72 Hours in Amsterdam

Amsterdam may be small and easy to nav­i­gate by bike, but it’s never dull. A prime ex­am­ple of pro­gres­sive liv­ing, bot­tled in­side a charm­ing 17th cen­tury city, it of­fers art, cul­ture and gas­tro­nomic de­lights in spades.

Bespoke - - ESCAPE -

For decades, Amsterdam was char­ac­terised as a drug-deal­ing, sex-crazed, free­wheel­ing city of psy­che­delic mis­ad­ven­ture. But the hey­day for such pur­suits came and went well be­fore the turn of this mil­len­nium. And with var­i­ous coun­tries, most no­tably Canada and Uruguay, go­ing sub­stan­tially fur­ther than Hol­land in le­gal­is­ing pros­ti­tu­tion and mild drug use, it would ap­pear that a per­son who was look­ing to par­take in such vices now has a mul­ti­tude of op­tions, and prob­a­bly much nearer to home. This might there­fore ex­plain why Amsterdam has cho­sen to clean up its act, and why its for­mer red light district is in the midst of a multi-mil­lion Euro makeover, with bor­del­los be­ing turned into up­scale homes, and mar­i­juana-sell­ing ‘cof­fee shops’ re-emerg­ing as trendy cof­fee-sell­ing cafés. In­deed, there’s a slew of new art gal­leries, stylish boutiques and buzzy restau­rants to visit th­ese days, and the big-hit­ting mu­se­ums have also upped their game, spend­ing vast for­tunes on im­prove­ments and ren­o­va­tions. Visit Amsterdam nowa­days and you can’t help but no­tice the evo­lu­tion. What’s more, un­like Venice, which has a sim­i­lar patch­work quilt of canal-bor­dered is­lands, an­chored upon mil­lions of wooden pil­ings, Amsterdam is not a city that’s con­tent just look­ing back­wards, nor does it show any ten­ta­tive­ness in its pur­suit of progress. Sim­ply put, this place is boldly strid­ing for­wards into a fu­ture of trendi­ness, good liv­ing, avant-garde art, pro­gres­sive jazz, and all with its peren­nial spirit of live-and-let-live. Main­tain­ing that spirit will be the key to this re­nais­sance but, like many other cap­i­tals at­tempt­ing to jug­gle re­gen­er­a­tion and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, the char­ac­ter of Amsterdam will surely change. For now it’s a su­per cool place of ac­cepted para­doxes, a place where churches are sit­u­ated next to broth­els. Where an­tiques shops can be found right next door to ex­per­i­men­tal de­sign gal­leries. And where the suited work­ing masses ve­he­mently de­mand the right to smoke a joint af­ter work, with to­tal im­punity, even if the vast ma­jor­ity of them choose not to. It’s a place where idio­syn­cra­sies work for the greater good. For ex­am­ple, the quirky sys­tem of ‘so­cial con­trol’ al­lows a man to feel safer in his home know­ing his neigh­bour­hood is be­ing watched by the hook­ers next door. But the city’s grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity also bears some of the hall­marks of Ber­lin be­tween 2005 and 2015. Both cities were once off-the-beaten path, and un­less you made the ef­fort to dis­cover their se­crets, you’d find each to be un­invit­ing and in­ac­ces­si­ble. Cru­cially, just like Ber­lin, whose un­cool­ness once con­sti­tuted the key fac­tor in what made it cool, Amsterdam’s new­found hip­ness threat­ens to ac­tu­ally undo its charm. With 5.3 mil­lion

