The city break: It’s time to give Amsterdam a second chance
Most see the Dutch capital through a fog of earthy smoke, or under the glare of red lights. We travelled to The Netherlands to experience Holland's wholesome side...
Considering it sits so close to British shores, there has always been something of a stigma attached to Amsterdam. On paper, it’s the perfect city break: a similar climate to ours; easy to travel to; a mere one hour’s time difference. But the moment you mention a plan to jet, fly or ferry yourself off to the Dutch capital for a weekend, you’ll be met with more raised eyebrows and knowing looks than you can shake a stroopwafel at.
But here’s the rub: Amsterdam is surprisingly wholesome. And, although most of the baked-out city-breakers or tripping day-trippers only see the streets through a fog of earthy smoke, Amsterdam actually holds up in the cold light of clarity.
We took a trip to The Netherlands to prove our point — and experience the city away from the glare of red lights and legal highs. And, as suspected, if you steer clear of the Singelgebied, swap brothelling for brunching, and ensure the most exotic thing you order in a coffee shop is a whipped caramel macchiato, the city still offers one of the best weekends away in Europe.
Tunnel your way out of Britain on the Eurostar
It’s been under a year since Eurostar began their long-planned direct service to the Dutch capital, and we’ve been itching to test out the 3hr 40m route ever since it first pulled out of St Pancras. The best part? You need only leave the office an hour early on a Friday afternoon and you’ll still make your reservation — especially if, like us, you upgraded to Business Premier, which allows you to check-in just 10 minutes before boarding.
A flurry of passports and airport-lite security later — and a slightly longer sojourn into the Business Lounge’s new cocktail bar — and we found ourselves leisurely boarded. An hour into the journey, somewhere below the Channel, a three-course meal designed by Raymond Blanc is served alongside a (thoroughly vetted) wine list, including such gems as a 2014 Côtes-du-Rhone and 2015 Muscadet.
Get lost in the historic halls of the Pulitzer Hotel
Once you’ve stumbled off the
free wine express Eurostar and arrived in Amsterdam, there is only one hotel whose doors you should darken: The Pulitzer. Founded in 1970 when hotelier Herbert Pulizter took a frenzied flight from New York to Amsterdam to snap up 11 adjoining canal-side houses, this is an establishment like no other.
Steeped in both history and endless embellishments, our favourite touch has to be an added-in jetstream cloud — painted into a 17th century sky-effect ceiling in honour of Pulitzer’s last-minute transatlantic journey.
These nuances continue throughout the 255 freshly-renovated rooms, which today are spread across 25 houses on Prinsengracht. Connected by subterranean tunnels and elevated glass corridors, whichever room you find yourself in will offer up woody Le Labo grooming products, a complimentary bicycle repair kit and a small plaque giving you the details of which particular historic house your room is situated in.
Specialist suites, with their own ‘front doors’ onto the street, also boast themes including ‘Music’ (15 golden trumpets hang from the walls) and ‘Art’ (like a spin through Warhol’s wildest dreams). And the lobby, complete with a suitably Dutch tulip display, also features the grand piano used to open the inaugural Grachtenfestival — a yearly classical music event performed annually on pontoons outside the Pulitzer.
Of course, if you fancy a more solitary boutique stay then we’d suggest the nearby Canal House. A recent addition to the impressive Small Luxury Hotels of the World portfolio, this contemporary 23-room hotel has been redesigned to include open-plan bathrooms in your suites, a secluded guest-only garden and cosy bar serving classic cocktails.
Indulge in a culinary scene that rivals the best in Europe
With its lazy canal-side cafes and upscale eateries, Amsterdam is fast-becoming a gastronomer’s paradise. And, committed as we are, it seemed only right to hop aboard one of the many trams that sweep through the city to sample as many green juices and brunchy small plates as we could bear.
From this savoury safari, the resounding, belt-loosening, mouth-watering winners were NewWerktheater and Little Collins. The former is an old theatre, repurposed to help the hippest and most happening ‘dammers sate their hungers for shakshuka and matcha lattes. Their best plate? A small bowl of truly transcendent ‘Deer Croquettes with Piccalilli Mustard’.
