Jonathan de Burca Butler discovers an Amsterdam that is a lot more than just a sin city, with fine art, fine food, and fine people making it one of Europe’s top destinations for a short break.
There is so much more to Amsterdam than its famous red light district and ‘aromatic’ coffee shops.
This is a cultured city with enchanting neighbourhoods, some very fine food and, above all, great people.
We arrived on Friday afternoon and after checking our bags in at Hotel Albus, we went straight to the nearby Amsterdam Museum for a 45 minute interactive overview of the city.
This short tour traces Amsterdam’s origins as a small 12th century fishing village through to its 17th century Golden Age and beyond.
With our knowledge of Amsterdam duly topped up and our stomachs replenished with a wonderful sandwich platter from the museum restaurant, we took ourselves to The Nine Streets district to begin our weekend of criss-crossing the many bridges over the city’s 100 kilometres of famous canals.
This is such a beautiful feature of this city, but one that can lead to confusion.
We got lost several times. But don’t worry if you do, Amsterdam feels safe and once you get used to the stoners staring at you in their altered haze, you begin to relax.
As evening began to fall we figured it was time to wander into the red light district. This was not very pleasant. As the streets became darker and narrower the steamy windows of the districts brothels emerged.
We were told we would see half naked women tapping at the windows in a bid to entice would-be punters in but we saw none. The atmosphere was creepy and when a drunken bunch of lads came around a formerly quiet corner laughing like hyenas we decided we’d seen enough.
Thankfully, our restaurant recommendation, Van Kerkwijk, was not far from here.
This was special and the locals obviously think so too. It was packed and because they don’t take pre-bookings we had to wait almost an hour before getting seats at the bar.
It was well worth it and after a wander back through the now increasingly boisterous city streets, we decided to hit the hay.
Next morning, with a hearty hotel breakfast in the tank, we took a trek down to the Albert Kuypmarkt in the De Pjip neighbourhood.
This famous old market is vast and must go on for at least two kilometres. It’s full of Dutch people selling all sorts of clobber from t-shirts to fish and falafels, but we spent the hour just soaking it all in and listening to the traders’ chirpy banter. It’s also a good spot to pick up some souvenirs if you need to.
From here the gallery quarter was but a short stroll. Three museums the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and the Stedilijk are within spitting distance of each other.
The most regal and breathtaking is the Rijkmuseum (€17.50) with its really impressive atrium and what has to be the world’s largest men’s bathroom.
The big draw here (if you’ll excuse the pun) is The Night Watch by Rembrandt; a vast canvas featuring the great and the wealthy of Amsterdam’s 17th century.
Cleverly, the museum curators have placed the information pertaining to the masterpiece on the other side of the hall so you can actually stand in front of the piece and enjoy its vast size without people jostling you.
After far too much time in the Rijkmusem, it was a relief to discover that its more modern neighbour, The Van Gogh Museum (€17), was quite small. This is a must see. No computer imaging can prepare you for the outstanding vibrancy of Sunflowers or Garden in the Asylum.
We decide to leave the Stedilijk until the next day, get on a tram and see more of the city. Trams are easy here as most of them have conductors who act as tourist officers on board. We travelled three stops before getting to the Jordaan neighbourhood.
On Nieuwe Leliestraat, one of the area’s main thoroughfares, it was hard to know which buildings were shops and which were houses. It later becomes clear that many of them are, in fact, both. After a roast beef sandwich in Restaurant De Reiger (Nieuwe Leliestraat 34), we came across some interesting photo collages by an artist named Tom Bass. It turned out that the studio was also his house and we ended up chatting about art and politics for the best part of half an hour.
This is now real Amsterdam — families on bikes, playgrounds, and just a general sense of wellbeing and contentment.
The feel-good factor was up to 100% at this stage and from here we made our way slowly to our dinner venue at the vast Foodhallen – think the English Market in Cork only bigger and full of Dutch people.
This former tram depot now houses a cinema (with films in English by the way), a library and an enormous food market with a mish mash of great world flavours and smells all decently priced.
At the Rough Kitchen, a filling pulled pork sandwich will set you back just €6.50. If you want to go the whole hog, a three-course meal at the Kanarie Club will set you back €32. The cocktails are amazing too.
The following day, we just had time to visit Stedelijk Museum where the family lab, a Willy Wonkaesque wonderland really stole the show.
We wound down the morning with a nice relaxing canal tour and after a meatball and pickle sandwich in the Waterloo Cafe on Waterlooplein, we were ready for the journey home.
We left this captivating city and its captivating people with a heavy heart and an even heavier stomach.
Amsterdam is much closer to Dublin than people might think. Our Aer Lingus flight out took just over an hour. Aer Lingus currently operates up to four times daily from Dublin and up to twice daily from Cork.
One-way fares from Dublin to Amsterdam start from €29.99 and from Cork from €46.99, including taxes. For further information visit aerlingus.com
Surprisingly, Schipol Airport is a bit disorganised but the staff are well informed and it’s all well sign-posted so stay calm and look up.
The train from the airport is cheap (€5.20) and efficient and in 20 minutes you will be slap bang in the centre.
Again, Central Station is a bit of a maze but don’t be afraid to ask your way out into the Stationplein from where you have the city at your feet. We stopped off in the station’s I amsterdam store to pick up our city card, something worth considering (See Need to Know)
Need to Know
If you’re planning on seeing a lot and getting around the city on public transport (including a canal cruise) it’s worth getting the I amsterdam city card. 48 hours will set you back €67 but that does cover the Van Gogh Museum (other wise €17) and the Stedelijk (otherwise €15).
There’s a discount for the Rijksmuseum. There are also a plethora of other museums and many food and shopping discounts too. It’s worth sitting down for a few minutes and deciding what are the must sees. More often than not the card covers them and you’ll save money.
Where to stay
We stayed in the recently revamped Albus on Vijzelstraat. It’s a four-star but that’s very much a European rating rather than an Irish one. There’s no pool or gym and the lobby area is nothing to write home about.
The room, while not small, was quite narrow but the bed was comfortable and the bathrooms, replete with power showers and a full size bath, were exactly what was needed after a day’s sightseeing.
Its main strength is that it’s a great base from which to explore the city. The fact that it’s a little away from the rather trashy centre is a bonus and its proximity to the gallery area as well as neighbourhoods like De Pijp and the nine streets is a bonus.
The all you can eat breakfast is top notch too and the staff were top class without being in your face.
With its strange houses and narrow streets, Jordaan is the place to go if you want to see why the Dutch love Amsterdam. A living, breathing neighbourhood where butchers, artists and art dealers live and work side by side.
Where to eat
Van Kerkwijk, Nes 41
A very special spot not far from the main Dam Square. There is no pre-booking, so the later you go the longer the wait.
If it’s on, have the Vismousse, mackerel pate, and if you like fish, the Zeewolf or catfish — not unlike monkfish but a little flakier — is a must.
For €30 - €40 you’ll get two great courses a couple of beers and a coffee. Well worth it.
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