For many travelers, a visit to the English-speaking Venice of the North is the first introduction to Europe. Backpackers and college students seek out coffeehouses, gawk at prostitutes in the red-light district, check off museum art lists of old Dutch masters, and enjoy the 65 miles worth of canals — and 1,500 bridges over them.
There’s much more to the city than marijuana cafes, canals, and red lights. An early melting pot, Amsterdam’s sophisticated side has been bolstered with refurbished museums, a handful of new designer hotels, and a crop of fabulous new restaurants plating Dutch classics with fresh new twists.
Splurge: Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht – Once a library, the Andaz has been converted to an upscale 122-room hotel, with bold primary colors and a modern interpretation of icons like tulips and clogs that has given the stylish space an ultracontemporary feel. Quirky, elegant standard rooms feature rugs printed with delft, hand-painted sinks, and whimsical oversized fish murals. Complimentary Wi-Fi, local calls, bicycles, and healthy minibars sweeten the deal. Doubles from $406.
Steal: CitizenM Amsterdam City – This Dutch-born, high-design/low-budget chain has won over a new generation of travelers seeking comfort for less. Rooms at the 215-room hotel are technology-forward, with rain-type showers, electric blinds, and a “mood pad,” which you can use to adjust the music, media, temperature, and lighting. Wi-Fi is of course, free. Doubles from $97.
Breakfast: Upstairs Pancake House – This homey jewel box restaurant, which has been vetted by the Beastie Boys and Anthony Bourdain, claims to be the smallest in Europe. It has only four tables, accessed by a narrow staircase typical of a 16th-century house. The eatery serves many types of pancakes, including chicken, bacon, pear and eggnog, apple, cheese, and banana. It fills up fast on weekends, but you can put your name on the list and explore the surrounding canals.
Lunch: Haesje Claes – This restaurant feels very Dutch: It occupies six historically preserved buildings that once housed an orphanage, and it’s decorated with teapots. Local classics are the specialties in this warren of wood-paneled dining rooms, including cod bathed in mustard sauce, candied duck legs with sauerkraut, and stamppot — a mashed potato dish that’s best washed down with local brew.
Dinner: Brasserie Harkema – For more contemporary fare, head to this stylish spot, just steps from the quiet, leafy Grimburgwal canal. The spacious, multilevel dining room, with pinstriped wallpaper and exposed brick walls, offers optimal people watching, while the side street terrace is better suited for warm days. Seasonal dishes include homemade shrimp croquettes, croque monsieur stuffed with lobster and red onion marmalade, and a winter bouillabaisse filled with salmon, prawns, catfish, halibut, and potatoes.
Dessert: Ijscuypje – Delicious-looking, chocolate-dipped waffles occupy the windows of bakeries at just about every corner of the city, but (sadly) they rarely taste good. Ice cream, however, is elevated to new levels at this natural spot, where house-made flavors include rhubarb, lemon cake, stroopwafel (inspired by the maple-filled waffle cookie sandwiches), and speculoos (based on the spread made from mashed, spiced cookies). There are multiple locations now, but the original on Eerste van der Helststraat is adjacent to the bustling Albert Cuypmarkt food market.
For Everyone: Museums – Amsterdam is home to more than 50 museums, and they rank as the most visited sights in the city. You can’t see them all, but you can see three in a day. Start with the well-preserved Anne Frank House, at which you can explore the annex where two Jewish families — including Anne — hid from Nazis for two years. Then head to the Rijksmuseum, where a decade-long, $510 million renovation was worth the wait. Masterpieces like Rembrandt’s “Night Watch,” Vermeer’s “Milkmaid,” and Albrecht Dürer’s “Adam and Eve” look so good in their luminous new surroundings. Your final stop: The Van Gogh Museum, which also recently reopened after a seven-month refurb, is home to the most extensive collection of Van Gogh’s work in the world, including 200 paintings and 400 drawings.
For Couples: Van Loon – Relive Amsterdam’s Golden Age at this romantic 17th-century private residence-turned-museum. The residence was first occupied by painter Ferdinand Bol, a student of Rembrandt, and the interior has remained largely intact during the last few centuries. The art exhibited today is almost entirely contemporary, with exhibits by Diane Arbus and photographer Daniëlle van Ark. Private dinners can be arranged in the dining room, but the garden — accessible during Open Garden Days in June, when many canal spaces open their gardens to the public — is especially lovely.
For Families: The Sloten Windmill – Built in 1847 on the outskirts of town along the Ringvaart canal, this is one of the few iconic windmills left in Amsterdam. Adult tours are led by volunteers who show how millers practice their trade, discuss the mill’s engineering, and focus on exhibits like Amsterdam’s relationship to water. Children ages 6 and up get their own special tour, which includes refreshments and less technical stories.
For the Adventurous: Hot Tugging – This is the latest hybrid to wash ashore in Holland and a completely original way to admire Amsterdam’s sights: from a floating eight-person hot tub, rented out for 200 euros per hour by Boot Amsterdam. The tub is heated with wood, but on warm summer days, it can be converted to a cold floating pool. Be sure to reserve in advance, as the place often sells out.
There’s no shortage of bike rental agencies in town, but it’s better to go with a tried and trusted firm like Mike’s Bike Tours and Rentals, run by locals who know their city and offer excellent tours. Condensed two-hour tours avoid the tourist traps and take in more offbeat sights, while customizable private tours can take you to windmills, a cheese farm, a clog factory, or wherever else you want to go.