In a city where the number of inhabitants is eclipsed by the number of bikes, you know you’re visiting somewhere special, and Amsterdam’s bragging rights as a singular destination are buttressed by a wealth of uniquely defining experiences. I love alighting from a train at Amsterdam Central, where you’re instantly transfixed by the pervasiveness of commuter pedal power, the fabled gabled roofs and the romance of the watery ribbons, weaving through the city.
Whether you’re planning your maiden visit to Holland, or returning for more Dutch delights, Amsterdam’s profusion of museums are seriously addictive and diverse. With over 40 museums on offer, you must explore the Rijksmuseum, which has been recently rebuilt and modernised, boasting a world-famous collection now presented in a far more thought-provoking way. Across 80 galleries, 8000 objects tell the story of 800 years of Dutch art and history. It can be an exhausting art attack.
The Van Gogh Museum is the real heart-stealer in my book, an emotionally-charged encounter with Vincent Van Gogh’s greatest works, his personal ambitions, his wild mood swings, the myths and his enduring influence. Almond Blossom, Sunflowers and The Bedroom are the three unmissable post-impressionist masterpieces. When I visited, the museum was also staging a temporary exhibition of Edvard Munch, including The Scream. What a bonus! Munch and Van Gogh shared a similar love affair for colourful, intense, expressive and radical art. The next temporary exhibition is a rather saucy offering, devoted to prostitution in 19th century French art.
For something lesser-trafficked, but utterly authentic, I headed to Museum Van Loon, housed in a 350 year old canal house on Keizergracht. For over 400 years the Van Loon family has been intimately connected with Amsterdam, with Willem van Loon co-founding the Dutch East India Company and his grandson being appointed Mayor in 1686. Fast forward to the present day and the Van Loom family still occupy the upper floors of the 1672 canal house. The rest of it has been lovingly restored, period furnished and preserved in Louis XV style from the late 1700s. It is like a joyous time warp, discovering the exquisitely furnished interiors of the house, as you wander from one majestic room to the next.
Hungry for more little treasures, I gave my I Amsterdam City Card a solid work out, which provides you with express entrance to dozens of museums, attractions and complimentary public transport. I absolutely loved the Amsterdam Tulip Museum which ingeniously takes you through the history, craze and universal love affair with tulips. Central Asia is the original home of wild tulips, but it was the Sultans of Ottoman Turkey who collected, nurtured and displayed large quantities of tulips, before they made their way to Western Europe as diplomatic and trade links flowered.
The tulips first flowering in Holland is dated as 1594. The bulbs thrived in the harsh climate of the lowlands. Immediately they became the feverish object of affection among the upper classes, whereby no merchant’s home would be complete without a collection of tulips. In the mid-seventeenth century, tulips were so fiendishly popular that they created the first economic bubble, known as "Tulip Mania." Believe it or not, a single bulb became more expensive than the sale price of a canal house. The dizzying heights were not to last and the market crashed. After the price collapse, tulip production switched from being the pursuit of rich city dwellers to country farmers. Today, the tulip remains Holland’s most famous export, generating nearly NZ$10 billion in annual earnings. Head to Keukenhof, just south of Amsterdam, for the seasonal spring display of the hundreds of tulip varieties being commercially grown, or a leisurely stroll through the floating flower market on Singel canal will reward you with an explosion of colour and fragrance.
Unquestionably, the most heart-wrenching and evocative city experience is to pay homage to the victims of war and hatred, by visiting Anne Frank House. The museum is built within the confines of the Prinsengracht canal house, where Anne’s father operated his business, and the family went into hiding, living on the upper floors of the annexe. It is truly poignant to walk through the moveable bookcase which concealed the door to the annexe and especially made for this purpose. You’ll see all of the family’s rooms including Anne’s, where the walls are decorated with pasted pictures of film stars and a young English Princess Elizabeth. Plus her diary takes pride of place towards the end of the exhibition. Seventy years on, the entrance queues form early every morning and billow long into the day. To beat the vast lines of humanity (over one million visitors annually), buy an online ticket in advance from www.annefrank.org/en/Museum/
Prinsengracht, Keizergracht and Herengracht will become familiar names to you, as they are the three main canals in the city’s 400 year old canal ring. I love wandering alongside them aimlessly, delighting in the serendipitous scenes, marvelling at the humpbacked stone bridges and soaking up the infectious, free-spirited city vibe. The 9 Streets Shopping Area (De 9 Straatjes) in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage -protected Canal Ring is an absolute thrill to roam through, bursting with quirky little independent shops, design boutiques, art galleries, concept stores, inviting cafes and charming bars. The same sense of human-scale, intimate shopping and hospitality studs the tiny higgledy-piggledy lanes of the atmospheric Jordaan district. Spice up your urban explorations by adding these fantastic finds to your hit list.
Head to Stroopwafel Bakery Lanskroon to indulge in a crispy stroopwafel from the century-old bakery. For more great tastes, cut a path to the Foodhallen, located in a renovated historical tram depot, and repurposed as a vibrant indoor food market with a staggering variety of enticing bites and drinks. Chocoholics? Don’t miss Amsterdam’s most decorated handmade chocolate, steeped in traditional methods, at Puccini Bomboni. De Taart Van M’n Tante is a mouthful of a name, but it’s quite possibly the most colourfully kitsch cafes I’ve encountered. Translating as “My Aunt’s Cake”, think tooth-aching temptations and the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and you get the idea what beckons at this fantastic cake emporium.
And if you’re not maxed out on museums, here’s two more. The Eye Film Museum hovers above the waterfront like an origami apparition, comprising a range of theatres and eateries. But the real draw is its collection of the very first black and white pictures. Meanwhile, how about discovering 500 years of history of bags and purses in a gorgeous 1664 canal house? The Museum of Bags & Purses awaits.
Mike Yardley is Newstalk ZB’s Travel Correspondent on Saturday Mornings with Jack Tame.