48 hours in . . . Amsterdam, an insider guide to navigating the city's canals and beyond

Rodney Bolt
Amsterdam is fun, relaxed and beyond attractive – it's a European city made for simply strolling (or cycling) around - Prasit Rodphan

High art, hijinks and haute cuisine

Amsterdam is a city that celebrates individuality, encourages quirkiness and delights in difference. It has a long history of riches and rebelliousness. The glory-days of the 17th century, the über-cosy 1800s, the counter-culture explosion of the 1960s – they’ve all left tidelines along Amsterdam’s canals: opulent gables, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, barrel-lined cafés, gardens of rare blooms, marijuana-selling 'coffeeshops', and Miss Marple bicycles.

Now Amsterdam is sweeping into a new Golden Age, making a fresh mark with galleries, sharp shops, award-winning restaurants and hipster cafés. Bristles of audacious architecture have shot up round the city edges but the cobweb of gable-lined canals is still at its heart, with funky stores in the criss-crossing alleys of Negen Straatjes, new galleries to the west in the Jordaan, world-class museums and chic boutiques south around Museumplein, a market and further foodie paradise in De Pijp, and hot new quarters opening up all the time.

Hot right now . . .

Rodney Bolt, our resident expert, offers his top tips on the hottest things to do and places to eat, drink and stay this season.

Stay

CitizenM has a brand-new baby in the heart of its hometown. CitizenM Amsterdam Amstel (Sarphatistraat 47; 00 31 20 811 7020) brings the trademark luxury where it matters, simplicity where it counts, at just a tickle of the purse strings approach, almost to the banks of the Amstel River.

The best hotels in Amsterdam

A brand-new CitizenM is coming to town

Eat

All the hipster eateries in town, from those dishing up classy hotdogs to Peruvian Japanese plates, seem to have opened a stall at The Food Department (Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 182), a new food hall on the top floor of the 19th-century Magna Plaza mall, behind the Royal Palace: good food in a decorous setting, away from the crowds, in the city centre.

The best restaurants in Amsterdam

The Food Department is a new food hall on the top floor of the 19th-century Magna Plaza

Drink

Cocktail legend Ryan Chetiyawardana (aka ‘Mr Lyan’) of London’s Dandelyan now shakes his stuff and sprinkles botanicals at Super Lyan (Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 3; 00 31 20 521 1757). On weekends it’s even open at breakfast time for an instantly energising Lyan Mary (with a dash of miso).

The best bars in Amsterdam

Visit Super Lyan in the am for an instantly energising Lyan Mary

Do

International and local artists adorn the canals with light sculptures for the Amsterdam Light Festival (citywide; 28 November – 19 January). Stroll, cycle or take a cruise past the kitsch and curious, transportingly beautiful and technological tours de force. This year’s theme is Disrupt!

The best things to do in Amsterdam

See the city in a new way during the annual Amsterdam Light Festival

48 hours in . . . Amsterdam

Day one

Morning

Begin at Centraal Station with a kick-start coffee (or simply to admire the décor) at Café 1e Klas (Stationsplein 15; 00 31 20 625 0131), the period-perfect 1880s former first-class waiting room tucked away on Platform 2b.

Then depart on a Stromma canal cruise (Prins Hendrikkade 33A; 00 31 20 217 0501) in a glass-topped boat from one of the moorings across from the station – not the tourist-trap it sounds, but a quick way to feel a sense of place, get the perfect angle on the city’s decorative gables and watch Amsterdam coming to life.

If you have time to spare before the next boat, take a wander along Brouwersgracht west of the station. The pretty bridges mean it is justifiably Amsterdam’s most photographed canal. When the cruise is over, grab a quick lunch at the café atop OBA (Oosterdokskade 143; 00 31 20 523 0900), the public library near Centraal Station where there’s a rooftop terrace with a spectacular view of both the old and new parts of the city.

The best free things to do in Amsterdam

The Brouwersgracht canal, widely considered the most photographed in Amsterdam, owes its name to the many breweries founded in the area Credit: BUENA VISTA IMAGES

Afternoon

Back on the ground, wander through the Oostelijke Havengebied (Eastern Docklands) to take in some of Amsterdam’s newest architecture, then down Oudezijds Voorburgwal, one of the oldest parts of town, to the ancient parish church Oude Kerk (Oudekerksplein 23; 00 31 20 625 8284); in late 2018, new side rooms full of art treasures opened here to the public.

