I moved from London to Amsterdam almost three years ago, and I still find the city staggeringly, almost indecently beautiful. When the sun’s out – which happens more often than you might imagine in spring and summer – I defy anyone not to swoon as they cycle canal-side, taking in the colourful boats and barges bobbing on the glittering water and the fairytale backdrop of those crooked townhouses. It’s a city that’s easy to fall in love with.
Hiding in plain sight among the tourist traps are street-food collectives, historic hostelries, whizz-bang Michelin-starred restaurants and salt-of-the-earth ‘brown bars’ (the equivalent of old-school British pubs). Amsterdam’s centre is so compact and culturally rich that you can pack in a surprising amount in a weekend – even if you do want to include frequent pit-stops.
One of the city’s top draws is the Vondelpark, a 120-acre oasis that fills up daily with boot-campers, dog-walkers, families and, of course, tourists. Masterfully stage-managed, it’s living proof of the Dutch reputation for green fingers: in the spring, its flower beds erupt with blast after blast of colour like some sort of slow-motion firework display, while its meandering wooded paths and lakes offer plenty of surprises (search for the treehouse if you’re travelling with kids).
Pausing for a drink here is a treat throughout the day – the open-air Vondeltuin segues particularly well from cappuccinos to caipirinhas – but just streets away, brunch beckons. Head into the well-to-do Oud-Zuid district to Dignita, a buzzing café serving rustic all-day brunches, including wedges of rösti topped with hot-smoked salmon, poached eggs and tangy hollandaise.
A half-hour walk from here lies the museum quarter with its architectural jewel of a centrepiece, the Rijksmuseum. If world-class art is your bag, your weekend starts and ends here: feast your eyes on masterpieces including Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and Vermeer’s The Milkmaid, or learn more about Van Gogh and his art at his dedicated museum next door.
For special-occasion dining, don’t miss Rijks restaurant. Otherwise, cross the bridge to the Grachtengordel, Amsterdam’s rainbow-shaped canal belt, to Buffet van Odette. Ostensibly a convivial salad bar with mix-and-match platters atop the counter, it’s better known for its decadent truffled-cheese omelette. Alternatively, weave your way towards the Negen Straatjes – a three-by-three grid of quaint cobbled streets packed with concept stores, clothes boutiques and art dealers – to Libertine Cafe Cafe, a cool, small-plates hangout (try the asparagus and taleggio-topped pizzetta for a taste of spring).
Guided by the water’s edge, continue to the city’s most quintessential neighbourhood, the Jordaan. Once working-class, now gentrified, it’s retained stacks of old-Amsterdam character: on summer evenings, you might hear accordion players leading jovially drunk locals in impromptu singalongs; I’ve even seen Jordanners waltzing in the street.
There are some truly fantastic restaurants in this part of town: book ahead for Toscanini, an upmarket Italian where everything, from the umami wallop of roasted bone marrow on toast to the homemade pasta, will thrill. For an authentically Dutch experience, try your luck as a walk-in at De Reiger, a characterful pub-restaurant serving big, bold dishes and Dutch beers. The chalkboard menu changes notionally with the seasons, but the house-marinated ribs with chips, coleslaw and garlic sauce are a year-round crowdpleaser.
Even during the day, there’s plenty to recommend this neighbourhood. Anne Frank hid here with her family during the Nazi occupation, and a trip to Anne Frank House is a must. A few streets away is the Noordermarkt, a 400-year-old marketplace where business is still booming: on Saturday, the emphasis is on organic food.
This is the place to treat yourself to a Dutch dessert: either poffertjes – tiny pancakes flipped on demand, then loaded with butter and icing sugar – or a wedge of cinnamon-laced appeltaart from Winkel 43, identifiable by its perma-queue. Or seek out one of the city’s herring stalls: this year, the season for this cured fish, usually served chopped with gherkins and onion, begins on 12 June.
Time for a drink? Stroll to Dam Square, home to the Royal Palace and gateway to De Wallen, Amsterdam’s famous red-light district. Duck into Wynand Fockink, a 17th-century distillery and tasting tavern. With its 70-odd speciality liqueurs and genevers arranged on the bowed shelves behind the apothecary-like bar, it’s the closest you can get to actual time travel. Sample your genever the traditional way, as part of a kopstoot (literally ‘headbutt’): the bartender fills a tulip-shaped glass to the brim with genever and sets a beer alongside; you bow to the genever for your first (hands-free) sip, then sip your beer.
On the other side of Dam Square, Spuistraat offers night-time diversion aplenty. Down a back alley, in a candlelit townhouse, Tales & Spirits pours inventive, top-notch cocktails; at Cannibale Royale, tattooed staff serve good-value steaks in horror-like surrounds (think dangling dolls’ limbs and voodoo masks); D’Vijff Vlieghen, a restaurant so old it looks to have sunk into the pavement, has creaking, atmospheric interiors and delicious, modern Dutch menus.
Push the boat out
Sunday in Amsterdam means late starts and boat trips: many Mokummers (those born and raised in the city) own a boat, and on sunny afternoons take to the water with a picnic and a bottle of bubbly. To put-put around the canals is a gentle way to experience the city: you really have time to look at the buildings you chug past and xplore the narrower waterways.
If you prefer dry land, Westerpark comes to life on a sunny Sunday. It has no shortage of places to eat – my preference is a fishbowl-sized G&T and a bowl of creamy, coconut-laced Thai-style mussels in the walled garden of Mossel & Gin. Westerpark is also home to the HQ of Tony’s Chocolonely, the Amsterdammer’s drug of choice (the chunky, ‘slavery-free’ chocolate bars are sweet souvenirs that won’t make it home…) There’s also a monthly market (7 April, 12 May, 9 June, 7 July; sundaymarket.nl) that mixes fashion and design stalls with street-food stands. If you’re with kids, let them run free at Het Woeste Westen, a typically Dutch nature-play area with makeshift rafts, zip wires over water, and open fires for bread-baking.
For a foodie finale, loop back towards Vondelpark via the hip boutiques of Oud West, stopping at the city’s most innovative gelateria, Ludo & Hedo, en route. My favourite of their heavenly gelati is the sweet-savoury woolly bee (peach, honey and thyme) but I dare you to try one of the more eccentrically Dutch concoctions, from liquorice to potato or herring (yes, really). Carry on to De Hallen, a former tram depot reinvented as a street-food hub with burgers, tacos, hotdogs, poké bowls and more around a buzzing central bar. Be warned: the later you arrive, the busier it will be, but it offers a quick, quality taste of the city in a fun setting.
Time for one last drink? Hop on a tram bound for Brouwerij ’t IJ . You can’t miss this brewery next to a windmill; with its chatter-filled, cheek-by-jowl bar and riverside alfresco seating, it’s a brilliant spot for beer and bites. Work your way through the brewery’s beer flight (a rack of five smaller glasses showcasing a range of styles) and raise a toast to this showstopper of a city. Trust me, you’ll be back.
Easyjet has weekend flights from London Stansted, Luton and Southend from £70 return. Eurostar offers tickets (Friday to Monday) from St Pancras International for £200 return.
Where to stay
Amsterdam’s rooms don’t come cheap. For gems on the more affordable scale, try:
Sweetshotel: Book one of the 28 bridge houses on the canals around the city. Formerly homes to the city’s bridge keepers, they’ve been converted into (tiny) double rooms. You can’t beat them for location. From €140 (room only)
Morgan & Mee: Set in an imposing corner building just behind the Jordaan, this boutique hotel offers chic rooms and a buzzing vibe. Brunch in its sun-trap courtyard is a hot weekend ticket on warm days. From €190 (room only)