48 hours in Amsterdam

There's more to our favourite Dutch city than clogs and smoking paraphernalia. It is steeped in history and culture, and is only a short hop from the UK, says Simon Calder


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

Culture, architecture and good living combine superbly in the Dutch capital - which is also easily accessible from almost anywhere in the UK. A bright winter weekend is the ideal time to see the city at its best, without the crowds.

BEAM DOWN

Fly on Basiq Air (00 31 20 206 8490, www.basiqair.com from Stansted); British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester; BMI (0870 60 70 555, www.flybmi.com) from Heathrow; Bmibaby (0870 264 2229, www.bmibaby.com) from Nottingham East Midlands; easyJet (0870 600 0000, www.easyJet.com) from Belfast, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Liverpool and Luton; ScotAirways (08706 060707, www.scotairways.co.uk) from Southampton; Jet2 (0870 737 82 82, www.jet2.com) from Leeds/ Bradford; KLM UK (08705 074 074, www.klmuk.com) from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heathrow, Humberside, Leeds/Bradford, London City, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich and Teeside. Trains from Schiphol airport to Centraal Station, take 20 minutes and cost €3.10 (£2.30) each way.

On Eurostar (08705 186 186, www.eurostar.com), the lowest return fare from London Waterloo is £69 (which also applies to any other Dutch station). By sea, DFDS Seaways (08705 333000, www.dfdsseaways.co.uk) sails from Newcastle to IJmuiden, close to Amsterdam.

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Centraal Station is the hub of the semi-circular ripple of concentric 17th-century canals that define the heart of Amsterdam: Singel, Herensgracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. There is a pair of tourist offices at the station, one on platform 2 (open 8am-7.45pm, Monday-Saturday), the other in a wooden building opposite the main station entrance (open 9am-5pm daily). For advice in advance, call 00 31 70 370 5705 or visit www.holland.com. The city has a good network of trams, plus a fairly useless underground railway, but the area covered by this guide is compact and walkable.

CHECK IN

Amsterdam has a chronic shortage of hotel beds. As a result proprietors can command high prices.

At peak weekends, such as Valentine, you may find it tough to get a bed at any price. For a central, canalside location, try the Hotel Estherea at Singel 303 (00 44 20 624 5146, www.estherea.nl) - rooms are small but plush. Rates fluctuate according to demand; typically €220 (£160) for a double, without breakfast. A more unusual option is the Hotel de Filosoof 38 rooms are scattered among a series of townhouses at Anna Vondelstraat 6 (00 31 20 683 3013, www.hotelfilosoof.nl). An individually decorated double, with breakfast, starts at €115 (£85). A nearby alternative is the Owl Hotel at Roemer Visscherstraat 1 (00 31 20 618 9484, www.owl-hotel.nl), where €105(£78) buys a double, including breakfast.

TAKE A VIEW

Amsterdam is a low-rise city, which means you need not climb too high for a grand panorama. From the tower of the old stock exchange, the Beurs van Berlage at Beursplein 4 (020 620 8112, www.beursvanberlage.nl), you see the medieval core of the city laid out beneath you. It opens 11am-5pm daily except Monday, admission €5 (£3.50).

TAKE A HIKE

The oldest street in this young city is Zeedijk, whose start is close to the main station. The name, meaning "sea dyke", was correct when it was first built: it provided essential protection when the Zuider Zee was open water and Amsterdam was connected to the North Sea. From here, head south-east along the city's most multicultural streets. Head past the church of St Olof, the African Heritage shop and the He Hua temple to Nieuwmarket, the location for Waag - an old weigh-house that is now a handy and atmospheric coffee stop. On the south side of the market place, is an amusing sculpture of a man planting an unwanted kiss on a woman. South from here, take the west bank of Kloveniersburgwal and make a side trip to the old East India House, now part of Amsterdam University. Bear right at the end along Nieuwe Doelenstraat, which boasts a fine mural, the University Theatre (with an absurdly elaborate lintel over the main door) and the Hotel de l'Europe, a location for Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

You're there. Adjacent to the Hotel de l'Europe is Cafe de Jaren at Nieuwe Doelenstraat 20-22 (00 31 20 625 5771, www.cafe-de-jaren.nl), an excellent location for fresh, fast and imaginative food, drink and conversation.

