Iwas a backpacker the first time I visited Amsterdam. I was travelling with a bunch of friends and I remember long, sunny days cruising the canals, queuing to visit the Anne Frank House, and gawking at all the peculiarities that come with drifting around the red-light district after dark.
When I returned years later with my husband, it was a completely different city. Perhaps, I thought initially, it was because I had changed. But I quickly realised Amsterdam had changed too. Major museums had been revamped, neighbourhoods had completely changed, even the people of Amsterdam appeared to have more spring in their step … that is, when they were actually walking. Because it seemed that more people were cycling than ever.
Over the last 40 years the Dutch government has invested substantially in cycling infrastructure, achieving a very desirable outcome – people began to cycle more, car usage went down and Amsterdam was declared the most bicycle-friendly city in the world in 2013. The number of cyclists in the city continues to grow, with up to 70 per cent of journeys now made by bike. Given all this, it seems rude not to join the crowd.
I’ve rented a bike with a huge cushioned seat and a big basket for my shopping, stopping first at Saturday morning’s Noordermarkt (located in the square of the same name) in the Jordaan neighbourhood.
Great for vintage finds and tasty organic food, Noordermarkt is a bustling hive of activity when I arrive mid-morning. Families mill around a pancake stall, waiting for a woman sporting a white lace bonnet to prepare their weekend treat. A group of teenage girls, all wearing oversized sunglasses that shield half their faces, crowd around a sylph-like teenager selling floral vintage frocks.
A stocky man peddling organic eggs is bellowing something in Dutch, unmistakably excited about the quality of his produce. Whatever he is saying, it brings in the crowds. When I pass him, a mere 20 minutes later, his egg stash has been drastically diminished.
Beyond Noordermarkt, there’s plenty to see and do in the Jordaan. This once working-class neighbourhood is now transformed, crammed with fashionable boutiques and quirky galleries, pretty courtyards and cosy cafes hidden away in laneways that coil around like ribbons. I cycle slowly, stopping for coffee and cake, to browse in shops and to take photos of the charming terrace homes that seem to lean over the flower-lined canals.
Cycling accounts for the majority of trips in the city. Photo: Getty
Another gentrified spot, the Oostelijk Havengebied (Eastern Docklands) is worth a visit. This lakeside neighbourhood is sprawled over a number of artificial islands and bays, with plenty of fascinating design elements woven into its revitalisation. The bright-red, snakelike Python Bridge is one of the area’s most memorable wonders, while Amsterdam Roest is a lively open-air creative space that contains a beach bar, market and kitchen. Not far away, the Muziekgebouw – a contemporary music hall – is a remarkable building.
Warehouses have been transformed into contemporary apartment complexes with lush roof gardens, historical ships have been remodelled into swish restaurants, and there’s even a street (with a tongue-twister of a name: Scheepstimmermanstraat) where residents were given the opportunity to design their homes with the help of renowned architects.
Yet another recently revamped area, the Museumplein is the cultural heart of the city, home to a cluster of world-class museums – the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and the Stedelijk Museum. I devote an entire day to these three, starting with the Rijksmuseum, which was re-opened in 2013 after an ambitious 10-year renovation that cost about $500 million. It was worth it; the extensive revamp of the Dutch art and history museum was hailed as exceptional. Four years on, the foyers are still gleaming and the elegant and clever design of the exhibition spaces encourages everyone to linger.
After a quick snack of crunchy croquettes from FEBO (an iconic fast-food vending machine), I explore the Stedelijk Museum, where I lose myself in the enthralling contemporary art on display.
My cultural pilgrimage culminates at the Van Gogh Museum, where the legendary artist’s early landscapes keep me mesmerised until closing time. Although Van Gogh painted many of his most famous works in France, he developed his skills as a young artist in his homeland, the Netherlands.
He was profoundly inspired by nature and I’m particularly drawn to those paintings that feature rivers and canals, perhaps because tomorrow I plan to kick back and relax by exploring Amsterdam’s extensive network of canals on an old wooden saloon boat.