Forget about wooden shoes and windmills: the Netherlands has much more to offer – especially in its cutting-edge capital. Summer is a splendid time to visit Amsterdam, which is why Kenya Airways are adding extra weekend flights this August. Award-winning travel writer Sander Groen shares his hometown’s essential sights, hottest spots and best-kept secrets
Day 1 See the essential sights
Leaving Amsterdam without having visited its trio of world-famous museums on Museum Square would be an inexcusable injustice. Each of them could absorb you for an entire day, so if you are time-pressed, choose one that matches your personal preference.
The Rijksmuseum recently re-opened after a ten-year renovation that restored the building’s 19th-century splendour to the fullest. Golden Age masterpieces by Vermeer, Frans Hals and Jan Steen can be admired in some two hundred galleries. The biggest star here, of course, is Rembrandt, in particular his colossal and incredibly detailed ‘Night Watch’. That other Dutch superstar painter, Van Gogh, has an entire museum dedicated to himself, housing ‘The Potato Eaters’ and many other instantly recognisable works. The Stedelijk Museum, nicknamed ‘the bathtub’ by locals, displays a sprawling collection of modern art by Matisse, Cézanne, Picasso, Pollock, Warhol, Mondriaan and the likes. Since these are three of the world’s finest museums, the queues can be challenging, to put it mildly. While the Rijks and Stedelijk are more spacious, the Van Gogh can feel crammed. Pre-purchase your tickets online for fast-track entry and visit either early morning or late afternoon – the Van Gogh and Stedelijk remain open until 10pm on Fridays.
Munch a lunch in either of the three museum restaurants, then hop on a Canal Bus, and hop off at the distinctive blue-crowned Westerkerk. Next to the church is Amsterdam’s most daunting, yet most essential sight: the Anne Frank House. This is where a Jewish teen girl and her family spent three anxious years, hiding from Nazi persecution, in a secret annexe in the back of a 17th-century canal house. The queue here is even more horrendous, so be sure to pre-purchase your ticket. Spend the rest of the afternoon at leisure by getting lost in the labyrinthine Jordaan district.
Rijksmuseum, Museumplein (Oud-Zuid), daily 9am-5pm, €17.50, rijksmuseum.nl
Van Gogh Museum, Museumplein, daily 9am-6pm, Fri 9am-10pm, €17, vangoghmuseum.nl
Stedelijk Museum, Museumplein, daily 10am-6pm, Fri 10am-10pm, €15, stedelijk.nl
Anne Frank House, Prinsengracht 263-267 (Jordaan), daily 9am-10pm, €9, annefrank.org
Day 2 Find the hidden delights
Now that you have found your bearings, see some of the lesser-known attractions. The hectic city centre is dotted with inconspicuous pockets of serenity, hidden behind doors that you will not find unless you know where to look. These historic hofjes, or courtyards surrounded by almshouses, were built in the Middle Ages by the nobility for widowed, elderly and needy women – the earliest form of social housing. The Begijnhof (beguinage) is the largest and busiest, but others are equally pretty, such as the Karthuizerhof, Suykerhofje and Venetiaehofje. These hofjes are still privately inhabited, so enter only when the door is open and respect the residents’ privacy.
Back in the Jordaan district, climb the 186 steps to the first balcony of the Westertoren for a sweeping view of Amsterdam and its canals. After lunch, make your way to the Westerpark neighbourhood and Museum Het Schip (The Ship). This museum provides insights into a later form of social housing, in the expressionist style from a century ago that has become almost as iconic as the medieval canal houses: the Amsterdam School of Architecture. Join one of the frequent guided walking tours along some shining examples in the neighbourhood or hop on a bus excursion to the redbrick highlights scattered across town, including housing complex De Dageraad (The Dawn), former silversmith school Het Sieraad (The Jewel) and the Olympic Stadium. The Stedelijk Museum hosts a temporary exhibition on the Amsterdam School until the end of August. If you did not visit the Stedelijk on your first day, you will get a second chance, as this is where the tour ends. Otherwise, settle down for a high tea at the 5-star Grand Hôtel Amrath. Housed in the former Shipping House, this is another ship-shaped jewel of Amsterdam School architecture.
