Golden Age canals lined by tilting gabled buildings are the backdrop for Amsterdam’s treasure-packed museums, vintage-filled shops and hyper-creative design, drinking and dining scenes.
You can’t walk a kilometre without bumping into a masterpiece in the city. The Van Gogh Museum hangs the world’s largest collection by tortured native son Vincent. A few blocks away, Vermeers, Rembrandts and other Golden Age treasures fill the glorious Rijksmuseum. The Museum het Rembrandthuis offers more of Rembrandt via his etching-packed studio, while the Stedelijk Museum counts Matisses and Mondrians among its modern stock. And for blockbuster displays, the Hermitage Amsterdam delivers: the outpost of Russia’s State Hermitage Museum sifts through its three-million-piece home trove to mount mega exhibitions.
Bike & Boat Travel
Two wheeling is a way of life here. It’s how Amsterdammers commute to work, go to the shop, and meet a date for dinner. Abundant bike rental shops make it easy to gear up and take a spin. If locals aren’t on a bike, they may well be on the water. With its canals and massive harbour, this city reclaimed from the sea offers countless opportunities to drift. Hop aboard a canal boat (preferably an open-air one) or one of the free ferries behind Centraal Station, or rent your own for a wind-in-your-hair ride.
Amsterdam’s canal-woven core is laced by atmospheric narrow lanes. You never know what you’ll find: a tiny hidden garden; a boutique selling witty, stylised Dutch-designed homewares and fashion; a jewel box-like jenever (Dutch gin) distillery; a flower stall filled with tulips in a rainbow of hues; an old monastery-turned-classical-music-venue; an ultra-niche restaurant such as an avocado or strawberry specialist or one reinventing age-old Dutch classics. Fringing the centre, post-industrial buildings in up-and-coming neighbourhoods now house creative enterprises, from art galleries to craft breweries and cutting-edge tech start-ups, as well as some of Europe’s hottest clubs.
Amsterdam is famously gezellig, a Dutch quality that translates roughly as convivial or cosy. It’s more easily experienced than defined. There’s a sense of time stopping, an intimacy of the here-and-now that leaves your troubles behind, at least until tomorrow. The easiest place to encounter this feeling is a traditional bruin café (brown cafe, aka pub). Named for their wood panelling and walls once stained by smoke, brown cafes have gezelligheid (cosiness) on tap, along with good beer. You can also feel gezellig lingering after dinner in snug restaurants while the candles burn low.
Tradition and innovation intertwine here: artistic masterpieces, windmills, tulips and candlelit caféscoexist with groundbreaking architecture, cutting-edge design and phenomenal nightlife.
Geography plays a key role in the Netherlands’ iconic landscapes. More than half the pancake-flat country is below sea level, and 20% has been reclaimed from the sea, making rows of polders (areas of drained land) omnipresent. Uninterrupted North Sea winds have powered windmills since the 13th century, pumping water over the dykes, and milling flour and more. Some two-thirds of the surface is devoted to agriculture, including fields of tulips.
Art & Architecture
The legacies of Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Frans Hals, Hieronymus Bosch, Piet Mondrian and MC Escher hang on the walls of the Netherlands’ world-renowned museums, along with contemporary Dutch works.
The Dutch influence on construction spans more than a millennia, from Romanesque and Gothic medieval magnum opuses to Dutch Renaissance creations, revolutionary, Golden Age gabled houses and engineering endeavours including canals, neoclassicism, Berlage and the Amsterdam School, Functionalism, modernism, structuralism, neorationalism, postmodernism and neomodernism, with trailblazing structures making their mark on the cityscapes.
The flat, fabulously scenic landscapes make cycling in the Netherlands a pleasure (headwinds not withstanding). Cycling is an integral part of life and locals live on their fiets (bicycle): more than a quarter of all journeys countrywide are by bike, rising to more than a third in big cities.
Experiencing the wind-in-your-hair freedom of cycling is a breeze. Bike-rental outlets are ubiquitous, and the country is criss-crossed with some 32,000km of cycling paths, including the Dutch ‘motorways’ of cycling, the long-distance LF routes. Grab some wheels and start exploring.
When the Dutch say café they mean a pub, and there are thousands of them. In a country that values socialising and conversation more than drinking, cafés are places for contemplation and camaraderie. Many cafés have outdoor terraces, which are glorious in summer and sometimes covered and heated in winter. Most serve food, from bar snacks to fabulous meals. The most atmospheric is a bruin café (brown café), named for the nicotine stains of centuries past – the ultimate place to experience the Dutch state of gezelligheid (conviviality, cosiness).