Amsterdam is a city that celebrates individuality, encourages quirkiness and delights in difference. It has a long history of riches and rebelliousness. The glory-days of the 17th century, the über-cosy 1800s, the counter-culture explosion of the 1960s – they’ve all left tidelines along Amsterdam’s canals: opulent gables, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, barrel-lined cafés, gardens of rare blooms, marijuana-selling ‘coffeeshops’, and Miss Marple bicycles.
Now Amsterdam is sweeping into a new Golden Age, making a fresh mark with galleries, sharp shops, award-winning restaurants and hipster cafés. Bristles of audacious architecture have shot up round the city edges but the cobweb of gable-lined canals is still at its heart, with funky stores in the criss-crossing alleys of Negen Straatjes, new galleries to the west in the Jordaan, world-class museums and chic boutiques south around Museumplein, a market and further foodie paradise in De Pijp, and hot new quarters opening up all the time.
Begin at Centraal Station with a kick-start coffee (or simply to admire the décor) at Café 1e Klas, the period-perfect 1880s former first-class waiting room tucked away on Platform 2b.
Then depart on a Stromma canal cruise in a glass-topped boat from one of the moorings across from the station – not the tourist-trap it sounds, but a quick way to feel a sense of place, get the perfect angle on the city’s decorative gables and watch Amsterdam coming to life.
If you have time to spare before the next boat, take a wander along Brouwersgracht west of the station. The pretty bridges mean it is justifiably Amsterdam’s most photographed canal. When the cruise is over, grab a quick lunch at the café atop OBA, the public library near Centraal Station where there’s a rooftop terrace with a spectacular view of both the old and new parts of the city.
Back on the ground, wander through the Oostelijke Havengebied (Eastern Docklands) to take in some of Amsterdam’s newest architecture, then down Oudezijds Voorburgwal, one of the oldest parts of town, to the ancient parish church Oude Kerk, where edge-pushing contemporary art exhibitions vie with centuries-old treasures for your attention.
Almost next door, Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder is a beautifully restored 17th-century canal house, with a surprise when you reach the top via narrow wooden stairs.
Back outside, edge through a crowded corner of the red light district to De Waag, the medieval city weigh-house on Nieuwmarkt, then away from the hurly-burly along Recht Boomsloot and Krom Boomsloot – quiet canals that will take you to browse through Amsterdam’s famed flea market on Waterlooplein. Look out for antique bric-a-brac (brass bowls, old porcelain), bicycle parts, second-hand leather coats, old jewellery, silk scarves, Peruvian knitwear, and vinyl aplenty.
Head back to Hanneke’s Boom, a shack-like café with a cosy open hearth on an odd island in the Eastern Docklands, for drinks, dinner and maybe music and dancing later.
Or take a rest at your hotel, freshen up, put on the glad rags and prepare to be wowed by one of the best chefs in town at Spectrum. Sidney Schutte cooks with finesse and flair, giving the odd surprising twist to a local ingredient – such as crispy tulip bulbs, or a white asparagus dessert.
Today is the day for the big three museums on Museumplein. It’s an early start at the Rijksmuseum to avoid the crowds – the best time to arrive is 9.15am, after the initial surge when it opens at 9am. Take in the premier Old Masters in the Gallery of Honour, but also look out for the 18th-century dolls’ houses (not toys, but show-off pieces for rich merchants’ wives) and visit the exquisitely selected Asian collection in the basement. Then time for a break.
It’s a 10-minute walk to the hip foodie and café district of De Pijp, and the Albert Cuyp Market (Albert Cuypstraat) for hot sticky stroopwafels, colourful fabrics, bargain clothes and all manner of delectable goodies to take home. The streets leading off it are replete with delis and cafés. Try Little Collins for a kimchi toastie, or some other yummy lunch from the inspired Aussie-Dutch owner-chefs.
