the tourism side, we’ve got a big match-up again between two places with a lot to talk about: it’s Brazil versus the Netherlands.
Why should I visit Brazil…or the Netherlands?
Michael Sommers for Brazil – Aside from spectacular unspoiled nature, vibrant cities, rich history, cultural diversity, and amazing food, Brazil is a champion when it comes to the seemingly antithetical arts of utter relaxation and unbridled revelry. The latter is assured year round but, if you show up during the World Cup, you’re in for a festa of such massive proportions that you might actually forget that Brazil isn’t hosting the World Cup this year. Right now, the entire country is currently eating, sleeping, and breathing futebol and even if you’re not a fan of the “beautiful game”, the festive atmosphere that reigns is contagious.
Soccer aside, right now it’s “winter” in Brazil, which translates into generally lower prices (although July, which coincides with school vacations, is high season) and lower (i.e. very comfortable) temperatures in the usually scorching Northeast and in Rio (São Paulo and the South can actually get quite cool). It’s a wonderful time to sprawl on beaches and not worry about crowds and/or sunburn or take a trip to mountains, rainforests, and/or historic cities, which at other times of the year, can be hot and humid.
Zora O’Neill for Netherlands – Sure, the Netherlands is on the euro, and has typical western Europe prices for food and hotels, but its huge advantage–and where it’s the precise opposite of Brazil—is that it’s tremendously compact and has a highly efficient, reasonably priced train network. After a few days in Amsterdam, for instance, you can hop on the new Fyra high-speed train and in 40 minutes, you’re in Rotterdam—completely different scene, architecture, everything, and it costs less than the price of lunch. Or you can go to the Hoge Veluwe—the big national park and fantastic art museum—really easily. Or head up north to the North Sea islands. Nothing’s more than a couple of hours away, so your travel budget winds up quite low, and you can see more in a set time.
And don’t get me started on how much it costs just to fly to Brazil…
What’s there to do for free or cheap?
Brazil – The most obvious answer is to hit the beaches, of which there are no shortage (by law, all beaches on Brazil’s 8,000-km coastline are public). Public museums throughout the country are generally free and private museums are quite inexpensive. Brazil is steeped in art, culture, and history and most museums tend to be located in splendid public buildings or private houses that are worth visits in themselves. In cities and towns, look for free musical performances in public squares, parks, or even on beaches. Outdoor concerts or musical jams inevitably turn into impromptu festas; they’re a great place for letting your hair down, interacting with Brazilians, and (if you’re very courageous and don’t mind looking foolish) mastering the seemingly effortless, but actually tricky art of dancing the samba.
Netherlands – The best cheap fun you can have in Amsterdam is to rent a bike. It usually costs about 10 euros a day, and suddenly you have access to a whole, complex city—not just the historic center. You can take the ferry across to the north side of the city (the ferry is free), and then bike way out into the country in less than half an hour. Or you can bike around the fringes of the city, where there’s all kinds of new and interesting architecture. Plus, it’s just fun to be on a bicycle. In the rest of the Netherlands, a bike gives you the same kind of freedom—there’s a network of bike paths across the whole country.
Or if you’re feeling extremely cheap, you can entertain yourself just by walking around Amsterdam and people-watching. Every other block seems to have some scenic view or quirky art display or something odd. And there are some great free public spaces—the public library, for instance, in the harbor. It’s an amazing building, and a hangout spot for so many people, and there’s a great view from the roof. Or Vondelpark, when the weather’s nice. And if you feel like you need to do something concrete, the Concertgebouw has free noontime concerts once a week in season.
What’s to eat for cheap at lunch?
Brazil – Even in Rio, there are tons of great budget options. Bares de suco or juice bars (particularly those in the Zona Sul beach neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon) are great for insanely healthy cocktails made of tropical fruit pulp (including the energizing Amazonian açai) and intimidating large and terribly nutrititious “natural sandwiches. All are open daily, and most stay open until the wee small hours. Equally good are botequins, simple neighborhood bars where Brazilians congregate to gossip, sip icy cold beer, and nibble on delicious homemade appetizers such as caldo de feijão (thick black bean soup) or bolinhos de bacalhau (seasoned codfish balls), which can easily become a full-out meal (most serve home cooked daily specials as well). Either option allows you to eat well for under $10.
For foodies, keep in mind that many of Rio and São Paulo’s finest restaurants offer lunchtime “executive menus” during the week, which allow you to sample their creations at a significant reduction (a 3-course meal for roughly $20-25).
Netherlands – Frites, frites and more frites. Sure, french fries do not make a well-balanced meal, but I practically live on them when I’m in the Netherlands, and they don’t seem to do any permanent damage (the biking helps a lot!).
Also, the totally misunderstood treat of the Netherlands: herring. For some reason, people recoil when they hear this word, but raw herring is one of the most deliciously fatty fish I’ve ever tasted. And it’s not expensive: herring stalls all over the city will sell you one, chopped up and covered in onions and sweet pickles if you like, for about 3 euros. I usually get a sandwich, even though it’s considered a little wimpy. The bread helps you hold the pickles and onions on, and keeps the fish oil off your fingers.
In Amsterdam, you can graze at the Albert Cuypmarkt, a street market in De Pijp. There you can get fresh-made stroopwafels (those crispy cookies with a smear of caramel in the middle), herring, frites and loempias (Indonesian fried spring rolls). The Dappermarkt, out in the Oost, has tons of tasty stuff too. You might wind up spending more than a few euros, but you’ll be glad you got to taste so many different things.
What are my options for having a wild night on the town and what’s it going to cost me?
