It’s a long way from amazing when you first arrive. Schiphol is just another overcrowded airport with the personality of concrete, surrounded by a network of busy roads and roundabouts. Nor are first impressions from a train or car window especially auspicious, although a relatively slow pace of traffic becomes noticeable once you’re in the city centre and this prepares you for the first steps out on the street and a walk around the canal district. Now a strange truth begins to take shape: Amsterdam is not your normal north European city; compared to London it belongs on another planet. Canals and the humped little roads bridging them are ubiquitous, so too are the narrow, gabled facades of the houses overlooking the water. Look up and you see the hooks attached to their tops for hoisting up the goods that arrived alongside on boats. The hustle and bustle of all that trade – based on an empire in south-east Asia that made so wealthy the merchants whose houses these once were, has morphed from the 17th century into a unique urban charm and bestowed on Amsterdam’s canal district UNESCO’s World Heritage status.
A word of warning: gazing skywards at the architecture is perilous if you forget this is also a city of countless cyclists – not all of whom lack smugness – and they bear down on you night and day from every direction. Some are drinking coffee, others texting, tweeting or carrying toddlers, some like to use no hands and all of them claim the space you’re standing on. It feels as if every pavement and road is a cycle lane, with narrow strips occasionally reserved for sad pedestrians. The city’s motto should read ‘two wheels good, two legs bad’ or ‘everyone is equal but those on bikes are more equal than others’ – and this is coming from someone who’s at one with the eco-warriors when it comes to criticising car culture.
OK, enough of a rant – my only defence is that it comes from the hard-earned experience of negotiating myriad pathways of bicycles and trams while trying to cross a road safely – it is time to raise a halleluiah to Amsterdam’s charisma. Its citizens are cool, rip-offs are a rarity and there is no shortage of appealing bars and restaurants and superb places to stay. The breathtaking Late Rembrandt exhibition at the Tate has now moved on to the Rijksmuseum (until 7 May) and if you missed it in London then here is the last chance to be humbled at a collection brought together from around the world. In the Rijksmuseum, outside of this special exhibition, you’ll always see ‘The Nightwatch’, probably Rembrandt’s most famous painting, but it pales before works like ‘A Woman bathing in a Stream’ and ‘Bathsheba at her Bath’. Rembrandt-related places to visit in Amsterdam include houses where he lived and worked and the cemetery where he was given an anonymous burial as a pauper in 1669.
Seeing the late paintings of Rembrandt is an emotional experience of rare quality so it’s all the more astonishing that half a kilometre away stands the Van Gogh Museum. As an antidote to the pop-cultural icon that Van Gogh has been reduced to, highlights like ‘Sunflowers’, ‘The Bedroom’ and ‘Almond Blossoms’ are hung in the contexts of the artist’s desire to be a ‘peasant painter’, his quest for colour and his personal perception of nature. Wow factors in this completely redesigned museum are the three screens at the entrance, showing huge eyes of the artist from a detail of one of the self-portraits hanging in the first room, and the increasing amounts of daylight entering the rooms as you ascend the four levels of the gallery. There are many other museums in Amsterdam – including ones devoted to handbags, cats, sex and torture (two different museums, in case you’re wondering) – but the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum will supply an immensely satisfying overdose for the addicted vulture of culture.
Dutch cuisine is not the world’s most exciting but at d’Vijff Vlieghen this hardly matters because the food experience plays second fiddle to the fun of eating in an olde-world Amsterdam setting. The restaurant, all nooks and crannies and 17th-century Delft blue tiles, is housed in a very old building and four original Rembrandt etchings hang on one wall. Dauphine is another restaurant with an unusual setting – an ex-Renault car showroom – best enjoyed on Friday nights when live music enlivens the scene but whenever you arrive be amazed to find Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc priced at only £25.
L’invite is a comfortingly unpretentious restaurant in the canal district, discreetly tucked away from the tourist crowds, in a building that dates back to 1628. The food is described as French but I suspect, to judge by the delightful bonne bouche purveyed to your table, this is just a coded way of distancing itself from dowdy Dutch cuisine. The surprise menu is not especially Gallic – not with kimchi adding attitude to one of the dishes– but it is delicious and four courses with wine pairings works a treat at £50. Blue Pepper is another gem of a canal-side restaurant – with less than a dozen tables — utterly plain-looking from the outside but dressed within by a turquoise and white colour scheme and a set of three glittering paintings hanging down the wall. Rijsttafel comes in twelve dishes but modern combinations like Canadian bison with a spicy, coconut-flavoured sauce are also on the scrumptious menu and the dessert is accompanied by a palate-stunning surprise on the side of the plate.
So far, so gezellig — the untranslatable word that connotes Dutch culture’s yearning for convivial well-being — and the only edginess was coming from cyclists with no bells and high distain for pedestrians. Somewhere more à la mode and high-energy was promised by a restaurant called Momo. Unrelated to its London namesake, Amsterdam’s Momo is Asian instead of Moroccan but holds its own in aesthetically crafted presentations, chairs covered with a nattily coloured fabric and a glamorous non-gezellig vibe. A bento box at lunch is tasty value at under £15 but its true groove is best enjoyed at night when the enthusiasm of staff adds to the beat and the eclectic sharing menu can be played with to maximum effect. Sushi and sashimi features alongside ceviche and tiradito, and a natty seaweed salad with hijiki and sunflower seeds.
My last day was spent strolling along Bloemenmarkts (flower market) – for tulips of course — and shopping in the myriad funky little shops that specialise in everything from hammocks to cheeses. That night I’d planned a visit to Bubbles and Wines, the place having been warmly recommended to me, but I was scared off: it wasn’t the illuminated street signboards warning of white heroin being fatally sold as cocaine that deterred – oh no, it was those pesky cyclists who gave not a hoot for mere foot-bound mortals. Instead, I tucked into my hotel bed and got online to look again at those Rembrandt and Van Gogh paintings I had seen in the original. Amazing.
Need to Know
• Tickets for Late Rembrandt are available through Rijksmuseum.nl/late-rembrandt
• E-tickets for Van Gogh Museum are bookable in advance at www.vangoghmuseum.nl
• Restaurants: d’Vijff Vlieghen (vijffvlieghen.nl); Dauphine (caferestaurantdauphine.nl); L’invite (linvitelerestaurant.nl); Blue Pepper (restaurantbluepepper.com); Momo (.momo-amsterdam.com.
• Bars: Bubbles and Wines (bubblesandwines.com)
• Lonely Planet’s Amsterdam guide provides all the essentials.
• www.holland.com is always worth a look
Buses, trains and taxis connect Schiphol airport with the city centre but the sleekest way is in a chauffeured Mercedes (blacklane.com) for £30
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