Chill out in Amsterdam
With the tulips in full bloom, now is the time for a relaxing break in the city
Published 21/07/2013 | 05:00
It's hot in Amsterdam in summer. Sweating tourists in hats and shorts wait outside Westerkerk (West Church) for the canal boat tours, or join the huge queues outside the Anne Frank house. After a freezing spring, the locals make the most of the fine weather.
A woman washes the windows of her houseboat, and another sits on the roof reading a newspaper in the morning sun. A man leans out of a canal house attic window attaching a heavy load to a gable hook and hauls it upwards.
The city soundscape is the whoosh of a bike and the squeal of a tram. There are bikes lined up everywhere, with their wheels double locked, or chained to bridge railings. Pastel-painted shops selling vintage furniture and gold ceramic skulls line the canals, and cats lounge inside windows of tall houses with magazine style interiors.
Hotels in Amsterdam are expensive. Or quirky. One hotel has a toilet located in an opaque glass cube in the middle of every bedroom. We rent a studio apartment (€430 for three nights) via Air BNB (airbnb.com).
Full of books, Nina Simone CDs and box-set DVDs, there are huge paintings of nudes on every wall, some plastic Philippe Starck furniture in the kitchen, and a fur throw on the giant couch. Located in the gorgeous area of Prinsengracht, the studio is spotless, but using a stranger's non-fluffy towels and standing on their flat bathmat every morning proves more quirky than I can handle.
In the Prinsengracht area alone, my Air BNB host recommends De Reiger (I have gorgeous French food here), La Oliva (Spanish tapas), Hostaria (Italian) and Kobe House (Japanese pancakes). We eat Croque Madame topped with Gruyere and a fried egg for breakfast in Café Finch, and burgers and bitterballen (deep fried spicy meat balls coated in breadcrumbs) and the ubiquitous chips and mayonnaise in De Cantine, located in a former prison canteen on the Eastern Docklands.
On the final night, we take a tram to De Kas (restaurantdekas.nl). There is a row of bikes parked outside this upmarket, impressive glass restaurant located in a park on the outskirts of the city. De Kas prides itself on using home-grown produce sourced from the surrounding greenhouses. There is no menu and dishes are created according to what's in season.
The waitress greets us with a glass of prosecco and a small dish of mushrooms and olives and explains each minuscule portion in reverential detail as it arrives to the table. There's haddock with prawn sauce and some home-made crisps, and a tiny apple tart with ice-cream for dessert. On the way out, the hostess holds my coat and offers us an apple from the big sculpted bowl beside the door. I nearly start laughing as I take a tiny windfall and put it in my pocket.
An hour later, we're sitting in the well-known Café T'Smalle, tucking into a giant plate of tapas and drinking vodka.
Dam Square is big and brash at night, with a huge fairy-lit Ferris wheel and a funfair with popcorn, candy floss, a ghost train and shooting galleries. A shop-window display of multi-coloured condoms strung across a washing line marks the beginning of the Red Light district. Located in window booths down very narrow alleys, the ladies smoke or chat on their phones as gangs of men shuffle past.
The pubs on Dam Square do not appeal, and we take a tram to the nightlife area of Leidseplein to drink mojitos with the trend-setters in Palladium or sit among wafts of cigarette smoke upstairs in the Chicago Social Club.
Despite there being a smoking ban in Amsterdam, most of the bars we visit have a lax approach to it. In one bar off Dam Square everyone lights up after 1am because the officials have stopped patrolling the area.
Back in the more genteel Jordaan district, the bells of Westerkerk play elaborate tunes, and a loved-up couple kiss and cycle off in different directions shouting 'Goodbye'.
A visit to the Heineken Experience (heinekenexperience.com) proves to be a very enjoyable and relaxing way to spend an afternoon. We customise our own beer bottles, taste some hops, sit in a green pod watching old Heineken advertisements, and drink a few free beers in the World Bar upstairs.
Avoiding the busy city centre chain stores and tacky touristy clog and scarf shops, I join the tourists toting Van Gogh 'Sunflowers' bags to meander through the Nine Streets district. There are handmade clothes, bright pink enamel teapots and vintage china on painted tables, mirrored wooden medicine cabinets, and rusty Parisian and Dutch biscuit tins. A shop on Prinsengracht specialises in Japanese Bento boxes while Koot Home sells cardboard stools, giant lightbulbs and gold ceramic crowns.
In the queue for the Anne Frank House (annefrank.org) early one morning, I sip coffee and chat to other tourists who had waited for three hours the day before, before leaving. Book online and skip the queues. I touch the bookcase and see Anne's patch of blue sky through the attic window.
A glass panel preserves the sisters' heights marked in pencil on the brown wallpaper, and on Anne's bedroom wall, there is a magazine montage of cut-out movie stars.
I watch film clips of her surviving friends and her father, and read extracts from her diary.
"Don't think of me as a 14-year-old, since all these troubles have made me old," wrote Anne in an irate letter to her father, beseeching him not to be angry about her first kiss with annexe-mate Peter.
It's a short walk to the tiny Houseboat Museum (houseboatmuseum.nl).
Inside, a film clip shows a man mowing the lawn on the roof of his boat, and locals skating on the frozen canals in winter. After an informal tour, I sit on a bench on the roof and wave at the canal boat tours sailing past. There are some boats for sale, with a two-storey costing €519,000.
A taxi driver tells me that his favourite summertime activity is to rent a boat and spend the day on the water with his friends. I buy a 24-hour hop-on hop-off canal ticket, and use it to meander through the city centre, learning about the gabled houses and concentric canals.
At the Albert Cuyp street market (albertcuypmarkt.nl), an elderly couple eats raw herring but we opt for freshly made Wally's Waffles smothered in melted chocolate and M&Ms, and browse the 260 stalls selling phone covers, tracksuits and electrical goods.
For those looking for a relaxed city break, Amsterdam is compact enough to see the sights effortlessly, with plenty of time to stop for a piece of crumbly apple pie and cream.
And with the Rijksmuseum now open, and the tulip fields now in bloom, there's no better time to go.