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Live: Amsterdam

The famously liberal city might be reinventing its red light district but it’s still an eclectic, progressive and seductive place where ‘acting normal is crazy enough’

Live: Amsterdam

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This year sees a new Amsterdam. Or rather, the return of the old Amsterdam. With the reopening of both the Stedelijk Museum (contemporary art) and the Rijksmuseum’s (Old Masters), the city is getting its biggest museums back, and this represents nothing less than a restoration of the city’s soul.

They’ve been closed almost a decade, during which time a great deal of construction has occurred throughout the city (it’ll still be years before the new underground line is finished — par for the course, as 25% of the city is below sea level). With the already narrow streets even harder to navigate, locals became that bit more impatient with tourists cluelessly wandering onto bike paths, lured by the city lights picturesquely reflecting on the canals. Now Amsterdammers feel less restricted, they can focus on getting back to old habits: getting into friendly shouting matches and into everybody’s business.

At the heart of the famously liberal Dutch society is a passion for free speech: one is almost obliged to opine on anything from strangers’ outfits to their political leanings. Start a conversation anywhere, about anything, and you’ll fit right in.

Over the past few years, the political climate has turned conservative, though, which means that some of the country’s more infamous liberties have been curtailed. Yet that development seems to be stalling, so marijuana, for instance, is still available to foreigners here, except in the southern Netherlands. As prostitution is also still legal, one encounters much jiggly flesh on a walk through the city’s red light district. Still, Amsterdam has been inspired by New York’s Times Square clean-up, which replaced streetwalkers and grindhouse theatres with a sparkling Disney paradise in the early 1990s. The city of Amsterdam is now buying up red-lit buildings and renovating them for new uses. Great examples are the lovely Restaurant Anna, and San Serriffe, an art bookshop right on the edge of the district.

It’s perhaps a surprise that Amsterdam is not a big city — it has around 820,000 inhabitants, and is thus best enjoyed on foot or by bike — perhaps going from the fancier Zuid (south) to the formerly folksy Jordaan, or from the concentric central canals, the Grachtengordel, up to the residential architextravaganza that constitute the former dockyards on the KNSM and Java Islands.

Food glorious food

The Dutch are not big on eating out. They breakfast at home, pack sandwich lunches, and cook robust meat, veg and potato meals in the evening. As a result, most restaurants take a ‘will this do?’ approach to both service and cuisine, with some of the staff not just careless but all-out rude. Now, this doesn’t mean there’s no good food to be had, it’s just that expectations have to be adjusted. Just make like the locals and find a great bakery, as fresh-baked Dutch bread always bests the famous but heavy German loaves. For proof, head to Hartog’s Boterham, one of the city’s best bakers.

Another true Dutch treat is fresh young herring, available on ubiquitous little stands between May and July. Like sushi, it’s eaten raw, but served as twin fillets still attached to the tail and sprinkled with equally raw onions. For an afternoon or a late-night snack, grab a pointy bag of chips anywhere, but especially at the Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx — just tell them to go easy on the mayo.

The Dutch no-nonsense attitude blessedly makes them natural adopters of local organic ingredients, and one of the best restaurants in town, De Kas, even has its own greenhouse. There are also some more traditional restaurants that rise above the city’s culinary underachievers: Mauresque does Moorish cuisine on the Java Island, a location that guarantees more spacious seating than the cramped inner-city spaces. Catering mainly to international (and perhaps more receptive) diners, the hotel restaurants of the upscale InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam and Hotel Okura Amsterdam — La Rive and Ciel Bleu, respectively — serve the most refined dishes in town. For a more intimate experience, a still slightly underdeveloped kitchen, and — more importantly — a lovely view, give the new Café Barco a try. A short walk from Central Station, it’s moored below the stunning public library, even offering some seating right over the water.

Places mentioned

Hartog’s Boterham: Wibautstraat 77. T: 00 31 20 694 8329. www.volkorenbrood.nl

Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx: Voetboogstraat 33. T: 00 31 20 624 6075.

De Kas: Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3. T: 00 31 20 462 4562. www.restaurantdekas.nl

Mauresque: Sumatrakade 613. T: 00 31 20 419 1596. www.mauresque.nl

La Rive: Professor Tulpplein 1. T: 00 31 20 520 3264. www.restaurantlarive.nl

Ciel Bleu: Ferdinand Bolstraat 333. T: 00 31 20 678 7450. www.cielbleu.nl

Café Barco: Oosterdokskade 10. T: 00 31 20 626 9383.

Party people

Unlike the flâneurs of the Mediterranean, the Dutch much prefer people-watching to being watched. No wonder, then, that al fresco seating is so highly appreciated, as it affords the best perspective on any human traffic passing by. And now that the hype around Hannekes Boom has died down, this cafe’s become a great little spot to enjoy an early spring day between the hum of the train tracks and futuristic science museum NEMO, across the glittering waters of the Oosterdok docks.

