The Dutch are a notoriously blunt lot. Ask for a coffee and expect a quick ‘What else?’; get a dodgy haircut and wait for the immediate guffaws, and woe betide anyone who actually asks for an opinion on anything.
But it is this no nonsense approach that makes Amsterdam such a refreshing city. Take their attitude to their environment, for example. Everything, from the Dutch obsession with electric cars to the pedantic dustbin men, is about keeping things green, clean and above board. And that’s not forgetting the ultimate eco machine – the bike (or ‘de fiets’).
On arrival at Central Station expect to be greeted by swathes of rusty, mangled, antiquated bikes that look like they hail from Wall-E’s scrap pile. They come at you from every angle, ringing, squeaking and reluctantly hauling their passengers from A to B. It is all about expecting the unexpected; seeing an obese labrador hanging off the back of a bike is the norm, while mothers routinely transport three kids, a guitar, a hockey stick and the weekly shop on the humble fiets. In short, if you can’t beat them, you have to join them, so the first port of call has to be Mac Bike (go to macbike.nl).
Once ‘op de fiets’, the city is your oyster. For a free slice of Amsterdam meander to one of the canals (or ‘grachts’) and simply navigate your iron steed around the cobbled streets. Prinsengracht is the quietest spot for novice cyclists, offering welcome respite from all the biking madness.
While cheese, clogs, tulips and blonde pigtails are great and all, it’s the unassuming areas of the city that are Amsterdam’s main draw. Sure, try the cheese (De Kaaskamer at 7 Runstraat is a great spot for some free Edam tasting) and there’s no denying the tulips are worth a peruse (the gorgeous Keukenhof Gardens are just 20 minutes out of town), but it’s the often unreported side of this city that wins the day.
Just off the Kalverstraat (31 Voetboogstraat) and hidden among a blaze of graffiti are the best French fries in town. Vleminckx Sausmeesters’ frites are to the Dutch what Al Mallah shawarmas are to Dubaians and, for a mere Dhs8, you can scoff a cone of crisp golden sticks with every condiment under the sun (the Belgian mayonnaise is pure Heaven in a little pot).
A mere stroll from from this much-loved haunt is The Begijnhof. Entrance to this sprawling garden is through a big old oak door that wouldn’t look amiss in a Harry Potter flick. Once inside (entrance is free), you’ll find a small convent that used to be frequented by the ‘beguines’ – a group of chaste women who lived here until the early ’70s – giving a nod to the city’s staunch Roman Catholic history.
For any other nationality biking attire would consist of some form of Lycra or, at the very least, an old pair of jogging pants. But for the Dutch it is a case of anything goes. Women peddle to black-tie events in Versace frocks and Yves Saint Laurent platforms, while men hurtle to work fully suited. In fact, anyone in cycling garb looks a little out of place.
So fashion is unaffected by this bike-mad populace (Amsterdam Fashion Week is in its third year), and the best place to pick up some covetable threads is a row of parallel streets simply called The Nine Streets in the Jordaan area.
In Dubai realms you may hear quips such as, ‘Oh, that’s so Gucci,’ or, ‘Check out the Prada on that,’ but in The Nine Streets it’s all about the unknown labels. Lady Day (9 Hartenstraat) steers shoppers away from the heady heights of Chanel et al and towards a more accessible stable of clothes. Whether its old or new, borrowed or blue, the quirky little hub has everything from ra ra skirts to 1980s legwarmers and Fred Perry trainers.
For upmarket gear Laura Dols (6-7 Wolvenstraat) is where it’s at, boasting Gucci gloves and Yves Saint Laurent pea coats. It’s the store of choice for the likes of Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf, and Susan Sarandon whenever she’s in town, and yet it is unspoiled and unpretentious. Even if you don’t buy anything expect to be offered a cup of tea and a coat-hanger smile.
There’s no denying that hurtling up and down one of the canals in a boat is great fun. But for anyone who doesn’t have a friend with such a vessel, the cost is approximately Dhs500 for an hour (www.amsterdamtourboats.nl), and the heaving tourist boats (Dhs200 for a day pass) should certainly be steered clear of at all costs.
