Amsterdam is truly a city for all comers
What better way to round off a cruise on the Rhine than a break in wonderful Amsterdam, known as the Venice as the north though, in many ways, it has much more to offer, writes Margaret Carragher
THINK ‘Amsterdam' and you probably think scantily clad ladies in shop windows, pungent ‘coffee shops' that are no such thing, and millions of tulips, windmills and clogs. Well, think again.
Because while all of these undoubtedly have their place in its iconic landscape, Amsterdam has infinitely more to offer the sixteen million or so visitors who throng here annually. My husband and I had arrived in the Dutch capital following a pre-Christmas Rhineland cruise; but with just 48 hours to spare before flying home a game plan was essential – that and a quick and easy way of getting from A to B.
And so to the visitor information centre at Amsterdam's central station for our I Amsterdam City Cards. Also available to buy at Schipol Airport and online, this card gives unlimited access to the city's extensive public transport system; free admission to most of its biggest and best attractions; and numerous discounts and freebies including an excellent city map and a copy of A-mag, Amsterdam's official cultural magazine: all in all a handy and very affordable way to get around, see the sights and get a feel for the place.
Our Rhineland cruise had included a canal boat tour of Amsterdam so we'd already experienced what no visitor to this amazing city should miss. Often described as the Venice of the North, Amsterdam's 400-year-old canal system stretches to over 100 kilometres and was enrolled on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010.
And while Venice might be famed for its bridges – all 409 of them – its northern counterpart boasts more than three times that number, with many of them stretching back to the Dutch Golden Age of the 16th and 17th century when economic prosperity was at its height and the Dutch capital led the world in trade and commerce, science and the arts.
But Amsterdam still punches above its weight where it counts – albeit without the fanfare. Because while its people might relate to the finer things in life they are often reluctant to flaunt them; a throwback, perhaps, to its centuries old Calvinist tradition when ostentation was frowned upon and wealth concealed behind unassuming facades.
Even to this day the architecture of your typical Amsterdam canal house – narrow, but deep and commodious – reflects this ethos of modesty; an ethos that permeates its entire culture. Where else would you find crowned heads, government ministers and captains of industry sharing cycling lanes with the hoi polloi?
But for all its Calvinistic restraint, the fruits of Amsterdam's Golden Age still glisten in its many, varied and magnificent museums. Indeed one of the city's quirkier claims to fame is its status among capital cities with the weirdest – if not the most wonderful – collection of museums worldwide, including one dedicated entirely to medieval instruments of torture; another tracing the roots of Amsterdam's most prolific and ubiquitous, er, weed; and yet another (I kid you not) the aptly named and eye-wateringly graphic Temple of Venus – celebrating the ancient art of love-making.
But despite such compelling diversions, it is the city's most celebrated museums that are most worthy of a visit – not least because so many of them offer free or heavily discounted admission with the city travel card. And so to Museumplein: the museum district.
Often described as Amsterdam's answer to London's South Kensington, what was once one of the city's most dilapidated and disreputable areas is now the jewel in its crown thanks to the intervention of one Pierre Cuypers, a celebrated Dutch architect who, having completed the legendary Rijksmuseum in 1885 proceeded with a street plan which now includes the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art and the Van Gogh Museum.
Another unmissable attraction within walking distance of here is the Anne Frank House. Opened in 1960, this biographical museum is dedicated to the memory of its eponymous teenage diarist who, with her family and four others, hid from Nazi persecution during the Second World War in a warren of concealed rooms at the rear of their 17th century canal house.
Now laid out exactly as it was during its wartime occupation, this profoundly affecting monument to the resilience of the human spirit is the third most visited attraction in Amsterdam after the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum.
From high culture to street nous and a bike ride around the city. With roughly 600,000 bicycles, 400 kilometres of cycle paths, and road traffic legislation greatly favouring two wheels over four, it's little wonder Amsterdam is hailed as the most bicycle-friendly city in the world.
So proactive is its Centrum Fietsdiefstal (an institution whose sole function is to combat bicycle theft) it recently implemented a highly successful scheme to equip bicycles with a microchip that can be tracked by police should the vehicle go missing. Meanwhile, not to be outdone in user friendliness, the city's red light district recently introduced an initiative to help its revellers recover from their wildest excesses and keep on partying.
Once home to many of the district's working girls, the pharmacy-styled Hangover Information Center dispenses Reset, a medicinal compound packed with the antioxidant glutathione, which if taken judiciously claims to banish hangovers even before they kick in. Only in Amsterdam...
Time then to Reset and party some more in the nearby, delightfully named Delirium Cafe. With more than 500 different beers and an on-site brewery, Amsterdam's biggest beer cafe even has its own canal boat to transport revellers to and from the premises. Truly a city for all comers.
Meanwhile back in the museum district our hostelry, the Bilderberg Hotel Jan Luyken beckoned, its prim, low key exterior belying the splendour within. Arriving downstairs to check out next morning we found the air thick with seasonal good cheer as staff gathered together in the lobby to decorate the tree which had appeared there overnight.
Like pretty much everything else, Christmas is huge in this gloriously diverse, contradictory, wired-up, chilled-out, laid-back, crazy, mixed-up city; oh, to just stay on and party.
:: For more information on Amsterdam see iamsterdam.com
:: Margaret travelled to Amsterdam on an Amawaterways Rhine cruise. For more information or to book an AmaWaterways river cruise, contact travel agents, visit AmaWaterways.co.uk or call 0808 256 8422
:: Margaret stayed in Bilderberg Hotel Jan Luyken (bilderberg.nl/hotels/hotel-jan-luyken/)