Amsterdam - Awash with the riches of history
Written by Brian Johnston
Amsterdam is a place where history, culture, and a good dose of the bohemian combine to create one of Europe’s most charming and progressive cities, afloat in a watery setting.
It seems appropriate that water is the defining element of Amsterdam: ever changing and challenging, fluid and beautiful.
Through its long history, the Dutch city has never hesitated to reinvent itself, from staid 17th-century commercial hub to inspiration for painters to modern marvel that seems to blend organisation with relaxed friendliness. Water has encouraged it all, bringing trade, new ideas and, more lately, tourists entranced by Amsterdam’s canals and changing reflections.
Water is ever present in Amsterdam and is one of its chief delights. Its inhabitants are creatures of the canals: living, socialising, cycling, and enjoying jazz music – all along the banks of the city’s waterways. Familiarise yourself with Amsterdam’s canals, and you won’t be disappointed, whether you’re taking a commentated canal tour, pedalling your own water bike, strolling the evening canal banks, or just sitting on a deck enjoying a coffee.
With an illustrious history, rich culture, and progressive society, Amsterdam has little reason to be modest and yet, refreshingly, it is. It provides a delightful change from the palaces and grandiose monuments of many European cities. Most of its 7,000-odd heritage-registered buildings are warehouses and merchant residences, offering a look at the modest lives of ordinary folk in days gone by.
The best of Amsterdam is endearingly domesticated, and enjoying it is absolutely free. Walk or cycle a rented bicycle along its wonderful canals and across bridges, passing flower markets, quirky boutiques, and gabled houses. In winter, you can even skate along some of the canals, and in summer locals sit in the sun at cafés or on the decks of their houseboats. In all, nearly 100km of waterways, spanned by some 400 bridges, create a spider’s web of delightful vistas across the city: merchants’ houses, petite palaces, tree-shaded parks, and cosy residences. Behind windows, you can see big, homely kitchens where bowls of tulips sit on wooden tables.
Start in the city centre, within the Canal Ring, home to Amsterdam’s most historic buildings, a showcase of its middle-class wealth during the 17th-century Golden Age. You might want to call in at the Tulip Museum, featuring the history of the Netherlands’ obsession with this springtime flower. Explore further and alternative treats await in neighbourhoods such as Jordaan, a once-rebellious working-class district that’s now one of the trendiest parts of town, crammed with galleries, boutique hotels, and cafés.
If you’re after one of Europe’s largest street markets, head to Albert Cuyp Market in De Pijp district, where some 300 stalls offer everything from clothes to gourmet food and souvenirs along Albert Cuyp Street. Finally, when your legs tire, take to a canal cruise on a glass-topped barge and inspect the city from a different perspective, as scudding northern clouds above make Rembrandt motifs in the sky.
You’ll find actual Rembrandts in the world-renowned Rijksmuseum, a repository of the best Dutch art from the Golden Age. Amsterdam’s other cultural highlight – and one of the world’s most visited museums – is the Van Gogh Museum, which reopened in 2013 after a considerable redesign. Though Van Gogh never actually lived in Amsterdam except for a brief period in 1877 when he studied theology, admirers now flock here to see the greatest collection of his works.
The museum houses 200 paintings by the Dutch post-Impressionist artist, as well as most of his prints and sketches. Among them are some of his most famous canvasses, such as The Potato Eaters, several self-portraits, Vincent’s Bedroom at Arles, and the glorious Sunflowers. The comprehensive collection allows you to trace the story of Van Gogh’s artistic development and psychological issues, which culminated in his suicide at the age of 37.
There are always bunches of sunflowers in the city’s Flower Market, where Van Gogh’s colourful canvasses are matched with a vivid display of daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips. The stalls sit on houseboats along the Singel canal, making this the world’s only floating flower market – even if accessed from the street. Before sunflowers, it was tulips that caught the attention of Dutch painters, as many a canvas and sketch in the Rijksmuseum shows. It’s clear from the many local shoppers at the Flower Market that the Dutch find tulips just as attractive today.
From here, make your way to the Hortus Botanicus. One of the world’s oldest botanical gardens, established in 1682, it shows exotic plants from the Netherlands’ former colonies among its 4,000 species, and has wonderful tropical and desert glasshouses.
A just-opened onsite exhibition, running until October, is dedicated to the important botanical collections of Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon. Kids will enjoy the Butterfly House, home to hundreds of brilliantly coloured tropical butterflies (as well as all manner of important economic plants such as rice, coffee, and cacao). Tulip displays can be enjoyed throughout April but, if you miss out, don’t worry: summer provides a spectacular display of 250,000 other blooms.
As always, though, it will be the canals that lure you back with their watery delights. The Canal House Museum (Het Grachtenhuis) might not sound enticing, but don’t miss this interactive, entertaining, and very informative museum, which tells the story of Amsterdam’s physical, social, and cultural development – and how canal construction and water management played a vital role in its rise to wealth and success. The museum also has a lovely tulip garden.
Just beyond the city centre, Oud Zuid is a quiet, affluent neighbourhood. Wander there via PC Hooftstraat, Amsterdam’s chicest shopping street, and dine along Amstelveenseweg, an up-and-coming boulevard on the culinary scene. Finally, head to the former port area of Eastern Harbour beyond Centraal Station, where huge redevelopment projects are creating a whole new part of the city, transforming Het IJ waterway with concert halls, a cruise-passenger terminal, and new residential and entertainment zones – just another part of the ever-changing, fluid face of Amsterdam, the ultimate city of water.
LEARN: Science Centre NEMO
Aimed primarily at children, NEMO is housed in a spectacular harbour-front building. Visitors can do tests on soap bubbles, make electrical circuits, and find out why toothpaste contains sugar. Virtual-reality exhibits cover topics such as DNA technology and the psychology of memory.
SLEEP: Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam
This monumental hotel, located right in the centre of town, occupies one of Amsterdam’s most historic buildings, formerly a royal lodging, the headquarters of the Dutch Admiralty and the city hall. Inside, French flair combines with sleek, contemporary décor and artworks. Even if you aren’t staying, dine in French-influenced, Dutch Michelin-starred restaurant Bridges, surely the city’s best seafood restaurant.
CELEBRATE: King’s Day
The national festival that honours King Willem-Alexander’s birthday on April 27 particularly enlivens Amsterdam, with street markets, parties in its parks, and revellers floating on barges along the city’s canals. Sporting events and kids’ activities suit families. Everyone wears orange in acknowledgement of the royal House of Orange-Nassau.
TASTE: Five Flies
It might not have the most encouraging name, but D’Vijff Vlieghen (Five Flies) restaurant serves some of Amsterdam’s best traditional Dutch cuisine, with added modern, French-inspired influences. The canal-side building is straight out of Holland’s Golden Age, and is decorated with Rembrandt etchings, antique armour, and glassware.
Distance: 4,916 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 35 minutes