Trendier still is Pllek, an actual beach spot on the NDSM Wharf in north Amsterdam that’s constructed from disused shipping containers. Aside from drinks and a basic, enjoyable menu, there are tai chi classes and movie nights. Yet it’s not all about relaxing with the city’s creative types; dance music is a big part of Dutch culture (remember, these were the people who brought you 2 Unlimited, DJ Tiësto, and, er, gabber techno) and the enormous Amsterdam Dance Event festival has grown from niche to essential since its 1995 inception. For five days every October, the biggest and best DJs in the world play almost 300 gigs at 75 venues to a total of around 200,000 punters.

For the rest of the year, the people of Amsterdam can be found at places such as the Melkweg, a multi-stage venue that hosts great live music, drama, cinema, and art; or the Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ, a modern performance hall that specialises in an equally contemporary classical repertoire. Wherever they might end up, people in Amsterdam will always find a place to chat; their goodbyes stretching to epic lengths (the equivalent of Italy’s endless ciaos, only far more guttural). Just don’t expect things to get too crazy, as most Amsterdam residents won’t party through until the wee hours; as is the case for its cuisine and style, the Dutch still believe that ‘acting normal is crazy enough’, as the local saying has it.

Places mentioned

Hannekes Boom: Dijksgracht 4. T: 00 31 20 419 9820. www.hannekesboom.nl

Pllek: Neveritaweg 59. T: 00 31 20 290 0020. www.pllek.nl

Amsterdam Dance Event: www.amsterdam-dance-event.nl

Melkweg: Lijnbaansgracht 234a. T: 00 31 20 531 8181.

Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ: Piet Heinkade 1. T: 00 31 20 788 2000.

Piles of style

Amsterdam’s fashion sense is best described as part preppy casual, part sporty sleek: for every slicked-back man in soft pastel chinos, there’s a kid in outrageous sneakers; and for every leggy woman in tight jeans and boots, there’s one in hippie mum-wear. The Netherlands is generally more trend-conscious than its neighbouring countries — if not always willing to pay the hefty price this involves. The Dutch mostly favour mid-list, roughshod wear from brands such as G-Star Raw.

For preppy threads, the best place to go is still the beautiful old department store Maison de Bonneterie, while the hottest footwear can be scored at Patta or Acht. Although über-posh brands like Cartier and Hermès can be found along the PC Hooftstraat, below the Vondelpark in south Amsterdam, it’s also worth checking out nearby Beethovenstraat and Cornelis Schuytstraat for less familiar/pricy brands. Up in the Jordaan district, meanwhile, the vibe is more bohemian and vintage, so take your time discovering its little shops and classic cafes. The main shopping street there is Haarlemmerstraat — also a great place to indulge in coffee and Unlimited Delicious’ luxurious chocolates.

Any shopping trip, though, has to involve the following two department stores: HEMA — probably the main source of underwear for any Dutch person and sole designer/producer of all its wares — and De Bijenkorf, the classy, more traditional department store right on Dam Square. Once you’re covered as far as basics and designer deals are concerned, head to the Nine Streets district, a warren of independent shops in the heart of the city. Those looking to branch out could head down the Utrechtsestraat — the place to go for menswear (even if Zwartjes van 1883, a shoestore for men, has been around since the 19th century).

Places mentioned

G-Star Store: PC Hooftstraat 24-28.

Maison de Bonneterie: Rokin 140-142.

Patta: Zeedijk 67.

Acht: Vijzelstraat 105.

Unlimited Delicious: Haarlemmerstraat 122.

HEMA: Nieuwendijk 174-176. www.hema.nl

De Bijenkorf: Dam 1. www.debijenkorf.nl

Zwartjes van 1883: Utrechtsestraat 123.

 

Top 10 local tips

01 Rent a bike.

02 Always lock said bike’s frame and wheel to something else.

03 Seriously, lock it.

04 Park your bike in assigned/guarded spots wherever possible (near Paradiso or Central Station, for instance).

05 Make sure that you have working lights both in front and on the back of your bicycle.

06 Don’t hog the bike paths in groups.

07 Buy a disposable chip card before boarding any of the city buses, Metro cars or trams.

08 Don’t forget to use that card to check in and out of said public transport.

09 Look up from your map or Maps app for a few hours — get lost a little.

10 Stock up on stock phrases such as ‘dankjewel’ (pronounced ‘dahng-kyu-well’ — ‘thank you’); ‘twee friet, geen mayo’ (‘tway freet, ggain mahyo’ – ‘two chips, no mayo’), or ‘Hee, dat is mijn fiets!’ (‘Hey, daht iss main feets!’ – ‘Hey, that’s my bike!’).

 

More info

Books

Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City, by Geert Mak. RRP: £8.99. (Vintage)

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. RRP: £6.99. (Puffin)

Rembrandt’s Whore, by Sylvie Matton. RRP: £8.99. (Canongate)

Amsterdam (City-Pick Series): RRP: £8.99. (Oxygen)

 

Film

Nightwatching (2007).

 

Online

Great apps include Anne’s Amsterdam, which reveals the city’s history during the occupation. I Amsterdam is full of English-language information on where to go and how to get there. The helpful Bike Like a Local can remember where you parked that rental bike

Published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)