Perhaps Amsterdam's greatest charm is also its greatest enigma: How can
such a gracious cultural center with an incomparable romance also multitask as
the most offbeat metropolis in the world? Built on a latticework of concentric
canals like an aquatic rainbow, this remains the City of Canals—but Amsterdam is
no Venice, content to live on moonlight serenades and former glory. Rather, on
nearly every street you'll find old and new side by side, with quiet corners where time seems to be holding
its breath next to neon-lit Kalverstraat. Indeed, Amsterdam has as many facets
as a 40-carat diamond polished by one of the city's gem cutters, from the
capital, and spiritual "downtown," of a nation ingrained with the
principles of tolerance to a veritable Babylon of old-world charm. While
impressive gabled houses bear witness to the Golden Age of the 17th century,
their upside-down reflections in the city's canal waters below symbolize and
magnify the contradictions within the broader Dutch society. With a mere 730,000
friendly souls, 179 nationalities, and with almost everything a scant 10-minute
bike ride away, Amsterdam is actually more of a village—albeit a largish global
one—that happens to pack the cultural wallop of a megalopolis. There are scores
of concerts every day, numerous museums, summertime festivals, and a legendary
party scene. It's vibrant, but not static (which is why the entry of the
Grachtengordel canal ring into the UNESCO World Heritage Site list has not been
greeted with universal joy). The city is making concerted efforts to broaden
its appeal with initiatives like Project 1012, which aims to diversify the
economy of the Red Light District. Just like construction in the rest of the
city, Project 1012 is a work in progress, but there is light at the end of the
tunnel. The scaffolding has come down around Museumplein, and new architectural
landmarks, such as the EYE Film Institute across the IJ, are up. Despite the
disruptions, it's impossible to resist Amsterdam's charms. The French writer
J-K Huysmans fell under its spell when he called Amsterdam "a dream, an
orgy of houses and water."So true: the city of Amsterdam, when compared
with other major European cities, is uniquely defined by its houses—not by
palaces, estates, and other aristocratic folderol. With 7,000 registered
monuments, most of which began as the residences and warehouses of humble
merchants, set on 160 man-made canals (stretching 75 km [50 miles]), and
traversed by 1,500 or so bridges, Amsterdam has the largest historical inner
city in Europe. Its famous circle of waterways, the Grachtengordel, is a
17th-century urban expansion plan for the rich and a lasting testament to the
city's Golden Age, the 17th century.
Her sons and daughters having ranged the four corners of the earth for several centuries, the Netherlands have long offered visitors a vast variety of cooking, everything from a tongue-tingling Indonesian rijsttafel rice banquet to an elegant turbot on a bed of beetroot and nettle leaves. But if you're looking for real Dutch cooking, be prepared for sterner stuff—simple, solid nourishment with true belly-packing power.
A prime example is the erwtensoep, a thick pea soup fortified with a variety of meats. Let the good local burghers save this magnificent brew for ice-skating time; true aficionados of Dutch cooking like this about 364 days of the year. It can be loaded with spicy sausages and pork fat; it's as thick as diesel oil, as rich as super-condensed cream, as inert as infantry pancakes, and sometimes as indigestible as green sawdust—but is it good!
And one top reason why is because of the astounding quality of fresh ingredients available to Dutch chefs. Holland's national green thumb produces the continent's greatest variety of vegetables and fruits, its Gelderland lush forests yield the finest game, and because Dutch sea dikes are covered with rare herbs that nourishes lambs and calves, this results in exceptionally tasty, tender meats year-round. Of course, the waters of the Netherlands offer up a briny feast of fish and shellfish.
No wonder Amsterdam's top chefs have a no-nonsense obsession in bringing out the best in the ingredients and not drowning them in fusion-for-fashion's-sake finery. For them, "New Dutch Cuisine" has to embrace the traditional grass-roots values of organic farming. As with the Slow Food revolution throughout Europe, it is all about artisanal producers of farmhouse cheeses, great farmer's markets, and locally sourced provisioners. And we are talking local: the city's most forward-thinking chefs are now growing their vegetables and herbs in a plot actually attached to their restaurants. For them, New Dutch Cuisine is defined by farm-fresh, perfectly cooked veggies, and often-organic meat (or fish sourced from nearby areas): garden-to-table cooking, if you will.
But let's not forget unlocal. International urban eating trends make it highly probable, on a walk through Amsterdam, to encounter a sushi shack, a soup shop, a Thai take-out joint, an organic baker of hearty Mediterranean breads, and an olive oil specialist. Most famed are the foods of the former Dutch colonies of Indonesia: the beloved rijsttafel (rice table), offering small plates of often-spicy fish, meats, and vegetables served with rice—a culinary experience not be missed.
