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Ambling in Amsterdam

Elaine Brown suggests how to spend a weekend in Holland's most popular city.

Get lost in Amsterdam. Not usually the best advice in a strange place but it's the best way to discover this city. Historical buildings, quirky shops and trendy cafes are everywhere and it's fun finding them. Despite rumours of Amsterdam being full of sex and drugs, you can avoid both and even if you don't, you're unlikely to be threatened by either. This is a laid—back compact city perfect for a short break.

There's more than the fair share of cliches here — tulips (at Singel flower market), canals (circling the centre) and bicycles...well, everywhere. While investigating the cliches can be fun, looking beyond them can make for an interesting break.

Get your bearings

Start with a canal tour. Although touristy, it's a good way to get your bearings and admire the canalside houses without having to walk round them all. Several operators are based just outside the Central Station and along Damrak and they all have tours in English.

Spending money

Amsterdam is a haven of quirky individual shops and the best area to meander through is the Nine Streets. That's the cross streets from Raadhuisstraat to Leidestraat between Prinsengracht and Singel canals. Shops here range from antiques, clothes, accessories, food and homewares and even specific specialities such as a shop selling all sorts of toothbrushes.

If you can't do without a beauty fix, Skins Cosmetic Lounge does amazing facials with Nuxe, Aesop or Philosophy products. They sell these too along with Diptyque, Wu and Bloom cosmetics. Along from Skins is Pompadour to refresh you from the inside — luscious Valhrona chocolates and cakes to make your mouth water. There's a small tearoom attached so you can sample on site and take away what you can't finish.

There's a good selection of colourful well made bags and shoes at Hester van Eeghen but the best shoes are at Shoebaloo with their own range of well priced fashionable shoes alongside a wide selection of designer brands including Prada, Gucci and Costume National.


One of the best things about Amsterdam is that the centre is compact so most sightseeing is within walking distance. On a sunny day head to the Vondelpark for a walk and, in summer on Wednesdays to Sundays, a free music or theatre performance.

Alternatively if the hustle and bustle of the chain stores on Kalverstraat gets too much, wander into the Begijnhof (entrance just off Spui). Sit amongst 14th century convent houses, each with a pretty little garden, to restore your calm.


Anne Frank's House is unmissable. Anne and her family hid here for two years before being betrayed to the Germans and sent to a concentration camp.

Head to the Museumplein for art. The Rijksmusem, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art are all located here. You could spend all day though in the huge Rijksmuseum alone so plan for highlights before you go such as Rembrandt's Night Watch.


Avoid the touristy Leidesplein area and head to where the Amsterdammers like to eat — the Jordaan.

For an upmarket blow—out, head for Bordewijk for modern Dutch cooking (though dress how you like — Amsterdam is relaxed about dress codes). Bordewijk offers excellent value set menus from about £24 for 3 courses to £32 for 5. Depending on what's in season you could have melting scrambled fish eggs (absolutely delicious even if it sounds a bit weird) with tiny chips, succulent roast turbot with generous truffle shavings or, if you're adventurous, bull's testicles (no, I didn't try them). For dessert, snap up warm madeleines with armagnac ice cream and poached prunes if they're offered.

For something cheaper try the Pancake Bakery for savoury or sweet pancakes. Fill up for around £8. Or sample fresh herring from one of the many stalls found on street corners.

Try eating dinner early as the Dutch tend to eat early and service often slows down after 8pm.

Where to sleep

Mid range hotels in Amsterdam often are in beautiful 17th century buildings. The Canal House and the Ambassade are ideal for the Nine Streets and the Jordaan.

The Ambassade is spread over ten merchant houses and the rooms are very individual. Some face the canal and have large floor to ceiling windows, perfect for people watching. Others are right up in the attic necessitating a steep climb before bed. To chill out bob about in the hotel's floatation tanks or have a massage.

The Canal House hotel is full of character stuffed with antiques, Chinese rugs and paintings. Rooms facing the flower filled courtyard at the back are quietest. Ones at the front face the canal but traffic rumbling over the cobbles between the hotel and the canal can be noisy.