A summer’s day in Amsterdam

Summer days have been few and far between so far this ‘summer’. Those we have had seem to arrive on week days rather than the weekend, when I might be able to enjoy them rather than observe them from my office window. Rain has been a constant companion for too long, and as I write it’s pouring down outside. We did get a couple of days of sun recently, a good opportunity for a stroll in Amsterdam.

When the sun does come out Amsterdam really comes to life. People head to the parks and boats take to the water in a frenzy of sun worship. That’s just what happens in northern Europe after a long miserable winter. It makes wandering the streets, absorbing the culture and atmosphere all the more enjoyable.

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

This is a city that harbours more that 6,800 buildings that are protected as national monuments, many dating from the16th and 17th centuries. All of this majestic architecture is built on ninety islands, criss-crossed with 165 water ways and connected by 1,281 bridges and counting. Exploring these fascinating streets is always an adventure, always turning up something unexpected.

Despite its global fame, Amsterdam is a compact place – a small big city. From the old city centre and the UNESCO World Heritage listed canal belt, many of the most interesting neighbourhoods and best parks are easily reached on foot or cycle. The streets are alive with art, architecture and activities, and full of photo opportunities.

The only downside of summer is the upsurge in tourism but, if you want to get away from the crowds, stay out of the old city centre and make for outlying neighbourhoods, De Pijp, Westerpark and the Jordaan. Or head for the wonderfully named Spaarndammerbuurt, where I found myself wandering quiet streets dotted with trendy bars and restaurants trying to find the Museum Het Schip.

The Spaarndammerbuurt is pretty new to me, but is famed for its expressionist public housing projects, and is considered the high point of the Amsterdam School movement of the 1920s. A radically progressive intellectual and architectural response to the squalid living conditions of the urban poor, the Amsterdam School created affordable housing that was also spacious and beautifully designed.

The Het Schip is one of the movement’s most important buildings, the museum a homage to this period in Amsterdam’s history and the social and political forces that gave rise to it. It draws a steady stream of architecture and history buffs to the area, including me.

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer's day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

A summer’s day in Amsterdam, Netherlands

The arrival of summer also heralds a flourishing of festivals across the Netherlands, no more so than in Amsterdam which hosts more than 300 each year, mostly in the summer months. Whether it’s the city-wide Pride or small foodie festivals, there’s something for everyone. Much of the entertainment is free and often in the open air. All we need now is a little more summer sun…

Keep Calm and Drink Cava, an Amsterdam amble (II)

Keep Calm and Drink Cava, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Keep Calm and Drink Cava, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Nine times out of ten, when we find ourselves in Amsterdam, we end up wandering into the wonderful De Pijp area in the south of the city. No one really knows why it was called ‘The Pipe’ when it was built in the 19th Century as overflow for the cramped old city; but it’s a fittingly enigmatic name for an area that has a fascinating and vibrant cultural and artistic mix, and is full of fantastic restaurants and bars.

De Pijp grew out of the overcrowding in central Amsterdam, particularly the squalid working class area of the Jordaan. Conceived as a wealthy neighbourhood, with wide avenues, squares and mansion houses, De Pijp ended up being built to house the working classes. Instead of tree-lined boulevards and grand buildings, it got narrow streets and poorly constructed houses run by unscrupulous landlords. The basic recipe for a 19th Century slum.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Dutch houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Dutch houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

American Hotel, Amsterdam, Netherlands

American Hotel, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Over the years it has attracted waves of immigrants, lured to its narrow streets by cheap prices and an inclusive atmosphere. Today, approximately 45 percent of the population is foreign born. As De Pijp has grown in popularity, and prices have soared, these are now wealthy foreigners, the people the media refer to without irony as ‘expats’ rather than ‘immigrants’.

The area hasn’t been fully gentrified yet, and its ‘rough around the edges’ feel is one of its most attractive qualities. Spend any time here and you can’t fail to appreciate the melting pot it has become, a sort of Bohemian façade with a strong undercurrent of nonconformism. It reminds me of Hoxton, the area of London where I lived for over a decade.

Street Art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street Art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Dutch houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Dutch houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Art market, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Art market, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Art market, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Art market, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street Art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street Art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Once a poverty-ridden slum, Hoxton is now painfully trendy and home to an indecent number of ’boutique’ coffee shops filled with people tapping away on Apple products. A massively overpriced non-ironic flat white caffé macchiato frappuccino anyone?