And, on the south side of town, Little Collins is owned by Australians — who have brought their inimitable brand of brunching to Amsterdam with plates from a salted pecan and creme-fraiched whirlwind of ‘Pumpkin Waffles’ to a dish named ‘Lemon Hollandaise’ — eggs marvellously upstaged on their own plate by a sensational side of hash browns. (If you’re heading to Amsterdam and limiting yourself to just one type of hash, these browns will give you a better high than anything you can roll, huff or smoke, believe us…)
An afternoon of tat-trawling in one of the world-famous flea-markets is then on the menu, followed by a lazy boat tour and a motley afternoon tilting your head at Van Gogh’s greatest hits. And, to work up a sufficient appetite for dinner, why not hire out one of the 881,000 bicycles that wobble over the city’s cobbles every day?
Jansz should be your first pick for an evening meal. Affiliated with the Pulitzer above, their standalone restaurant is among the finest in the city — so ensure you book before you even step foot on the Eurostar. And, when you take your seat, remember to pace yourself.
The starters may all call out to you — from the delectable ‘Diver Scallops’ to the sinfully creamy ‘Burrata’ — but you must save a least a shade of stomach space for their gold-standard ‘Crème Brûlée’.
You’ll start Sunday with an in-room cafetière coffee and a mild hangover — if you did Saturday right. But that gives you the chance to gear your recovery towards MR PORTER, a rooftop steakhouse on Spuistraat offering a brand of communal dining to warm even the most conservative British tastes. Fine ribeyes and stellar sirloins are on offer — but the mustard menu (it’s as spicy and exciting as it sounds) is also a joy.
Wash it all down with a peppery, piquant Bloody Mary, and you’ll have had the ideal Sunday lunch — albeit one that’ll make you wish you’d paid for a nap-sanctioning late checkout at your hotel.
Drink the great and the good of Amsterdam’s offerings
If there’s one thing Amsterdam does well, it’s bridging. And not only with their architectural structures — although the Magere Brug and Python Bridge are well worth a walk-over — but also in the way that the city spans cultural and social divides. This curiosity is among the most interesting to explore in the Dutch city, and the best examples of it are found — as with so many things — at the bottom of a glass.
Bars, such as The Pulitzer’s own, may mix you a mean Sazerac for upwards of 20 euros, but you’ll be equally quenched with a visit to one of the city’s exciting, emerging breweries.
And nowhere does this Dutch courage come at a higher ABV than the windmill-topped Brouwerij ’t IJ, a brewery found in a former bathhouse by the NewWerktheater. Their Ijwit Witbier is well worth your time — that rare example of a white beer with a flavour to stand up at any temperature.
Even on the north side of the city — taking the metro or free ferry service to Ijplein en Vogelbuurt — you can explore Amsterdam’s hoppy hipster scene, and get caught up in the heady, frothy industrial world of Oedipus Brewing.
From ‘Polyamorie’, a sour pale ale, to the provocatively-named, citra-hopped ‘Swingers’, there’s a range of psychedelically-labelled lagers, porters and pilsners to suit all tastes — and you can enjoy each one in the repurposed warehouse Oedipus call home.
And it is in this unashamed duality that Amsterdam truly finds its feet, stepping outside the drugs-and-sex reputation the tourism industry has built for it and doing only what it honestly wants to do. So, while the rest of the city-breakers may flock to the titillating tourist streets or hot-boxed hotspots of cannabis coffee shops, why don’t you wander a little further into the city?
Pass over your pint of Amstel for something with a little more fruit and fizz. Cycle yourself to the little-known markets to barter your heart out for something you never needed in the first place. Spend more money on stroopwafels than is sensible, and wash it down with that whipped caramel macchiato we mentioned earlier.
Do all this, and you will sidestep the clichés, live like a local and make this mis-sold city your own.
Going further afield for a city break? Here’s why Washington D.C should be next on your wanderlust list…