Old masters at the art of the good life

Whether you cycle along a canal or just sit in a cafe as the world goes by outside, there’s no need to rush on a break in Amsterdam…

Whether you cycle along a canal or just sit in a cafe as the world goes by outside, there's no need to rush on a break in Amsterdam, writes YVONNE GORDON

WE’RE IN THE church tower, and the guide is locking the entrance behind us. This is our last chance to back out, so the guide checks if anyone has changed their mind. All five of us look nervously at the stairs, then at each other, but nobody utters a sound.

After a steep, dark climb up lots of wooden steps we come into bright sunlight on a balcony surrounding the steeple. It’s hard to get a bird’s-eye view of Amsterdam.

Like the rest of the Netherlands, the city is flat, so this is a great opportunity to see it from above. There are a couple of tall buildings in the newer docklands area, or the business area in the south, but the old city is full of canals and low 17th-century houses. From here it looks like a toy town.


Opened in 1631, Westerkerk is one of the country’s oldest churches; Westertoren, an ornate tower that rises more than 85m, is the tallest in Amsterdam, visible for miles. It bears the symbol of the imperial crown of Maximilian of Austria, who presented it in thanks for the city’s support.

Like many buildings in Amsterdam, the tower is slightly off balance, but, apparently, it is totally stable.

Far below a queue is forming around the Anne Frank House, where the Jewish girl wrote her diary during the second World War while hiding from the Nazis with her family. It’s one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and well worth visiting – although it’s hard to leave without feeling emotional.

From my perch I watch a boat full of tourists inch its way along the canal and disappear under a bridge. There’s a chilly wind, but the sun is shining on us, and we feel warmer. The views make me want to stay all day, but the tour guide calls us in.

Westerkerk is on Prinsengracht, a canalside street that winds its way through the old city. The church is on the edge of Jordaan, a quiet, laid-back residential area full of cobbled streets and pretty canals. Jordaan was built for the city’s working classes in the 17th century, but it’s now one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive areas.

Many of the houses don’t have curtains; it’s amusing to be able to see people going about their lives in pristine kitchens and living rooms. It’s hard not to peer, but it’s almost as if they are living in show houses, inviting passers-by to look in.

There are a few quirky shops and boutiques to browse in the area, and plenty of “brown cafes” – old-style pubs and cafes with terraces, which are great for people-watching when the weather is warmer, especially ones with a canalside view. In winter you can warm up with a hot chocolate, usually served with lots of cream.

To get here we’ve rented bikes. Once we master the back-pedal brakes, navigating the canals and cycle paths proves a most pleasant way to get around. The city is estimated to have more than 600,000 bikes for its 730,000 residents. Amsterdammers seem to do everything on their bikes: eat, make phone calls and transport furniture, children and animals.

We cycle along Prinsengracht, taking in the houses, each one different, some quite crooked. I notice that every building has a large hook at its peak. The stairs of the houses are so narrow and steep that residents move house through the windows. The hooks would have been used to hoist furniture and other belongings; many movers now have trucks with cranes.

We happen upon some narrow shopping streets in an area called De Negen Straatjes – the Nine Streets – between Reestraat and Runstraat. There’s every type of shop, from vintage clothing and shoe shops to a ribbon shop and a toothbrush shop. One of them, Cortina Papier, is full of fabulous paper and notebooks.

Near here, opposite 296 Prinsengracht, is the Houseboat Museum. Many Amsterdammers live on houseboats, and this is a superb chance to see inside and get a feeling of what it would be like to live on one. The living area is much more spacious than you’d think. This one even has a roof garden; on the roofs of boats nearby I see everything from bicycles to garden benches.

On one tiny street, Gasthuismolensteeg, is the Brillen Museum – the Museum of Spectacles, where you can find out about their history over more than 700 years. Amsterdam has many other quirky museums, including the Biblical Museum (Herengracht 366, bijbelsmuseum.nl), the Pianola Museum (Westerstraat 106, pianola.nl), the Sex Museum (Damrak 18, sexmuseumamsterdam.nl) and the Museum of Our Lord in the Attic (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40, opsolder.nl).

We cross the Singel canal and come to the little square at Spui. It’s Friday, so there’s a book market, and tables are full of old and new books and some maps. Many of the books are in Dutch, but a few are in English. There are lots of browsers and hagglers.

Nearby we find Begijnhof, a gem of a square tucked away in Spui. You enter through a large wooden door at Gedempte Begijnensloot. Inside you’ll find a pretty courtyard with houses and a church. The square was built in the 14th century as a refuge for women. Amsterdam’s oldest house is also here; it dates from about 1475.