peo­ple vis­it­ing Amsterdam last year, up from 3.4 mil­lion in 2000, it’s clear you’d bet­ter move fast if you want to en­joy this place while the trend­set­ters are still there (and be­fore their fol­low­ers go and ruin it). So first and fore­most: how long should you stay in Amsterdam? The an­swer is that you could spend a cou­ple of weeks with­out get­ting bored but three days is our tried and tested bare min­i­mum. There are now loads of de­sign-savvy ho­tels to choose from, so a few short trips rather than one long one pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to try more of them. Speak­ing of which, we’ve long been fans of the ele­gance and ser­vice of the Grand but there’s also Ho­tel de l’europe (owned and op­er­ated by Heineken), an his­toric ho­tel with a con­tem­po­rary makeover. Then there’s the in­ti­mate yet de­tached Dy­lan, the up-and-com­ing charm­ers Sir Al­bert and Sir Adam, and of course the new W, which we have yet to try. But if you want sleek, hip min­i­mal­ism à la Bul­gari and Armani, then there’s re­ally only one place for you, and it’s The Con­ser­va­to­rium. This 129-room ho­tel oc­cu­pies an im­pos­ing 19th cen­tury build­ing orig­i­nally con­structed as a bank be­fore later be­com­ing the Sweel­inck Mu­sic Con­ser­va­tory. Many of the build­ing’s orig­i­nal fea­tures re­main in­tact, like wall tiles, stained glass, tim­ber beams, even vaulted doors but Ital­ian in­te­rior architect Piero Lis­soni has man­aged to make it into a mod­ern ho­tel, with an up­lift­ing ex­panse of taste­ful min­i­mal­ism. The rooms are fur­nished in a con­tem­po­rary, worldly way, us­ing a colour palate that favours muted earth tones. At the ho­tel’s cen­tre is a huge atrium, framed by a one-sided glass wall, as well as a ceil­ing of glass, and it makes for by far the most im­pres­sive lobby-cum-lounge in town – where even on cloudy days, you can en­joy the feel­ing of sun­light flood­ing into the space. The rooms are all dif­fer­ent in size, which adds to the charm, and the ser­vice is top­notch, but the ho­tel’s not with­out fault. For ex­am­ple, the Floris bath ameni­ties are of the eco-un­friendly, teeny-tiny va­ri­ety, there are only four hangars in your cup­boards, the win­dows hardly open and elec­tri­cal out­lets are of­ten in­stalled only on one side of the bed. Then there’s the fact that at 700 USD a night, you’d have thought they’d throw in free break­fast, or at least the measly cost of the bi­cy­cle rentals, but they don’t. On the plus side, the beds are won­der­fully com­fort­able, there’s an ex­cel­lent spa with an 18-me­tre pool and in terms of its lo­ca­tion (which is smack bang out­side the Van Gogh mu­seum), you couldn’t ask for much bet­ter.

Day 1

On your first day, af­ter check­ing into the ho­tel, head straight to the Ri­jksmu­seum, the Dutch na­tional mu­seum of art and his­tory, which re­opened in 2013 af­ter a decade (and

half a bil­lion dol­lars) of re­con­struc­tion. Gone is the labyrinth of claus­tro­pho­bic rooms, in its place is a se­ries of grand gal­leries de­signed by Span­ish ar­chi­tects Cruz y Or­tiz. Two whole floors were even ripped out to make way for a vast sky-lit en­trance foyer. And as ex­pected, Rem­brandt's mag­nif­i­cent 'Night Watch' re­mains the cen­tre­piece, but all around it has changed, in­clud­ing most im­por­tantly, a dar­ing and in­ven­tive pre­sen­ta­tion of col­lec­tions. Once you’ve fin­ished tak­ing in the art, make sure you check out the mu­seum’s beau­ti­ful south-side gar­den, where vis­i­tors can sit and en­joy a glass of wine. And pop by their Miche­lin-starred restau­rant Ri­jks, although you won’t have time to eat there, at least on this trip. In­stead, try some­thing quicker and lighter – Sin­gel 404. Sin­gel 404 is easy to miss when you’re on a bi­cy­cle, as it’s an unas­sum­ing canal-side lunchtime café, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in its menu, which is huge. There are over 75 sand­wiches to choose from as well as a num­ber of in­ter­est­ing sal­ads. When you’re done, get back on your bike and take a five-minute trip to Moooi Gallery. The glo­ri­ous Moooi is os­ten­si­bly a fur­ni­ture and home ac­ces­sories shop, yet its wares are beau­ti­ful enough to dis­play as art. It was founded by Dutch de­signer Mar­cel Wan­der who be­lieves it’s “a col­lec­tion of ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble”, from a life-sized black horse lamp and a ‘Turbo’ ta­ble, which look like a child’s draw­ing of a car come to life, to the 'Killing of the Piggy Bank' ce­ramic pig vase, com­plete with gold ham­mer and all. For din­ner, The Duchess, is a kind of trendy mix of La Pe­tite Mai­son meets The Wolse­ley. Housed in a din­ing room that dates back to the Belle Epoque era, The Duchess once served as the count­ing of­fice (what­ever that is) of a bank but it’s now part of the W Ho­tel. Framed by an enor­mous and dis­tant, stained-glass roof, dec­o­rated with swaths of dark mar­ble and fur­nished with count­less deep-padded leather seats, it

of­fers Mediter­ranean dishes with a mod­ern twist. Mind you, the starters are more in­ter­est­ing than the mains so load up on the prawns in warm olive oil, foie gras-filled donuts and baked scallops with mush­room be­fore shar­ing a Beef Welling­ton, broc­coli and truffle gnoc­chi and grilled lamb cut­lets with figs. Fol­low­ing that, you’ll def­i­nitely be in need of a breather, so why not burn off some calo­ries by tak­ing an eye-open­ing, heart quick­en­ing stroll through the red light al­ley­ways of De Wallen?

