Canals, tulips and cheese: Barack Obama takes in the Dutch sights

James Munt and Barack Obama. Photo: Pure Boats
James Munt and Barack Obama. Photo: Pure Boats

Former US president Barack Obama has been popping up all over the place during his recent visit to Amsterdam for a speaking engagement at the Ziggo Dome.

If you were out an about on Amsterdam’s canals on Sunday morning, you may have spotted him on board an electric boat with friends and security staff, as he took time out of his busy schedule for a tour of Amsterdam’s canals.

James Munt from Pure Boats hosted the former president, his security team, and four of his friends. Munt, who co-owns the canal cruise company with his wife Geertje and colleague Nick Mezas, told Dutch News the voyage came together on short notice.

On King’s Day, Munt said, they decided to go on a boat trip with a few friends, one of whom asked if they could bring someone along. That ‘plus one’ was someone who works on the production team for Obama’s current European tour.

‘He had such a good time with us that he said he would invite Obama to come on the boat,’ Munt said. ‘We thought, ‘okay, we’ll see about that,’ but, sure enough, he started texting me the next day.’

There was just one problem: they were fully booked for Sunday, the day the former president wanted to go on a tour. ‘But you can’t say no to Obama,’ Munt said. ‘We said we’d make it work.’

A low-key trek

Obama’s team requested the company’s Schollevaar, a classic canal boat originally built in 1912 that’s since been restored with an electric engine. Munt and his colleagues loaded it with drinks and snack platters before meeting with Obama and his team for the tour, which began at 11 am.

‘Most of Amsterdam is not up by that time, so it was still pretty quiet,’ Munt said.

Obama boarding the boat. Photo: @eddie_amsterdam

After climbing abroad, Obama told him that he was looking forward to having a day off. To avoid potential crowds and photographers, Munt set sail for a few of the city’s quieter waterways.

‘I think he enjoyed a few moments of anonymity,’ Munt said. ‘At the start of the trip, there were a few people shouting and taking pictures and stuff, of course. I took him out around the east side of Amsterdam, past the zoo, and through the Plantage. It’s a very pretty part of Amsterdam. I tried to show him as much diversity as possible.’

The tour continued past the National Maritime Museum before heading along the Raamgracht and eventually down the Amstel.

Curious about the city  

Munt was able to chat for a while with the former president during the tour. They talked about what it’s like to live in Amsterdam, climate change, and how concerned the Dutch are about water management and rising sea levels.

Obama was apparently surprised that the canals used to regularly freeze during the winter months and residents could ice skate on them, a tradition that has become increasingly rare in recent decades.

‘I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few celebrities and famous people over the years,’ Munt said. ‘Obama really stood out to me as being the most humble, well known person I’ve ever met. He’s somehow managed to keep himself grounded. There were no signs of arrogance or ego. He was normal and easygoing.’

A culinary tour

The canals were not the only tourist attraction Obama visited. On Monday he spent time at the tulip fields in the Beemster, north of Amsterdam. He had lunch (goats cheese salad and French fries) at the 1612 cafe in Noordbeemster where, according to the staff, they were given an ‘American style tip’.

On Sunday his choice of eateries had been a little more upmarket: Ron Gastrobar in Ouderkerk for lunch (Indonesian rijsttafel) and De Kas in Amsterdam Oost for dinner, where he was said not to be a great fan of asparagus.


The big event was on Monday night when Obama was interviewed by journalist and television presenter Jannine Abbring during An Evening With Barack Obama. Tickets were not cheap. A simple seat in the stands ran at €104 while a front row seat was a little over €400. Dinner and a pre-party, with the option of a selfie with the former president, came in at €2,750, according to Het Parool.

The event helped raise funds for the Obama Foundation, which strives to inspire, empower, and connect people to change their world.The event was not sold out, but was reportedly ‘well filled’.

During a roughly hour-long discussion, Abbring and Obama talked about his presidency and family life in addition to global climate change, American gun laws, and the recent impact of AI technology like ChatGPT. He praised Amsterdam as well.

‘Try to appreciate what you have,’ he told the audience. ‘You have a beautiful city.’

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