By Pamela Jacobs
“I might not come home.” This was the subject of an email I sent to someone while I was in Amsterdam recently. The email continued: “I loooove this city.” Indeed, I did. And while I did return home after four days, it was a bit reluctantly, and with memories of a city so beautiful, so friendly, so warm (even on chilly Autumn days), and so very special, it will forever be one of my favorite places. Upon my return, a friend asked me, “do you think I would like Amsterdam?” “Everyone would like Amsterdam,” I replied. “There is nothing not to love about it.”
I flew nonstop aboard KLM into Schiphol Airport, and arrived in Amsterdam excited and ready to explore. I checked into the glorious, five star Hotel de l’Europe (www.leurope.nl) in the very heart of the city, and found elegant, top-notch, and modern accommodations housed within an historic building which has been a favorite among celebrities and politicians for over two centuries. Located directly on the Amstel River, the lucky guests of Hotel de l’Europe find it to be the epitome of luxury and taste, with rooms that lack nothing, and seem to offer more than one could have imagined. My deluxe one bedroom suite was a bit of heaven: modern décor and grand reproductions of Dutch Masters paintings, with bold colors that accentuated the paintings, a large separate living room, a Bose sound system, a Carrera marble bathroom with a large soaking tub and separate shower, and perhaps my favorite part of the room (if I had to choose), the flat screen TV that was seamlessly built into the mirrored wall above the bathtub. Genius! Guests also enjoy the casual food at Brasserie Le Relais and a great nightcap at Freddy’s bar.
Amsterdam is a small city with a lot do to, so I recommend 1) picking up an “I amsterdam” card, which offers free entrance to museums, a free canal cruise, free public transport, and many discounts (www.iamsterdamcard.com) 2) putting on some very comfortable walking shoes—the trams are easy to use and go everywhere, but I found walking all over the city to be a great way to really see everything, and 3) seeing as many of the sights as time allows—there are many, but you can get them all in in a relatively short amount of time.
First and foremost, you’ll want to wander. Amsterdam has 166 canals, over 1000 bridges, and an immeasurable amount of narrow, winding streets on which to meander and feel dreamy and in awe of the beauty. The canals run in a half moon shape around the inner heart of the city, and flow through each neighborhood. I highly recommend a canal tour (you can find them all over the city), from which you can really get a good perspective of the city, and see it from another angle. I was amazed to be at eye-level with the houseboats that lined the canals, on which people live and work. I took great pleasure in seeing a houseboat that was actually a cat shelter—these are the kinds of things you see from touring on the water. I was lucky to be there in the heart of the fall, as the trees were turning and the canals were filled with red, orange, and yellow leaves. I imagine it’s exquisite at any time of year though—in the summer sun, the winter snow, Amsterdam could never not be pretty.
I also loved walking around the streets of the different neighborhoods—the Joordan, with its quiet, peaceful charm, small streets, and lovely little boutiques and cafes; Spui, a fun, young neighborhood with a small cobblestone square that reminded me of the Saint-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood in Paris (it is here you’ll find the Beguinage, one of Amsterdam’s oldest inner courts, dating back to the middle ages, where devout unmarried women lived and worked); Leidseplein, another, livelier square filled with happening bars and restaurants, the grand Stadsschouwburg theater, and a great mixture of locals and tourists; the Red Light District, really only 2 blocks along a canal that are quite pretty, despite what you might think, and are a must-see for any tourist (I loved to see the reflection of the red lights in the water of the canal); the old Jewish quarter, where interested visitors can see the old Great Synagogue from 1671 and nearby a memorial to Auschwitz—you’ll also find the Waterlooplein flea market here, which is open every day. Actually, the list could go on—there are so many great neighborhoods to explore, and they’re all within close proximity of each other.
I spent a good deal of time in Leidseplein, as my second hotel during my stay, Hotel Dikker & Thijs (www.dtfh.nl) was located smack dab in the heart of this bustling, lively neighborhood, directly on a canal, and a very short walk to the Joordan as well. The hotel, whose location and canal views are priceless, is quite charming, with surprisingly spacious and very pretty rooms that are beyond comfortable, large bathrooms, extremely friendly staff (well, everyone in Amsterdam is extremely friendly), and an old-fashioned loveliness.