BegijnhoF, entrance on Spui (city centre), daily 9am-5pm, free
Karthuizerhof, Karthuizersstraat 89-171 (Jordaan), daily 9am-5pm, free
Suykerhofje, Lindengracht 149-163 (Jordaan), daily 9am-5pm, free
Venetiaehofje, Elandstraat 106-136 (Jordaan), daily 9am-5pm, free
Westertoren, Westermarkt 279 (Jordaan), daily 10am-8pm, €7,50,
Museum Het Schip, Spaarndammer-plantsoen 140 (Westerpark), daily 11am-5pm,
Grand Hôtel Amrath, Prins Hendrikkade 108 (city centre), high tea €32.50
Day 3 Where IJ meets the EYE
On the backside of Amsterdam Central Station, there used to be nothing. After the once prosperous shipyards went bankrupt in the 1970s, the north bank of the River IJ (pronounced: eye) lay forlorn and forgotten for decades. Nowadays, it is a hub of activity. Industrial warehouses have been transformed into creative spaces with artist’s studios, offices, cafes and a hotel in a crane. The national film museum moved from its Vondelpark pavilion into a spaceship-like building that was aptly named EYE. Watch a classic flick or new indie film and visit the temporary exhibition – this summer, EYE casts an eye on ‘Master of Light’ Robby Müller, the Dutch cinematographer responsible for the mesmerising imagery of Dancer in the Dark, Dead Man and Paris, Texas. The distinctive 1970s skyscraper next door is the former head office of the Shell oil company. After an extensive makeover it recently reopened as A’DAM Toren, boasting a subterranean 24-hour nightclub, a luxury design hotel, a panorama bar, a revolving restaurant and a 22nd floor observation deck.
Although the next attraction is on the same bank of the IJ River, the easiest way to get there is by taking the ferry back to Central Station, then hopping on another ferry to the NDSM Wharf. This former shipyard once produced and repaired magnificent warships, frigates, freighters and oil tankers. After decades of decay, the whole area has been regenerated, although it is still wonderfully rough around the edges. The huge warehouses, docks, ramps and harbour are now home to artists, theatre troupes, media companies, hotels (such as the three-suite Faralda in the top of an old harbour crane) and a range of cafés and restaurants. Find a table in the sun at De IJ-Kantine, Pllek or Noorderlicht and enjoy the view over the IJ towards the city.
EYE, IJpromenade 1 (Noord), daily 10am-10pm, €10, eyefilm.nl
A’DAM Toren, Overhoeksplein 1 (Noord), adamtoren.nl
Day 4 Take a trip out of town
When in Amsterdam, do as the Amsterdamers do: get on a bike. You can take your bike with you on the free ferry from the backside of Central Station across the IJ to Noord. Head east along the riverbank and you will be teleported back in time. The Nieuwendammerdijk is Amsterdam at its prettiest, with rows of gabled wooden houses in hues of green, white, yellow and blue. Sit down for a coffee at the 16th-century Café ’t Sluisje, then continue to Durgerdam, a ridiculously picturesque former fishing village on the water’s edge. Admire the tiny 17th-century wooden chapel, have a drink at De Oude Taveerne, and continue along the dyke, often with water on both sides of the cycle path, through Uitdam and onwards to Marken. This island in the former Zuiderzee is now connected to the mainland by a causeway, enabling you to cycle over water to this working fishing village that still feels remote. After a lunch of freshly caught fish at Taverne De Visscher, there are two options: either head back along the causeway and cycle onwards to Monnickendam, which obtained city rights in 1355, even though the population today is still well under 10,000, or leave your bike behind for a while and take the ferry to Volendam, the largest and most-visited of this string of fishing villages. Be prepared, though, for throngs of tourists. This entire cycling route, from Amsterdam Central Station to Marken, is 22 kilometres. Including pit stops along the way and a detour to Monnickendam or Volendam, this will keep you busy for a full day.
