Insider Guide: Best of Amsterdam
The biggest city in the Netherlands (population 820,000) is a triumph of resourcefulness and lateral thinking.
Space is at premium in Amsterdam, where much of the land has been reclaimed from the sea. The city's planners turned this to their advantage: Amsterdam's canals soothe rather than imprison the city. They provide its order, its calm.
That calm is regularly disturbed by the trill of bicycle bells, but as long as you give the cyclists a wide berth, it's the perfect city for pedestrians.
No longer hostage to a tourist industry propped up, at least in part, by its now locals-only coffee/cannabis shops, travelers have no excuse for not discovering the best of Amsterdam.
Print and go -- Our traveler-friendly one-page guide here: Best of Amsterdam
Seven One Seven
Guests are spoiled in this best of Amsterdam, 18th-century throwback, a grand building restored in the 1990s and well located on the Prinsengracht, a short walk to the Leidseplein.
There's a strong fine arts theme, with plenty of paintings to browse in the public parts of the hotel and other artistic curiosities in all the suites.
If the weather's fine there are two pleasant garden areas to have breakfast in. Book well in advance to be sure of a room.
Seven One Seven: Prinsengracht 717, 1017 JW; +31 20 427 0717; from €250 ($328) per night
Between entry and check-in, there’s a nice, typically Dutch counterpoise. The Andaz occupies a handsome, venerable former public library building, and retains its echoey stateliness. But books? Nope, even at registration, which is all done by tablets.
The theme follows you; here ancient, there modern. Rooms are neat minimalist, an elegant use of space, but lightly tattooed with discreetly-placed locators, like an XXX -- the symbol of Amsterdam -- embossed on the furniture, and frescoes pointing to the city’s past and present.
Andaz: Prinsengracht 587, 1016 HT; +31 20 523 1234; from €300 ($394) per night
This place has a long and varied history. The building itself started life as a theater, then the site was a refuge for the city's destitute.
There's little trace of that now, with the emphasis on finery, although an eclectic mix of it, with antique art objects among the furnishings and bold color combinations on many of the bedroom walls.
The Dylan: Keizersgracht 384, 1016 GB; +31 20 530 2010; from €325 ($426) per night
Half an hour by foot from the city center, the Conservatorium can claim to be a genuine centerpiece of the museum district, site of much recent investment. Its neighbors are the Rijksmuseum -- its 10-year refurbishment now completed -- and the Van Gogh. The hotel's grand façade is no less imposing than they are.
Opened only two years ago, the Conservatorium emphasizes its access to the art and music experience. Amsterdammers like its designer communal spaces as an early-evening hangout. The best rooms are the duplexes.
Conservatorium: Van Baerlestraat 27, 1071 AN; +31 20 570 000; from €325 ($426) per night
Sandton Hotel De Filosoof
If you have a favorite philosopher, chances are there'll be a room at De Filosoof in his name, and you can wonder if they've interpreted him as you might have done in their choice of colors and decoration.
Some of the rooms are on the small side of cozy, but it's a comfortable place close to the Vondelpark.
Sandton Hotel De Filosoof: Anna van den Vondelstraat 6, 1054 GZ; +31 20 683 3013; from €120 ($157) per night
Decorated in an Art Deco style, but with an unpretentious, warm ambience, the Agora occupies an old canal house near the flower market.
There are no elevators, common to many of the cheaper hotels in the city, so be prepared for a climb if your room is on one of the upper floors.
Agora: Singel 462, 1017 AW; +31 20 627 2200; from €75 ($98) per night
&samhoud places is a newcomer to Amsterdam’s high-end dining scene. Chef Moshik Roth, however, is not. He previously made a table at 't Brouwerskolkje one of the city’s real treats, and earned it its two Michelin stars. His latest project enjoys the same status.
There’s a tendency towards seafood, French styles lightly referenced, careful wine pairings and lots of surprising sweet-savory blends. The tasting menu offers a representative ride through Roth’s vivid imagination, the Jardins de la Mer being among his masterpieces.
&samhoud places: Oosterdokskade 5, 1011 AD; + 31 20 260 2094; expensive
Popular with theater-goers -- who, like many Amsterdam folk, dine early ahead of shows -- and with businesspeople, Breitner prepares interesting set menus, often up to six courses.
Chef Remco Tensen's orientation is towards classic French food, with subtle terrines and patés to begin with and a good range of fresh fish.
For a table with canal views, book well ahead.
Breitner: Amstel 212, 1017 AH; +31 20 627 7879; expensive
Restaurant Christophe focuses essentially on French cuisine, but borrows imaginatively from elsewhere in the Mediterranean. It's strong on shellfish, but the suckling pig is also special.
Chef and proprietor Jean Joel Bonsens has been developing Restaurant Christophe for six years, and has established a varied wine cellar.
He's also taken care of the decor: an interior that's elegantly lit, service that's discreet and professional.
Restaurant Christophe: Leliegracht 46, 1015 DH; +31 20 625 0807; expensive
The Netherlands may not have as broad a colonial past as other nations of Europe, but it stretches a long way east; the most conspicuous sign of this in Amsterdam is the Indonesian restaurants.
Long Pura is a best of Amsterdam spot. The chef is from Bali, the menu extensive. The duck dishes are especially recommended.
Long Pura: Rozengracht 46-48, 1016 ND; +31 20 623 8950; moderate
Up-market but authentic Maghrebi food (and wine) in a setting carefully cultivated to put the diner in mind of North Africa. Enter and you're among scents of jasmine and rose petal.
Mamouche has grown in popularity among locals and visitors over the past decade, so you may need to book for an evening table.