I arrived in Amsterdam knowing that there were a few things I couldn’t leave without seeing: the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, the Anne Frank House, the Flowermarket, and the Red Light District. The rest would follow after these.
The Flowermarket is just down the street (about two minutes) from the Hotel de l’Europe, and in the very center of it all. It’s a series of booths along a canal, each filled with Amsterdam’s beautiful flowers, bulbs, and various souvenirs. There are also many souvenir shops and cafes here.
The Netherlands was home to some of the world’s greatest artists, and within Amsterdam’s famous museums you’ll find countless works by these masters. At the Rijksmuseum (a short walk from Leidseplein; www.rijksmuseum.nl), which is currently undergoing renovation but is still open to the public and still strikingly beautiful, you’ll find some of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, as well as Rembrandt’s most famous (“Nightwatch”), and many other masterpieces. This museum is an absolute can’t-miss. Just down the street you’ll find the other necessary Amsterdam museum: the Van Gogh Museum (www.vangoghmuseum.nl). It’s a spectacular homage to the Dutch painter, and includes not only hundreds of his works, but also information on his life and history. Both museums are really quite amazing.
In the Joordan neighborhood, on the quiet and beautiful Prinsengracht canal, is where you’ll find the Anne Frank House (www.annefrank.org), which I found to be an incredibly poignant and fascinating experience. Here you can see exactly where Anne Frank and her family slept, ate, and survived in hiding for two years (until they were discovered and deported to Nazi death camps), and where one of history’s bravest young women wrote her famous diary. I was amazed and touched as I climbed the stairs to the secret annex and read the excerpts from her diary; they also display Anne’s actual diary, family photos, and moving images of the Holocaust. I bought the diary in the gift shop and re-read it, now with a new perspective, having been there and seen where her life in hiding took place.
Once I visited my top three Amsterdam attractions, there was still plenty more to see. I recommend checking out the Rembrandt House near the Old Jewish Quarter; The impressive canal-side Hermitage Museum; Dam Square—Amsterdam’s biggest and main square, where you’ll also find the Royal Palace and De Nieuwe Kierk (the New Church); the aforementioned Beguinage in Spui; Vondelpark—their large, green, lush, and gorgeous park; the Albert Cuyp Market, for the smells and sights of locals buying fish, produce, and various items from hundreds of vendors; and for beer lovers, the Heineken Experience (www.heinekenexperience.com). Once a working factory, now the Heineken Experience is open for tours, during which you’ll learn the history of the company and its beer-making tradition, and end the tour with (my favorite part) two glasses of Heineken, which taste so much better in Amsterdam than they do in the U.S. If you’re looking to check out a smaller brewery, head to Brouwerij ‘t IJ (www.brouwerijhetij.nl), located in a former bath house, where you can taste delicious local beers. Depending on how long you’re staying in Amsterdam, the list of things to do and see could go on and on.
I was more than a little impressed with my discovery of Amsterdam as a design and fashion-rich city that can put many others to shame. I spent a full day just experiencing the wealth of style and beauty that makes Amsterdam the unique city it is. One of my favorite areas was the Nine Streets (www.theninestreets.com), which is only a two minute walk from Dam Square, and is rich with amazing shopping. Jewelry shops, boutiques, and designer stores line the charming streets of this neighborhood, and a New Yorker with a love of shopping will find herself in heaven. If you’re looking for specifically Dutch fashion, check out Denham (for denim).
Mooi, in Dutch, means beautiful, and at the Moooi Gallery (the extra “o” emphasizes the beauty; www.moooi-gallery.com), everything is definitely beautiful. Here, founders Marcel Wanders and Casper Vissers present some of the world’s most innovative and inspired interior design. It’s quite something. If you’re hungry for more cutting-edge furniture design, check out The Frozen Fountain (www.frozenfountain.nl), where everything is just really cool.
Lovers of contemporary art will find, as I did, that Galerie Gabriel Rolt (www.gabrielrolt.com) has a fantastic selection of works by incredibly talented artists.
If you’re really inspired by design and looking to see what’s unique and happening in Amsterdam these days, I suggest a visit to the HEMA Design Competition at OBA (www.oba.nl), where over 280 creative minds submitted designs focused on this task: “design an authentic HEMA product that makes it easier and fun for people to get out and about.” I was delighted by the first prize design, as well as the nominees for public prize, and found the entire experience to be quite fun.
