Flush with revamped cultural attractions, beguiling new hotels, cleaned-up canals, and an irrepressible energy, the ever-evolving Dutch capital has shaken off its louche past to become one of Europe’s most exciting cities of the moment.
Soaring cloudward on a swing, 100 meters above the river IJ, you can see that Amsterdam is exhilaratingly different from any other city in the world, with rings of World Heritage– listed canals, enough bike lanes to stretch all the way to London, and an unconventional marriage of old, uneven architecture and new designs underscored by a quirky can-do energy. It’s different, too, from the Amsterdam of 20 years ago, that grubby-at-the-seams city for lost weekends of cannabis-smoking, stag-night debauchery in the red-light district, and little beers spanning long nights.
The best view of the Netherlands’ modern capital is undoubtedly from this set of strawberry-red hydraulic swings atop the former Royal Dutch Shell office tower on the north bank of the IJ. Abandoned by the multinational oil company in 2009, the 21-story building is now the A’dam Toren, an entertainment hub crowned by a 360-degree observation deck complete with sun cushions, Astroturf, and the accurately named Over the Edge swings, said to be Europe’s highest. Just below are the sparkling bar-brasserie Madam and Restaurant Moon, which revolves very slowly as you work your way through chef Jaimie van Heije’s five- or seven-course tasting menus. (A subterranean nightclub and hip 108-room hotel will soon join the lineup.)
From up here, the dainty gables of Amsterdam’s canal belt are swallowed up in a mesh of towers, trees, lights, and life. Yet the city where I’ve lived for the past seven years is changing, like the shifting land underneath it—land so unstable that all of Amsterdam is built upon massive piles driven into the ground and residents live in fear that City Hall will find out their house is sinking and force them to pay a small fortune for new foundations. It hasn’t left everything behind, but those seedy, smokier days have cleared—and multicolored, multi-ethnic Amsterdam looks fresher for it.
Leaving those terrifying swings behind, I head back down to earth and catch a ferry across the IJ to another slick new Dutch building: the Centraal train station. Work is ongoing here to create a new bus terminal and link to a North–South metro line expected to be finished in 2018, but the glistening IJ side of the station opened in July and is already bustling. And it’s there, at the I Amsterdam Store, that I meet up with Machteld Ligtvoet from Amsterdam Marketing, the city’s promotion arm. Part well-curated souvenir shop, part visitor’s center, the months-old store also serves as an impressive showcase of Amsterdam brands and products: delicious fair-trade chocolate bars from Tony’s Chocolonely, raw-denim jeans by G-Star (now co-owned by Pharrell Williams), Droog kitchenware and Bols liqueurs, and sculptural footwear from architect Rem Koolhaas’s United Nude shoe label. There’s even a vending wall from FEBO, an unmissable Dutch fast-food experience.
Named after its first site on the Ferdinand Bolstraat in Amsterdam’s formerly working class (and increasingly hip) De Pijp area, FEBO has offered its own rich contribution to the Dutch language: uit de muur eten (literally, “eating from the wall”). The venerable automat chain—75 years old this year—fries up all kinds of croquettes and burgers and sticks them in a wall of vending machines. Posh it isn’t, but although Amsterdam offers some beautiful food, there’s also a culture of functional eating: many Dutch people have brown bread with two slices of cheese and ham for breakfast … and again for lunch.
Though sort of tempting, the FEBO snack wall at the I Amsterdam Store is luckily just a display, so Machteld and I find a café nearby where she talks about her hometown over a cup of fresh mint tea.
“The city has seen a lot of change in the last 20 years,” she says. “We have renovated many old buildings, Amsterdam looks beautiful, the canals are now clean enough for our Queen Máxima to swim in, and the hard drugs we used to have on the street are gone. Amsterdam still has a rough edge—that’s in our DNA. But we’ve built a great city by being tolerant and open-minded.” After a pause, she adds, “It’s not exactly anything goes in Amsterdam, but you can be yourself, as long as you do not bother other people. We don’t go berserk when we see somebody who is— as we say in Dutch—coloring outside the lines.”
Amsterdam still has coffee shops where cannabis can be bought and smoked under 1960s tolerance laws (although in theory soft drugs are banned, and growing them is a criminal activity). But many have been closed due to their proximity to schools, while the city’s infamous red-light district has seen a third of its coffee shops—plus 126 window brothels—shuttered as part of Project 1012, a government initiative aimed at “cleaning up” the area.
With typical Dutch frankness, Machteld explains: “We don’t want people who merely use Amsterdam as a backdrop to their parties. We want people to enjoy the canals, go to the museums, try our food. To experience the authentic Amsterdam.”
This “authentic” Amsterdam, where canal houses are real, lived-in homes and residents will be cross if you walk in the bike lanes, started life as a fishing village around a dam in the Amstel River. The first written record of “Amstelledamme” is—typically for these keen tax-collectors—from a toll record in 1275. The original wooden dwellings of this low, swampy place made way for the gabled brick houses and buildings created in the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, when traders from the Netherlands dominated the world and arts, culture, and science were at their fore. The Royal Palace in Dam Square was built then, as a town hall for citizens, as was the Westerkerk church (where Rembrandt was buried) and the beautiful canal belt, named a World Heritage Site in 2010.
Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century, and there was a collective effort from national and local government and city marketing bodies to bring some of the glory days back to Amsterdam: houseboats were plumbed into the sewage system, brick-cobbled streets were relaid, canal houses cleaned up with the help of public grants and incentives, and those closed coffee shops and windows in the red-light district offered for low rent to entrepreneurs, artists, and boutique stores—a project in progress until 2018. As it approaches its 750th birthday, this grand old dame is aging remarkably well—in fact, the city has never been so clean, beautiful, and brimming with movement from its legion of tourists, 800,000- plus inhabitants, and their 881,000 bicycles.
