48 Hours In: Amsterdam

Tulips are in bloom, street festivals are in full swing and the city is celebrating Rembrandt's 400th anniversary. It's party time in Holland, says Harriet O'Brien


WHY GO NOW?

This year Amsterdam celebrates the 400th anniversary of the birth of Rembrandt, who lived in the city from 1631 until his death in 1669. The focus on one of the world's (quite apart from Holland's) most celebrated artists is proving a big crowd-puller, so get here before the summer rush. Besides, right now the spring light lends Amsterdam an additional air of enchantment and its flower market (1) is a mass of tulips (a bunch of 50 costs just €7/£4.40).

To get in the party spirit come for Queen's Day - this year on Saturday 29 April - a flamboyant celebration for Queen Beatrix with fantastical street (and canal) carnivals.

TOUCH DOWN

KLM (0870 507 4074; www.klm.com) flies from 14 UK airports including Aberdeen, Bristol and Leeds; British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Manchester; and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from Luton, Gatwick, Stansted, Liverpool, Bristol, Belfast and Edinburgh. Other airlines fly from a wide range of UK airports.

Schipol airport is 13km south-west of the city centre. Trains leave frequently for Amsterdam's Centraal Station (2), a journey that takes 20 minutes and costs €4.10 (£2.60). Buy your ticket from a machine in the station or at the airport tourist office; this is close to the airport station but slightly difficult to find; it opens daily 7am-10pm and has shorter queues than at the tourist offices in town). By rail and sea, the Dutch Flyer (08705 455 455; www.dutchflyer.co.uk) is an excellent deal: £50 return from most stations in East Anglia, plus London Liverpool Street.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

A semi-circle of canals loops around the tiny old centre of the city, following a layout devised in 1609. It is these waterways, lined with gloriously gabled 17th-century houses, that give Amsterdam such appeal and charm.

Immediately north of this area is Centraal Station (2); to the east the old docklands are being transformed; to the west lies the elegant Jordaan neighbourhood; to the south is hip De Pijp, the city's first suburb, dating from 1870; while to the south west the mansions of leafy Nieuw Zuid (New South) exude affluence.

The main tourist office (3) is opposite Centraal Station and opens 9am-5pm daily. If the queues are long, head to the tourist office at the station's platform 2 (Monday-Saturday 8am-8pm; Sunday 9am-5pm) or the booth on Leidseplein (4) (9am-5pm daily, to 7pm on Friday and Saturday). See www.holland.com/uk for more information.

CHECK IN

Bilderberg Garden Hotel (5) at Dijsselhofplantsoen 7 (00 31 20 570 5600; www.gardenhotel.nl) offers five-star comfort in the green and pleasant Nieuw Zuid. The restaurant (three-course dinners around €40/ £28) is very popular locally. The centre of town is just a 10-minute tram ride away. Doubles cost from €119/£85, including breakfast.

Over in the docklands area the wonderfully innovative Lloyd Hotel (6) at Oostelijke Handelskade 34 (00 31 20 561 3607; www.lloydhotel.com) was formerly a boarding house and prison. There is a glorious loft-style restaurant-cum-sitting area, while rooms range in facilities and price: one-star rooms with shared bathroom from €95/£68, excluding breakfast; spacious five-star rooms with works by local young artists from €225/£161, room only. WiFi internet is free.

Or stay on the water. The Amstel Botel (7) is a boat-hotel moored in the docklands at Oosterdokskade 2-4 (00 31 20 626 4247; www.amstelbotel.nl). Accommodation is in 175 clean and comfortable little cabins, with doubles costing from €87/£62, without breakfast.

TAKE A HIKE

For a classic canal-side walk start at the junction of Singel and Browersgracht (8), just west of Centraal Station. Follow Browersgracht west for views of one of the city's most picturesque canals and turn left along the south bank of Prinsengracht. At number 159 (9) you reach Zon'shofje, an old almshouse with hidden courtyard on the site of a Mennonite church; you are free to explore quietly from Monday to Friday 10am-5pm.

Continue south and turn left into Leliegracht, lined with bookshops, and then turn down pretty Keizersgracht. Turn left at Wolvenstraat, with its second-hand and vintage clothes stores, and then right into Herengracht.

The Bible Museum (10) at 366 (10am-5pm daily, Sundays from 11am; €6/£3.75) not only presents religious artefacts but is also a means of seeing the sublime elegance of a mid 17th-century canal-house interior. Continue round Herengracht, then turn down Leidsestraat. At the corner with Keizersgracht stop for coffee at the sixth-floor café of Metz department store (11) - the views over the city's rooftops are terrific.