When I go to a foreign city, as much as I want to see the sites, I want to eat what the locals eat, and where they eat. I had to try a traditional herring sandwich—served raw, on a hotdog bun, with pickles and onions—it’s definitely an acquired taste. I highly recommend a bowl of Dutch pea soup—thick, hearty, and delicious, I had it at Brasserie de Poort near Dam Square (www.dieportvancleve.com). Also on the list was Dutch apple pie, which is a bit different than ours, but extraordinary (dare I say better?). I enjoyed a piece at the famous Café Luxembourg (www.cafeluxembourg.nl) in Spui, a glamorous café where I loved the people watching as much as the pie. I ran out of time, and didn’t have a chance to try Indonesian food, which I heard was great in the Netherlands, and traditional Dutch pancakes. Next time!
For truly great dining, there are a few spots that should definitely go on your list. Though not located in the heart of everything, Nevy (www.nevy.nl) is only a ten minute taxi ride, and is a special dining experience. Incredibly beautiful, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river IJ, white marble walls, white banquettes, and candlelit tables, it’s as romantic as they come. Luckily, the food matches—or perhaps, most remarkably, even outshines—the décor. The menu is mostly seafood, and they have a fabulous raw bar. I started with a selection of French and Dutch raw oysters served over ice (perfection!) and continued with Chef Martijn Nijntjes‘s five course menu.
Each of the courses was superb, but the rare seared tuna crusted in pumpkin seeds served with variations of pumpkin along with dried orange and polenta was truly exquisite, and equally memorable was the slow cooked cod with pureed cauliflower, mustard mousse, poached egg, and crispy shoestring potatoes. By the second bite of Pastry Chef Tjade Klauer’s banana and chocolate dessert (macadamia nut covered bananas, banana ice cream, banana mousse, chocolate cookie crumbs, chocolate mousse, and cocoa powder), I exclaimed “this is the best dessert I’ve ever had!”
While Little Buddha (www.littlebuddhaamsterdam.com; same owners as Buddha Bar in Paris, NY, etc.) isn’t exactly traditional Dutch cooking, it’s a fabulous, fun atmosphere with great food, and is absolutely worth visiting for a dinner. If you’re traveling with a group, this is the perfect place to eat, as it’s hip and happening, and the menu is best enjoyed family style, while getting to taste a variety of dishes. The décor is cool, swanky, dark, and impressive, and it’s located right in Leidseplein. I started with an excellent sake, Kizan “Junmai Nama Ginjo,” which was smooth, fruity, and quite special, and continued with a selection of sushi which surprised my spoiled NY palate; it was fantastic, fresh sushi. I also loved the Little Buddha chicken salad, the Little Buddha “Ahi tuna” pizza, the Chinese orange chicken, and the Mongolian beef. I only wish I had been with more people so I could have tried more dishes.
For those who love French brasseries as much as I do, head to Brasserie Harkema (www.brasserieharkema.nl), a contemporary version of a classic Parisian restaurant. I particularly loved the onion soup and the traditional French croque monsieur. The décor is modern and sleek, and the food is excellent.
If you’re looking for a traditional Dutch drinking experience, beer is the drink of choice, and bruin cafes (or brown, in English) are the location of choice. Bruin cafes can be found throughout the city, and are so called for their smoke-stained walls and brown wooden furniture. Favorites of mine include Café ‘t Smalle (Egelantiersgracht 12), De Twee Zwaantjes (Prinsengracht 114), and Hoppe (Spui 18-20), which dates back to 1670. Enjoy a good, cold Dutch beer, and mingle with the locals, who are by far some of the nicest people in the world.
Of all the European cities I’ve been to, I found Amsterdam to be the warmest, friendliest, and most comfortable—which is saying a lot, because I love many other European cities. Its beauty is breathtaking and beyond compare, and what it offers in the way of culture, history, and sightseeing is second to none. There is truly something for everyone in Amsterdam—the lone travelers, the historians, the families, the shoppers—all will be enamored. What each visitor will find, beyond everything else that makes it such a special city, is that there is a sense of genuine happiness, kindness, and generosity of spirit in its people that will make anyone want to return time and time again.
For more information on travel to Amsterdam / The Netherlands, visit the Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions at www.holland.com