As for lunch, just follow the locals into one of Amsterdam's iconic cafés or bars (also often called an eetcafe, eating cafés) to have a broodje (sandwich), uitsmijter (fried eggs with cheese and/or ham served on sliced bread), or salad. Ask about the dagschotel (daily dish of meat, vegetable, and salad based on what was cheapest and freshest at the market that morning). If you are out only for a cheap, grease-enhanced snack, check out the infinite snack bars where you can buy—sometimes via a heated wall automaat—deep-fried meat blobs or french fries that you can order with an amazing range of toppings. Or try the many cheap Suri/Indo/Chin snack bars that serve a combination of Suriname, Indonesian, and Chinese dishes.
The top taste? Head to the many fish stalls—or haringhandels—found
on the city's bridges. The prime treat is raw haring (herring that has
been saltwater-cured in vats). This working person's "sushi"
variation is at its most succulent—hence, the usual onion and pickle garnish is
not required—at the start of the fishing season (late May to early June). If
this sounds too radical, there's always a selection of battered and fried
fishes, Noordzee garnalen (North Sea shrimp, which are tinier, browner,
and tastier than most of their brethren) and gerookte heilbot (thinly
sliced smoked halibut). However, if you decide to indulge, gerookte paling
(smoked freshwater eel), rich in both price and calories, is the way to go.
For those who view hotels as an integral part of their travel experience—and not simply as somewhere to spend the night—it can be thrilling to stay in a listed Golden Age 17th-century gabled house, especially one furnished with antique mirrors, down-stuffed duvets, and a general sense of gezellig, a term that embodies the very Dutch notions of cozy comfort.
To walk down medieval passages on the way to sleep in a four-poster bed, sit down to dinner before a baronial fireplace, have breakfast on a terrace overlooking a river that has flowed through history—all these flesh out the shadows that a lucky traveler feels in a city as time-burnished as this one. Behind many of the quaint decorative facades, however, are all the modern conveniences and luxuries one could hope for. So, go ahead: revel in the 18th century over morning coffee, then get a head-start on your day by flicking on the Wi-Fi.
Accommodations throughout this city are egalitarian; no matter the budget, from grand hotels to family-run bed-and-breakfasts, easy access to attractions and idyllic canal views are available to all. Naturally, there's more to any hotel stay than the panoramas, which is where Amsterdam's hotels flex their muscles.
Solid standards keep reaching the next level thanks to such upmarket heavyweights as the stately InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam, the Okura, and the Grand, or the old-world Krasnapolsky, or the grande dame American—each offers doorknob-to-bedpost luxe. Although varying dramatically, these top places demonstrate how historic monumental buildings can be modernized and transformed into state-of-the-art facilities, providing rooms fit for royalty, business travelers, and tourists in one impressive swoop.
At the other end of the scale, young backpackers can mingle in the city's hip hostels for as little as €20, while down-to-earth properties such as Museumzicht and Fita set exceptionally clean standards, serving customers with a smile and a personal local touch; chances are your room was scrubbed only hours, or mere minutes, before you arrived. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then Amsterdam's moteless hotels attain heavenly heights.
In the middle of the price range, serene yet unexpected Dutch-flavored experience can be found around Vondelpark, where, at the Roemer and JL no. 76 modern luxury goes hand in hand with an eye for Dutch art and design. Also near Vondelpark is the charming Sandton Hotel de Filosoof, which will make you feel as if you were a 19th-century traveler visiting an old friend in a stately home; locals gathering in the lobby for weekly lectures and meetings give the place a definitive Dutch touch. Or what about the Exchange? It offers a Dutch-flavored experience of a different sort: each room has been uniquely designed by Dutch fashion students and artists.
Of course, the Netherlands continues to make waves at the forefront of European design. Thus it is little wonder that copious ink has been spilt about the gorgeous "new" Conservatorium, which has revitalized a grand old Amsterdam bank building. Inside, cutting-edge interior design and furnishings blend in with traditional elements and luxury is balanced with sustainability (even if you stay elsewhere you should enjoy a drink or meal in the soaring seven-story atrium). And then there is the worldwide buzz around the new Marcel Wanders-designed 122-room Andaz Amsterdam Hyatt, located in a former public library. Not yet quite open by press time, it is already causing a citywide stir thanks to the first photo images (guest room walls plastered with giant goldfish, etc.)
