With a thriving start-up scene and a recent influx of international brands from Uber to Netflix, Amsterdam is fast shedding its image of red lights and dopey, smokey cafes. Said to be the city where every day feels like a Sunday, the pace is slow and the quality of life, high. Rent a bicycle and whizz along with the locals, discover staggering art collections, shop at chic concept stores and warm up in cosy candle-lit brown bars – the Dutch version of the pub. With romantic, sparkling waterways, stroll along the canals after dark and peek through the windows of higgledy-piggledy merchant’s houses into cosy, candle-lit homes.
Bike Rental: Otto Bikes on Overtoom. Friendly staff, good value and lovely vintage bicycles, often cheaper than hotel rates. Baby seats, children’s bikes and bakfiets available too. Right next to Vondelpark so you can get your bicycle legs before hitting the road. €10 for 24 hours.
Art: The Van Gogh Museum is a must-see with booking ahead essential. Make this the first stop on your itinerary and aim to arrive between 9-10am so that you don’t have to queue (even with a pre-booked ticket). It’s worth taking the audio guide and allowing a good couple of hours.
The Rijks Museum is huge and vaguely daunting; most make a bee-line for Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and Vermeer’s Milk Maid. Fans of The Miniaturist will love the beautiful seventeeth-century dollshouses on the top floor. They’re exact replicas of Golden Age merchant’s houses complete with linen in the linen cupboards, miniature tulipiere vases and tiny Dutch kitchen tiles.
Foam: Contemporary photography gallery with excellent exhibitions.
Museums: Anne Frank House is mind-blowing and moving. Explore the warren of rooms occupied by the Frank family from 1942–1944. It’s worth re-reading Anne’s diary to remind yourself of the beautiful, lyrical prose that a fourteen year old girl penned within the confines of the tiny annexe. Essential online booking well in advance.
Our Lord in the Attic is a remarkable, tiny pink Catholic church hidden within the attic of a seventeenth-century canal house.
Museum Van Loon is a grand old family canal house with a simple café where you can get a coffee to enjoy in the pretty rose garden behind.
In Old South get lost in Boekhandel Van Rossum; an English bookshop with excellent children’s books too.
Where to stay: The Pulitzer occupies a prime position on the Prinsengracht Canal with luxurious bedrooms. Its sumptuous 1920’s mahogany saloon boat moored in front of the hotel takes guests out afternoon tours of the canals; the same vessel on which Churchill toured Amsterdam after it’s liberation in 1946.
The Hoxton (sister to the Hoxton Holborn) is slightly more affordable and good fun with a buzzy bar worth visiting in its own right.
Packing: Bring decent shoes and a raincoat. If you forget, it’s the perfect place to invest in one; try Rains, the brand the Dutch love.
Seasonal: Visit at Christmas when the canals dance with festive lights and Dutch oliebol (donut) stands pop up at each street corner. The Christmas decorations at Menno Kroon on Cornelis Schuytstraat, Amstedam’s ‘Little Paris’ are spectacular. From 22 March-13 May a visit to Keukenhof is on every visitor’s agenda. Stay away from the busloads of tourists and opt for a bike ride through the windmill-littered tulip fields instead. Avoid Kings Day on 27 April unless you’re ready to party; the entire city turns orange with day and night festivities.
Canal Tours: Snap-happy tourists can be off-putting but don’t discount a canal tour; it’s a lovely, slow way to get around and see the city from the water. Book Gs Brunch Boat, €40 for a drink, brunch and 1hr 45 min tour, or hop onto a boat outside the Anne Frank House, €15 for an hour’s tour with rugs and heated seats. Alternatively, hire your own boat and meander the canals at your own pace.
Cafes: The Orangery within the Hortus Botanicus is especially lovely on a sunny day. Toki for coffee and homemade cakes and cookies. Monks bans screens on weekends so you can enjoy your coffee in peace. Winkel 43 for classic Dutch apple pie.
Lunch Restaurant: Little Collins in De Pijp serves a decent Bloody Mary and brunch/lunch. Try La Perla in Jordaan for delicious woodfired pizza. Foodhallen is an old tram shed converted into a makers’ market, library, cinema and foodhall with an array of street food vendors. Eat your way around; start with oysters at the le Big Fish Seafood Bar or classic Dutch bitterbal at de Ballenbar, move on to rice paper rolls at Viet View, or stonking hot dogs served in pretzel buns at Bulls and Dogs and round off with a sweet lemon tart at Petit Gateau.
Evening Restaurant: € Pata Negra: cheap, average tapas but a raucously fun atmosphere that has guests swigging sangria and dancing on the tables by the end of the evening. €€ Café Binnenvisser: a surprising and inevitably delicious weekly changing set menu; try one of each dish. €€€ De School draws a hip crowd with its contemporary set menu served upon white linen tablecloths within the industrial space of a converted technical school. €€€€ Restaurant Breda is a real treat.
And finally, Smoking: Boerejongens Coffeeshop is the Fortnum & Mason’s of wacky baccy complete with staff in suits and a surreal, plush leather smoking room upstairs.
Written by Daisy Allsup, editor of The Iris Letter