Canal Boat Tours, Fashionable Restaurants Plus Museums Celebrating The Artistic Heritage Of The Netherlands Count Among The Reasons To Spend Time In The Dutch Capital.
There’s something about cities with multiple waterways. They present so many options when it comes to exploring the attractions scattered within their urban boundaries. In Amsterdam’s case, the historic canals are themselves an integral part of the city’s charm.
If you’re an avid reader and planning a city break in Amsterdam you may appreciate acquiring a copy of The Fall by Albert Camus. The French Existentialist philosopher set what proved his final complete novel in the Dutch capital. Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the story’s principal character, famously asks the unnamed companion at whom he talks, “Have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell?” The fictional dialogue takes place in a seedy bar named Mexico City, for which a present-day Google search inevitably returns no address. In a city (in)famous for its nightlife, and with so many stylish bars to visit, why go shabby? 5&33, the cocktail bar within the Art’otel Amsterdam, and Skylounge Amsterdam, on the top floor of the DoubleTree by Hilton Amsterdam Centraal Station hotel, are just two of the elegant, centrally situated venues that attract discerning clientele.
Clamence states that he never feels comfortable, “except in lofty surroundings.” So if he was to somehow fly from the pages of the book and land in the modern day Dutch capital, he may well feel at ease spouting his monologues while sipping a gin cocktail at Madam, a subtly illuminated lounge bar and restaurant where an in-house DJ spins the music as dusk darkens into night. Up on the 20th floor of the A’damToren, the hip, minimalistic bar is within the repurposed corporate headquarters of Royal Dutch Shell and has floor-to-ceiling windows offering views over Amsterdam and the U-shaped network of canals that form a series of rings around the city’s heart. Taking him at his word, he’d also feel relaxed riding the swing, which lays claim to being Europe’s highest, on the Lookout deck above Madam: bookings for time-slots can be made online or paid for on arrival.
The A’damToren — which you may also hear referred to as Amsterdam Tower — stands on the north side of the River Ij and is one of the best-known landmarks in what is regarded as an up-and-coming neighbourhood. To see it for yourself, step aboard one of the free, frequently running ferries that cross the broad waterway from the rear of Amsterdam Centraal Station, the transport hub designed in the late-19th century by Pierre Cuypers — the Dutch architect’s other notable works include the Rijksmuseum, the museum whose sizeable collection of artworks and historical artefacts provides an overview of how the nation’s identity evolved. Within easy walking distance of the landmark tower stands the Eye Film Museum, whose sleek, futuristic design encompasses an airy bar-restaurant with a spacious riverside terrace.
Inevitably, in a city offering as much to see and do as Amsterdam, many first-time visitors never attempt to cross to the north bank of the Ij. To orientate, few experiences match boarding a canal boat for a tour of the waterways that were constructed during the 17th-century — the period of wealth, buoyed by global waterborne trade, now known as the Dutch Golden Age — and designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2010. The low boats have arching windows, making tours a viable option even on rainy days that are otherwise ideal for spending time inside the cluster of cultural attractions at the Museumplein. The grassy square is just beyond the Stadhouderskade, the outermost ring of Amsterdam’s central canal network. In addition to the ever-popular Rijksmuseum, art lovers can choose between the Stedelijk Museum, displaying modern and contemporary works, and the Van Gogh Museum, for which pre-booking a time-slot well in advance is advisable. One way for you and a guest to skip the queue is to purchase a Vincent’s Friend membership of the museum.
Take your pick from the tours on canal boats with departure points near to the central station and along Keizersgracht, the grand canal named in honour of Emperor Maximilian on Austria. The popular boat tours last an hour and feature recorded, multi-lingual commentaries that point out sights such as the façade of the Museum Van Loon, a four-storey townhouse dating from 1672 — the opulent rooms convey the style and luxury in which Amsterdam’s elite lived during the Dutch Golden Age. Boutique boat tours are also available. Leemstar operates tours in small, handcrafted wooden boats with commentaries in English. If you’re environmentally aware, you’re likely to enjoy a two-hour Plastic Whale tour: sightseeing is combined with highlighting the existential threat to our planet’s marine life posed by carelessly discarded plastic. If you feel motivated to make a change, you can even participate in an exercise to fish plastic waste from the waterways.
