Lauren Ho boards the Eurostar to experience the picturesque canal houses, waterways and world-class museums that make Amsterdam one of Europe’s most popular cities
Given that Amsterdam is one of the quickest European destinations to fly to from London, it is with a tiny sense of doubt that I find myself, early one morning, at St Pancras International waiting to board the Eurostar. But, in the name of the slow travel trend and delighted to skip the faff of queuing for check-in and boarding at the airport, three and a half hours later I am deposited at Amsterdam Centraal station pleasantly surprised, well rested and ready to explore the city which is said to have more culture per capita than any other on Earth.
First things first, with my pre-ordered ‘I Amsterdam City Card’ (a handy public transport pass and map which also provides free and discounted offers), I hop directly onto the ferry that whizzes me over the river IJ in three short minutes to Amsterdam Noord. An up-and-coming neighbourhood with a little bit of everything, from artist’s studios to quaint villages and expanses of green land, it is also home to cutting-edge architecture, including the angular EYE Film Institute and 22-floor Arthur Staal-designed A’DAM Toren. Like anyone with a hopeless sense of direction will know, the best way to find your bearings is from a height, which is why, despite the gale-force winds, I find myself shivering on the tower’s rooftop, also known as A’DAM Lookout, for a panoramic view. Back downstairs, I make my way to The Butcher, the buzzing restaurant inside the Sir Adam Hotel, to re-think my itinerary over a warming cup of coffee — today is clearly not a good weather day for al fresco dining.
The best-laid plans are the most spontaneous ones, so after abandoning my idea for a Vondelpark picnic followed by a leisurely sun-drenched beer at local summer hotspot, Waterkant bar and eatery, I decide to make my way back over the IJ. I’m headed for Café De Pels, a traditional bar, plastered with peeling gig posters, that serves up snacks such as sausages or extra mature Gouda cheese to locals quietly lazing the day away with a cold Amstel and the newspaper. Belly full after some house-made vegetable soup and a tasty mackerel salad, I go for a wander (rather than a cycle) along the picturesque grand canals of The 9 Small Streets, popping in and out of vintage shops, quirky boutiques and art galleries, from the very browseable bookshop, MENDO, to industrial lighting store 360volt and Foam photography museum.
After spending nearly an hour in the Marie-Stella-Maris store, I finally tear myself away from the cleansing oils, moisturising concoctions and fragrant linen waters and head back to QO, my hotel just on the edge of the historic city centre with its very own high-tech rooftop greenhouse. Just below that is the lofty Juniper & Kin where cocktails are made with botanicals freshly plucked from the greenhouse and served against a backdrop of the sprawling city. Just in time for a pre-prandial sundowner, I have high weather hopes for tomorrow as watery rays of sunlight finally begin to emerge from behind the clouds.
The next morning, low grey skies once again scupper my outdoor agenda but, this time with a plan in hand, and a belly still full from the food fest at Persijn restaurant the night before, I skip breakfast and take myself straight to The Museum Quarter hoping to get an early head start on the crowds. On arrival though, it is clear that I am not the first person with this idea, as I join what feels like all of Amsterdam’s annual 17 million or so visitors at the entrance of the Rijksmuseum. Once inside, I quickly scurry away from the swarming entrance hall and make a beeline for the quieter wings, where I happily spend an hour or so learning about the art and history of the city.
After another couple of hours dashing around the nearby Van Gogh museum and the Stedelijk modern art gallery, museum fatigue begins to set in. A quick scan of my must-visit recommendations from friends persuades me to head out to Oud-West, a vibrant and less-explored neighbourhood said to be a shopping and dining hotspot. My first stop is IJsmanschap, an ice-cream shop, where a colourful display of handcrafted popsicles are waiting to satisfy my sugar levels. For the main course, I head to Foodhallen, an indoor food hall lined with street food from some of the city’s best kitchens. Here, I opt for the deliciously juicy French Steak Sandwich at l’Entrecôte Mobile — an on-the-go version from the restaurant’s bricks-and-mortar outpost on Van Baerlestraat.
With just enough time to spare, I make a quick dash to De Pijp, a previously emerging neighbourhood, south of the city centre, that has up-and-come and is now bursting with diverse restaurants, trendy shops and a cool charm. Browsing stores like Eland en Vanderhelst and Nobody Has To Know, I emerge from Anna + Nina with a delicate gold-plated necklace.
In my view, a satisfying retail therapy marathon is always best rounded off with a cold glass of white wine. Luckily then, one of my oldest childhood friends is ready and waiting, wine uncorked, in her boat on the canal at Prinsengracht (Prince’s Canal). Often cited as the best way to see Amsterdam, we begin a slow meander along the network of waterways against a picturesque backdrop of preserved 17th-century canal houses.
At Hannekes Boom, a rustic waterside hideaway, we disembark and join the humming crowd gathered around picnic tables while nursing cold beers and munching on nibbles from samosas to calamari. Over a plate of the ubiquitous bitterballen, a fried meat-based snack similar to a croquette, I get chatting to a group of locals, one of whom mentions that Greetje, a restaurant that serves elevated Dutch food, is a pretty good all-rounder spot that offers the best of what the country has to offer.
Back on dry land — feeling overfed and perhaps overwatered — I decide instead to pop by Jansz, a restaurant within The 9 Small Streets, for a light Tuna Niçoise Salad followed by a deliciously pungent platter of Dutch cheese. My short but nevertheless sweet visit has convinced me by now why Amsterdam has become one of Europe’s most popular cities: its cultural diversity doesn’t just mean great galleries and museums, this is a food lover’s paradise too.
A little more to explore…
Anne Frank House
Visit the home of Anne Frank, one of Amsterdam’s most famous former residents, where she lived in hiding with her family for more than two years during World War II.
De Hortus Botanicus
Explore one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world, where during the 17th century, the garden was the main source of medicinal herbs in Amsterdam.
Visit the tulip fields in Haarlem
A quick 20-minute train ride from Amsterdam Centraal, this picturesque city is worth a visit for its ancient buildings and cobbled streets — even if you aren’t there during tulip season (end of March to May).
For a chance of winning two return tickets to Amsterdam with Eurostar click here. Competition closes 30 Sep 2018. Tickets valid until 31 Aug 2019. T&C’s apply.