October 20, 2023
By Rodney Bolt
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Amsterdam’? Tulips and canals? Dope and the red-light district? Or is it Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Vermeer?
Amsterdam bundles the lot together, in centuries-old gabled buildings along a spider’s web of waterways. It is at once historical, laidback and perkily modern.
Behind those historical façades you’ll find hip bars, cosy cafés, and chic restaurants, while crisscrossing between the canals are alleys lined with alluring shops. Trundling bicycles rather than noisy cars set the tone and the city’s art and music are up there with the best the planet has to offer.
From the grand canals of the city centre to the Museum Quarter in the south, here's how to spend two days in Amsterdam.
Letting brims full with happy breakfasters tucking in to American-style pancakes, loaded club sandwiches 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.
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. 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 Canal Bus – hop-on hop-off canal boats that (quite literally) gives you a new perspective on the city’s historic gables.
Head for City Hall (part of the waterside Stopera building) from where you will be able to wander through the cluttered, cacophonous and exhilaratingly chaotic Waterlooplein flea market. At the west end of the market, cross a bridge over the canal to Staalstraat, and lunch at Droog, an oasis of chic minimalist calm above the store of one of the Netherlands’ most famous design companies. They do great coffees and fresh juices, 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 through a corner of the notorious red-light district to Ons’ Lieve Heer Op Solder (‘Our Dear Lord in the Attic’). This beautifully restored 17th-century canal house is 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, a restaurant housed in a magnificent former banking hall that dates back to 1906. You can go contemporary, with aubergine carpaccio, oysters or a fennel and pistachio salad; or traditional with beef wellington or baked sea bass.
For an after-dinner drink, downsize delightfully at De Dokter, one of Amsterdam’s smallest cafés. Run by the same family since 1798, it’s cluttered with bric-a-brac and proudly festooned with decades’ (if not centuries) worth of cobwebs. Go for its good range of malt whiskies.
Start the day with a taste bud adventure – coconut pancakes, maybe, or scrambled eggs with avocado, alongside freshly roasted coffee – at hip hangout, Coffee and Coconuts, in De Pijp, Amsterdam’s 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 and strewn with bright fabrics.
Or hop on the tram to Museumplein and the Rijksmuseum, 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.
Lunch is a bit of a treat. At the museum restaurant Rijks, Joris Bijdendijk, one of the country’s brightest culinary stars, comes up with delicate, exquisite creations (think 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, where you’ll find world-class modern and contemporary art, or the Van Gogh Museum, which houses the world’s richest and most extensive collection of the iconic 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.
Stay in the neighbourhood for an early dinner at the Conservatorium Brasserie. Space, light and clean contemporary minimalism make a calming backdrop for a light supper, such as lobster bisque and cauliflower quinoa salad.
Then, cross the road for a concert at the Concertgebouw, 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.
Alternatively, end the evening with a film at Tuschinski Cinema, an eccentric architectural extravaganza built in the early 1900s where the elaborate 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.