Green considerations tend to be embedded in Dutch thinking. That means the trams running on the well-connected public transport network represent as a good a way as any of getting about in central Amsterdam: 24-hour and multi-day passes are available for the system. Cycle hire is also an option if you feel like going native and having an archetypal Dutch experience. Don’t be surprised to see cyclists without helmets hurtling along the streets. And don’t step out from the pavement without looking around — it pays to remain wary in streets busy with near-silent bicycles.
The de facto heart of Amsterdam is Dam Square. The vast building now designated as the Royal Palace overlooks the square on which public executions were carried out in distant centuries. Constructed as the city hall, with the intention of conveying the wealth and power of Amsterdam during the 1650s, the palace is utilised for state occasions. When King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima are not hosting representatives of foreign governments the palace opens its doors to visitors. The Citizen’s Hall has a shining marble floor and displays oil paintings by artists of the calibre of FerdinalBol and GovertFlinck, students of Rembrandt van Rijn, whose artistic contributions to the Dutch Golden Age are being celebrated with exhibitions across Holland throughout 2019 — the 350th anniversary of his death.
Rembrandt’s most celebrated painting is the masterpiece popularly known as The Night Watch. The dynamic group portrait is displayed within the purpose-built Gallery of Honour at the Rijksmuseum, yet the famous work was originally displayed in the Kloveniersdoelen — meaning the “musketeers’ meeting hall” — which is today the oldest hotel in the city, the 81-room NH Collection Amsterdam Doelen. A copy of the artwork is displayed in the five-star hotel’s logically named Rembrandt Suite. The riverside hotel is suitably placed if you like the idea of exploring the city centre on foot.
Part of the same chain, the 451-room NH Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, named in honour of its original owner, opens onto Dam Square. It hosts The White Room, serving cuisine reflecting the culinary vision of Jacob Jan Boerma. The elegant restaurant is one of 16 in Amsterdam distinguished with a single Michelin star.
For an outstanding dining experience, Spectrum, on Herengracht, is one of three restaurants within the city centre holding two Michelin stars. Chef Sidney Schutte and Sasha Speckemeier, the restaurant manager, lead the team that delivers a tasting menu recognised for its innovative flavour combinations. &Moshik is another two-starred address. Named after its chef, Moshik Roth, the waterfront establishment serves delectable dishes such as Black Truffle Carpaccio and Sweetbreads on Hay.
Looking for a light lunch? Café Restaurant Stalpaert, named after the architect who designed the National Maritime Museum, can be accessed without entering the museum and is an option for a light lunch. Salads and Konningensoep — which translates as “queen’s soup” — feature on the menu. To gain an understanding of how the Dutch came to dominate global trade 400 years ago, it’s worthwhile browsing the exhibits inside the historic landmark, which was built in 1656 as an arsenal to equip warships.
Alternatively, a stylish option for lunch is Occo, which also offers mid-afternoon ‘high wine’, rather than high tea, pairing wines with a selection of dishes from the kitchen. Like Vinkeles, another of the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants, Occo is inside the boutique Dylan Hotel, whose 40 sumptuously decorated rooms are spread across two neighbouring buildings in the NegenStraatjes district. Meaning the “nine little streets” and centred around the Keizersgracht, the area is worth browsing for its fashion boutiques, vintage clothing stores and beautifully laid-out shops packed with ideas for unusual gifts.
If you enjoy shopping or architecture, peek inside the Magna Plaza, a shopping mall within the neo-Gothic style building that formerly served as Amsterdam’s main post office. Designed by Cornelis Hendrik Peters, the building has an elegant feel, thanks to the natural light that floods its pillar-lined central hall. Brands such as Swarovski, Lacoste plus Cheese and More are represented. The mall stands two minutes’ walk across Dam Square from de Bijenkorf, Amsterdam’s flagship department store.
Historians may well believe that the 17th century was the Dutch Golden Age. If you enjoy multifaceted city breaks you’re likely to find that contemporary Amsterdam also glisters.◼
© This article was first published in Apr-May 2019 edition of World Travel Magazine.