Not surprisingly for one of Europe’s most visited cities, there is a profusion of excellent hotels to choose from. If you can bear to bed down outside the canal district, consider the Conservatorium, a striking neo-Gothic bank turned music conservatory in Amsterdam’s museum quarter that reopened in 2013 as a 129-room hotel complete with original teakwood floors, Art Deco tiling, and minimalist, high-ceilinged guest quarters by Milanese designer Piero Lissoni. The same year saw the debut of the Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht, set right on its namesake canal and boasting whimsical interiors courtesy of the Netherlands’ own Marcel Wanders— think lipstick-red tulip chairs, nautical motifs that pay cheeky homage to Holland’s heyday as a maritime power, and washbasins hand-painted in the designer’s signature “One-Minute Delft Blue” style.
A couple of canals along, the more millennial-centric Hoxton opened last year in a clutch of beautifully restored canal houses. Rooms range from tiny “Shoeboxes” (a bargain at €89 a night) to “Tubby,” an attic space with fine canal views and the property’s only bathtub. Whichever category you choose, they all have bespoke toiletries, homey touches like vintage alarm clocks and books, and a free breakfast bag, which you hang outside your room to be filled with healthy deli snacks. Lotti’s, the Hoxton’s relaxed, canal-side restaurant, is another plus.
And if you want to feel like one of those rich Dutch merchants of yore, there’s the just-renovated Pulitzer. Here, 25 historic houses on the Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht have been meticulously woven together to give you a luxurious, modern, but convincing glimpse into bygone life on the canals. Restaurant Jansz has its own apothecary-like entrance onto the Jordaan’s fashionable Negen Straatjes (“Nine Streets”) quarter and the top suites even come with their own front door onto the Keizersgracht. There’s a moody, upmarket bar, sunny gardens equipped with chair swings, and to get exactly the right formula for each of the 225 unique bedrooms, designer Jacu Strauss stayed in each one first; he also plundered the city’s markets, art galleries, and furniture shops for inspiration. Walking into reception, with its dark wood floors and rich, gold touches, feels like stepping into a museum. But there are quirks aplenty too, as in the Art Collector’s Suite, where the ample artworks include a massive canvas (created especially for the hotel by Thierry de Cromieres) that riffs off a 1616 banquet scene painted by Dutch master Frans Hals, except with beers and burgers.
Bags unpacked, it’s time to explore. According to Machteld, the Dutch government has invested some US$11 billion into cultural life, and it’s evident in a whole host of museum renovations throughout the Netherlands. The most prestigious was the reopening of Amsterdam’s monumental Rijksmuseum three years ago after a decade-long transformation program. Today, even in the thick of summer, when thousands of visitors meander through its airy rooms and classic atriums, it barely seems full. Beautiful works of art appear, ordered by age, from celebrated Rembrandts and Vermeers to displays of hats, Delftware, cannons, and even a furry womb—a 1968 coffin sculpture by Dutch artist Ferdi Jansen called Wombtomb, if you must know.
A few steps away, through a new tunnel popular with buskers, are two other refreshed cultural institutions. The Van Gogh Museum, home to more than 200 paintings, 500 drawings, and 700 letters by the beloved Dutch artist (as well as more unusual displays such as the gun with which he is thought to have shot himself), last year marked the 125th anniversary of Vincent van Gogh’s death with the un-veiling of a sparkly new atrium. The nearby Stedelijk Museum, dedicated to contemporary art and design, reopened after an extensive overhaul in 2012 with a wacky frontage nicknamed “the Bathtub.” While there were criticisms of the design, plaudits have piled in for special exhibitions such as its recent study of the Amsterdam School, an early 20th-century design and architecture movement. (Fans of this Expressionist style and its intricate brickwork should also visit the Museum Het Schip, a former post office designed by Michel de Klerk that is celebrating 100 years of the Amsterdam School this year.)
Music lovers must take in a concert at the Concertgebouw, which has celebrated acoustics and a wide-ranging program. For cinema buffs, there’s the Eye Film Institute, right next to the A’dam Toren in up-and-coming Amsterdam-Noord; the white-paneled, aerodynamic building houses museum exhibitions and four cinemas that screen a revolving roster of classic films. And with 300 festivals a year (many of them free), Amsterdam has an event for every visitor.
One of the delights of this city is revealed by a simple bike ride from attraction to attraction: it is tiny, yet every neighborhood feels different. A short ride from the canal zone, the big-name museums sit in the staid but affluent Oud Zuid. From there, you cycle northeast through the cosmopolitan, foody melting pot of De Pijp, then through the red-light district— where you’ll be less bothered with touts than tourists meandering through the streets with their suitcases, while the ladies working the windows just look hot in the lack-of-ventilation sense. This may be one of the world’s safest cities, but bike theft is rampant, so do lock up while you are enjoying your gin and elderflower tonic garnished with cucumber—gin cocktails being the current vogue.
In the summer, Amsterdammers sit out and soak in the sun; in winter, we skate on frozen canals, or find somewhere cozy for hot glühwein and bitterballen. When it rains, that’s okay too, because one clever Amsterdam collective is using rainwater to make Hemelswater beer. And in the spring, when a white elm blossom blows into your beer as you sit looking up at the changing skyline, raise a glass to the “spring snow” and know that some enterprising Dutch people are using it to make Eau d’Amsterdam perfume.
We residents are sometimes less courteous than we might be to tourists. But there’s no doubt about why ever more come: this is a city that has emerged from the worldwide economic crisis more vital than ever, coloring outside its own classic lines in the most brilliant shades.
This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Amsterdam on the Up”).