Easy Escapes: Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Canals, bikes, spliffs and great art – Miranda McMinn has a high old time in this loveable Dutch city

Canals, bikes, spliffs and great art – Miranda McMinn has a high old time in this loveable Dutch city

Why go? If you think Amsterdam is all about stag and hen dos and coffee shops where you spend the whole weekend getting mind-splatteringly, munchie-inducingly wasted – think again. Well, you can do that if you like, and I for one wouldn’t judge you. But you could also leave that to the tourists and pursue the interests of the incredibly hip Amsterdammers in this super-chilled, stylish and fascinating city. It’s all about bikes and trams here: there are 881,000 bikes for 811,185 residents, and 58% of them cycle daily, which can be quite precarious for pedestrians but has the virtue of not causing pollution. The atmosphere is extremely relaxed and pleasant, the culture mind-blowing and the buildings and canals beautiful enough to rival Venice. The city is also an inspiring lesson in different ways to live – for example, I was very taken with the four-storey bike park at the station where commuters leave their secondhand bone-rattlers, and the houses on the grandest canals which are subsidised for artists so it’s not all bought up by oligarchs. About as different from Blighty as you can imagine – and it’s cheap and quick to get there too.

On yer bike: Amsterdam is a cycling utopia

When? Winter in the Netherlands is cold and wet so spring to autumn is best. If you go in summer and hit lucky you could even take a trip to the nearby beaches.

You really must…
Take a canal trip. There are scores on offer around the city. We went on ‘The Tourist’, a gem of a 1920s ‘salon boat’ owned by the Hotel Pulitzer luxury hotel (£27, pulitzeramsterdam.com). This wooden beauty boasts a bar, floral arrangements worthy of a Dutch flower painting, red leather banquettes and best of all Captain Tony, who took us on a 75-minute round trip of the city’s waterways pointing out sites of interest (the houses of Rembrandt and Anne Frank, for example) in perfect English with a gorgeous Dutch accent. A must.

The Van Gogh Museum (vangoghmuseum.nl) is a fascinating explanation of the man through a chronological display of paintings and letters. Among the 200 artworks are those sunflowers, his bedroom and the harvest. This year is the 125th anniversary of his death and queues (as for the Anne Frank museum, annefrank.org) are massive and the galleries get very crowded, so it’s really worth not just pre-booking tickets but arriving as early as you can manage.

Dutch master: Van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfield under Thunderclouds’ (detail)

Slightly less crowded though equally stuffed with extraordinary artworks is the Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl), a huge national gallery where every corridor leads you to a yet more recognisable and famous painting – Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid’, Rembrandt’s ‘The Nightwatch’, you get the idea. The museum is epic but strangely manageable and the side galleries featuring special exhibits from doll’s houses to silver are another treat.

Less well known but definitely worth a trip is Ons’ Lieve Heer Op Solder (opsolder.nl). This translates as ‘Our Lord In The Attic’ and is a clandestine Catholic church set in the roof of a perfectly preserved 17th-century home, which is itself as worthy of interest as the church above – a bit like entering one of the paintings in the Rijksmuseum, with black and white floors, narrow staircases and beds in cupboards. It is situated in the heart of the Red Light District – which really is something else you have to see, even if you’re not planning on indulging in any reefer madness. On the street woozy parties of men and women (that’ll be the stags and hens) sit drinking and smoking in what looks like a thoroughly pleasant haze. Massive wafts of spliff smoke pour out of the coffee shops and a few prostitutes remain in windows (though programmes to rehabilitate sex workers are now in force so supposedly the only ladies on show are ones that have chosen to be there…), which is, let’s face it, pretty weird – but overall the atmosphere, at least in the day, is pretty benign. If I hadn’t been with my kids I might have stopped for a while at least. Apparently at the cool end of the coffee shop market the Dampkring (dampkring-coffeeshop-amsterdam.nl) plays host to Brad Pitt when he’s in town. Nuff said.

Oh so pretty: the canals at night

Real Amsterdammers think getting stoned out of your gourd is a bit loser-ish and instead hang out in the cool hipster end of town in Jordaan and the Western Canal/Nine Streets area (theninestreets.com), all ultra-tasteful health food cafés and art and design shops. This is an endlessly attractive place to explore and compare the subtle differences in the main canals, the red and yellow roses growing up the fronts of houses, the lavish window-boxes, the houseboats and gabled 17th-century terraces. More than just hipster beards (although there are plenty of those) there is something lovely to look at with every step you take.

Stay at: Accommodation in Amsterdam is at a premium and ranges from cool apartments to elegant (and expensive) boutique hotels along the prettiest canals. We stayed at Hotel Die Port van Cleve (doubles from £103, dieportvancleve.com) a 122-room four-star hotel on the site of the first Heineken brewery (who knew?!). This is more a grown-up/business hotel than a trendy hangout, but is comfortable, ultra-friendly and extremely well-located – within walking distance of the station, a tram ride from the museums, a ten minute stroll from the bad side of town and around the corner from the charming Nine Streets neighbourhood. With children in tow it was perfect – particularly as we stayed in a business suite with sofas that turned into beds and a Jacuzzi big enough for the whole family.

Worth the trip: the colour-charged cake shop De Taart van m’n Tante

Dine at: If you go to Holland you must eat two things. The first is an Indonesian meal – as compulsory to the Dutch as a curry would be to an Englishwoman. We went to Puri Mas (purimas.nl), a first-floor restaurant near Leidseplein where the waiting staff wear traditional batik and they play calming jazz. Rijstafel is a traditional, mezze-type Indonesian meal featuring multiple dishes of mouthwatering satay, gado gado, noodles drenched in coconut, peanut sauce and fragrant spices – it goes on and on. We ate until we nearly exploded and to be honest I’m drooling at the memory as I type these words.

The other culinary must is a pancake house. The Pancake Bakery (pancake.nl) on Prinsengracht is prettily situated canalside and the menu offers a wide choice – the one for children comes with a toy and covered in sweets, parents be warned. The menu features modern twists such as caprese with tomato and pesto, but I went for the old Dutch classic (apple, bacon and syrup) and it was frankly a dream come true.

Arty Amsterdam: don’t miss the city’s interiors shops

Bring home: Dutch cheese, gin and tulip bulbs are the clichés, but Amsterdam is a city that venerates art, architecture and design, so go shopping in the Art Deli (art-deli.com) or Droog (hoteldroog.com) for a great selection of gifts to impress the folks back home.

Book now: For the many flight options to Amsterdam see skyscanner.net, or take the train via Brussels (eurostar.com).

Info: Amsterdam (£7.99, Pocket Rough Guides) is a compact and up-to-date guide; for more information see iamsterdam.com and holland.com.

LATEST MARIE CLAIRE TRAVEL

Reading now

Popular