Old city, new look

Old city, new look

There’s more to Amsterdam than the over-hyped Red Light District and coffee shops that don’t sell coffee. Unless you have a rucksack on your back, rather seek out these highlights of the Dutch capital…

Cruise the canals

Built during Amsterdam’s ‘Golden Age’ when the Dutch dominated trade with the Far East, the canals of Amsterdam are without doubt the city’s defining feature. These remarkable urban waterways celebrated their 400th anniversary last year, and in 2010 the Canal Ring – centred on Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht – was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

For a close-up view of the city’s watery roadways, hop on a canal cruise. There are departure points around Amsterdam, and a hop-on hop-off ticket allows you to both experience the canals and explore the city. If you’re pressed for time, one-hour tours will cruise you past the highlights. However, the canals are just as beautiful from terra firma, and wherever you wander in the city you’ll be charmed by these tulip-fringed waterways.

Jordaan

In this effortlessly charming city there are few areas as beguiling as Jordaan. Once home to the city’s working classes, today it’s a haven for artists and young professionals. There’s a rich and varied history here, evidenced in the soaring Westerkerk tower – seen by many as the symbol of old Amsterdam – and the imposing Norderkerk. This 16th-century Protestant Church is worth a visit, and especially on Saturdays when an organic farmers’ market sets up in the streets surrounding it.  

And that’s the real attraction of Jordaan: it’s a living breathing neighbourhood without Amsterdam’s trademark red lights and stoned tourists. It’s quiet, dignified and welcoming; a place where narrow cobbled lanes lead between terraced houses; where boutiques hide next to art galleries and cosy neighbourhood bistros. Once you’ve seen the sights, visit Jordaan to live like a local.

To market, to market

There’s no shortage of chic boutiques in Amsterdam, but leave the anodyne outlet stores for another day. The city has wonderful markets where you should rather be spending your time… and your Euros. 

The century-old Albert Cuypmarkt in the suburb of De Pijp is the largest outdoors market in the Netherlands. You’ll find everything from fashion knock-offs to smoked fish here, and it’s a great place to shop for souvenirs. Or, you could just buy a plate of piping hot poffertjes – puffy pancakes dusted in icing sugar and butter – and soak up the atmosphere.

The Singel flower market is also worth a visit. This long row of stalls on floating barges – a nod to when most of the trade in the city was done by boat – sells bulbs and cut flowers and is a good place to shop for souvenirs. Another charming Amsterdam institution is the Oudemanhuispoort book market. Set in a covered passageway in the heart of the city you’ll find an eclectic array of books, prints and music.

Bricks and mortar

The narrow canal houses built by prosperous merchants define Amsterdam’s architectural image, but in the city’s waterfront precinct there’s a bricks and mortar revolution on the go. With striking new galleries, libraries and apartment blocks, “the waterfront area is where Amsterdam is redefining itself,” says Jeffrey Bolhuis, a local architect who leads architectural tours of the area. 

The EYE Film Museum is the poster child of the gentrification of the north of the city, but also seek out the municipal library, open to the public and offering great views from the top floor café; the new transport terminus next to Centraal Station; and the impressive courts of justice to the west.

Finally, for a look at where it all began wander towards the Het Scheepvaart maritime museum. Across the road, the ornate towers and dark stonework of the Amrath Hotel is a textbook example of the ‘Amsterdam School’ of architecture.

A day at the museums

Amsterdam’s museums offer collections devoted to everything from colonial shipping to the wartime resistance movement. Anne Frank’s House is a stop for most visitors, while the Stedelijk Museum will appeal to design buffs and fans of modern art.

The Stedelijk is at the southern end of the Museumplein, where you’ll find the imposing Rijksmuseum and reinvented Van Gogh Museum. Rijks is the more serious of the two, but thanks to a 10-year renovation that ended last year it’s a bright, airy and easy-to-navigate collection of Dutch Masters, sculpture and artefacts.

A short walk across the square, the Van Gogh Museum houses the world’s largest collection of works – over 700 – by acclaimed Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, and a €20-million revamp has transformed the visitor experience.

 

Are you getting hungry?

From syrupy stroopwafels to Michelin-starred restaurants there’s no shortage of great food in Amsterdam.

De Kas should be your first choice for a blow-the-bank meal, with chef Bas Wiegel offering wonderful farm-to-fork fine dining in a renovated greenhouse in Frankendael Park. In the city centre, Restaurant ANNA is likewise pushing boundaries with modern Franco-Dutch cuisine on the fringes of the Red Light district.

If you don’t fancy dropping €70 on dinner, stop in at Brouwerij ‘t IJ alongside the Gooyer windmill in northern Amsterdam. This craft brewery does a range of tapas-style light dishes that pair perfectly with their wide range of beers. You’ll also find cosy neighbourhood bistros on almost every corner of the city: Café de Reiger in Jordaan, and Restaurant Moeders on Rozengracht, won’t disappoint.

Blooming marvellous Keukenhof

What started life as a keuken – ‘kitchen’ – garden for the nearby castle has become one of the world’s most remarkable botanical attractions. Each year over seven million bulbs from 1400 flower varieties are planted across Keukenhof’s 32 hectares. By the time the garden opens for its two-month season in mid-March, the formal gardens and rambling beds are a riot of colour. The blooming is weather-dependent, but mid-April is generally the best time to see the flowers.

Keukenhof is easy to reach independently by train and bus from Amsterdam, although numerous tour operators run day trips during the flower season.

First Published: 2014-10-01 Equinox magazine

Who is OnAnotherPlane...

RIchard Holmes headshot web smallRichard Holmes is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer based in Cape Town, South Africa. His work on African and international destinations has appeared in a wide range of consumer publications both in South Africa and abroad.