More bicycles than people, some of the finest museums in the world, excellent food, hospitable locals – and just a 45-minute flight from London, the compact but beautifully formed Dutch capital is pretty hard to beat for a short break.
The Netherlands might be a small country but it’s a heavyweight on the international stage. It’s one of the world’s top 10 exporters, it’s a thriving centre for commerce and manufacturing, its creative and cultural credentials are top-notch and it has led in areas as diverse as technology (birth place of the Tom Tom) to club music. Its history is long and fascinating – this was often a nation that preferred to make its own distinctive mark rather than follow in the footsteps of others. On the whole the Dutch are an engaging lot – pleasant, cheerful, pleased to help and delightfully laid-back.
WHY SHOULD I GO?
Amsterdam is easy – easy to get to and easy to explore and with a chilled atmosphere. It also has almost everything you’d expect from a world class city. And in the past year one of its (and the world’s) most important museums has been reborn after an extensive ten-year renovation.
The short hop across the North Sea from London is well served from Gatwick with regular flights offered by British Airways (www.ba.com) and EasyJet (easyjet.com) with fares from £80 return. From Schiphol airport the efficient train service takes 20 minutes, costs €4 and whisks you into the city’s Central Station. Pop-up ticket counters on the station concourse at Schiphol dispense with queues (you see, easy).
Amsterdam is a compact city and most of the sights are within walking distance. Trams are a cheap way to get around but if you want to assume the guise of a local then take to two wheels. The bicycle is king and there are a lot of them! Pedestrians take note – the Dutch, usually a thoroughly relaxed bunch, can assume a most uncharacteristic irritation at the sight of a jay walking tourist (bicycle bells should be your warning).
For charm, cozyness and a perfect picture postcard setting within a row of 17th century buildings on the city’s oldest major canal, the Hotel Estherea (estherea.nl) is a delight. Rooms cost from around £140 excluding breakfast. If your budget isn’t quite so accommodating try citizenM Amsterdam (citizenM.com) with rooms from £70 or Park Hotel (parkhotel.nl) from £90.
New Amsterdam Tours (newamsterdamtours.com) offers free, three-hour walking tours of the city. Yes, we did say “free” – just tip as much as you feel it’s worth. And don’t be a meanie because these are a great introduction. And, if by any chance, a guide called Geert is working when you’re in town he is seriously worth checking out – a sort of historian/insider/stand-up comedian combo!
ON THE WATER
Amsterdam has more canals than Venice but avoid one of the throng of tourist boats and opt instead for Friendship (friendshipamsterdam.com), a little known (as yet) one hour cruise aboard lovely open topped barges with charming crews and big cushions on which to laze and take in the surroundings. It’s a snip as well at €15 including a beer, glass of wine or soft drink or €25 to upgrade to a glass of Moët & Chandon.
Aside from being a remarkable teenager hiding in an Amsterdam building for two years during Nazi occupation, Anne Frank is, of course, famous for her diary and as someone who put a human face to the horrors and unfathomable extent of the Holocaust. That house (annefrank.org) is possibly the defining tourist attraction of the city and makes for a poignant experience. The queues can be horrendous so book in advance or go late in the day.
The Dutch have certainly made their mark on the art world over the centuries – take Vermeer, Van Gogh and Rembrandt for starters. The Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl) is the national museum dedicated to art and history and it’s also one of the most important in the world. In April 2013, the main building was reopened after a ten-year renovation costing a reported €375 million. The Van Gogh Museum (vangoghmuseum.nl) houses the largest collection of works by the celebrated artist (and some of his contemporaries) who, remarkably, sold just one painting during his lifetime.
COFFEE SHOP OR CAFÉ?
Yes, there is a difference. It’s the latter if you’re after a tall skinny latte and blueberry muffin, while if you opt for the former you’ll no doubt be enticed by the prospect of a little “smoke” or a slice of cake you’re not going to find in Starbucks! Contrary to popular belief, cannabis isn’t legal in the Netherlands but the Dutch middle name is “tolerance” and, hey, it brings in the business.
Trying to squeeze it all in and pushed for time? Then make for Vleminckx (off Het Spui on Kalverstraat), a little kiosk serving some of the best French fries you’re likely to taste complete with an assortment of sauces. Go for one of the mayonnaise type for authenticity, or ketchup if you want to give yourself away as a tourist!
Cafés and bars in Amsterdam are wonderfully engaging and relaxing places. There are hundreds lining canals, back streets and quirky neighbourhoods and are great for grabbing a drink, watching local life glide by or striking up a conversation with an Amsterdammer who, of course, mostly speak impeccable English.
SHOP, SHOP, SHOP
The area known as “The Nine Streets” (theninestreets.com) centred around the canals of Singel, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht is utterly delightful. Hardly a multinational chain to be found, it’s full of designer boutiques, quirky retailers, cheese shops and inviting bars and cafes.
OUT TO DINNER
Finding good food is no chore in Amsterdam. In fact the choice is so great it’s hard to narrow down the recommendations but try de Struisvogel (Keizersgracht 312; restaurantdestruisvogel.nl) which occupies a charming basement and offers a simple but seriously good three-course set menu (€26). And it’s worth the taxi journey out of the city for De Kas (restaurantdekas.nl) with its stunning setting in an old greenhouse and menus created using only the best seasonal produce.
MINE’S A PINT
Skip the Heineken tour which is very much a “corporate” experience and go in search of something more authentic, such as Brouwerij ‘t IJ (brouwerijhetij.nl) – a brewery located next to a windmill on the east side of the city. It can be toured Friday through Sunday (check website for times).
…AND SINCE YOU ASK!
Despite its huge and diverse treasures, most people’s default thought setting when it comes to this city is sex and drugs. The Red Light District has a fascinating past linked to the mistresses of Catholic churchmen and, later, sailors on shore leave who were greeted by working ladies bearing red lanterns. In 1988 the Netherlands declared prostitution a legal profession, thus dispensing with pimps and making the working girls officially self-employed and, therefore, taxable! It’s perfectly safe to wander the area although maybe not with a minor or maiden aunt.
For further information visit: holland.com and iamsterdam.com