Luckily De Pijp seems largely immune to such developments. Perhaps that’s because this is the physical and spiritual home of the Heineken brewery, which opened in 1863 and has employed generations of people from De Pijp. The old brewery is on the northern fringe of the area, it closed in the 1980s but it’s famous tourist ‘Experience’ lives on. Thankfully, not many of the tour groups lining up outside the Heineken Experience venture into De Pijp.

Dutch houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Dutch houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canal, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canal, Amsterdam, Netherlands

World War II memorial, Amsterdam, Netherlands

World War II memorial, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Papiermolensluis, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Papiermolensluis, Amsterdam, Netherlands

In keeping with the immigrant vibe, we found ourselves in the Taverna Barcelona, run by Catalans who serve up some of the best Catalonian/Spanish food in the city. Relatively new immigrants, all things Spanish seem to be catching on in Amsterdam, but in De Pijp you’re much more likely to find Indonesian, Surinamese and Turkish cafes and restaurants.

Refreshed, we strolled Amsterdam’s southern canal belt before setting course for the Jordaan on our way back to Centraal Station. I’ve written about the Jordaan before; it’s another part of Amsterdam that fascinates me, and is also a million miles from the stag party cliche of the Red Light District. It was starting to get cold and dark so we didn’t linger, but we’d had another successful day of doing very little in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Bike city, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Bike city, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Wake me up when I’m famous, an Amsterdam amble (I)

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

The weather in the Netherlands has been wet and windy for what seems like most of the year so far. We eventually had a couple of days when it was almost possible to pretend that Spring was finally arriving, so we headed to Amsterdam to do a bit more exploration of the Dutch capital.

The more I’ve discovered Amsterdam, the more it has grown on me; it improves the further you venture from the highly touristed area close to the Centraal Station. There is something wonderful about Amsterdam’s streets, it doesn’t seem to matter where you go, this is a city that rarely disappoints…although keep an eye out for cyclists, particularly those emotionally stunted individuals who deliberately target pedestrians.

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Cat in window, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Cat in window, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Only tested on supermodels, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Only tested on supermodels, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Wandering around is a leisurely way to acquaint yourself both with Amsterdam’s layout (all those canals are a bit disorienting at first), and to take in the atmosphere of its streets. If the Red Light District is a bit tawdry and depressing, and the Damrak to Dam square packed with tourists and tacky souvenir shops, there are plenty of other areas where you can find a very different Amsterdam.

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Sexist bike seat cover, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Sexist bike seat cover, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam is an attractive city, so it doesn’t really matter where you go, so long as you find yourself on leafy canals and strolling quiet back streets away from the throng. We tend to meander aimlessly and see what fate delivers us, this time though we had a plan. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was enough to take us into a different part of town in East Amsterdam.

We were headed to the micro brewery, Brouwerij ‘t IJ to sample some exotic Dutch beers. I’ve tried several of their products in the last two years, so a visit to the brewery was a bit of a pilgrimage. Sadly, it was closed and wouldn’t open for a couple of hours – always check the opening times before getting off the train. Luckily there’s a well-stocked bar next door.

Health and Safety anyone? Amsterdam, Netherlands

Health and Safety anyone? Amsterdam, Netherlands

Brouwerij 't IJ brewery, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Brouwerij ‘t IJ brewery, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

We whiled away some time doing a passable impression of beer connoisseurs and then set off exploring again. On a chilly day, it wasn’t long before we found ourselves inside one of Amsterdam’s ‘brown cafe’ bars. The brown cafe gets its name from the nicotine and smoke-stained walls that are a feature of these traditional watering holes, most of which remain ‘slice of life’ places.

At one end of the bar was a group of hardened drinkers, a young family was eating a lunch of snert (pea soup with sausage), and two men seemed to be aimlessly hitting a ball around a pool table without pockets. This, it transpired, was the game of carambole, the rules of which appear to be to hit a ball around a table for hours without anything really happening.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Lamps and books, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Lamps and books, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Watching this timeless scene underscored for me the resilience of traditional Dutch culture to modern trends. A little like the British pub, which is struggling to survive the onslaught of trendy bars and overpriced coffee shops, the brown cafe is a remnant of simpler times. Part cafe, part bar and full-time community drop-in centre, these are places where anyone is welcome to waste their time in the company of strangers.

We whiled away a little more time and then decided get back out onto the streets …

Amsterdam’s Festival of Light

I had high expectations for the Amsterdam Light Festival, particularly after the runaway success of Eindhoven’s GLOW Festival a few weeks ago. To add some extra excitement to proceedings the weather forecast claimed it was going to be a dry evening. After days of foul weather, that seemed like reason enough to stump up €40 for two tickets on a boat ride around the festival route.