Too idle to cycle? No worries, you can easily do this trip by public transport. From Amsterdam Central Station, take bus 314 to Volendam and Edam or bus 315 to Marken and Monnickendam.
Café ’t Sluisje, Nieuwendammerdijk 297 (Nieuwendam), Tue-Sun midday-11pm
De Oude Taveerne, Durgerdammerdijk 73 (Durgerdam), Wed-Sun 8am-midnight, deoudetaveerne.nl
Taverne De Visscher, Havenbuurt 22, WEd-Sun 10am-10pm, tavernevisscher.nl
Marken Express to Volendam, daily 11am-6.30pm, €10 return, markenexpress.nl
Public transport information: 9292.nl
Where to stay
There’s no end of exciting, chic, arty and unusual places to rest your head in the city
CityHub is the latest addition to De Hallen, an industrial heritage tram depot turned into a leisure complex with a food hall, vintage shops, an arthouse cinema, restaurants and hotels. Instead of dorms or rooms, this conceptual hostel offers fifty sleekly designed ‘hubs’ or stacked capsules with a comfortable double bed, free Wi-Fi, mood lighting and a streaming stereo system. Bathrooms are shared, but squeaky clean and equally sleek. It also has a bar that lets you draft your own beer.
CityHub, Bellamystraat 3 (Oud-West), doubles from €80, cityhub.com
Volkshotel is a hipster’s paradise. It is a bit out of the way, in a former newspaper building on windy Wibautstraat, but makes for a special stay. Choose one of the not-so-standard standard rooms or opt for a special room, such as the Bathing Bikou or Cinema Boudoir. Plunge in the rooftop sauna and hot tub, join a yoga class, dine at the panoramic restaurant or dance in the basement club.
Volkshotel, Wibautstraat 150 (Oost), doubles from €110, volkshotel.nl
Just behind the Royal Palace on Dam Square, the W couldn’t be more centrally located. This brand spanking new five-star design hotel in a former telephone exchange building boasts 238 rooms, ranging from cosy cupboard to extreme suite, a spacious spa, a fine dining restaurant and a rooftop bar complete with plunge pool. W’s signature ‘Whatever/Whenever Service’ will meet your every need – as long as it is legal.
w, spuistraat 175 (city centre), doubles from €350, wamsterdam.nl
Amsterdam for free
The Dutch capital is surely not the world’s cheapest destination – your hotel will likely cost you an arm and a leg. Yet the Dutch love the word ‘gratis’, so the city boasts a myriad of attractions that are delightfully free of charge. Join a three-hour guided walking tour along the Royal Palace, Red Light District, the Jewish Quarter, the Begijnhof and many other sights for free (although donations are welcome). Gaze at fifteen huge Golden Age paintings, not unlike Rembrandt’s ‘Night Watch’, at the Schuttersgalerij (Civic Guards Gallery), tucked away in a covered alley just off the city’s busiest shopping street, Kalverstraat. Catch a classical lunch concert at one the world’s grandest concert halls, the Concertgebouw. Enjoy live music performed by rising stars and arrived artists at the Openluchttheater (open-air theatre) in the Vondelpark. Or explore Amsterdam’s rich history at the Stadsarchief (city archive), housed in one of the city’s most spectacular rationalist buildings.