WINDOW SHOPPING

Two things are free at Coster Diamonds: the hour-long tour of the gem-cutting centre (00 31 30 305 5555, www.costerdiamonds.com, available 9am-5pm daily) and the coffee at the end of it. Everything else is sinfully expensive. The same applies to the boutiques along PC Hooftstraat, which is where all the designer labels are on show. The Metz department store is cheaper and more conventional, and its top-floor cafe has one of the best views in Amsterdam.

AN APERITIF

If, when you hear the word "culture", you reach for a glass of bottom-fermented beer, aim for the Heineken Experience, housed in the former brewery at Stadhouderskade 78 (00 31 20 523 9666, www.heinekenexperience.com). This indoor lager theme park opens 10am-6pm daily except Mondays (last entrance 5pm). The admission price of €7.50 (£5.50) includes three glasses of lager. For something much more sophisticated, aim for the splendid Mercurius at Prins Hendrikkade 20/21 (00 31 20 521 7010, www.restaurant-mercurius.nl). This elegant bar includes Baroque flourishes and post-modern furnishings. At weekends it opens for the evening at 6pm; stay to eat if you wish (and book).

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

The Van Puffelen at Prinsengracht 375 (00 31 20 624 6270) is a grand place with relatively modest prices (reckon on €36/£25 per person including wine) for elaborate, meat-heavy food in highly theatrical surroundings. For a lighter alternative, head for Zabar's at Van Baerlestraat 49 (00 31 20 679 8888), close to the main museums. The Mediterranean menu features seafood and vegetarian dishes, with the odd Galician adventure thrown in. On weekend evenings, book in advance for any Amsterdam restaurant.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

Nieuwe Kerk on Dam Square is the church used for the investiture of Dutch monarchs. Despite its name, it is very old: the present church dates from the early 16th century. A fire in 1645 destroyed everything except the walls and the pillars - this allowed the interior to be reconstructed with the best that the Golden Age could provide. The church opens 10am-6pm daily (to 10pm on Thursdays). Admission is €10 (£7) during the current exhibition: Love From The Hermitage. This is an extremely timely event, featuring 250 amorous artworks from the St Petersburg collection. It runs until 18 April and next Saturday afternoon will feature Valentine music from 2pm.

TAKE A RIDE

The Canal Bus (00 31 20 626 5574, www.canal.nl/uk) has 14 stops dotted around the city close to tourist attractions. Services run about half-hourly from 10am to 6.30pm daily, and if you buy a one-day pass for €15 (£11) it is valid for unlimited trips and even extends until noon the next day.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Cobra is the trendy cafe located at Hobbema-straat 18(00 31 20 470 0111, www.cobracafe.com), behind the building works of the Rijksmuseum. The name derives from the COpenhagen/BRussels/Amsterdam school of art, and the staff look like art school students. Light floods in; the coffee tastes good; and you refuel on pancakes, omelettes or venison salad.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

The main part of the Rijksmuseum is closed for a long-term refurbishment aimed at restoring the Pierre Cuypers design to its original condition. While it remains under wraps, expect even bigger crowds than usual at the neighbouring Van Gogh Museum (00 31 20 570 5252, www.vangoghmuseum.nl). To enjoy Irises and more than 200 other works in relative solitude, plan to arrive at the museum late in the day; it opens 10am-6pm daily, admission €9 (£7). Note that the museum's fancy, new-ish Exhibition Wing is closed until 27 February for the installation of the Dante Gabriel Rosetti show, which starts that day.

A WALK IN THE PARK

A broad, green and pleasant courtyard stands virtually in the centre of one of Europe's most energetic cities, yet remains aloof from the indulgence just minutes away. The Begijnhof is a divine ensemble of gabled homes, mostly built in the 16th, 17th or 18th centuries, for single women. Men are now allowed to enter the courtyard, but all tourists must respect the opening hours of 9am-5pm daily.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

The best reason for flying to and from Amsterdam is to use the superb airport at Schiphol. Even though it is one of the four busiest aviation hubs in Europe, it is well designed and full of diversions - of which the most rewarding is the Rijksmuseum annexe, on a raised platform above the corridor connecting piers E and F. It opens 7am-8pm daily, admission free. The works on display change several times each year to ensure regular travellers keep coming back, but at any one time there are likely to be several paintings by 17th-century masters on show by artists such as Rembrandt, Pieter de Hoogh and Jan Steen.

At the foot of the stairs, a well-stocked shop supplies those last-minute gifts.

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