Almost next door, Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Oudezijds Voorburgwal 38; 00 31 20 624 6604) is a beautifully restored 17th-century canal house, with a surprise when you reach the top via narrow wooden stairs.

Back outside, edge through a crowded corner of the red light district to De Waag (Nieuwmarkt 4; 00 31 20 422 7772), the medieval city weigh-house on Nieuwmarkt, then away from the hurly-burly along Recht Boomsloot and Krom Boomsloot – quiet canals that will take you to browse through Amsterdam’s famed flea market on Waterlooplein. Look out for antique bric-a-brac (brass bowls, old porcelain), bicycle parts, second-hand leather coats, old jewellery, silk scarves, Peruvian knitwear, and vinyl aplenty.

The Oude Kerk, now in the city's main red light district, is Amsterdam's oldest building Credit: FRASER HALL

LATE

Head back to Hanneke’s Boom (Dijksgracht 4; 00 31 20 419 9820), a shack-like café with a cosy open hearth on an odd island in the Eastern Docklands, for drinks, dinner and maybe music and dancing later.

Or take a rest at your hotel, freshen up, put on the glad rags and prepare to be wowed by one of the best chefs in town at Spectrum(Herengracht 542-556; 00 31 20 718 4635). Sidney Schutte cooks with finesse and flair, giving the odd surprising twist to a local ingredient – such as crispy tulip bulbs, or a white asparagus dessert.

Sidney Schutte’s cooking at Librije’s Zusje represents all that is inspired in Dutch cuisine

The best things to do in Amsterdam

Day two

Morning

Today is the day for the big three museums on Museumplein. It’s an early start at the Rijksmuseum (Museumstraat 1; 00 31 20 674 7000) to avoid the crowds – the best time to arrive is 9.15am, after the initial surge when it opens at 9am. Take in the premier Old Masters in the Gallery of Honour, but also look out for the 18th-century dolls’ houses (not toys, but show-off pieces for rich merchants’ wives) and visit the exquisitely selected Asian collection in the basement. Then time for a break.

It’s a 10-minute walk to the hip foodie and café district of De Pijp, and the Albert Cuyp Market (Albert Cuypstraat) for hot sticky stroopwafels, colourful fabrics, bargain clothes and all manner of delectable goodies to take home. The streets leading off it are replete with delis and cafés. Try Little Collins (Eerste Sweelinckstraat 19F; 00 31 20 753 9636) for a kimchi toastie, or some other yummy lunch from the inspired Aussie-Dutch owner-chefs.

The Gallery of Honour inside the Rijksmuseum is home to many works by the Old Masters Credit: FRANS LEMMENS

Afternoon

Head back to Museumplein (book an afternoon slot online in advance) at the Van Gogh Museum(Museumplein 6; 00 31 20 570 5200). After deep immersion in the tragic artist’s work, discover more about one of his major influences in the exhibition Jean-François Millet: Sowing the Seeds of Modern Art (October 4, 2019 to January 12, 2020). Then, if you’re not museumed-out, drop in next door to the Stedelijk Museum (Museumplein 10; 0031 20 573 2911) to be brought right up to date with the very latest in international art and design.

Alternatively, head back towards the centre through the Spiegekwartier arts and antiques district to enjoy one of Amsterdam’s greatest delights, a walk through the Grachtengordel district; the concentric rings of grand canals laid out in the 17th century are here. The best view? The point where Prinsengracht and Reguliersgracht meet. Zigzag your way towards the Negen Straatjes to shop in the alleys of hip and quirky shops that criss-cross the main canals, and then west to the galleries and cafés of the Jordaan.

The best restaurants in Amsterdam

More of the tortured artist’s work is collected at Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum than anywhere in the world, from The Potato Eaters, through Sunflowers, to Wheatfield with Crows Credit: MERTEN SNIJDERS

LATE

Dinner is at Koevoet (Lindenstraat 17; 00 31 20 624 0846), a café that dates back to pre-gentrified Jordaan days but where – amid the dark wood panelling, Tiffany lampshades and assorted bric-a-brac of a traditional Amsterdam 'brown café' pubs – a wildly talented Sicilian family provides homemade pastas and sausages and other flavours of southern Italy.