Finish here or continue along Keizersgracht to see a real gem at 672 (12): the Museum Van Loon (Wednesday-Monday 11am-5pm; €6/£3.75), once owned by Rembrandt's student Ferdinand Bol and subsequently home to the Van Loon family, who were responsible for much of its finery.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Cafe de Jaren (13) at Nieuwe Doelenstraat 20-22 (00 31 20 625 5771), near the university district in the centre of the city, offers excellent light meals (tomato soup €3.75/ £2.70; crab salad €4.75/ £3.40). The bright interior is emphasised by mirrors and floor-to-ceiling windows looking on to Kloveniersburgwal canal.

TAKE A VIEW

The old postal sorting office (14) in the docklands currently houses the stunning Stedelijk modern art gallery (10am-6pm daily; admission €9/£6.40) while its permanent home in Museumplein is being refurbished. With much of the old dock area under construction, it is a challenge to get here via walkways over the water and past a floating Chinese restaurant. But it's well worth the effort, particularly if you stop for coffee at the 11th-floor cafe of this somewhat unlikely building - the bird's-eye views of the city are breathtaking.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Over at Museumplein the Rijksmuseum (15) at Jan Luijkenstraat 1 (daily 9am-6pm; admission €10/£7.10) is also being revamped and much of it is closed until 2008. But the substantial Philips Wing remains open. With Rembrandts, Vermeers, Jan Steens and more, it will easily absorb an hour.

Down the road, the Van Gogh Museum (16) at Paulus Potterstraat 7 (daily 10am-6pm; Fridays until 10pm; admission €10/£7.10) houses 200 paintings and about 580 drawings by the tortured artist while the top floor is devoted to works of his contemporaries Gaughin, Toulouse Lautrec, Pissarro and more. To avoid the crowds get here in mid-afternoon.

WRITE A POSTCARD

Buy your card of Rembrandt's The Night Watch or Van Gogh's Sunflowers and write it at De Bakkerswinkel (17) on Roelof Hartstraat 68. A seven-minute walk from Museumplein, this charming café has flowers and pots of raspberry jam on the tables, and offers scones with clotted cream (€2.50/£1.80) and carrot cake (€3.30/£2.40).

WINDOW SHOPPING

With more than 10,000 shops, Amsterdam is retail haven. For mainstream stores head for pedestrianised Kalverstraat (18).

But you may have more fun browsing the funky outlets around the Jordaan neighbourhood and visiting the many street markets from the flower one (1), selling everything from amaryllis bulbs to cannabis starter packs, to the kilometre-long Albert Cuypmarkt with at least 350 stalls.

AN APERITIF

The coolest bars are in the area of De Pijp. Chocolate (19) at Eerste van de Helststraat 62 attracts a funky crowd. If there's no space there, try the slightly calmer De Duvel, almost opposite at number 59.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Behind a 17th-century exterior, Brasserie Harkema (20) at Nes 67 (00 31 20 428 2222; www.brasserieharkema.nl) is a chic loft-style space. It serves excellent-value modern European cuisine - the likes of pâté of wild fowl with cucumber pickle at €6.20/£4.20, and picatta of cod with celeriac purée at €14.80/£10.60.

SUNDAY MORNING: TAKE A RIDE

Hire a bike for a Sunday morning ride along the canals. Bike City (21) at Bloemgracht 68-70 (00 31 20 626 3721; www.bikecity.nl) opens 9am-7pm daily: three-hour rentals cost from €6/£4.30 (for a one-speed bike). Day rentals are from €8.50/£6.

SUNDAY BRUNCH

Designed by Philippe Starck, Walem (22) at Keizersgracht 449 (00 31 20 625 3544) is a hip yet relaxed café, filled with locals leisurely reading their papers on a Sunday morning. Dishes range from home-smoked salmon with crème fraîche and eggs at €8.50/£6 to huge double-decker toasted sandwiches with bacon and turkey at €8/£5.70.

GO TO CHURCH

Amsterdam's Oude Kerk (23) dates from 1250 and is particularly notable for its magnificent organ and the simple grave, in vault 28k, of Rembrandt's wife, Saskia. Guided half-hour tours take place at weekends between 1 and 5pm (€5/£3.60). Once a wealthy neighbourhood, the surrounding area is now the red light district so, bizarrely, the church looks on to prostitutes' booths.

A WALK IN THE PARK

The city's biggest green space is Vondelpark (24), filled with ponds, biking trails and about 120 different kinds of tree. Just off the north side of the park, Vondelstraat offers a treat at number 140, which is home to the Royal Riding School (25). Complete with balconies and gilded mirrors, the building is a neoclassical glory dating from 1882. It is open every afternoon; on Sundays you can often see the horses perform. Admission is free.

ICING ON THE CAKE

You can take a last look at real treasures from the Rijksmueum in the departures hall of Schiphol airport. Once through passport control follow the signs for the museum and you'll find a small gallery of a dozen or more paintings. Currently on display are works of Rembrandt's pupils Gerard Dou and Ferdinand Bol, and there's also a Ruisdael of a watermill. The gallery opens daily 7am-8pm, admission free.

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