Beyond the notoriously hedonistic vibe, the Dutch capital is also a haven of art and culture. Words Shalinee Singh and Mark Smith.
Taking its nickname from the network of waterways that lace the city, the ‘Venice of the North’ (memorably described by French writer Albert Camus as resembling ‘the concentric circles of hell’) offers everything from rich architectural history to foodie finds, world-renowned masterpieces to the clichéd trio of tulips, clogs and cheese. The Dutch capital started life in the 13th century as a fishing village. The canals – built in the 17th century and collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site – formed the core of an ‘ideal city’ constructed around the damming of the Amstel river. But the city’s artificial origins belie the organic growth of its cultural scene.
There are a whopping 600,000 bicycles on the streets of Amsterdam and – what with the criss-crossing of trams, bicycles, scooters and cars – being a pedestrian can feel perilous. If you’re not used to cycling on the streets, a guided tour is a good way to get started. MacBike’s City Bike tour, which lasts two hours and gives a broad overview of the city, is a winner. If the season is right (early April to May), ride to the tulip fields to see one of the Netherlands’ most famous exports at its best. But if cycling isn’t for you, an OV-chipkaart travel card will get you around by tram, bus and metro, day and night.
Museumplein (Museum Square) is home to four world-famous art attractions including the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum, which contains no fewer than 40 Rembrandts and four Vermeers. Elsewhere, the Anne Frank Huis is a 17th-century terraced property on the stately Prinsengracht, in the shadow of the Westerkerk. Inside lies a great example of a modern museum; Anne Frank’s comprehensive WWII diary has sold millions across the world, but here the young girl’s story is allowed to speak for itself in the sparse loft spaces she and her family once inhabited. Queues are long, so buy your tickets online in advance.
There are three foods Amsterdam knows well: meat, cheese, and more meat. These are all available in abundance at Moeders, a Dutch eatery and shrine to motherhood in the Oud-West district. Focusing on traditional Dutch comfort food, including suddervlees (stewed beef), hachée (hashed meat) and a Dutch rice dish prepared for two.
There is also a cosmopolitan gastronomic culture struggling from underneath the foodstuffs. It’s mostly in evidence in the swanky streets around Museumplein and in the Jordaan, where Mediterranean fine dining is making headway. A case in point is La Oliva Pintxos y Vinos. From yuppies to genuine Spaniards, many praise La Oliva’s authentic food and tapas. If it’s too full, there are plenty of other options along this strip, nicknamed ‘Little Italy’. Don’t leave Amsterdam without trying poffertjes: squidgy balls, cooked from a pancake-like batter and served with a generous dusting of icing sugar and melted butter. There’s usually a lady frying them up at Ten Katemarkt.
Two music venues are the cornerstones of the live music and clubbing scene in Amsterdam: Melkweg and Paradiso. A name synonymous with quality shows, the latter is in such demand that it often hosts several events in one day. The main hall in this former church has a rare sense of grandeur, with multiple balconies and stained-glass windows peering down upon performers and DJs. The smaller hall upstairs is a fantastic place to catch new talent. ‘Membership’ is compulsory, and only consists of a surcharge as you enter. A former dairy (the name translates as ‘Milky Way’), Melkweg has become world renowned as an always-innovative home to live music of all styles. The complex also hosts a theatre, cinema, art gallery and café, and holds weekend club nights to boot, so it’s no surprise it’s a cultural beacon in the centre of the city.
Need to know
Pegasus Air flies to Amsterdam via Istanbul from Dhs1,910 return.