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

I’ve never been on a boat on Amsterdam’s canals, even at night it gives you a unique perspective on the city that you just don’t get on foot or cycle. In the traditional Dutch manner, no one has curtains and so as you sail along you can see into most people’s homes. The glimpses of domestic life were as fascinating (if not more so) as the Light Festival.

I’m mystified by the Dutch habit of not covering windows. It’s not as if they’re unaware of the existence of curtains, blinds and other ways of dissuading people from looking into your home. I once saw a man having breakfast in front of a window with his dressing gown open wide enough to put me off my breakfast. At moments like this I remind myself that this was the birthplace of Big Brother.

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

The sculptures were themed around the concept of ‘Friendship’. This doesn’t seem to have ignited the imagination of the artists. There were some interesting installations, but many were underwhelming, and in a couple of cases not actually illuminated. In the end the boat ride – and looking through people’s windows – was the best thing about the festival.

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

There were some outstanding sculptures: the intricate Crossing Paths strung across the canal like crazy string; My Light is Your Light, a depiction of refugees trudging towards safety, neon people reflecting in the canal; two Talking Heads sitting across the canal from each other, animated by 4000 LED lights; the running, leaping neon person in Run Beyond; and the surreal Polygonum. All worth seeing.

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam's Light Festival, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s Light Festival, Netherlands

The festival can be seen from the roads and bridges, but it is best viewed from canal level. The boat trip – highly recommended – took 75 minutes and came with free glühwein. Given how cold I was by the time our boat pulled into the dock in front of Central Station, the glühwein was a lifesaver.

Deciding we needed to be indoors, we joined the Friday night crowds and headed for the warmth of our favourite Amsterdam bar.

Amsterdam, the world’s best small city?

Amsterdam has come a long way in the last 800 years. In the early 13th Century it was an insignificant fishing village, kept dry by a few dams and dykes; it grew larger and wealthier on the back of taxing the herring and beer trade, until it became one of the wealthiest ports in the world during the 17th Century Dutch Golden Age. After a period of decline, it expanded further during the 19th Century as the industrial revolution took hold, whole new districts were added and outlying villages were engulfed by urbanisation.

Amsterdam today is one of the world’s most vibrant and creative urban centres. Home to a diverse and multicultural population, it is regularly ranked as one of the world’s best to live in and has one of the highest qualities of life. The city attracts over 5 million visitors each year, drawn here by the combination of history and modernity. With a population of less than 1 million, 5 million tourists might make the place feel claustrophobic, but get away from the tourist centre and Amsterdam is a delightful city to explore.

Highland piper, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Highland piper, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The history of the village that grew to be Amsterdam could have been very different, had it not been for a series of storms during the 13th Century which opened the Zuiderzee to shipping from the North Sea. A particularly violent storm in 1282 destroyed much of the sand dunes which had been a barrier to ships. Suddenly, Amsterdam was ideally located for trade. It seized the opportunity and has yet to look back.

Despite its modern history, it is the Golden Age of the 17th Century that has perhaps left the most indelible mark on Amsterdam. The city had a majority share in the Dutch East India Company and soon trade, particularly in spices, with Indonesia, China, India and Japan was fuelling an enormous demographic, economic and cultural expansion. During this period of extraordinary prosperity many canals were constructed and the famous Jordaan district was built.

Tattoo advert, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Tattoo advert, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Walk the streets of Jordaan and reminders of this unique history are everywhere. It was a working class district that attracted immigrants fleeing persecution elsewhere in Europe: Jews from Spain and Portugal, Huguenots from France and other Protestants from Belgium and England. Even in the 17th Century, Dutch tolerance was renowned throughout Europe. In a city of great wealth, poverty and disease ran through the Jordaan, as did radical politics and a lack of respect for the law. The area saw numerous riots over the centuries, including the improbably named ‘Eel Riots’ of 1886.

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Church, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Church, Amsterdam, Netherlands

House sign, Amsterdam, Netherlands

House sign, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street book library, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street book library, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The noble sport of Eel Pulling was once widely practiced in Amsterdam. An eel was tied to a rope and dangled over a canal, on the canal below someone stood in a small boat and tried to pull the eel from the rope. Famously slippery, the eel regularly ‘won’ the competition while the eel puller ended up in the water. The sport was banned in the 19th Century, but in the Jordaan it was still played. In 1886, a bout of eel pulling attracted the attention of the police, sparking riots. The army was called and by the time calm returned 26 people were dead.