Later we take a tram to Museumplein, where the Rijksmuseum, a great place to see Dutch old masters, is located. Also here are the Stedelijk Museum (for modern art; it is being renovated) and the Van Gogh Museum, and nearby is the lovely Concertgebouw concert hall.

Museumplein is a great open space, and there are plenty of outdoor areas for breaks between museums. Nearby is the exclusive Pieter Cornelisz, or PC, Hooftstraat shopping street, home to Amsterdam’s designer fashion shops. We take a walk along it, but for us it’s window-shopping only.

Amsterdam is bursting with things to do, from a leisurely cycle along the canals to shopping, soaking up the museums, or watching the world go by from a waterside cafe.

The city is ever changing, and always has somewhere new to visit, making it a city to explore time and again.

Go there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies to Amsterdam from Dublin and Cork.

5 places to stay

NH Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky. Dam 9, 00-31- 20-5549111, nh-hotels.com. This five-star hotel on Dam Square is one of the NH chain’s flagships. It’s hard to beat the location.

Radisson Blu. Rusland 17, 00-31-20-6231231, radissonblu. com/hotel-amsterdam. This cosy hotel has a great location right in the historical centre. It’s modern, yet as it was constructed partly from some 18th-century merchant houses it’s full of character.

CitizenM. Prinses Irenestraat 30, 00-31-20- 8117090, citizenm.com. A very cool boutique hotel offering stylish design and good value. It’s in a great location for the museum district.

Eden Amsterdam American Hotel. Leidsekade 97, 00-31-20- 5563000, edenamsterdam americanhotel.com. Dating back to 1900, this hotel has some great art-deco features. It’s beside Leidseplein, a buzzing nightlife area.

Banks Mansion. Herengracht 519-525, 00-31-20-4200055, banksmansion.nl. This hotel, in a former bank, also has a great location, near the flower market at Singel and shopping at Kalverstraat.

5 places to eat

Restaurant Greetje.

Peperstraat 23-25, 00-31-20- 7797450, restaurantgreetje.nl. This old-style and elegant restaurant offers great food, with a mix of classic French and Dutch dishes, as well as lovely views.

Café Dante. Spuistraat 320, 00-31-20-6388839. This art-deco-style bar and cafe is full of atmosphere. There’s an art gallery on the upper floor.

Restaurant Kantjil de Tijger. Spuistraat 291-293, 00-31-20-6200994, kantjil.nl. Popular Indonesian restaurant with great decor and a cosy but lively atmosphere. Try a rijsttafel.

Café De Prins. Prinsengracht 124, 00-31-20-6249382, deprins.nl. A brown cafe, near Westerkerk and the Anne Frank House, that has become something of an institution, serving food and drink to locals, including artists and students, as well as visitors.

Café Luxembourg. Spui 24, 00-31-20-6206264, luxembourg.nl. A fantastic cafe-bar for a coffee, reading the paper or people-watching.

5 places to go

Cycling is a great way to get around the city. MacBike (at Central Station, Leidseplein and Waterlooplein, 00-31-20-6200985, macbike.nl) rents out bikes, or you can go on a guided Yellow Bike Tour (Nieuwezijds Kolk 29, 00-31-20-6206940).

Go on a canal cruise, so you can admire the canal houses, elegant bridges and church spires from the water. Holland International cruises (Prins Hendrikkade 33a, 00-31-20-6253035, hir.nl), leave from opposite Central Station. The Canal Bus (canal.nl) runs a hop-on, hop-off service from points around the city, also leaving from Central Station.

Sit in a canalside cafe and watch the world go by on boats and bikes. Café ’tSmalle (Egelantiersgracht 12, 00-31-20- 6239617, t-smalle.nl) is an atmospheric brown cafe in the Jordaan area. More snacks than fine dining, but a typical Amsterdam cafe.

Buy some flowers at the floating flower market on the Singel canal, between Munt and Koningsplein.

Visit the Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7, 00-31-20-5705200, vangoghmuseum.nl), which houses the world’s largest Van Gogh collection, and marvel at the painter’s masterpieces.

Hot spot

Sauna Deco. Herengracht 115, 00-31-20-6238215, saunadeco.nl. A beautiful art-deco sauna whose interior comes largely from Bon Marché in Paris. Saved from a skip during the French department store’s 1970s refurbishment, it now forms the surroundings for a Turkish bath, Finnish sauna, cold plunge bath and solarium.

Shop spot

De Bijenkorf. Dam 1, 00-31- 20-5521772, debijenkorf.nl. The best department store in the city, great for browsing. The coffee shop on the top floor has good views over the square.

Hot tips

The I Amsterdam Card gives free entrance to 40 museums and attractions, a free canal cruise, free public transport and other discounts. (See iamsterdam.com.) And if you’re visiting the Anne Frank House (annefrank.org) in high season, go very early or later in the day, to avoid queues