Amsterdam is a law unto itself, in some ways quite literally, and no other destination is both traditional and liberal in such equal measure. Nowhere else in the world is gabled Dutch architecture illuminated with the scarlet glow of unadulterated vice in all of its forms. But this isn’t any other city. Amsterdam is unique, its appeal extending across the age ranges, from the over-excited teens who nervously giggle their way through the Red Light District, each window more distracting than the last, to the more mature of us, who get our kicks on canal tours and in medieval squares.
Here’s how you can spend 36 hours in Amsterdam on a short cruise from the UK.
Whilst Amsterdam is a destination capable of yielding something new with each visit, the merchant houses lined up like soldiers on the banks of its maze of canals remain a constant. The Canal Ring on which Amsterdam has built both its city and its fame has endured since the Golden Age of the 17th century. Today, even the most risqué of museums and enlightened establishments cannot compete with Amsterdam’s 165 canals and 1,200 bridges, each one offering a unique perspective on the city.
A canal cruise remains the number one attraction here, both for newcomers seeking an informative introduction to the city and for returning old-hats looking to branch out into its lesser-known districts. Romantic candle-lit cruises, pizza party cruises, Dutch cheese and wine cruises, art history cruises and even cruises fuelled by pancakes in unlimited amounts are just some of those on offer. One of our favourites is the Rijksmuseum Canal Cruise, which not only introduces you to the places that inspired great Dutch artist Rembrandt’s work, but also where he lived and where he painted his most famous masterpiece, The Night Watch. The canal cruise ends just minutes from the Rijksmuseum, home to some of the greatest works of Dutch art, with pieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, van Dyck and Jan Steen amongst a collection of more than 8,000 paintings in more than 100 rooms. Passing an entire afternoon here is easily done, but save time for the nearby Van Gogh Museum, which celebrates the life and work of the Netherlands’ most-famous artist, Vincent Van Gogh, and houses the world’s largest collection
of his art.
Having had your fill of culture, explore Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s largest and most famous park located just steps away from Museumplein. Afterwards, continue on foot – or pedal, if you decide to join the locals on two wheels – to the Anne Frank House, stopping off at the Bloomenmarkt on route. The market has stood here since 1862, or rather it has floated; stalls stand on house boats on the Singel Canal, making this the only floating flower market in the world. There is no better place from which to buy those Dutch tulip bulbs for home.
There are few more sobering experiences than the Anne Frank House, where a normal Jewish girl with normal dreams found herself caught up in one of the greatest atrocities in history. Standing in the secret annex on the Prinsengracht 263, where Anne and her family hid for almost two years before they were discovered and deported to Auschwitz, is incredibly moving. Demand for online tickets often outstrips supply, so booking well in advance of your trip is strongly advised. Those unable to get tickets may turn up on the day; tickets are available on the door from 3pm, though queues often stretch far beyond the museum entrance and have been known to stand for several hours.
With many itineraries incorporating an overnight stay in Amsterdam, you will have time to spend your second day venturing out of the city and into the bucolic countryside which surrounds it. Visit the windmills of Zaanse Schans or the old fishing village of Volendam, or head for the picturesque island village of Giethoorn, a place befitting of both fairy tales and its nickname ‘The Venice of the North’.
Between the months of March and May, Holland’s countryside blooms into ‘tulip time’. The red, pink and yellow of tulip fields transform the country into a patchwork blanket during this time of year, and nowhere more so than at Keukenhof Gardens, where 7 million tulips bloom over the park’s 80 acres.
You’ll find a FEBO on every other corner in Amsterdam but, unless you have a penchant for pre-made burgers and cheese soufflés dispensed from a vending machine, we suggest giving them a wide berth and checking out Amsterdam’s countless other eateries instead. A slew of new restaurants and cafés have opened across the city in recent years, sending Amsterdam’s reputation as a foodie capital soaring. From brown cafés focused on safeguarding traditional Dutch cuisine, to sleek contemporary spaces serving up French fusion food and unassuming cafes that just so happen to dish up the best sandwich you’ll eat all year; there is something here for every appetite.
‘Gezellig’ is to the Dutch, what ‘hygge’ is to the Danish; the feeling of relaxing with friends, doing something or doing nothing at all, simply enjoying each other’s company and, more often than not, tucking into some really good food. The creators behind De Foodhallen, in Amsterdam’s cool Oud West district, looked to London’s Borough Market for inspiration for their take on a ‘gezellig’ gathering ground. The result is the first food hall in the city and one of the first in Holland, with more than 20 of the region’s best independent kitchens coming together in an old converted tram depot within the De Hallen cultural complex. The atmosphere is laidback and leisurely, with locals outnumbering tourists by far.
A pile of shipping containers finished with a curved roof and glass façade may not sound like the most impressive lunch spot, but the views alone from local favourite Pllek are enough to warrant the free 20-minute ferry journey from Centraal Station to the NDSM Docklands. Those in the know head here throughout the year, sipping hot chocolate beneath blankets during winter and enjoying a beer on the soft gravel ‘beach’ in summer. The restaurant overlooks the IJ River, with the shadowy skyline of the city in the background, so time your visit with sunset for full effect.
For lunch on the go in the heart of the city, Singel 404 is unassuming and unbeatable. The humble sandwich is taken to the highest echelon at this Amsterdam institution, so arrive early if you want to avoid the queues that inevitably gather. Walk off your carb-coma with a stroll from the Spui, where Singel 404 is located, to nearby Begijnhof, a former convent and quaint courtyard dating back to the early 14th century. Whilst most of the buildings were replaced in the 17th century, the wooden house at Begijnhof 34 is the oldest house in Amsterdam.
For the most part, you will have to venture outside of the city to see Holland’s famous windmills. However, one solitary windmill not only still stands, but also serves beer. The Brouwerij ‘t IJ microbrewery sits beneath the sails of De Gooyer windmill, the oldest in Amsterdam dating back to 1725, serving locally brewed beers of increasing strengths. Despite lasting just 20-minutes, a brewery tour of the mill and adjacent bathhouse is up there with the best experiences you will have during a weekend in the city, your €5 entry fee including a free beer.
Whilst Brouwerij’ t IJ may be the hippest bar in the city, the XtraCold Ice Bar is the coolest in a more literal sense. A thermal coat and gloves are issued on entry here, keeping you warm in the -10 degrees temperatures just long enough for your beer coat to kick in.
If the thought of shivering your way through the cocktail list sounds anything but entertaining, get a new perspective on Europe’s most eclectic capital instead, at SkyLounge Amsterdam. Located on the 11th floor of the Doubletree Hilton, perfectly positioned between the cruise port and the hustle and bustle of central Amsterdam, this rooftop bar was voted the best in the city in 2015 and offers the best views bar none.