Known as “the Venice of the North” and “the City of Diamonds”, Amsterdam is also a City of Fun.
Romantics might pick Paris, and shopaholics might choose fashion-conscious Rome. But when it comes to choosing a continental city for a holiday during which you just want to let your hair down, there is only one real candidate: Amsterdam.
More than two million visitors had fun there last year. And if its reputation is slightly on the naughty side, thanks to its laid-back lifestyle and throbbing nightlife, then don’t be put off. Vibrant it may be but Amsterdam is also one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
Add its artistic treasures to its architectural ambience, and its non-stop music to its ever-open bars and cafes, and you have something for everyone.
It was the city’s network of canals which gave Amsterdam the nickname of “the Venice of the North” – a title neither the Dutch nor the Venetians greatly appreciate but which, nonetheless, highlights the similarities between the two cities.
Like Venice, Amsterdam is best viewed from the water. So the most important thing for any first-time visitor to do, as long as the weather is kind, is to take one of the basic sightseeing cruises around the network of canals in the city centre. These are very cheap, and provide an invaluable introduction to both the city’s appearance and its geography.
The cruises start from opposite Central Station, as well as one or two other key points around the city, and come complete with multilingual commentaries.
If you have been to Amsterdam before, it is still worth taking to the water. The canal boat companies operate a variety of ‘themed’ cruises (evening dinner trips, to see the lights, are particularly good in spring or autumn), or you can even hire your own, family-sized, cruiser and go wherever you wish.
But if the weather is freezing, forget it. When that happens, the fun-loving folk of Amsterdam turn the smaller canals into giant skating rinks.
It comes as a surprise to find what a compact city Amsterdam really is. It is easy to explore on foot, or on a very cheaply hired bicycle. Motor transport is best avoided: the narrow roads are always jammed, and parking is well-nigh impossible.
However you choose to travel, first stop must be the palatially-styled Rijksmuseum. This famous art gallery and museum, soon to be reopened after major renovation works, normally attracts more than a million visitors a year, and most of them are there to see the celebrated collection of paintings by Rembrandt, including his massive work, “The Night Watch”.
But look around and you may discover less famous, and less crowded, treasures. I particularly enjoyed Rembrandt’s humourous little self-portrait, hidden round a corner. And the gallery’s collection of other Dutch Masters is worth exploring too.
Right behind the Rijksmuseum is the purpose-built Van Gogh Museum, which houses both the works of Van Gogh and his family’s collection of paintings by such contemporaries as Gaugin, Toulouse-Lautree, Pissarro and Manet. The collection of more than 200 paintings and 600 drawings by Van Gogh is the largest in the world.
Besides the cultural attractions, Amsterdam’s top tourist spots include the Royal Palace on the main street (the Dam): the nearby New Church (which, despite its name, dates from the fifteenth century): the emotive Anne Frank House: a remarkably popular Madame Tussaud’s waxworks: and the spectacular year-round Flower Market on the Singel.
There’s lots of good shopping, too – especially on the Dam and in neighbouring streets like Leidsestraat where the atmosphere is often enlivened by the oompah-style music of Amsterdam’s marvellous old street organs. This is a city of music – and there are concerts in many venues both at lunch-time (when they are usually free) and in the evenings.
When it comes to giving your credit card a bit of exercise, however, Amsterdam’s most serious shopping is done in a series of factories and workshops in quieter corners of the city. These are where the craftsmen who have given Amsterdam its other nickname – the “City of Diamonds” – practice their skills. If you are in the market for gems at a gem of a price, then Coster Diamonds (behind the Rijksmuseum), or one of their rivals, will be delighted to see you.
In fact, they’ll be pleased to see you anyway, because a visit to a diamond factory to watch the cutters at work has become another of Amsterdam’s tourist attractions. At Coster Diamonds, they’ll show you everything from gems the size of an egg down to the all-but-invisible brilliant-cut stone which – at 0.0012 carats – is officially the smallest diamond in the world.
There’s no disputing that Amsterdam has its sordid side. In fact, that too has become an attraction – with most visitors taking a stroll through the Red Light district where the “girls” ply their trade from pink-lit shop windows of an evening. But it is an area to avoid late at night, when muggers ply their trade there too.
Otherwise, Amsterdam is a remarkably safe, comfortable-feeling city. A place in which British visitors in particular feel at home – and not least because everyone seems to speak English.
Want to feel like a local? Then forget the traditional tourist spots, and the expensive hotel restaurants, and head for a “brown café”. There are dozens of “brown cafes”, all over the city. But they are not cafes as we know them, although they are often brown because the ceiling and walls have been stained by generations of cigar and cigarette smoke. They are pubs.
They are one of the few places where music is banned, because a brown café is a place for enjoying good beer, good conversation, and good companionship. No introductions are needed: everyone is included, and everyone chats to everyone else in whatever language seems easiest.
In short, Amsterdam is a city that offers its visitors a very warm welcome. The Dutch have a word for it: gezelligheid. It is not easy to translate, but the nearest we have to it in English is probably “conviviality”.
And that is what Amsterdam, “the City of Fun”, is all about.