Then a nightcap at an old-fashioned Jordaan neighbourhood café: De Tuin (Tweede Tuindwarsstraat 13; 00 31 20 624 4559). There are eight beers on tap, more bottled, and the wine is palatable. Try one of the Texels beers, from a craft brewery on one of the northern Frisian islands.

The best nightlife in Amsterdam

Koevoet seems every inch a traditional Jordaan café – until you get the menu filled with the flavours of southern Italy Credit: Cris Toala Olivares

Where to stay . . .

Luxury Living

Hotel Pulitzer Amsterdam is a stand-alone hotel that stretches through 25 houses, between two canals. Many rooms have fine views, and all come with a potted history of whichever canal house you find yourself in. Modern art from the hotel’s collection finds its way into the rooms, too. 

Prinsengracht 315-331; 00 31 20 523 5235

At Hotel Pulitzer Amsterdam, clean lines and muted colours predominate, and zany design touches (many referencing Amsterdam and its past) delight at every turn

Boutique Bolthole

Seven One Seven is a sumptuous canal-house mansion with the ambience of a grand private home – the place to come if you really want to give yourself a treat. Comfy modern beds and sofas blend seamlessly with antique furniture to add contemporary convenience to old-world romance.

Prinsengracht 717; 00 31 20 427 0717

The experience at Seven One Seven is rather like visiting the mansion of an eccentric bachelor uncle explorer, crammed with antiques and curiosa from all over the world

Budget Beauty

The former offices of De Volkskrant newspaper have been given vibrant and stylish new life as Volkshotel, an affordable hotel with a club, restaurant – and even artists-in-residence. The rooms are thoughtfully designed, seeming more spacious than they really are. A rooftop bar-restaurant offers adventurous new-Dutch cuisine.

Wibautstraat 150; 00 31 20 2612 100

Clever visual references to the building’s history as a newspaper office occur throughout Volkshotel Credit: MARK GROENEVELD

What to bring home . . .

Traditional blue-and-white wall tiles, from the 17th century onwards, make unique and highly portable mementos. You’ll find them in the Spiegelwartier arts and antiques district and the De Looier antiques market (Elandsgracht 109; 00 31 20 624 9038).

The best shopping in Amsterdam

Classic Dutch wall tiles – an easy gift to take home

When to go . . .

Popular songs have it that spring’s the time to come tulip-plucking, but really any season in Amsterdam has its allure. At the slightest hint of good weather the chairs and tables go out at pavement cafés. On the downside, expect rain or Tupperware-grey skies any time of year – but then there’s more than enough on the museum front to keep you entertained indoors. Summer can be a heady time of long evenings on outdoor terraces, autumn is best for bracing walks along the canals, and winter is ideal for snuggling down with good Dutch beer in a cosy, wood-panelled café.

Know before you go . . .

Local laws and etiquette

It’s not true that “anything goes” in Amsterdam. Public drunkenness, rowdiness, and smoking dope in the street meet with severe – if silent – local disapproval.

Essential contacts

British Embassy (00 31 70 427 0427), Lange Voorhout 10, 2514 ED, The Hague

British Consulate-General (00 31 70 427 0427), Koningslaan 44, 1075 AE, Amsterdam

Emergency services: Dial 112. For non-emergency police matters dial 0900 8844

Tourist office and information: The Tourist Office (0031 20 702 6000; iamsterdam.com) is on Stationsplein, across from the main entrance to Centraal Station. Open daily, Apr-Sept, 9am-6pm; Oct-Mar, 9am-5pm

The basics

Currency: Euro. Few establishments will accept notes of over €50, and prices are rounded off to the nearest 5c (1c and 2c coins are not used in The Netherlands)

Time: +1 hour

Travel times: Flying time from London to Amsterdam is just over an hour. Trains (with a change in Brussels) take about six hours

Author bio

Rodney was lured to Amsterdam in the 1990s, because he could cycle home late after parties. These days he’s more likely to be found deep in the Rijksmuseum or at a café in De Pijp. 

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