While Amsterdam is known worldwide for less salubrious reasons – namely its windows and select cafes – don’t write it off if these don’t appeal to you; the capital of the Netherlands is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.
Amsterdam is in fact the perfect place for a short weekend break, which has seen its popularity increase over the years to become one of the top tourist destinations in Europe. From Gatwick a flight gets you there in just over an hour.
Once you arrive you can’t help but be struck by the postcard worthy views around every corner as you pass narrow streets with houses at wonky angles, still reflective waters in the canals and countless bicycles making their way over the cobbles. It is also a city for all seasons – in the summer there is a real outdoor cafe culture, while in the winter, the warm glow of the ‘brown cafes’ lure you in for a warming drink. When I visited in February, we had a bone-chillingly cold visit, with a low of -18 degrees Celsius, but even this couldn’t spoil the city’s appeal when it was covered in snow.
The famous canals of Amsterdam came about as the result of forward thinking city-planning in the early 17th century to aid transport and water management. The four main city centre canals are the Prinsengracht, Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Singel. The 65 miles of these canals led the city to be nicknamed ‘the Venice of the north’; strolling along these and exploring the quiet side streets is one of the greatest pleasures to be found in Amsterdam.
While the Red Light District cannot be ignored as an obvious attraction for many visitors, it only takes up a small fraction of the city centre, contained within a few streets. Surrounding this are numerous rich cultural treasures to explore, with more than 50 museums within the small city.
The most famous, the Rijksmuseum, reopened in April 2013 after a decade long renovation closure to great fan-fare. Dedicated to celebrating arts and history, the museum of the Netherlands has more than 8,000 objects on display that tell the story of 800 years of Dutch history, from the year 1200 right up to the present. This includes paintings from masters such as Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. It is open daily, and tickets can be purchased in advance through the website to help skip some of the queues on arrival.
The Van Gogh Museum was a personal highlight of my visit, containing the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world. Located in Museum Square just down from the Rijksmuseum, it is one of the most visited museums in the world and for good reason; the light airy space shows the paintings to their absolute best, and seeing the famous sunflowers in real life is a surreal moment!
For a museum with a difference, the Rembrandt House Museum makes a good stop. The small house where he lived and worked for 20 years has been restored to how it would have looked in the 17th century and gives a great understanding of day-to-day life. You are even able to catch a demonstration of how etchings were prepared and made in Rembrandt’s etching room daily, with experts on hand to answer any questions you may have.
An unusual and tucked away sight you might want to add to your agenda is the Magere Brug, or the Skinny Bridge. With a bridge having been in place here since 1691, it has featured in a number of films (such as James Bond’s Diamonds are Forever) and at night is lit up by more than 1000 lights. Legend has it that a kiss here under the bridge will secure eternal fidelity and it is also a popular proposal spot.
Of course, Amsterdam is also synonymous with the tragic tale of Anne Frank. The Anne Frank House can be easily passed by as it looks like any of its neighbours, yet holds within it a moving history. This is where young Jewish teenager Anne Frank wrote her famous diary while in hiding from the Nazis. Visitors to the house can step into the hidden rooms in the Secret Annex where Anne, her family and friends (eight people in total) lived in a space just 500 square feet. They remained hidden for two years and one month until they were anonymously betrayed to the Nazi authorities, arrested, and deported to their deaths in concentration camps. Only Anne’s father Otto Frank survived. This is not to be missed in any visit to Amsterdam, but be warned, the queues can be large, so it is worth getting there early in the morning and purchasing a ticket in advance if you can.
When visiting any city, it is a great help when the transport system is reliable and accessible. Amsterdam’s public transport fits the bill well. Schiphol airport is well connected to the city centre itself, with a subterranean train station directly underneath the terminal. A 20 minute train ride brings you smack bang into the city centre at the beautiful Amsterdam Centraal Station, from where the city fans out southwards in a semi-circle around this central point.
Once in Amsterdam, although the city being fairly compact is easily walkable, a comprehensive tram-system is available when your feet can’t carry you much further (or you lose all feeling in them as we did!) One hour cards are available on the tram, or daily cards can be purchased from GVB machines.
No matter what you may choose to visit Amsterdam, the city is bound to win all visitors over with its stunning architecture, laid back lifestyle and rich cultural history. Why not book that weekend away?
My top tips for Amsterdam:
- Renting an apartment like provided a wide choice for accommodation, including in quieter residential streets. A word of warning though – be careful booking a top floor stay as we did if access is a concern; stairs within the buildings are notoriously and sometimes scarily steep.
- For a filling lunch, you can’t do much better than The Pancake Bakery offering an unrivalled selection of more than 75 savoury and sweet pancake treats. The international ‘Hungarian’ pancake was particularly good!
- Those with a sweet tooth should factor in a visit to Winkel 43 in the Jordaan. Widely recognised as offering the best apple cake in Amsterdam, this is one treat where one slice is not really going to be enough. It is served cold with whipped cream, and is worth the queue that appears out of the door.
- In Amsterdam, the king of the road is certainly the bicycle; with a little over 800,000 inhabitants, there are a staggering 600,000 estimated bikes! Keep your wits around you as a pedestrian therefore as collisions with bikes are common
- Bring cash with you; many shops and restaurants only accept cash or Dutch debit/credit cards.