By Aidan Goldstraw
Amsterdam is a city of contradictions. One minute you’re soaking up the stern architecture of its robust protestant past, the next you’re coughing fit to bust as you inhale the more tangible evidence of its liberal present, passing one of its many “coffee shops”.
One moment you can be threading your way through the hordes on its main thoroughfares, then you take an unscheduled turn and have a quiet canalside street almost to yourself.
Although it’s a fairly compact city, a visit to Amsterdam inevitably involves a lot of walking, so unless you’re super-fit there are decisions to be made as regards supplementing Shanks’s Pony.
If you’re feeling reasonably athletic, bicycle hire is a readily-available and inexpensive option. Amsterdam has miles of dedicated cycle paths. Even if you stick to walking you soon become aware of these, as you’re jingled out of the way by a cyclist disgruntled by pedestrians straying into their lane - beware, they take it very seriously!
The other major alternative for getting around is Amsterdam’s tram network. Tickets can be bought either on the trams or in many newsagents and cafes in strips of ten. Taxis are also readily available, of course, but tend to be rather expensive.
As with most major cities, one thing you cannot hope to achieve is to see everything, so it’s important to do your research properly before you go and decide on a shortlist of “must sees”.
Some of Amsterdam’s attractions, of course, recommend themselves. And there won’t be many visitors who go home without a visit to the Van Gogh museum. Nearly all the artist’s most important works are on show here. The light and airy modern building which houses the collection is almost as impressive as its contents - the design allows a fairly easy flow of the huge crowds from picture to picture.
You don’t realise what a good job the Van Gogh makes of this until you visit the Rijksmuseum (right), which houses the Dutch national collection. Here the crowds coagulate around each of the major works and moving from one room to another is a painful process on busy days. It’s certainly worth the effort, however, as the Rijksmuseum houses some magnificent pieces by the likes of Rembrandt and Vermeer. But go early and preferably on a weekday.
One of Amsterdam’s most famous spots is a far cry from the opulence and grandeur of the Rijksmuseum. It’s little more than a series of bare rooms with tiny windows. This is the house where Anne Frank and her family lived for two years, hidden from the Nazis occupying Amsterdam.
The modest house on Prinzengracht is now a focus not only for the story of the Frank family, but for the Dutch Holocaust itself. It’s impossible to be moved by the mute witness of these small, unadorned rooms, with just a few pictures and extracts from Ann’s now-famous diary.
It’s impossible to be sombre for long in Amsterdam, though - such is its reputation as a city of sexual liberation and good times. An excursion into the city’s infamous Red Light District is strictly for the broad-minded, but nevertheless fascinating. It’s also pretty safe, as is most of Amsterdam - crime levels are generally low and usually restricted to petty offences such as pickpocketing.
Another good reason to visit the Red Light District is the food, which by and large is probably the cheapest of any available on the city’s main drags. There’s a wide choice of cuisine, with Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Argentinian and Spanish among the eating experiences available.
Elsewhere the cafes can be expensive, especially the ones that line Damrak and Dam Square. As always, an excursion into a quieter side street will find the prices suitably reduced. For a cheap tummy-filler, grab a bag of “frites”, served up Belgian-style with a blob of mayonnaise. Yum!
Of the city’s other famed vice, I will say only that yes, it’s freely available in any “coffee shop”. Your life, your choice.
Once you’ve refuelled it’s off to the next attraction, whether it’s the colourful flower market, or perhaps the Rembrandt house. Amsterdam can feel a bit “non-stop” after a while, so one of the ideal ways to chill out is to take one of the many canal tour boats (pictured). This can also be an ideal way to orient yourself for further exploration.
As for accommodation, expect to pay top whack in the central and Dam Square areas. Many of the hotels in “city break” packages are well out in the suburbs, so pay close attention to the locator map before booking. Having said that, many hotels run their own shuttle bus services to the city centre. Our own base for this long weekend, the NH City North, offered this facility, coupled with a free, short water taxi ride across to Centraal station.
To say that a city has something for everyone is a cliché, but Amsterdam actually ticks most of the boxes, from an energetic, hedonistic stag weekend destination to an art-lover’s paradise. Get there soon!