48 hours is hardly long enough to explore the 70 islands, 60 miles of canals and 1000 bridges that make up Amsterdam. Nick Constance gives it a whirl.
Until recently Amsterdam used to be known as a hotbed of sin, but not any more. A whole bunch of money has been invested and now this ‘Venice of the North’ resonates at an altogether different frequency.
Yes, it’s still liberal Amsterdam with its relaxed way of life intact. People still spend hours over coffee and the social element continues to be more important than the demands of work. But the truth is, we’re more likely to smell coffee, or flowers, in Dam Square, than we are the licentious scent of cannabis these days.
Sure, the Red Lights still draws putters, but to label Amsterdam a breeding ground for debauchery is totally missing the point. It’s a far more stylish town now. Not in a self- conscious, dandified way, but in that rather understated, couldn’t-care-less manner that belongs solely to the Dutch.
Of course, when visiting a city, we all want to see what artworks are on show. So, an absolute must-do is the Museum Quarter, Amsterdam’s answer to London’s South Kensington and New York’s Museum Mile. Sitting at the centre of the action is the glorious Rijksmuseum, a Netherlands national museum, which reopened recently after 10 years of extensive renovations. Check out the Gallery of Honour, where Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ is the only painting returned to its original position.
It’s also borderline illegal to visit Amsterdam without exploring the Van Gogh Museum. The tragic story of this troubled soul is laid bare through the world’s largest collection of his work: 200 paintings, 500 drawings and 700 letters. (‘Sunflowers’ is always a crowd-pleaser.)
Also overlooking Museum Square is the Royal Concertgebouw, where, on the occasion we visit, the Philharmonie Zuidnederland regale us with the joyous strains of Rossini, Berlioz, Strauss and… Leonard Bernstein. If there’s one thing to make you feel a tad more cultured, it’s a night at the Concertgebouw.
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Summer in the city
Amsterdam’s 30 municipal parks play host to hundreds of festivals each year and these urban green spaces become the focus of much creativity and entertainment. One such is the Kwaku Summer Festival, held each year since 1975. Originally founded as a football tournament, it has since developed into a multicultural music festival drawing huge crowds each year.
There’s also the stately Vondelpark with its summer programme of open-air theatre, to the more secluded Sarphatipark, an oasis of calm in the bustling, multicultural De Pijp neighbourhood.
Or there’s Gay Pride, an epic festival that highlights the city’s dedication to equality for the gay, lesbian and transgender communities. A hatful of events are staged across town, from street parades and dance fests, to the ‘scandalous’ Drag Queen Olympics.
Just as London renovated swathes of the East End docklands to make way for the 2012 Olympics, Amsterdam’s northern waterfront has also been undergoing a surge of redevelopment recently. NDSM is a former shipping wharf area that is now used as a space for artists, exhibitions and festivals, but also includes offices and student housing. NDSM wharf is reached by hopping on the (free) GVB ferry at the rear of Central station. Yes, it’s free – we’re in Amsterdam. The pleasant 15-minute journey will give you an insight into how the redevelopment is progressing
The spectacular EYE Film Institute dominates the northern bank of the IJ Harbour with its futuristic, almost cyber-shark, appearance. It strives to be a ‘house of film’, a modern museum-cum-cinema full of interactive happenings and film-related events.
Also, as part of this redevelopment, the 22-storey A’DAM Toren is due to open in 2016.
“It’ll be a place where one can work and play, eat and sleep,” says Sander Groet, the driving force behind this ambitious project.
What it will actually be is a hotel, apartments, a nightclub, and several high-end restaurants. Sandwiched between all this will be a number of stylish offices, workspaces and studios.
At the pinnacle of this playground in the sky will be a rotating observation deck with bungee-style seats that will swing out over the edge of the building. If all goes to plan it’ll be a bustling hub of entertainment and creativity, a place where nobody is in a hurry to go home.
As you roam through Amsterdam you’re sure to discover a good restaurant in every neighbourhood. But here, a ‘good restaurant’ doesn’t mean pretentiously complex menus or unidentifiable neon blobs of food. It means fresh ingredients cooked with style and panache and presented in pleasant surroundings.
For a contemporary version of a classic Parisian eatery try Brasserie Harkema, a former tobacco factory located at the rear of the Frascati theatre. This unassuming but lively venue is ideal for pre-theatre meals or post-theatre drinks.
ZuiderMRKT is a new(ish) open-air food market where Amsterdam’s best and mainly organic food producers congregate on a square behind the Concertgebouw on Saturdays. It’s a unique neighbourhood initiative where you’ll find fresh, local delicacies such as organic mushrooms, wines, cheeses, meat, vegetables, flowers and more.
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A sure way to measure if a city is regaining its swagger is to keep a close eye on the luxury hotel scene. So, in addition to the revamp of the Rijksmuseum, much activity on the Northern shore and the Canal Ring’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, enter the Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam.
Occupying a row of 17th-century townhouses (two of them former mayoral residences), this 93-roomed hotel sits within toe-dipping distance of the Herengracht canal – the ‘Gentlemen’s Canal’.
Six separate houses have been knocked through into one building and the designers (GA Design) have turned it into something Rembrandt himself might have captured on canvas – a perfect blend of the old and the new, the classic and the innovative.
The pièce de résistance of the whole project, however, may be the private garden where the delicate perfume of 5000 tulips hits the air each spring.
That’s Amsterdam in a nutshell: Half laid back, half dynamic, all amazing.