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The Dutch capital is now looking better than ever and makes for an easy-going, seasonal short break destination
03.11.14 - 10:09 -
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Autumnal Amsterdam
A view of an Amsterdam canal in autumn - the city has around 100 kilometres of canals. :: SHUTTERSTOCK
The restaurant table is set with a pristine table cloth, silver cutlery and sparkling wine glasses. The first plates are served, momentarily interrupting the conversation and commanding attention. The posh plates are sophisticatedly presented, as one might expect in a capital city, yet the lunchtime atmosphere here in ‘Restaurant ANNA’ is lively and comfortably informal. Sunshine streams through the glass doors at the far end, a welcome contrast to a little earlier, when arriving guests sought shelter in the doorway of the nearby gothic church, escaping a brief downpour.
Lunch not sex
This is the heart of Amsterdam’s canal district, home to historic waterways lined with iconic gabled buildings, brick cobbled lanes and pretty arched bridges. Unexpectedly though this upscale restaurant is in the controversial ‘de Wallen’ neighbourhood, better known to visitors as the red light district, or the ‘Rosse buurt’ as locals refer to it. In the evening it is still common to see young women, dressed in seductive lingerie, enticing clients and surprising tourists as they stand in pink and red illuminated windows. It remains a legacy of the city’s long-held socially tolerant attitudes.
This neighbourhood, together with the infamous marijuana ‘coffee houses’ have to some extent unfairly dominated the image of this beautiful city. In the past, foreign hen nights, stag parties and gawking visitors made for an uncomfortable atmosphere in the historic quarter and the city was better known for its sex shops that its cultural institutions.
Residents have had enough and the city hall is now well advanced with its ‘Project 1012’ (named after the district’s postcode). The programme actively supports businesses like Restaurant ANNA to be part of the rejuvenation of the red light district. Leases for sex businesses are harder to renew and are offered instead to artists, creative and restaurants and bars.
After all, this is one of the oldest and most beautiful areas of the city and it is interesting to see its evolution as part of Amsterdam’s cleaner, smarter image.
Village life
Lunch is a welcome moment to sit and relax. The morning was busy with exploring the elegant canals of Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht and the adjacent, trendy ‘Jordaan’ area. It’s little wonder that locals call Amsterdam the ‘village’; it has a remarkably relaxed atmosphere. This may be the capital of one of Europe’s most advanced and dynamic economies, a great trading nation, yet in the canal district, in the physical heart of this city, the urban soundtrack is not of a typical metropolis.
One regularly hears bicycle bells, as residents navigate the narrow canal side streets; the hum, whine and rumble of electric trams as they pass through the streets, and the occasional horn being sounded by a boat as it approaches a low bridge. It may feel an anachronism, yet look at little closer and one sees a contemporary city that is focused on positive change.
Like a local
In many other capitals prime real estate like this would be taken by corporations or the wealthy elite. Here though Amsterdam’s progressive social consciousness shows itself again, with policies to support families, students, charities, artists and others to make these prestigious buildings homes and work spaces. It makes for a lively central neighbourhood and despite being a UNESCO protected area, it certainly doesn’t feel like the theme-park style old towns of some other wealthy European cities. Add to this the local independent food stores, quirky fashion boutiques and many of the city’s best restaurants and bars and it is clear this is one of the best places to stay during a short city break.
What’s more, as a visitor it’s possible to stay in one of these houses, built during the 17th century ‘Dutch Golden Age’. Some have been divided into private apartments and Bed and Breakfasts available to rent through accommodation websites. As a guest, it is an interesting way to experience the city as a local, and be immersed in the architectural and cultural legacy of when the Netherlands’ dominance in art, science and trade made it the most powerful country in the world.
Urban luxe
For a taste of the glamour and wealth of this golden period, stay at one of the city’s plush five-star hotels that border the canals. Both the Pulitzer, a Luxury Collection Hotel, and the Waldorf Astoria are within stunning period properties offering 21st century extravagance with old world elegance.
Six of these very special townhouses on the Herengracht canal have been totally renovated this year and reimagined as the 93-room luxury Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The property offers canal views as well as a peaceful garden. Expect top notch rooms, luxury bathrooms as well as striking historical features like the ornate stucco staircase designed by the eminent architect Daniel Marot.
Many visitors to Amsterdam become familiar with the dark brick façades of the iconic town houses that line the canals, yet few get to discover the secret gardens hidden behind. Enjoy a drink, meal or stay at the Pulitzer Hotel and one has access to their tranquil courtyard gardens. Autumn brings warm colours to these spaces - a place to catch one’s breath while sightseeing.
The Pulitzer Hotel concierge can also organise a private canal trip aboard its own vintage, 1920s classic teak boat. Gliding through the water, along some of Amsterdam’s one hundred kilometres of canals, it offers one of the better ways to see the city.
To experience the cultural highs and the retail glamour of this city one has to leave the water and head to the ‘Oud-Zuid’ neighbourhood, and its world-class Fashion and Museum District. One can easily spend an afternoon browsing the designer stores along ‘PC Hoofstraat’, but most come here to rediscover the revitalised museums, located around the large Museumplein square.
The modern art gallery, the ‘Stedelijk Museum’ has been completely renovated, and so too has the classic ‘Rijksmuseum’, which after remodelling is looking better than ever. Of course, there’s no ignoring the ‘Van Gogh Museum’, the city’s most visited cultural institution, and now that ticket purchase and entry is available via one’s smartphone, it’s easier to avoid the queues too.
Amsterdam is understandably on many people’s bucket list for a city break. Now with its cleaner-cut image, revitalised cultural scene and luxury bolt holes, it’s looking better than ever; and if you can’t help yourself, there’s also a risqué, hedonistic side waiting to be discovered.