It may seem like a cliché, but the best thing to do when you arrive in Amsterdam is hop on a canal sightseeing cruise. It’s a wonderful way to admire the intricate layout and beauty of the waterway-spliced Dutch capital. As you drift along, passing under decorative brick and iron bridges and peeking at tall, slim centuries-old townhouses with flamboyant gables, you’ll hear audio commentary of Amsterdam’s enthralling history and you’ll no doubt find plenty of inspiration for later on (don’t be surprised to pass a canal-side terrace cafe or two that looks a delight to sit outside and watch the world go by).
Sightseeing boats depart from a few points in the city, but I embark one that launches from the cruise port, near where the river cruise vessels and ocean-going ships call in (and close to Amsterdam Centraal railway station). You’ll be struck by the cutting-edge contemporary buildings that have mushroomed beside the water here, from new offices, apartments and hotels to cultural attractions such as the Eye Filmmuseum and the green Renzo Piano-designed NEMO Science Museum, which is shaped like a ship’s hull.
Berthed outside the nearby city’s National Maritime Museum, meanwhile, is a replica of the Amsterdam, an 18th-century three-masted vessel that sailed between the Netherlands and the East Indies. It was cargo ships like this that imported the exotic Asian spices which fuelled the Dutch Golden Age, when Amsterdam emerged as the heart of a booming global empire, and bankers, merchants and seafarers grew fabulously rich from the spice trade.
We glimpse some of their ostentatious mansions on our cruise along the canals, which were constructed, in a concentric fashion, in the 17th century and now boast UNESCO World Heritage status. Rustic houseboats and other notable waterfront sights steal our gaze, such as the Westerkerk, one of the grand spired churches soaring above the city, and Anne Frank House, where you can hear the heart-breaking story of the Jewish girl who famously wrote a diary while in hiding during Amsterdam’s Nazi occupation in World War 2. A new extension has been added to the house to cope with interest from visitors, who must now pre-book a timeslot online.
Another alluring canal-side draw is the Rembrandt House Museum, which grants a fascinating insight into the life and work of the premier painter of the Dutch Golden Age. To see Rembrandt’s most iconic work – The Night Watch (1642) – you need to visit the Rijksmuseum, one of a cluster of world-class art attractions in the Museumplein quarter, a short walk south of the canal belt. This area is also home to the Stedelijk Museum, a haven of contemporary art and design, and the Van Gogh Museum, which showcases the world’s largest collection of works from the legendary Dutch post-impressionist.
The museums are fringed by a leafy green space where Amsterdammers and tourists like to hang out when the weather’s good. An even better option is the Vondelpark, a 10-minute walk away. Etched with lakes, ponds, semi-wild meadows, woods and grassy, tree-shaded lawns, it’s a lovely place for a stroll, a jog or a picnic and you’ll often find events taking place here, including free open-air theatre and concerts (where the music can be anything from classical to Dutch techno).
The park is actually a nice size – 47 hectares – to pedal around, too. Cyclists will have a field day in Amsterdam, with over 400 kilometres of dedicated bike paths crisscrossing the city and convenient rental options, including hire shops and hubs. Just beware the trams and buses clattering by and other cyclists, who whizz confidently along, sometimes at high speeds, frantically ringing their bike bells.
I find Amsterdam a rewarding place to potter around on foot, especially in the backstreets springing off the canals. While some visitors can’t resist the lure of the notorious red-light district De Wallen and the “coffee shops” that emit strong marijuana aromas, I’m drawn to the Jordaan, a gentrified formerly working-class neighbourhood in the north-west of the central canal belt. Its name is believed to be a derivation of the French word jardin, meaning garden, and ambling along its peaceful tree-lined streets, you’ll see handsome houses, art galleries, boutiques and florists with vivid displays out front (including tulips during the peak April-May season).
There are lots of enticing spots for food and drink, too (indeed the Jordaan is popular for culinary-flavoured walking tours). Cosmopolitan choices abound, from Argentinian and Thai to Indonesian and Gallic fine dining, and if you’re looking to go Dutch, there are joints serving fries with mayonnaise and sweet and savoury pancakes, and cheesemakers plying top-notch Gouda (seek out the deliciously pungent Reypenaer Proeflokaal at Singel 182).
You’ll also stumble across traditional taverns – so called “brown bars” because of their dark wooden interiors and cosy atmosphere. Check out Cafe Sonneveld (Egelantiersgracht 72-74), which is a good place for beers and bar snacks like bitterballen (deep-fried crumbed beef balls) and also has an outdoor terrace beneath a red-and-white striped awning.
Prefer gin? Make a beeline for De Blauwe Parade, set where the Jordaan blends into De Wallen, Amsterdam’s medieval core. Varieties of jenever – a juniper-flavoured Dutch spirit, known as the ancestor of modern gin – are a speciality at this gorgeous 19th-century bar, which flaunts dark-wood furnishings and a stunning mural of blue-and-white Delft tiles.
If you’re looking for somewhere nice to stay, the bar adjoins Hotel Die Port van Cleve, which is spread across three historic buildings – including the site of the first Heineken brewery. Oozing charm, it has 122 rooms with contemporary decor and Delft-inspired design and is ideally located for exploring this endlessly beguiling city.