The best way to experience canal life is to hop off your bike and sit (with legs dangling) on the canal side. Throw in a small picnic from Albert Heijn – Amsterdam’s finest supermarket – and some good weather and there’s no better way to chow down al fresco.
For anyone who needs a seat and some service, The Heffer (7 Oudebrugsteeg) is an admirable host. This gastropub in the heart of Amsterdam was once the set of Dutch sitcom Baantjer and, alongside some amusing memorabilia, it serves up some of the heartiest fodder in town. A drink, soup, bitterballen (Dutch croquettes) and salad will set you back a mere Dhs75.
At the other end of town is restaurant Moeders (251 Rozengracht). The ceilings are heaving with photos of mothers, crockery is mis-matched and there’s an air of organised chaos to the whole place. It’s a bit like stepping into your mum’s kitchen – complete with homely smells and jars of odds and sods. Quirky decor aside, it serves up traditional Dutch hotpot (a rich meat stew) like no other place.
While there’s no real reason to escape this beautiful city, the lure of Amsterdamse Bos is sometimes too much to ignore. Situated on the outskirts of town, this expanse of forest and lake is like something out of a fairy tale.
Like most routes in Amsterdam it is hard to actually get lost here, and even if you do there’s always a pancake house just round the corner (Boerderij Meerzicht at 56 Koenenkade is a triumph).
For anyone who needs a little bit of Zen time, Spa Zuiver (8 Koenenkade) is one of the best spas about, conveniently situated at the mouth of Amsterdamse Bos. The Zuiver massage is the ultimate winner, using a technique to ease any bike-related strains. Combined with a couple of hours in the 13,000m2 spa – complete with herbal baths, sauna, Jacuzzi and tropical rain shower – it leaves any tourist in no doubt that Amsterdam is one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. The national pride is such that any Dutch person will agree – after mocking your cycling skills, of course.
The humble cup of tea is loved around the world. So, with a history going back centuries, it’s somewhat befitting that the Netherlands offers its version of ‘high tea’ in a historical landmark. The Sofitel Grand hotel occupies Amsterdam’s old town hall, which, among other epic events, is where Queen Beatrix got married, and from 3pm every day its oak-panelled dining room transforms into a tea-lovers’ paradise.
Aside from the array of cucumber sandwiches, apple cake with ‘slagroom’ (cream) and macaroons, the decor itself is worth the visit alone, with heavy oak chairs vying for attention over velvet-covered armchairs that wouldn’t look amiss in a scene from Alice in Wonderland.
For anyone who seeks Dubai-standard luxury, The Sofitel Grand is bang on the money. Recently re-decked to hoik up its five star appeal, rooms look out over meandering canals, while the MyBed beds (a whopping Dhs4,000 for a queen-size) ease away any of those cycling aches and pains.
It is not often that one establishment boasts two Michelin-starred restaurants, but that is the case at The Hotel Okura. With French cuisine at Ciel Bleu on the top floor and Japanese fare at Yamazato on the ground floor, any foodie is truly spoiled for choice.
The former invariably serves up a feast of culinary gems, including grilled turbot, morel jus and a green mustard sauce, while Amsterdammers frequent the latter for its fantastic yellowfin tuna.
Too tired to cycle home? Rooms at this five-star hotel are surprisingly good value, starting at Dhs850. Added bonus? It is only a quick 15 minutes on your bike from the Rijksmuseum (the home of Rembrandt) and Galerie Alex Daniels – Reflex Amsterdam where the work of revered photographer David LaChapelle’s is currently on show.
Need to know
Emirates Airlines fly to Amsterdam via Frankfurt (connecting via Lufthansa), starting from Dhs4,435 return (including taxes).
Nationals from the EU, EEA or Switzerland are exempt from Netherlands visa requirements, though many other nationalities will require a short-term visa if they wish to visit. Just go to www.iamsterdam.com for more.