Head back to Museumplein and the Van Gogh Museum (book an afternoon slot online in advance). Leave time not only to immerse yourself in the colours of the tragic artist’s paintings, but to explore his delicate drawings, and the letters which reveal so much about the man. Then, if you’re not museumed-out, drop in next door to the Stedelijk Museum to be brought right up to date with the very latest in international art and design.
Alternatively, head back towards the centre through the Spiegekwartier arts and antiques district to enjoy one of Amsterdam’s greatest delights, a walk through the Grachtengordel district; the concentric rings of grand canals laid out in the 17th century are here.
The best view? The point where Prinsengracht and Reguliersgracht meet. Zigzag your way towards the Negen Straatjes to shop in the alleys of hip and quirky shops that criss-cross the main canals, and then west to the galleries and cafés of the Jordaan.
Dinner is at Koevoet, a café that dates back to pre-gentrified Jordaan days but where – amid the dark wood panelling, Tiffany lampshades and assorted bric-a-brac of a traditional Amsterdam ‘brown café’ – a wildly talented Sicilian family provides homemade pastas and sausages and other flavours of southern Italy.
Then a nightcap at an old-fashioned Jordaan neighbourhood café: De Tuin. There are ten beers on tap, more bottled, and the wine is palatable. Try a beer from Oedipus, or one of the other Amsterdam craft breweries.
Book online for the Van Gogh Museum, and visit after 4pm to get a less crowded view of the famous paintings. An imaginative hanging (with personal touches such as family photos) brings you within touching distance of the man, and how he worked.
Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam has a garden courtyard full of secluded nooks. It is a quiet retreat in a hectic part of town. There’s also an excellent restaurant and staff are relaxed, gracious and quietly efficient.
Did you know?
Where to stay
Hotel Pulitzer Amsterdam is a stand-alone hotel that stretches through 25 houses, between two canals. Many rooms have fine views, and all come with a potted history of whichever canal house you find yourself in. Modern art from the hotel’s collection finds its way into the rooms, too.
From £450 per night.
Seven One Seven is a sumptuous canal-house mansion with the ambience of a grand private home – the place to come if you really want to give yourself a treat. Comfy modern beds and sofas blend seamlessly with antique furniture to add contemporary convenience to old-world romance.
From £438 per night.
The former offices of De Volkskrant newspaper have been given vibrant and stylish new life as Volkshotel, an affordable hotel with weekend DJs, rooftop hot tubs and even artists-in-residence. The rooms are thoughtfully designed, seeming more spacious than they really are. A rooftop bar-restaurant offers adventurous new-Dutch cuisine.
From £60 per night.
When to go
Popular songs have it that spring’s the time to come tulip-plucking, but really any season in Amsterdam has its allure.
At the slightest hint of good weather the chairs and tables go out at pavement cafés. On the downside, expect rain or Tupperware-grey skies any time of year – but then there’s more than enough on the museum front to keep you entertained indoors. Summer can be a heady time of long evenings on outdoor terraces, autumn for bracing walks along the canals, winter ideal for snuggling down with good Dutch beer in a cosy, wood-panelled café.
Know before you go
Embassy: British Embassy (00 31 70 427 0427), Lange Voorhout 10, 2514 ED, The Hague
Emergency services: dial 112. For non-emergency police matters dial 0900 8844
Tourist office and information: The Iamsterdam tourist information centre (iamsterdam.com) is inside Centraal Station. Open daily, 10am-7pm. There is a second office in the Arrivals Hall 2 of Schiphol Airport, open daily 7am to 10pm.
Currency: Euro. Few establishments will accept notes of over €50, and prices are rounded off to the nearest 5c (1c and 2c coins are not used in The Netherlands).
Time: +1 hour
Travel times: flying time from London to Amsterdam is just over an hour. A direct Eurostar train takes just under four hours; trains with a change in Brussels take about six hours.
Local laws and etiquette
It’s not true that “anything goes” in Amsterdam. Public drunkenness, rowdiness, and smoking dope in the street meet with severe – if silent – local disapproval.