13 December 2018

A Weekend in Amsterdam: Bex's Guide

After a 19-year absence, 2018 was the year I finally returned to Amsterdam. I soon discovered that accommodation in the city is pretty expensive, even when booking well in advance. As such, I opted to take a morning flight from London City Airport that got me into central Amsterdam soon after 10 am on Saturday, flying back to London late on Sunday night. I saw quite a bit of the city in two full days, including six of its speciality coffee shops. Here's what else I got up to in my weekend in the Dutch capital.

Exploring the canals. Amsterdam's city centre is both compact and very photogenic, with its signature canal-side houses and bridges, which means it's a great place to explore on foot. To maximise my wandering, I stayed on Herengracht (Men's Canal), one of the three primary canals that run in concentric arcs around the heart of the city.

I also took a one-hour canal boat cruise (€16), which was a good introduction to the city and helped me to orient myself, even if the pre-recorded commentary was not especially in-depth. The weather wasn't great, which meant my photos through the rainy windows didn't come out very well.

Amsterdam Light Festival. I was in town for the seventh annual Light Festival, which runs from late November until 20 January 2019, and sees the installation of 29 light artworks around the city centre. You can take special after-dark canal cruises that take in the festival, plan your own route or just wait to see which installations you come across. I particularly liked A.N.N. (a representation of neural networks in the brain) and Light a Wish (featuring dandelions).

Van Gogh Museum. I've visited the Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank House before, so I went to the Van Gogh Museum (€18) this time. It gets busy at the weekend so I booked my ticket online in advance. My slot was on Sunday afternoon and it was indeed crowded. The permanent exhibits were interesting, but I most enjoyed Van Gogh Dreams, an interactive exhibition that allows you to "experience Van Gogh's emotional journey when he moved from Paris to Arles". It also tied in quite nicely to the Amsterdam Light Festival, which featured a Starry Night piece.

'I amsterdam' sign. Since 2004, at the front of the Rijksmuseum there has been a large red sign spelling out 'I amsterdam'. It's a very popular spot for tourists' photographs, which I ended up passing on the last day before the sign was removed by the council in an effort to reduce overcrowding. I could see why.

De Poezenboot. Alas, I missed it but you can visit a floating cat shelter while you're in Amsterdam. I did see a few felines in the city but I'd have loved to say hi to a few more on the 'kitty boat'.

I published my speciality coffee guide to Amsterdam earlier this week. Here are some of the other places where I ate and drank on this trip:

The Avocado Show. If you are fond of Persea americana and don't mind queuing for your brunch, The Avocado Show is the brunch spot for you. The waiting isn't too painful either as you can leave your name and they will then text you when you're near the top of the queue. Every dish on the menu features avocado; in the end, I went for the beetroot hummus on toast with and an avocado rose — one of the prettiest savoury brunches I've had, and tasted good too. I somehow found room for the waffles with chocolate, berries and avo. My second choice for brunch was Bakers & Roasters, a couple of blocks away.

The Butcher. For a really delicious, meaty burger in an industrial-chic setting, look no further than one of the branches of The Butcher. My cheeseburger was very tasty, although I wish I'd been organised enough to book a spot at their secret kitchen.

Mossel & Gin. West of the city centre, in Westerpark, Mossel & Gin serves up seafood and gin-based cocktails. I had a G&T with an infused gin, and fish and chips, which came with Mossel & Gin's special 'gin mayo', a punchy, tangy and moreish accompaniment. You even get to keep the tube of gin mayo. Early on Sunday evening, there was a bustling but relaxed vibe.

Graham's Kitchen. On Saturday night, I went to Liverpool native Graham's titular De Pijp restaurant where they serve locally sourced food with Dutch and British influences. You can choose from 3–6 courses on the set menu (three courses was a very reasonable €39). I started with a cocktail, Graham's take on 'beans on toast', a delicate crisp served with smashed beans, and Dutch potato soup, before moving on to the veal tartare, beef with pumpkin, and pear with white chocolate and star anise. The food was delicious, and Graham himself brought out many of the dishes — a lovely personal touch. Another restaurant that came highly recommended by various friends was The Duchess.

Original Stroopwafels. With so many real meals during the weekend, I didn't have much appetite for snacks, which is a shame, as the Dutch do great sweet treats. I did stop for a stroopwafel at the stall on Albert Cuyp Market (€2). Adding chocolate sauce was very decadent, if a little messy. If cookies are more your thing, head to Van Stapele, although you may have to queue.

Tales & Spirits. This bar jumped into my all-time list of favourite bars. With expertly mixed cocktails served by talented, friendly and fun bar staff, Tales & Spirits is, unsurprisingly, very popular and doesn't take bookings, so go early. The menu is creative and extensive; my plan was to have one pre-dinner drink, but I couldn't resist trying a second. The Professor, with Sipsmith gin, vermouth, Ceylon tea liqueur and bitters, was potent and smooth. Number two — Van Gogh-inspired Drop of Art — featured the bar's signature playful presentation. The cocktail (genever, St Germain, bergamot liqueur, white port and Absinthe) was perfectly balanced but could be 'customised' using the paintbrush and three 'colours' (pomegranate, citrus and caramel sauces). If you can't get in to Tales & Spirits, you could try Door 74 and Vesper, which were also on my list.

Maker Store. Inside the large tram depot turned cultural complex that is De Hallen, is a fantastic shop for buying gifts, homewares and accessories produced by local makers, from scarves and art, to tubes of gin mayo.

In the hip De Pijp neighbourhood, a short walk south of the city centre, I found lots of great shops. Some of my favourites include: Hutspot (fashion, homewares, design and unique gifts); Sticks and Stones (accessories, handbags and gifts); O My Bag (beautiful leather handbags); All the Luck in the World (jewellery and funky homewares); Maison NL (concept store with clothes, accessories and homewares from local makers); and Property Of... (bags and other leather accessories).

The Nine Little Streets area in the city centre is also a good place to find unique, independent shops. I liked: SMAAK (leather handbags); Margareth M (bags and other leather accessories); and RIKA (fashion).

Accommodation: I stayed at The Hoxton, which is located in the heart of the Nine Streets district on a particularly pretty stretch of Herengracht and occupies five connected townhouses. I booked the smallest room, which had two single beds and, like the rest of the hotel, was beautifully designed and well thought out. My room was quiet and the bed very comfortable. In the morning a light breakfast (juice, granola and fruit from STACH) materialises outside your door.

Arriving and getting around: From Schiphol Airport, it's a 15-minute train ride into Amsterdam's central station. Trains run every 15 minutes and a single ticket costs €5.30; you can buy tickets from the machines inside the airport terminal, which take credit cards. Bikes rule the roads in Amsterdam so do watch when crossing the street. You can explore most of the city centre on foot, but when your feet start to tire, you can hop on a tram, a boat or a bike.

Money: To my surprise, my research suggested that cash was still king in Amsterdam so I took out some Euros but barely used them as almost everywhere I went — except the stroopwafel stall — took credit cards. Some businesses were even cashless.

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