What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Amsterdam’? Tulips and canals? Dope and the red-light district? Anne Frank? Or is it Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Vermeer?
Amsterdam bundles the lot together, writes Rodney Bolt, in centuries-old gabled buildings along a spider’s web of waterways. It is at once historical, laid-back and perkily modern. Behind those historical façades, you’ll find hip bars, cosy cafés, and chic restaurants. Crisscrossing between the grand canals are alleys lined with alluring shops. And the art and the music are up there with the best the planet has to offer.
You can shop to the strains of street-organ music, even as you’re picking out smart Dutch design. Trundling bicycles rather than noisy cars set the tone, and if something’s not next door, then it’s just a short walk or tram-hop away. From the grand canals of the city centre, to the Museum Quarter in the south and the foodie quarter of De Pijp, which edges it, Amsterdam seems custom-built for a short break.
Tiny Letting (Prinsenstraat 3, tel. +31 20 627 9393) brims full with happy breakfasters, tucking in to American-style pancakes, Dutch sugar-bread and cinnamon toast, or a full fry up. It’s on the edge of the Negen Straatjes (the ‘Nine Little Streets’) – alleys crisscrossing Amsterdam’s grandest canals, lined with fashion boutiques, specialist stores and shops selling designer goodies. So, after breakfast, zigzag your way from Prinsenstraat/Herenstraat to Huidenstraat/Runstraat, taking in both shops and historical gables as you go, then walk back past the sumptuous buildings along the Prinsengracht canal to the Anne Frank House (Prinsengracht 263-267, tel. +31 20 556 7105). If you wish to view the secret attic where Anne and her family hid from the Nazis, book tickets online beforehand, otherwise most of your first morning will be spent in the queue.
From a jetty just in front of the Anne Frank House you can catch a Canalbus (tel. +31 20 217 0500) – hop-on hop-off canal boats that (quite literally) gives you a new perspective on the city’s historic gables. Take the green line to City Hall from where you will be able to wander through the cluttered, cacophonous and exhilaratingly chaotic Fleamarket. At the west end of the market, cross a bridge over the canal to Staalstraat, and lunch at Droog (Staalstraat 7B, tel. +31 20 217 0100), an oasis of chic minimalist calm above the store of one of the Netherlands’ most famous design companies. They do great juices (such as a fennel, celery, lime and cucumber blend), as well as healthy soups, salads and sandwiches. After lunch, walk along Kloveniersburgwal, one of the city’s oldest canals, past De Waag (the medieval city gate and weigh-house on Nieuwmarkt), and on through a corner of the notorious red-light district to Ons’ Lieve Heer Op Solder (‘Our Dear Lord in the Attic’, Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40, tel. +31 20 624 6604), a beautifully restored 17th-century canal house, complete with period kitchens, cupboard-beds, a Vermeer-like parlour, and a real surprise in the attic.
Dinner is under the vast stained-glass roof of The Duchess (Spuistraat 172, tel. +31 20 811 3322), a new restaurant housed in a magnificent former banking hall, dating from 1906. You can go light contemporary, with aubergine carpaccio, lentil salads or quinoa and pomegranate; or traditional with beef wellington or roast duck. Then downsize delightfully for an after-dinner drink at De Dokter (Rozenboomsteeg 4, tel. +31 20 626 4427), arguably Amsterdam’s smallest café, run by the same family since 1798, cluttered with bric-a-brac, proudly festooned with decades’ (if not centuries) worth of cobwebs, and serving a good range of malt whiskies.
Start the day with a taste-bud adventure (coconut pancakes, maybe, or scrambled eggs with avocado) at hip hangout, CT coffee and coconuts (Ceintuurbaan 282-284, tel. +31 20 354 1104), in De Pijp, Amsterdam’s fast-growing foodie quarter. Then stroll by the delis and eateries on 1e Van der Helststraat up to the Albert Cuyp Market, a kilometre-long stretch of stalls mounded with cheeses, strung with saucisson, fragrant with fresh-cooked waffles, strewn with bright fabrics, and more. Or take Tram 7 or 3 to Museumplein, and the Rijksmuseum (Museumstraat 1, tel +31 20 674 7000), where you’ll find Rembrandts, Vermeers, and all the greats of Golden Age painting, as well as the finest Dutch art and design through the centuries. Other nations get a look-in to – don’t miss the superb Asian Collection in the basement wing.
Lunch is a bit of a treat. At the museum restaurant Rijks (Museumstraat 2, tel. +31 20 674 7555), Joris Bijdendijk, one of the country’s brightest culinary stars, comes up with delicate, exquisite creations (cod with seaweed butter, cockles and cucumber), in small portions that you share tapas-style. It all comes at a price, but there are good lunch deals. Afterwards, head across Museumplein to one of the Rijksmuseum’s neighbours: the Stedelijk Museum (Museumplein 10, tel. +31 20 573 2911), where you’ll find world-class modern and contemporary art, or the Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7, tel. 31 20 570 5200), which houses the world’s richest and most extensive collection of that tortured painter’s work. The Stedelijk is strong on conceptual and video art, but has a vast painting collection, too, with Mondriaan, Malevich and other early 20th-century masters getting a good showing. A new hanging at the Van Gogh throws a lucid light on Vincent’s development as an artist, and the tugs and lures of his various influences. (Here, once again, it’s best to book online in advance, to avoid lengthy queues.)
Stay in the neighbourhood for an early dinner at the Conservatorium Brasserie (Conservatorium Hotel, Van Baerlestraat 27, tel. +31 20 570 0000). Space, light and clean contemporary minimalism make a calming backdrop for a light supper, such as lobster bisque and an organic salad from the buffet, or (if you haven’t gone overboard at lunch) a more substantial duck with juniper sauce, perhaps, or kale risotto. Then cross the road for a concert at the Concertgebouw (Concertgebouwplein 10, tel. +31 20 671 8345), at the bottom end of Museumplein, which is renowned for its superb acoustics. You might catch the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra itself, frequently cited as the best in the world, or be swept away by a recital by a visiting virtuoso. If that’s not really your thing, hop on Tram 16 to the Tuschinski Cinema(Reguliersbreestraat 34, tel. +31 20 428 1060), a gaudy, eccentric architectural extravaganza, built between 1918 and 1921, where the elaborately decorative main auditorium is worth a visit no matter what’s on the screen. It makes a fitting final moment in a city that combines the quirky, the historical and the contemporary.