All in all, Amsterdam's span of hotels befits a dowager who is ten
centuries old but growing younger every day. Some visitors will choose the
latest design hot spot, others will always opt for lodgings in an archetypal
canal-house hotel. If you're one of the latter, just remember to keep a steady
eye, and hand, out when navigating those traditional Dutch staircases. If
you're not nimble-footed, find out in advance if you need to walk stairs at
your hotel—how many, what type, and the degree of incline. And watch out for
that last step out the door; if not careful, you might end up doing a slow
Everybody knows that The Night Watch is the name of Rembrandt's most famous painting but not everyone remembers that, back in the early 2000s, it was also the nickname of a bunch of "Night Mayors." This group of cultural leaders saw their role as fighters against the frumpiness that had cast a shadow over Amsterdam's night scene, thanks to the fact that the city fathers had cleared away the "squats"—the deserted buildings that were the settings for city's wildest nighttime events and raves. Now, ten years later, Amsterdam is happily experiencing a renaissance in its reputation as a true nightlife capital.
The city is still rich with inspired folk who are willing to organize a
video arts festival in a cruise ship terminal, a gentle Bach recital in an
ancient church, an arts festival in an abandoned factory, a house party in a
football stadium, or some heart-stopping spectacle in a park. So get ready to
savor Amsterdam's giant cultural wallop through its numerous venues—from former
churches and industrial monuments to the acoustical supremacy of the legendary
hall of the Concertgebouw. And the beautiful thing about the Netherlands is
that if by the smallest—and we do mean smallest—of chances Amsterdam is slow
one night, a short train trip to Rotterdam or the Hague will undoubtedly have
you at the center of some cultural storm.
What will be your perfect gift? A folkloric koekeplank (cookie mould)? A Makkum ceramic herring platter? A box of those delicious hard candies called Haagse Hopjes? A cutting-edge vest styled by Viktor & Rolf? A psychedelically hued ski cap from Oilily? Or one of those other delights that have made contemporary Dutch design the darling of high-style fans the world over?
Whether you go for Baroque antiques or for post-millennium fashion, the variety of goods available in Amsterdam energizes a continuous parade of boutiques, street markets, and department stores. Be it for the millionaire trade or economy-minded nabobs, hunting in Amsterdam for that special purchase is akin to grand entertainment.
Where do shop-till-you-droppers love to melt their credit cards? Amsterdam's priciest street: the P.C. Hooftstraat, located in the Museum District and affectionately called the P.C. (pronounced "Pay Say"). Here, staff members treat customers like visiting royalty, BMWs are parked along the street, and many shop interiors mimic stately Dutch mansions, replete with marble floors, crystal chandeliers and antique furnishings arrayed for your comfort. Even if shopping the P.C. is beyond your budget, you might indulge voyeuristic tendencies and drink an overpriced glass of wine at one of the chic outdoor terraces while watching the Beautiful People parade by. Don't neglect the Van Baerlestraat and the Willemsparkweg, (just steps away from the P.C. Hooftstraat), where you're likely to discover a stunning lamp or home accessory.
At the other end of the scale, tackle the more youthful crowds on the Damrak and Nieuwendijk, where shops blasting deafening music stand shoulder to shoulder, selling inexpensive fashions and club/street wear for the young and trendy, along with cheesy souvenirs. If it all gets too noisy and crowded, but you're not shopped out yet, traverse the Rokin, where it's more refined, spacious and quiet, with proportionately escalated prices.
Amsterdam is an antique-lover's paradise. Collectors, museum curators, and antique dealers routinely shop here for old Delft and Makkum treasures. The Spiegel Quarter is home to elegant antiques shops whose beautiful displays include a variety of antique art, maps, furnishings, jewelry and clocks. If you enjoy the thrill of the chase, explore the short, maze-like streets of the Jordaan, where you'll stumble upon a surprising number of tiny specialist antique businesses. The perfect Dutch "antique" is a piece of authentic Delftware. The key word is "authentic." A variety of blue and white "delft" is available in a range of brands and prices, and you can pick up attractive souvenir-quality "delft" pieces at any giftware shop. But the real McCoy is known as Royal Delft and it can be found in the better giftware shops, such as those on the Rokin and the P.C. Hooftstraat, and bear the worthy name of De Porceleyne Fles. Blue is no longer the only official color; today, you can find "New Delft," a range of green, gold, and black hues, whose exquisite miniscule figures are drawn to resemble an old Persian tapestry; the Pynacker Delft, borrowing Japanese motifs in rich oranges and golds, and the brighter Polychrome Delft, which can strike a brilliant sunflower-yellow effect.
Another great gift is chocolates, as Holland is a chocoholic's mecca. Everyone knows the mmmmmmm-boy flavors crafted by Droste and Van Houten but, droolingly, we recommend one of the city's noted "chocolateries," such as Puccini Bomboni.
If you have enough time during your stay, shop at one of the outdoor markets for a "total immersion" experience and a sense of how old this city is. At the Albert Cuypmarkt, while bombarded by vendors hawking their wares, the multi-lingual hubbub and ethnic diversity of the crowd, and the exciting selection of goods, keep in mind that the scene before you is pretty much unchanged from centuries ago. Go to it, and how we envy you!