48 Hours In: Amsterdam
The Dutch capital is back in full swing this summer, thanks to the reopening of its top museums. Simon Calder joins the celebration
Simon Calder’s career in travel started at Gatwick Airport, where he cleaned aircraft for Laker Airways and later worked as a security officer. He became The Independent’s Travel Correspondent in 1994, and is known as “the Man Who Pays His Way” because he does not accept free travel facilities. He writes across the Independent titles, as well as for the Evening Standard.
Saturday 22 June 2013
Why go now?
This is the first summer for a decade when one of Europe's greatest art collections, the Rijksmuseum (1), is fully open; and the Van Gogh Museum (2) is also back in business following its 40-year freshen-up.
Amsterdam Schiphol has better links from the UK than any other airport in the world. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow, Gatwick and London City. KLM (0870 507 4074; klm.com) flies from Aberdeen, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Durham Tees Valley, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heathrow, Humberside, Leeds/Bradford, Liverpool, London City, Manchester, Manston, Newcastle and Norwich.
Of the budget airlines, easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) offers the widest choice of flights: from Belfast, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, London (Gatwick, Luton and Stansted), Manchester, Newcastle and Southend. Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) operates from Birmingham, East Midlands, Exeter, Inverness and Southampton, while Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) flies from Leeds/Bradford.
Frequent trains (€3.90 each way) from Schiphol airport take around 20 minutes to reach Centraal Station (3), where a decade of construction work is continuing. You can also reach Amsterdam in four hours from London St Pancras via Brussels with Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com).
Stena Line (08445 762 762; stenaline.co.uk) offers "rail and sail" fares from Harwich to the Hook of Holland, with train travel on to Amsterdam (or any other Dutch station) for £45 each way.
Get your bearings
Work started on the Canal Ring 400 years ago to augment Amsterdam. It created the present-day framework for the city, which is basically a collection of islands divided by a ripple of concentric canals and united by bridges.
The focus of the ring of semi-circular canals is Centraal Station (3), on the south bank of the broad IJ river. The main tourist office (00 31 20 702 6000; iamsterdam.com; open 9am-7pm daily) and public transport office (weekends 10am-6pm, weekdays 7am-9pm,) share a building opposite the station's main entrance.
The original medieval city straggles south from here to scruffy Dam Square, presided over by the Royal Palace (4). West from here is the former Huguenot district of Jordaan; going south you reach the Museum Quarter.
The star property on the canal ring is Andaz (5) at Prinsengracht 587 (00 31 20 523 1234; bit.ly/Andaz Library). A former humdrum city library has been transformed into a dramatic space with individually designed rooms each rooted in Amsterdam tradition. There's no reception desk – just elegant staff equipped with iPads to check you in. An advance-purchase double starts at around €300, excluding breakfast.
If you are happy to stay slightly away from the centre, try the Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy (6) at Oostelijke Handelskade 34 (00 31 20 561 3636; lloydhotel.com) – once the embarkation point for emigrants. A one-star room with shared bathroom starts as low as €63 per double excluding breakfast; more luxurious options are available.
Should your main criterion be proximity to the great museums, Roemer Visscherstraat is the street to choose – with options including the rambling and friendly Owl Hotel (7) at number 1 (00 31 20 618 9484; owl-hotel.nl). Doubles start at €112, including breakfast.
To see what can be done with a formidable collection of art, one third of a billion pounds and 10 years, arrive at opening time for the miraculously resurrected Rijksmuseum (1). A refurbishment that has taken most of the current millennium is now complete , making it the hottest ticket in Europe. Pre-book a €15 ticket at bit.ly/RijksT in order to dodge the queue.
Go straight up to the Gallery of Honour, where The Shooting Company of Captain Frans Banning Cocq – better known as Rembrandt's The Night Watch – is the only painting returned to its original position. Then explore the other galleries, where the history of the Netherlands is articulated in a fascinating range of objects and images.
Next, having pre-booked a specific time/date slot through bit.ly/VVGtickets, go to the front of the queue for the Van Gogh Museum (2) (00 31 20 570 5200; 9am-6pm daily, Fridays to 10pm; €15). The tragic story of a fragile genius is portrayed through the world's finest collection of Van Gogh's work.
For independent stores aim for the Negen Straatjes, or Nine Streets – a district full of quirky enterprises. De Kaaskamer (8) at Runstraat 7 sells the finest cheeses, while at number 5, De Witte Tanden Winkel sells dental accessories.
Lunch on the run
Café Papeneiland (9) at the corner of the Prinsengracht and the Brouwersgracht (00 31 20 624 1989; papeneiland.nl) is an original "brown café", ideal for a snack with a coffee.
Take a hike
Close by are Amsterdam's Western Islands. From Haarlemmerplein (10) walk north under the railway and wander through the villagey collaboration of canals, cottages, houseboats and bridges to the apartment block (11) at the far end. Then head back, with Centraal Station (3) as your beacon.
Amsterdam has more than its fair share of grand cafés, and the Café in the Waag (12) at Nieuwmarkt 4 (00 31 20 422 7772; indewaag.nl) is one of the most spectacular, inside the oldest city gate.
Dining with the locals
Restaurant Anna (13) at Warmoesstraat 111 (00 31 20 428 1111; restaurantanna.nl) has a chic interior and exquisite dishes such as truffle risotto followed by grilled scallops, which more than compensate for the Red Light District location. For €47.70 the chef will select four courses for you.
Sunday morning: go to church
The Begijnhof (14), a flower-filled courtyard surrounded by gabled houses (begijnhof amsterdam.nl), was created for pious Catholic women who cared for the elderly and were themselves cared for by the Church.
Today, it is a serene escape from the city outside – and home to one of the city's finest Protestant places of worship: the Engelse Kerk, which was adopted by Presbyterians in 1607. The pulpit has panels decorated by a young Piet Mondriaan. Sunday service is at 10.30am.
Directly opposite stands the Begijnhofkapel, built in 1671. The doors are deliberately anonymous, but once inside it fans out to reveal an opulent interior in stark contrast to the "English church". Look for the stained-glass window dedicated to Holland's national poet, Joost van den Vondel; Sunday mass at 10am in Dutch and 11.15am in French.
Take a ride
Make your way to the northern exit of Centraal Station (3) then pick your way across to the terminal for the IJ Buiksloterweg ferry. Every few minutes, it sails across to Waterland – a serene area, steeped in tradition, with a new and exciting cinematic addition. Eye: the New Film Museum in Amsterdam (15) opened in 2012 with a vision to transform the city's waterfront (00 31 20 589 1400; eyefilm.nl; 10am-10pm). It includes four cinemas, and all kinds of tricks to entertain and enthral the eye. From 30 June to 22 September, Fellini – The Exhibition promises to unravel the late filmmaker's universe.
Out to brunch
What really draws the eye – and the visitors to this side of the IJ – is the museum's Eye Bar Restaurant (00 31 20 589 1402; eyebarrestaurant.nl), with a wide-screen view across the river. Coffee and croissants are served 10am-noon daily, followed by a lunch menu.
A walk in the park
Hortus Botanicus (16) (00 31 20 625 9021; dehortus.nl) began as a herb garden in 1638. Soon, the Dutch East India Company started bringing back strange and exotic plants from around the world, and the place blossomed into a small but delightful botanical garden. Its greenhouses include some plants that are extinct in the wild. There is also a pleasant courtyard cafe. The garden is open 10am-5pm at weekends, from 9am during the week; €7.
Icing on the cake
If you are flying home, take a last look at treasures from the Rijksmueum at Schiphol airport, "airside" between D and E piers; open daily 7am-8pm; free.
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