Mamouche: Quellijnstraat 104, 1072 XZ; +31 20 673 6361; moderate
A good stop for lunch in the summer months and dinner when you’re in the museum quarter or before a concert, Brasserie Keyzer is an Amsterdam institution.
There’s a wide ranging menu, fairly classical, but usually offering something resonant of traditional Dutch food. They take the herring season -- a big event on the Amsterdam calendar, starting around mid-June -- seriously here.
Brasserie Keyzer: Van Baerlestraat 96, 1071 BB; + 31 20 675 1866; mid-range
This best of Amsterdam club is a great place for shedding your shoes and spreading out on one of the bright white loungers set around low tables either side of the dance and performance floor.
You can also eat here -- though it's quite pricey -- until midnight.
Guests tend to be of a wide spread of age and nationality. The staff are also of all sorts: waiters who do fire-eating tricks, for instance.
Supperclub does a sideline in late-night boat trips and is open until 3 a.m. at weekends.
Supperclub: Jonge Roelensteeg 21, 1012 PL; +31 20 344 6400; expensive
Favored by the in-crowd in their mid-20s, Club Chi is an ultra-modern venue.
Saturdays can be frenetic and on weekends it's always well to be aware of Amsterdam's reputation -- hardly fading -- as a venue for stag and hen getaways. Some of those end up at Club Chi.
But there's a good spread of music and DJs from all over the world.
Things are more tranquil on Sundays, when there's usually a leaning to Latino music.
Club Chi: Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal 161, 1012 RK; +31 20 521 8555; moderate
Amsterdam is nostalgic for the 1960s and 1970s, with its John-and-Yoko-style moments (they honeymooned at the Hilton in March 1969). Lime, a sort of lounger-cum-cocktail bar, celebrates all that.
Comfortable seating and a cool mood attracts a clientele that's relaxed and bohemian.
Stays open until after 2 a.m. on weekends.
Lime: Zeedijk 104, 1012 BB; +31 20 639 3020; moderate
Shopping / Attractions
The Van Gogh Museum
A journey through the life, the different influences, the setbacks and the troubled mind of the Netherland's standout modern master.
This best of Amsterdam collection is the most complete of Van Gogh's works anywhere. The experience is thorough, with paintings and sketches complemented by audio-visual reference points.
The museum is airily designed across two main buildings and looks over the Museumplein, a far nicer place to stroll that it was before its redesign in the late 1990s.
The Van Gogh Museum: Paulus Potterstraat 7, 1071 CX; +31 20 570 5200
The People of the Labyrinths
Dutch art need not be confined to the masters. This is a nation proud of its radical palette and its independent sensibility in art and fashion.
This clothing brand -- POTL for short -- has become an international success in the 28 years since Geert de Rooij and Hans Demoed set up their boutique for hand-crafted, rainbow-bright clothes.
Seeing the real stuff rather than the cyber-retailed versions is worthwhile, even with the high price tags.
The People of the Labyrinths: Van Baerlerstraat 42-44, 1071 AZ; +31 664 0779
Museum of Bags and Purses
Ever thought designer handbags were a purely modern indulgence? Here’s the biggest concentrated proof they've been status symbols, fashion statements and, of course, useful for all sorts of reasons for the better part of a millennium.
Nowhere in the world is there a larger assembly of purses, bags and vanity sets, and nowhere explains a greater variety of purposes for them, from 17th-century flea catchers to look-at-me, label-conscious accessories. The collection is now housed in a striking canal house, and makes for a fascinating browse.
Tassenmuseum: Herengracht 573, 1017 CD; +31 20 524 6452
Floating Flower Market
Best accessed from Singel, the flower market has almost every imaginable shade of tulip, from pure, plain hues to ones with marble-effect petals.
Bulbs and seeds prepared for long distance export are for sale. It's best to check the regulations if you mean to take them a long distance.
Customs clearance stamps can be arranged with stallholders.
Located on the Singel canal; +31 20 625 8282; open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m -5.30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5.30 p.m.
The Dutch have an image as a laid-back people, makers of liberal-minded cities.
Most Amsterdammers work hard, but also appreciate the slower pace that their hometown obliges.
This is not a city to speed around efficiently by car.
To experience the best of Amsterdam, it's often best to take things slowly.
Catch a Boat
There are several ways to travel the canals as they were designed to be traveled.
Visitors can join a cruise for a few hours or full day, guided around the sights, or hire their own row boat.
Traffic can be heavy, and slow, on the waterways, but an Amsterdam glimpsed from sea-level on a fine day is a calming way to take in the city.
Voyeurs can also get the odd insight into how the true water-dwellers live, through the windows of their narrow boats and barges.
The De Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam is one of the oldest organized botanical gardens in the world, and another legacy of the long history of Dutch exploration and acquisition.
There are sections here for sub-tropical species, for desert plants and for those that grow in steamier climates.
They include living, thriving examples of the site's longevity -- trees more than 300 years old -- and some eye-catching rarities among the 4,000 species.
It's a nice escape from the city center.
Botanical Gardens: Plantage Middenlaan 2A; +31 20 625 9021
Old Book Market
There's a great deal more than books to be found here, though it's possible to lose yourself for hours leafing through the illustrations of some of the more ornate works on sale.
Within the market are various specialist sellers; most are happy to let you look.
With the Dutch being such a well-voyaged, multi-lingual people, there are volumes in many different languages.
The cartography stalls have maps dating to a time when the world looked very different.
Open every day except Sunday; along Oude Manhuispoort, Muntplein
First published May 2012, updated September 2013