Brazil – No matter where you are in Brazil, “wildness” is pretty much guaranteed at night in large cities or major beach destinations during high-season. And even the most forsaken town in the middlle of nowhere will have a bar serving icy cold cerveja (beer) in large 600ml bottles (popular brands are Brahma, Antarctica, Skol, and the superior Bohemia) as well as beloved cachaça, the ubiquitous alcohol distilled from sugar cane. When mixed with sugar, ice, and lime, cachaça undergoes an intoxicating metamorphosis and is transformed into a caipirinha. Variations using other tropical fruits are very common as is replacing vodka for cachaça, which then becomes a caipiroska. Traditionally looked down upon as rot gut that leads to perdition, cachaça’s rep has received an overhaul in recent times: these days, aged and organic varieties are on par with fine whiskies.
Brazilians are up for drinking just about everywhere. Aside from restaurants and bars, you can usually get an icy cold one
on any street corner and even on remote beaches (courtesy of vendors who haul around styrofoam coolers). It’s imperative that beer be estupidamente gelada (“stupidly icy”) and you’ll see Brazilians become very irate if they’re served anything at a temperature less than Arctic. (Of course, after putting up a fuss, they’ll usually drink the tepid beer anyway rather than move to another bar). A sure sign of a perfect beer is if the bottle is wearing a veu de noiva (“bridal veil”); a thin layer of white frost. In terms of costs, a big beer will set you back around $2 while a caipirinha can be had for $3-4.
Netherlands – I’ll talk just about Amsterdam, because that’s the place I know well, but in general, the nice thing about the Netherlands is how democratic and unpretentious it is. Because of this, nightlife is often pretty cheap, and you don’t have to stand outside the velvet rope or anything like that. Amsterdam is great for jazz and other improvised music—there’s a free jam session at Bimhuis, the big avant-garde venue, every Tuesday, as well as at Zaal 100, a much snugger, very cool space in a legalized squat. The squat scene used to really be the driving force in the city’s nightlife. It’s a lot less influential now, but there are still excellent venues where there’s fantastic music or other performance, and beer costs you a euro or two.
Heading a little more mainstream, you’ll spend between 2 and 3 euros for a glass of beer, and maybe pay 10 to 20 euros to get into a club. But again, the cheaper places are often substantially better. One place it might be good to splurge is if a big touring band you like happens to be performing at the Paradiso or Melkweg; these are relatively small venues, but they’re the best places to play in the city, and really still have an intimate feel.
Oh, and of course there are the coffeeshops—weed is pretty cheap entertainment! Coffeeshops sell prerolled joints for 7 to 10 euros, or you can buy pot by the gram, and considering how strong it is, it’s a very efficient investment in your evening!
What are the best bets for finding cheap places to sleep?
Brazil – Pousadas are the equivalents of guesthouses of B&Bs, although the definition is as elastic as pousadas themselves are diverse. While some are basic inns, others are charming family-owned lodges. Still others are feel like boutique hotels (albeit without the astronomical prices). You’ll find pousadas throughout Brazil—typically more in small towns, beaches, and rural areas. Increasingly, they are popping up in larger cities, where they offer a nice (and more affordable) antidote to sometimes soul-less hotels. If you’re staying for more than one night and/or paying in cash, you can almost always negotiate a 5-10 percent discount—during off-season, such discounts can be sizable. Meanwhile, for the really budget-conscious, there is a new generation of hostels on the rise that are very appealing. Aside from shared dorms, most offer double and family-sized private rooms that are cheaper and more homey than staying in a sad, one-star hotel. Barring some major holiday or event such as Carnaval, you should be able to get a decent room at a pousada for $50-70 (double) and for $40-50 (double) a night for a hostel.
Netherlands – This is a rough topic. Amsterdam in particular is short on hotel rooms to start with, and a disproportionately high number of them are really sub-par. So the good places usually know it and are priced accordingly. Summer high season, it’s near impossible to find a room under 100 euros, and even hostel beds are close to 40 euros. I typically tell people to head to Stayokay Hostel in the east side of the city—great facilities, half the price of the city center, and you’re right on a tram line.
And because Amsterdam is small, it’s not a problem if you’re not dead center, so look farther out in the fringes. (In fact, the hotels dead center—along the Damrak—are particularly horrible value!) I also hear great things about the campground on the east edge of the city.
The rest of the Netherlands isn’t quite so cutthroat when it comes to accommodations. There are plenty of youth hostels (where you don’t have to be a youth to stay) and well-maintained campgrounds. You just need to book ahead if you’re traveling in the summer.
In the low season, fortunately you can really snag a deal. In deep winter, Amsterdam hardly gets any tourists—February, for instance. But this is a time when the city is really at its coziest and most picturesque, and you can really enjoy the museums and things all by yourself.
Born in Austin, Texas, and raised in Toronto, Canada, Michael Sommers has lived and worked in Brazil as a journalist for over a decade, with his base being the country’s original, and very beautiful, capital of Salvador, Bahia. As a writer and photographer, over the years he has contributed travel articles to various publications including The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, and The International Herald Tribune. He is the author of the guide books Moon Brazil and Moon Rio, published by Avalon Publishing. You can read his ongoing dispatches from Brazil on his blog Thrill of Brazil.
A New Yorker by way of New Mexico, Zora O’Neill is a food and travel writer who has lived abroad in Cairo and Amsterdam. She is the author of several guidebooks for Rough Guides and Moon Handbooks, including The Rough Guide to the Yucatán as well as Cancun & Cozumel Directions. She maintains the blog Roving Gastronome about her travels, and what she eats while she’s at it. (See her most recent Perceptive Travel story here: Eating a Personal Pig)