Amsterdam often conjures the seedier side of society, with its infamous Red Light District and “coffeeshops,” but in fact even these emanate from its rich history of commerce and trade. It is a city packed with culture, museums, and an architectural heritage whose vibe with streetcars and canals give it a fairytale feel.
The city is made up of four major canals that encircle the old city center, as well as hundreds of small intersecting canals and tiny stone bridges that give the city its unique spider web design. All of these long, narrow waterways are lined along both sides with magnificent 17th and 18th century gabled houses for which the city is known. The major squares, museum areas and theatres are a lot of fun to explore, but it is along the canals that you will find the tiny café and romantic restaurants that make this city such a cosmopolitan delight. Did you know there are more canals in Amsterdam (165) than Venice?
Amsterdam is very welcoming to travelers and even the homeless speak two or three languages including English. With bike lanes on every roadway and dedicated streetcar lanes, one can almost avoid automobiles in the picture postcard setting.
I was fortunate enough to be able to stay in two totally different but equally amazing Virtuoso hotels — the new Conservatorium Hotel and the newly renovated Hotel de l’Europe.
The Conservatorium (http://www.conservatoriumhotel.com) is the newest luxury hotel in Amsterdam, opening in December 2011. Unlike most European cities, Amsterdam has been lacking in “standout” 5 star hotels, but The Conservatorium has certainly upped the ante in every way.
A new concept for the city, the hotel is housed in a magnificent building that used to be Amsterdam’s former Savings Bank. In 1978, the bank moved and the building was abandoned for 5 years prior to becoming the Sweelinck Conservatory Music School. With the Conservatorium Hotel, the building has been restored to its original beauty by well-known Milan based designer Piero Lissoni.
The hotel sports 129 rooms with almost no room alike due to the unique features of the property. The rooms are filled with low-slung Italian furniture and state of the art eco technology (in room sensors, LED lights) while also preserving the building’s beautiful feature of original hand painted tiles and in-laid stone floors.
A huge bonus is the 100-foot long lap pool with water temperature a little chillier than I prefer but not enough of an issue to complain. The Akasha Spa also has a yoga studio, fitness classes, a jaccuzzi, great fitness room and treatment rooms.
Literally steps out of the hotels entrance is the Van Gogh and Rijksmuseum which for families have a great outdoor playground to allow kids to release a little energy between these cultural gems. The Cobra Café , located near the museum shop and closer to the Rijksmuseum is a nice option for lunch. Another casual option near the Conservatorium Hotel is Bagels and Beans. Also steps away is one of the nicest shopping streets in Amsterdam which runs parallel to the Van Gogh museum and has some lovely lunch spots.
With a bit more history, the 111 room Hotel de L’Europe (http://www.leurope.nl) has just completed a full renovation. It is one of Amsterdam’s best-known hotels and is located right on the Amstel River. It is owned by the Heineken family and hence the famous bar named Freddy’s after Freddy Heineken. Clearly this bar is a meeting place for locals as I happened to be sipping a cocktail while the countries Prime Minister was enjoying a good laugh and cocktail himself at the table next to me.
I had one of the most breathtaking rooms I have ever stayed in at the Hotel de l’Europe. It was a junior suite on their “PURE” floor, a unique concept designed as a hypoallergenic atmosphere. It has an amazing balcony with a nice table and chairs that I spent a lot of time soaking in the vibe of the city and overlooking the Amstel River watching canal boats pass by.
Amsterdam in the summer has daylight that extends until after 10pm. However, it dines on the earlier side with a lot of kitchens closing around 10:00pm with the most popular dinner reservation at 8pm and a lot of places closed on Sundays.
Amsterdam has a diverse selection of restaurants including French, Italian, Chinese and Japanese. It is particularly known for its authentic Indonesian cuisine, a remnant of Indonesian’s long history as a Dutch colony until the 1940’s. As with all my travels I sought out the most local dining spots and have a wonderful dining list to share with my clients.
A few tips especially to families traveling ….a “coffeeshop” serves hash so opt for a coffee house unless you are out for some alternative buzz. Shops readily offer mushrooms, hashish, and other accoutremonts. These type of shops tend to profit most from tourist but a word of caution to say the least.
