AMSTERDAM, in the Netherlands, has a certain reputation (which is part of its charm) but it’s the bikes, art, beer…and ducks…that demand attention.
The first lesson you learn when you set foot in Amsterdam: watch where you walk. There are 880,000 bicycles in this city (more bikes than people!), and it’s clear from the moment we step out of Centraal train station and see the crammed four-level bike park that cyclists rule here. Yet later on, gazing at an adorably tilted canal house, I miss the ‘ding’ of an oncoming bell and narrowly avoid being mowed down—by an entire family on a single bike; kids tucked behind handlebars and the day’s groceries on a wooden barrow up front. It’s all part of the Dutch capital’s charm.
Visitors can rent their own two-wheeled transport for touring (bikeisready.com). But it’s best to start on the water. Amsterdam is home to a 17th-century network of canals that ring the city centre, fanning to the outer boroughs. We orient with an hour-long cruise, putt-putting under arched bridges and among bobbing houseboats as a sonorous-but-informative guide points out the major ’hoods, plus landmarks like Golden Age gabled houses; Westerkerk, the city’s tallest church, and the 1655 Royal Palace. Then there’s Anne Frank House, where the young diarist lived in hiding 1942–1944; now a must-see museum (annefrank.org).
Hopping off the boat, we turn to gallery hopping. The gothic-castle-like Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl) houses thousands of works by Dutch masters, the most gawped-at being Van Gogh’s 1887 self-portrait, Vermeer’s 1657 “The Milkmaid” and Rembrandt’s massive masterpiece “The Night Watch.” Our group snags a Night Watch study sheet and joins the clutch of tourists examining the 1642 painting for details that reveal the artist’s mastery of light, shadow and three-dimensional rendering.
Farther along the grassy Museumplein, or Museum Square, lie The Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk modern art museum. But Moco Museum,
a private gallery opened last year in a 1904 townhouse, offers a quirky counterpoint to the big institutions, showcasing what it calls “the rock stars of art.” The big draw these days is Banksy—90-plus pieces by the enigmatic UK street artist, including his famed “Girl with a Balloon” (until May 31; mocomuseum.com).
By now, stomachs are growling. Dutch delicacies like pickled raw herring and poffertjes, chubby mini-pancakes dusted with icing sugar, only get you so far. Fortunately, the city is a hot-pot of cuisine from around the world. Its Indonesian food scene—a byproduct of Dutch colonial history in Southeast Asia—is feast-worthy. Tomorrow we’ll try a rijsttafel, or “rice table,” a Dutch-Indonesian spread of small plates and rice, at Sampurna (sampurna.com), near the flower market, or Restaurant Blauw (restaurantblauw.nl), west of Vondelpark.
But we’re headed to Amstelpark, a south-side oasis with meandering walking paths, willow-lined ponds, gardens and wandering Muscovy ducks. It’s also the site of Taste of Amsterdam, an annual food fest that brings a sea of food trucks and tasting tents, along with celebrity chefs, cooking classes and demos (June 2–5; en.tasteofamsterdam.com). We start by devouring organic salad wraps, then get straight to sipping: cold Batavia Dutch coffee and genever, a Dutch precursor to gin, from local distiller Hoog Houdt. Then it’s on to Lowlander Beer; brewed with botanicals like chamomile and coriander. We raise our cups, toast the day and promise to step carefully on the way home. — Kirsten Rodenhizer
For more, check out iamsterdam.com.