Stylist’s deputy editor Susan Riley refreshes her experience of Amsterdam with culture, canal walks and not a penis sculpture in sight
The first time I visited Amsterdam was 15 years ago with two girlfriends. At the time Airbnb was just a glint in an entrepreneur’s eye so we didn’t even consider not bedding down in a dour triple hotel room while ticking off Anne Frank’s house (a must), the Van Gogh museum (ditto), and the sex museum (amusing photo opps of giant penises galore). Oh, and giggling at the picture-windows of the red light district and being terribly British and embarrassed about ordering a spliff in a cafe.
In the time since, happily both myself and Amsterdam have matured. Now famous for its vibrancy rather than its alternative underbelly, the city is increasingly hot property, snapping at the heels of Berlin and London for drawing an international crowd of creatives and entrepreneurs. Indeed, the number of British and American accents is palpable as you go about your business, and from their conversations it’s clear they’re residents rather than tourists, living and working here with barely concealed glee.
So on the map is it, a direct Eurostar service from London’s St Pancras is due next year, although the current train journey is a pleasant one (4.5 hours, changing in Brussels), and advantageous as it deposits you at Amsterdam Central Station rather than out of town.
For fairytale scenery, situate yourself near The Nine Streets, or De Negen Straatjes, an area straddling the 17th century canals from the Singel to the Prisengracht (home of Anne Frank’s house) that’s wonderful for canal-side pottering. Crammed with vintage boutiques, smoothie counters, coffee shops and bistros – Italian Bussia, casual eaterie Van Harte and health food restaurant Pluk all got my attention – the area is flanked by Amsterdam’s best canals and most enviable addresses. Walking around after dusk, peeking into people’s living rooms and kitchens, provides the best kind of voyeurism.
At its heart, the Herengracht – dubbed ‘the gentleman’s canal’ thanks to the moneyed merchants who once lived there – is still seen as a hugely prestigious address. Try it on for size by staying at The Hoxton; housed in five picture-perfect adjoining townhouses, it’s simultaneously cool and homely, with a clientele of creatives on laptops and a bar and restaurant run by the Soho House group. The evening vibe is buzzy – private members-y, without the d***heads – and after a night of cocktails and lobster spaghetti, we retreated to a small but perfectly formed bedroom in the eaves, with a canal view and brown paper bag of breakfast treats hung on our door by dawn.
For a pace change, the new W hotel is around the corner (it opened in September; The Hoxton last July). In cocktail speak, if The Hoxton’s a Tom Collins, the W is a porn-star martini: shiny and statement making. From the lobby, check-in is a lift ride to the 6th floor, where a bar, restaurant, rooftop pool and wow 360 degree views of Amsterdam await. It’s slick, design-focused and definitely a place to be ‘seen’ but as a paying guest staying on one of the lower floors you can feel slightly anonymous.
Happily, the W’s second restaurant The Duchess – housed in an impressive former bank with giant chandeliers – serves knock-out food. The sharing plate mains are grown up (king crab; spaghetti with caviar), and the ‘chocolate explosion’ dessert a masterpiece where liquid nitrogen cracks open a chocolate shell to reveal a mass of chocolate mousse, truffles and more cacao treats. It had me at hello.
Further afield of The Nine Streets, foodies have plenty of reasons to do a heel-kick. Number one being Restaurant De Kas, a former nursery in parkland with a very instagrammable glass-framed conservatory, whose four-course set menu is a delicious way to waste an afternoon.
For casual eating, De Hallen food market has iberico ham counters, flambé huts, a gin and tonic bar and more. The venue hosts a local market every fortnight too, enabling you to fill your boots then browse local art. Handily, the Vondelpark is nearby – a metabolism-boosting walk en route to the museum quarter.
On our last day we walked so much it felt like we’d lapped the city’s 100km of canals; past floating houseboats and railings six bicycles deep and on to De Pijp – an eclectic neighbourhood offering a bit of everything. Think Twenties movie theatre Rialto, beer hotspot Brouwerij, concept stores Misuse and Hutspot, and The Fragrance Store boasting scents with notes of champagne (yum). Albert Cuyp, usually host to Holland’s busiest market, was dead (Sunday) but renowned burger joint The Butcher was still open to cheer us up. We queued uncomfortably (it’s tiny), ate quickly (it’s tiny), then retreated to the more welcoming beanbags of Coffee and Coconut, a deli where locals while away the weekend. No space cakes. No penis sculptures. Hallelujah.
Three Amsterdam hostels that feel like hotels
Upscale hostel: Generator Amsterdam
Proving that atmosphere and affordability are not mutually exclusive, this eagerly anticipated new opening from the unstoppable Generator group sets a new standard for upscale hostels in Amsterdam, with trademark stylish public spaces, exceptional staff and a winning location in a former university science block in East Amsterdam. (Doubles from £54; generatorhostels.com)
Stylish private rooms: Cocomama
Set in a former brothel, Amsterdam’s first ever “boutique hostel” has garnered a loyal following over the years, thanks to its location (a 10-minute walk to the Rijksmuseum), friendly owners and stylish rooms. Dorms are well-managed, but it’s the private rooms that remain the best bargain, with real attention to detail and arty, welcoming flourishes. (Doubles from £59; cocomama.nl)
The creative hub: Clink Noord
The location of this vaguely prison-themed hostel is the main draw: a free five-minute public ferry ride from Amsterdam Central Station, Noord is Amsterdam’s creative hub, a smorgasbord of historical architecture and green waterways. Housed in a Twenties industrial building, it’s welcoming, but the double rooms are on the spartan side. (Doubles from £55; clinkhostels.com)