City break: Amsterdam
A mix of homespun charm and a cosmopolitan culture makes the Dutch capital an inviting place to visit
A city of gabled, Golden Age buildings, centuries-old bruin cafes and, of course, canals. More than 160 thread their way around the ancient and cramped rows of 17th century buildings, defining the street vistas and the atmosphere.
If there is water everywhere in Amsterdam there is also plenty to entertain, and opportunities to soak up the mood of a city that feels more like a big country town.
It may have evolved into one of Europe’s financial centres, but this once-bustling port has the feel of Greenwich village on a bigger scale, intimate while also a cauldron of international activity.
Despite numerous trips to the continent I had never been to Amsterdam, nor anywhere in the Netherlands. That’s surprising, given how easy it is to get there – a short flight to Schiphol Airport and a 20 minute train journey from the on-site station into Centraal. They run every few minutes. On the last of our five-day trip we had lunch in the city centre and, given the hour we clawed back, we were back home in Edinburgh in time for tea.
This quick-turnaround and lack of transport hassle makes it an ideal city break and we also avoided one big downside – the throng of weekend stag and hen parties – by arranging to stay Sunday to Thursday.
Ignore the seamier bits and there are enough attractions to occupy the most ardent of culture vultures and others who may just want to sample a city with a slower pace, taking in its street cafes, markets and boutique shops. There is a bus and tram network, though the city is flat and it is not only easy to cover by foot, it’s the best way to explore its milder side.
Amsterdam has conquered the traffic problem – no sign of any jams – and probably because everyone seems to be on a bike. The main arteries are clearly segregated for cars, bicycles and pedestrians, and the cyclists seem to have won the battle for priority. That also makes it essential to take care when crossing the roads.
We stayed at the Hotel Library, B&B only, and just a short walk from Centraal Station. It was handily located and efficient, but a little basic. A couple of nights here would have been enough, but as we didn’t intend hanging around the hotel, or require saunas and gyms, it proved adequate.
An immediate desire is to climb aboard one of the ubiquitous barges, but I would advise choosing carefully. Ours seemed intent on showing off the municipal facilities rather than the top attractions. There are some kitted out for parties and this looked like a better option.
There is, of course, a lot of art. The Rijksmuseum is Amsterdam’s Louvre, with never-ending corridors and home to one of the city’s top attractions, the Night Watch, by one of the country’s most famous sons, Rembrandt. We also took in a tour of his home in Jodenbreestraat which features his studios and gives a fascinating glimpse into how he and his family lived.
Among some of the less well known attractions is Museum van Loon, home of the founder of the Dutch East India Company, restored in the style of the 17th century and still occupied by the family.
The city’s most famous family, the Franks, continues to fascinate visitors, though anyone wanting to tour the house where they lived and hid from the Nazis – and young Anne wrote her famous diary – must set off early. There are permanent and very long queues and we had to give it a miss.
The Van Gogh Museum, close to the Rijksmuseum, is another high on the list for any visitor. Housed in two modern buildings it is a prized collection of many of the artists’s works and is open every day. Booking is recommended.
Despite wanting to speak Dutch it seems to have become a second language with English signs everywhere and everyone speaking English. However, this is a hugely diverse city with half the population hailing from other countries. It also means there is a lot of choice when it comes to eating out.
We took a trip back in time to have dinner with a bit of style at the Amrath Grand Hotel, a short walk from our hotel and an art nouveau masterpiece.
As for finding a cup of coffee, it is important to make the distinction between coffee shops as we might know them and as they are here. Cannabis smoking is not technically legal but is widely tolerated and that’s what you’ll find in the coffee shops.
Cafes are effectively pubs, and bruin (brown) cafes are the traditional, smoke-stained kind. As well as its other claims to fame this is a brewing city. Cheers!
Flights: KLM Edinburgh to Schiphol (5/5). The cabin crew noted the trip coincided with a big birthday and presented two bottles of Champagne. Nice.
Accommodation: Hotel Library (3/5). It provided the essential amenities but needed a makeover to make it more welcoming.
Visits: Rijksmusuem: €17.50 per adult, Van Gogh Museum €17, Het Rembrandthuis €13
Food and drink: Meal and drinks for two at Grand Hotel Amrath: €64.25