Forget backpacking, the Dutch capital is culture-central, says Tamara Hinson
THE LAST time I visited Amsterdam was 13 years ago. I was 19 and coming to the end of a two month-long backpacking adventure around Europe. The final stop off in Holland was supposed to be a relaxing finale to a manic couple of months. I loved everything about the city (apart from when I got knocked over by a cyclist). I spent most of my time chilling out in a lovely little coffee shop off Haarlemmerstraat, reading newspapers, the owner’s cute Jack Russell puppy curled up in my lap.
This time, I decided things would be different. With 2013 marking the 400th birthday of Amsterdam’s canals, I was keen to find out more about this aspect of the city. I also wanted to explore Amsterdam’s art galleries. The Rijksmuseum, usually the location of the Van Gogh Museum, is currently being renovated and will reopen in April. For now, Van Gogh’s best known works are being held in the Hermitage Amsterdam, a spectacular 17th century building perched on the east bank of the River Amstel. Exhibits include early versions of his most famous works alongside his letters and personal items. The temporary relocation provides a good excuse to explore the city’s lesser known art-related attractions. I started with FOAM, a photography gallery on Keizersgracht famous for its cutting edge, contemporary exhibitions. When I visited, it was hosting a retrospective of the late, great photographer Diane Arbus. The exhibits are a million miles away from Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and Almond Blossom. FOAM highlights for the year include the Jan Hoek: Me & My Models exhibition, which runs until 20 March and uses Hoek’s photos of models to document the often tumultuous relationship between artists and their subjects. Primrose, Russian Colour Photography, which runs to 3 April, is a highly-anticipated retrospective of the early attempts by Russian photographers to produce coloured images.
That evening I discovered that Amsterdam’s artistic flair extends to its restaurants. LAB 111, on Arie Biemondstraat, is worth the 20 minute walk from the town centre. Built in a former anatomy lab, the restaurant’s centre-piece is a hospital table, while operating room-style circular lamps provide the lighting. The walls resemble grocery store shelves piled high with food and the toilets continued the medical theme. It is located within the Smart Project Space – a not-for-profit group, which provides exhibition and studio space for up-and-coming artists – and a percentage of LAB 111’s profits go toward the organisation. This made me feel significantly less guilty about wolfing down my huge steak with potato gratin sauerkraut.
Another must-see is the Amsterdam Historical Museum on Postbus 3302, which is about as far-removed from a traditional museum as it’s possible to get. Even the corridors are cool: bright orange affairs lined with circus-like mirrors. Highlights include the Amsterdam DNA tour, which offers a potted history of the city in 45 minutes, while the Golden Age exhibition examines the role of the city within the 17th century, delving into the city’s links with slavery and examining the role Amsterdam played in world trade.
The Canal Museum (Het Grachtenhuis), on Herengracht, is a must for anyone hoping to understand more about the role the waterways played in Amsterdam’s development. The 17th century canal house in which the museum can be found is also home to a particularly spectacular wall painting – there are now only 20 of these left in Amsterdam. The museum takes the form of an audio tour, with each room explaining another aspect of Amsterdam’s history using hi-tech displays.
The canals’ 400th anniversary will also be celebrated with several temporary exhibitions: last November the Hermitage Museum unveiled its One Canal Experience, which explores the lives of those living on the canals and runs throughout 2013, while October will see the opening of the city’s Chambres des Canaux, a cutting-edge art exhibition that will see various contemporary artists invited to display their artwork within specially selected Amsterdam canal houses.
If you’re keen to find out more about the canals, it will soon be possible to explore the waterways from atop a surfboard: from April, visitors will be able to sign up for lessons in SUP, or stand up paddle surfing. Lessons will take place in the canals of the Ijburg district in the east of the city (visit www.mm-sup.com to find out more).
For those who eat, sleep and breathe art there’s only one place to stay: The Exchange. This hotel can be found on Damrak, a short walk away from the main train station. The 61 rooms have all been designed by local art students and offer varying levels of luxury. Roos Soetekouw was just one of the people responsible for the hotel’s quirky design. One of her creations, the Room of Misunderstood Creatures, is particularly striking, and was inspired by a traumatic period of her life: the ceiling is entirely black, and the drips of glossy black paint which cascade down the walls apparently represent the artist’s tears. However the glittery white floor provides a welcome contrast – a silver lining to a dark cloud perhaps – while the beautifully wonky desk and chair, both with legs made out of twists of black metal, are achingly cool. Another highlight is the hotel’s vending machine, which stocks everything from razors to notepads and Lego-like miniature building blocks.
In many ways this wonderfully modern, arty hotel, housed within a traditional city house, perfectly symbolises what I love most about Amsterdam – the mixture of modernity, art and history. And the best bit? I didn’t get hit by a bicycle.
Need to know
Stena Line (www.stenaline.co.uk; 08447 70 70 70) offers twice-daily return six-hour crossings between Harwich and the Hook of Holland. Rail and sail tickets are available from £68 per person return (www.dutchflyer.co.uk) and cabins start from £20.50 per person each way (based on two sharing). Prices for a three-star room at the Exchange (www.exchangeamsterdam.com) start from €100 per night. For further information about Amsterdam/Holland visit www.holland.com.