Day 2

A hearty break­fast at The Con­ser­va­to­rium is a per­fect way to start an easy morn­ing off. Those who want to shop can walk two blocks north of the ho­tel, where they’ll find Amsterdam’s ver­sion of Rodeo Drive: Pi­eter Cor­nelisz Hoof­s­traat, and those who don’t should sim­ply stay put and en­joy an in­dul­gent morn­ing at the spa. Com­mon ground will be found over lunch at Lion Noir, a su­per ‘in’ restau­rant cre­ated by the owner of one of the city’s best-known night­clubs (Jimmy Woo). Ta­bles up­stairs in the deep-green walled main din­ing room are pop­u­lar, but real in­sid­ers know to ask for a spot in the court­yard gar­den, be­side the build­ing’s supremely el­e­gant rear façade. Next head to De 9 Straat­jes (The 9 Streets), which is the city's most pho­to­genic mi­cro-neigh­bour­hood and the best place to stroll about and get a feel for the city’s trendy lo­cal boutiques. Two ab­so­lute musts are: The Otherist (which has an in­ter­est­ing col­lec­tion of cu­riosi­ties) and Van Stapele (which sells only one prod­uct – the most de­li­cious Val­rhona choco­late cookie you’ll ever try). Save some space though for din­ner, which is at Ciel Bleu, the only twostarred Miche­lin restau­rant in Amsterdam. It’s lo­cated on the 23rd floor of the Okura Ho­tel, one of the tallest build­ings in town, so apart from sump­tu­ous fare and im­pec­ca­ble ser­vice you’ll also get to en­joy a rare and un­re­stricted view across the city. With­out giv­ing too much away, Ciel Bleu will likely be the high­light of your trip.

Day 3

Start the day with a break­fast-brunch at Lit­tle Collins, which of­fers Dutch staples such as kedgeree and eggs hol­landaise as well as orig­i­nal cre­ations like oys­ters with te­quila-lime granita. Af­ter break­fast, cy­cle over to Menno Kroon, an up­mar­ket flower shop that sells beau­ti­ful ce­ramic tulip vases by Anouk Kramer and don’t worry about car­ry­ing one on your bike, as th­ese guys are al­ready the florists for The Con­ser­va­to­rium and will gladly drop off what­ever you buy, right to your room. Next stop, it’s Von­del­park, Amsterdam's largest – and most fa­mous – mu­nic­i­pal park and once you’ve cir­cum­nav­i­gated it, hope­fully stop­ping to smell the tulips, you’ll no doubt be ready for Ron Gas­tro­bar by Chef Ron Blaauw, who shut down his dou­ble-miche­lin-starred restau­rant to turn it into this gas­tropub, which serves im­pec­ca­ble yet af­ford­able cui­sine. There are about 25 one-flat-price tapas-style dishes, in­clud­ing lamb tacos driz­zled with harissa and yo­ghurt, Wagyu slid­ers served with a coat­ing of blue cheese and served in brioche buns, and spaghetti slathered in beurre de Paris, oys­ter but­ter and poor man’s caviar. To be frank, this is the one place that should never be missed by any­one vis­it­ing Amsterdam. Next stop is the Van Gogh Mu­seum, be­cause who are we kid­ding, what is a trip to Hol­land with­out tak­ing in the works of its most fa­mous artist? Then if you have the ap­petite, you should re­ally con­sider stop­ping by Ten Kate Friet, for some ex­cep­tional fries (which by the way are an ob­ses­sion in the Nether­lands). Fi­nally, make your last din­ner Vinke­les, sit­u­ated in a for­mer bakery at the Dy­lan Ho­tel. Chef Den­nis Kuipers’ Miche­lin star is well earned and his re­fined dishes be­tray a ded­i­ca­tion to pu­rity, in terms of flavour and pre­sen­ta­tion. You’ll leave Amsterdam in­spired by its cul­ture, food and ser­vice and, af­ter all we have ac­com­plished in just three days, I defy you to not want to re­turn to this charm­ing city of dinky gabled build­ings, pretty bridges and quiet canals. Un­til next time, Amsterdam.

Left: Von­del­park is loved by Am­s­ter­dammers and tourists alike. It's al­ways full of peo­ple walk­ing their dogs, jog­ging, roller-skat­ing, lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, laz­ing about in the grass tak­ing or, like us, tak­ing the scenic com­mute. Bot­tom left: Van Stapele...

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