It's time to look beyond the old cliches of canals and cafes - Amsterdam has changed dramatically in the last decade, and an exciting new city is emerging
Amsterdam is a city that everyone thinks they know. Images of smoky cafes and scantily clad women turning on those red lights are as much ingrained on the popular consciousness as the canals and the tragedy of Anne Frank. These popular preconceptions ring true for many visitors on arrival, but they really only tell half the story. The Dutch capital has changed more in the last decade than at any time in its modern history and a new city is emerging that defies all the old clichés.
In the canals beneath the red light district, internet entrepreneurs now strike deals across the globe from their houseboats, and the traditional exports of tulips and Heineken beer are now being joined by finance and fashion as the city emerges as one of Europe’s most dynamic.
The city has clearly come a long way since it was founded, as the story has it, by two fishermen and a seasick dog. The legend goes that the dog jumped ship to deposit the contents of its stomach and the two fishermen became the founders of Amsterdam. The reality may have been slightly more prosaic, with the River Amstel being dammed in the 13th century and spawning a settlement that took on the moniker of Aemstelledamme.
The local tourist board is keen to stress that as well as being a nefarious oasis, Amsterdam boasts more museums per square inch than anywhere else on the planet. Everyone knows about the Rijksmuseum, opened in 1885, one of Europe’s great artistic Meccas, but even here a major revamp has recently brought it back to its best. Then there is the less heralded, but no less compelling Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, where the list of luminaries on show includes Picasso, Cézanne, Chagall and Monet. The Stedelijk also has a restaurant with a terrace overlooking the sculpture garden – a lovely place to sit on a sunny day.
Over the last decade Amsterdam has had to respond to the challenge of the upstart rival city of Rotterdam in the country’s south, which has completely reinvented itself from wartime devastation with new visitor attractions and some of the most innovative architecture in Europe. Rotterdam even had the audacity to snatch away the final of the European Football Championships in 2000, though many of the matches were held at the capital’s revolutionary new Ajax Arena, now one of the most impressive stadiums in the world.
Back in the centre of Amsterdam another renaissance is taking place in the city’s eating and drinking scene. Smoking is now barred in cafes, bars and restaurants, though the infamous ‘brown cafes’ are being given a temporary reprieve. This has coincided with a wave of bright new venues, with Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal currently the hippest street in the city.
The restaurant scene has come of age too. There are, of course, still some dire places that cater for the tour bus groups, but also a new wave of creative venues that rank amongst the best restaurants in Europe, with prices reasonable compared to London or Paris. Today you can still feast on Dutch colonial/Indonesian crossover dishes or hearty traditional Dutch cooking, but there are also Michelin-starred Japanese restaurants, French culinary palaces and the innovative fusion restaurants that have helped reinvent Amsterdam’s culinary reputation.
Other developments include the modern Metropolis (or Nemo) Science Museum, an interactive oasis guaranteed to keep kids and big kids alike occupied for hours, in a landmark building that looks more like a ship than a museum. Split across five floors and five zones, this funky museum shows off the new face of the city, a world away from stuffy old art galleries. The upper deck impresses with its sweeping views out over the water and the historic skyline of the city.
While the skyline still ripples with vaulting church spires and graceful old stone buildings, Amsterdam is constantly evolving as new and innovative solutions are found for the chronic housing shortage. The IJ river area is the setting for IJburg, a massive high tech residential area that fuses the Dutch expertise in land reclamation with some of the brightest architectural minds in Europe today. This vast site will eventually spread across six islands and house around 50,000 residents, with fast tram links into the city centre. It's yet another sign of a city that may draw people in with the legacies of its rich past, but which also compels as one of Europe’s most exciting modern destinations too.
Where to stay
A Japanese owned business tower hotel between the airport and the city centre. Extras include a first rate spa with a full jet-lag recovery package, including a work out programme, massage and meals. The hi-tech gym has a good selection of machines as well as a pool and sauna.
Hotel Seven One Seven
Stylish boutique accommodation nestling right on the edge of the Prinsengracht canal. Only eight rooms and suites, all boasting large beds, Bang & Olusen DVDs, as well as CD players and modem connections.
Dylan Hotel Amsterdam
Located in the trendy Jordaan district in a former 17th-century theatre. The combination of minimalist designer decor in the 26 bedrooms, an intimate courtyard garden, canal views, young staff and a top-notch restaurant have won it numerous (well deserved) awards.
Where to eat
Part of what is now a global phenomenon and a a super cool hangout of the local cognoscenti. The menu is a multi-course feast with surprise the name of the game. Underneath the restaurant you can find the Supper Club Lounge, a suitably trendy little bar.
A hotel restaurant housed in the striking tower of the Okura Hotel. Well deserving of its Michelin star this superb eatery presents all that is good about Japanese cooking with a touch of Dutch swagger. A truly sublime dining experience.
This chic eatery is brought to you by the folks behind the living legend, the Supper Club, The decor is sparse and minimalist as are the staff, who can be a bit aloof. But the five-course tasting menu is already legendary, too, with a taste of Holland mixed up with some global touches too to help really spice things up.