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Street art, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Contemporary, well-to-do  Jordaan gives little of that history away. It is the epitome of modern Amsterdam, a trendy area with a lot of young people and young families, mixing modernity and history, and popular with artists. In London, an area like this would by now be the preserve of the rich; rent control means that the Jordaan has retained a more traditional mix of inhabitants. There are no major tourist sites but the area is fascinating to wander, and there are plenty of good bars and restaurants to break the journey.

Shops, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Shops, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

If the Jordaan is one manifestation of the Dutch Golden Age, a short distance away the Rijksmuseum presents a very different cultural legacy. Vermeer, van Dyck, Jan Steen and Frans Hals are some of the Dutch masters on display, while Rembrandt steals the show. The vast profits from global trade made all this artistic endeavour possible. The great irony is that the same economic forces that made the Jordaan a poverty stricken immigrant ghetto, produced some of the finest artists of all time.

Amsterdam, defying stereotypes while playing to the crowd

They’re building a new bridge in Amsterdam, no ordinary bridge, one built by robots using 3D printing technology. It will be the first of its kind anywhere in the world, and when completed it will span one of the city’s many canals. In this city of water, it will take its place amongst nearly 1,300 other bridges that are still in use today, the oldest of which dates to the mid-17th Century. Cutting-edge modernity will merge seamlessly with centuries of history.

The 3D bridge is the perfect symbol of the nature of the Netherlands’ most iconic and vibrant city: defying convention, dodging stereotypes and constantly reinventing itself as a modern urban creative hub. It is this spirit of inventiveness that makes Amsterdam a magnet for people from all over the world, and the reason I’ve repeatedly explored its fascinating streets.

Traditional Dutch houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch houses, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Iamsterdam sign, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Iamsterdam sign, Amsterdam, Netherlands

I came across the 3D bridge while reading a news article about how Amsterdam was ranked the 5th most innovative city in the world earlier this year. The only surprising thing about this is that there are four cities more innovative. What Amsterdam seems to do so well, is to merge this creative streak brilliantly with its long and glorious history, and its incredible cultural wealth.

Arrive at Amsterdam’s Centraal Station on a sunny Saturday afternoon though and this is unlikely to be the first impression you get of the city. Stag parties compete for attention with hen parties, bewildered tour groups vie for space with maniacal cyclists, and crowds of tourists from around the world do what crowds of tourists do everywhere, make the place look untidy. This city is a heady mix of serious culture seekers, hedonistic party goers and people eager to experience one of Europe’s truly great cities.

Centraal Station, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Centraal Station, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Centraal Station, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Centraal Station, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Hen Night, Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Hen Night, Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands

The city’s legendary drug and sex scene is high on many people’s agenda, and you don’t have to wander too far from Centraal Station to encounter windows illuminated with red light and graced by underwear wearing women, less than 5 percent of whom are actually Dutch. These streets are filled with curious tourists, almost like an open air museum for the prurient and voyeuristic. They should charge a fee to walk around here, and the proceeds should go to the women in the windows.

Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Drug shop, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Drug shop, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Coffee House, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Coffee House, Amsterdam, Netherlands

A stroll down these streets is almost obligatory and if offers an insight into a part of the city’s life that locals rarely engage with. Many people think that legalised prostitution is a result of the famed Dutch liberalism, an anything goes attitude that also takes a laid-back approach to soft drugs. In reality nothing could be further from the truth. The Dutch are a pretty conservative bunch – Calvinism runs through society like a giant kill-joy – but they’re also practical and pragmatic. Prostitution is going to happen, best to control and tax it, seems to be the general attitude.

Canals and boats, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals and boats, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Shop window, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Shop window, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals and party boat, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals and party boat, Amsterdam, Netherlands

This area is definitely the seedy side of Amsterdam, but if you can ignore the boat loads of drunks acting out cliché after cliché, it can be entertaining. There are some good bars and cafes (the non-coffee shop variety), and pulling up a window seat to watch the world go by is a lot of fun. Amsterdam is a small place, walk a few blocks away from the red light district and you could be in a different city altogether. Tranquil residential streets with historic houses and canals, no tourists hoards, no red lights and definitely no stag parties.

Statue on edge of Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Statue on edge of Red Light District, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Traditional bar, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Traditional bar, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Keeping cool, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Keeping cool, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals and boats, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals and boats, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals and boats, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Canals and boats, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Despite the ever present bicycles, for me the best way to get to know the city is to head off on foot and explore the different neighbourhoods at leisure. From Zeeheldenbuurt and Westerpark in the north to De Pijp and Beatrixpark in the south, it’s amazing what Amsterdam has to offer.