Riding the trams was a fun and easy way to get around the city. Tickets are easily bought on board and the conductors are most helpful. It is imperative to validate your ticket on board once purchased and before exiting the tram. Also it is best to buy one or two day passes from your hotel concierge if you tend to use them often.
A Canal Boat Ride is the perfect way to orient yourself and get a good feel for this unique city. Canal boat rides are one hour and leave every 15 minutes in high season. All of the boats travel the same sights from different starting points and the views are wonderful day or night. I highly recommend http://www.rederijkooij.nl/index_en.html. Also note that it is also possible to rent a private boat and even do paddle boats http://www.canal.nl/bike/en/which can be rented by the Anne Frank House.
There are almost as many bikes as people in Amsterdam. Biking may be safest to do in Vondelpark, the city’s largest park, with 120 acres and billed as the “highest park below sea level.” It is easiest to rent a bike from Mac Bike’s http://macbike.nl/ (all kinds of bikes with baby seats etc) which has locations all over the city. I would caution against freely biking around the city as it can be quite hazardous unless you have a guide.
I was lucky enough to spend a full day with my great guide in the Delft and the Hague which are about 45 minutes to an hour from Amsterdam depending on the traffic.
Our first stop was in Stompwijk where I was able to see three windmills from the 17th century which were a refreshing change from the modern ones that have popped up all over for energy production. If you are looking for a more touristy visit to the windmills then visit the town of Zaanse Schans.
The Delft is a must do for any traveler and has one of the last two original remaining Delftware manufacturers in the world. It is fascinating to see how the entire “handmade” sketching and paintings are processed and a fun souvenir to take home.
The medieval city center of Delft has some lovely canals and is often referred to as the “small” Amsterdam because of its canals and grand monumental merchants mansions in the old town center. It is one of the best-preserved examples of a medieval Dutch town. The well-known painter Johannes Vermeer is from Delft and known for the Girl with the Pearl Earring which is about to travel outside of the country for the first time ever and go to an exhibition in Japan. Delft is also the burial ground of members of the Royal family. They rest in the NEW Church along with other famous people. In the OLD Church the painter Vermeer rests.
The Hague is only 20 minutes from Delft and called the Queen City as Queen Beatrix lives here. It is also home of the Dutch Parliament.
Two fabuolus art galleries are in The Hague, including The Escher Museum which was the former Palace of Queen Emma and The Panorama Mesdag Museum. The Panorama is a cylindrical painting which was painted in 1881 by Hendrik Willem Mesdag. It is the oldest 19th century panorama in the world in its original site. It is breathtaking and amazing to see as a highlight for sure! www.mesdag.nl
I was amazed that the North Sea side town of Scheveningen was less than ten minutes from the city center of The Hague. It is lined up with lots and lots of local seafood restaurants but one to take special note is Bij Simonis.
As you can tell, there are many day excursions for all kinds of interests. Of particular joy is Keukenhof Gardens which when in season is the home of hundreds of thousands of colorful tulips and Aalsmeer Flower Auction where about 20 million flowers are sold each day! Both of these are sure to intrigue any traveler and give a great insight on Dutch heritage.
I also spent two nights in Bruges, Belgium, a town I had not returned to in over 25 years. I have vivid memories of biking through the quaint streets and along side the canals in college. The city has much charm but is also much more crowded than I remember.
There is much history to be explored and a nice way to do so is on a panoramic walking or biking tour (http://www.quasimundo.com/html/main.htmls) of the historical center. Some highlights will include Market Square, the Church of Our Lady which is Europe’s highest brick tower, the Bellfry, the Lake of Love and the charming bridges and romantic views over all the canals.
The most sought out of hotels in Bruges would be the Small Luxury Hotel, Hotel de Orangerie http://hotelorangerie.be/where I stayed or the fairly new Kempenski Dukes Palace http://www.kempinski.com/en/bruges/dukes-palace/welcome/ for those wishing for all the “bells and whistles.”
As with Amsterdam, Bruges is centrally located and conducive to many nice day trips via car or train. In fact, Ghent, where the Adoration of the Lamb is located, is only a short train ride away. Also the chic beach of Knokke is 30 minutes from Bruges.
There is so much to explore and such easy access to these great countries of Belgium and the Netherlands. I highly recommend either destination as a must add on to your next trip to London or Paris as they are accessible in a few hours or less.