Guided walking tours, daily, Dam Square, free (tips welcome), newamsterdamtours.com
Schuttersgalerij, entrance on Kalverstraat 92, daily 10am-5pm, free, amsterdammuseum.nl
Concertgebouw lunch concerts, Museumplein, Sep-Jun Wed 12.30pm, free, concertgebouw.nl
Openluchttheater, Vondelpark, Jun-Sep Fri-Sun, free, openluchttheater.nl
Stadsarchief, Vijzelstraat 32, Tue-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat-Sun midday-5pm, free, stadsarchief.amsterdam.nl
A night at the movies
Ranging from state-of-the-art multiplexes to obscure arthouses, Amsterdam boasts a large number of cinemas. The oldest is The Movies, which opened in 1912 and recently had its sophisticated art deco interior refurbished. When the national film museum moved from the Vondelpark to EYE, the art deco Parisien Room was moved in its entirety to Amsterdam’s newest cinema, De FilmHallen. Considered one of the most beautiful cinemas in the world, Tuschinski screens blockbusters and hosts star-studded premieres. For a more intimate affair, choose the single-room De Uitkijk that screens classics and offers old-fashioned table service. For arty flicks, animation and documentaries head to Lab111, housed in a former pathology laboratory. On balmy summer nights, watch a movie under the stars for free at Pluk De Nacht open-air film festival. Most films are screened in the original language with Dutch subtitles.
The Movies, Haarlemmerdijk 161 (city centre), daily 11am-1am, €11, themovies.nl De FilmHallen, Hannie Dankbaarpassage 12 (Oud-West), daily 11am-midnight, €11, filmhallen.nl Tuschinski, Reguliersbreestraat 26-34 (city centre), daily 10am-midnight, €10,.50, pathe.nl/tuschinski De Uitkijk, Prinsengracht 452 (city centre), daily 5pm-11pm, €9.50, uitkijk.nl Lab111, Arie Biemondstraat 111 (Oud-West), daily 6pm-midnight, €9, lab111.nl Pluk De Nacht, Stenen Hoofd, Westerdoksdijk, two weeks in August, free, plukdenacht.nl; Hours and fees can vary, check websites for details.
Where to drink, dine and dance
The Skylounge, on the 11th floor of the Hilton DoubleTree hotel near Central Station, is notoriously expensive and wonderfully panoramic. Arrive well before sunset, get hold of a table on the terrace and admire the best imaginable view of Amsterdam’s historic
SkyLounge, Oosterdoksstraat 4 (city centre), daily 11am-1am, skyloungeamsterdam.com
A spectacular view from another angle can be had at Moon, the revolving rooftop restaurant under the crown of A’DAM Toren in Noord. It will revolve every hour, providing you with a 360-degree view of Amsterdam and its outskirts.
Moon, A’DAM Toren, 19th floor, Overhoeksplein 1 (Noord), daily 6pm-midnight, adamtoren.nl
De School packs a daytime café, an evening restaurant and a nightclub in a very industrial looking former tech school. The club has a 24-hour licence, so expect to party on into the wee hours. It is out of the way and difficult to find in upcoming West, but well worth the venture.
De School, Doctor Jan van Breemenstraat 1 (West), daily 8am-late, deschoolamsterdam.nl
Although most tourists rarely venture outside the city centre, many other neighbourhoods are well worth exploring. In Westerpark you will find the Westergasfabriek, a sprawling former gas plant that now accommodates al fresco cafes, restaurants and nightclubs. Head east to De Plantage for Artis Royal Zoo and the Hortus Botanicus, and to Oosterpark for the Museum of the Tropics and a hotchpotch of multicultural shops, cafes and eateries. De Pijp is Amsterdam’s version of the Latin Quarter, offering the Albert Cuyp market and a plethora of sleek bars and stylish restaurants. Also to the south is elegant Oud-Zuid, home to the Vondelpark, Museum Square and P.C. Hooftstraat, the shopping street that will satisfy all your Gucci, Prada and Vuitton cravings. To the west are the emerging neighbourhoods of Oud-West and De Baarsjes, where organic coffee bars, hipster-filled restaurants, art galleries, budget-friendly boutique hotels and 24-hour nightclubs are popping up like magic mushrooms.