AMSTERDAM is celebrating a rash of anniversaries in 2013, milestones which range from the impressive to the tenuous. For instance, it’s admirable that 400 years have past since the canal system was established, whereas Heineken (whose main brewery is no longer in the city) reaching the 140-year mark is, by comparison, small beer.
While Amsterdamers are quite rightly proud of their wonderful city and its significant landmarks, as a visitor it is easy to be overpowered by the history and tourism clichés – and more so than ever this year. So waft away those coffeeshop fumes, dodge the red-light district and forego the monstrous queues outside the newly reopened Rijksmuseum, which houses hundreds of Golden Age paintings and plunder. Away from the pomp there are hordes of modern treasure to discover in this thriving, hip capital. Seek out the new, vibrant museums, pioneering restaurants and trendy bars that have mushroomed in the last 12 months.
Following its waterside revival the rise of Noord as a district is an apposite starting point. The windy harbourside – found after a short, free ferry ride across the river IJ from Central Station – dotted with stern tower blocks and rusty shipyard warehouses may not offer the Amsterdam picture postcard, but that’s exactly its appeal for cultural entrepreneurs. They have made it hot property now, and it’s booming much like Old Street’s Silicon Roundabout. The sprawling space has opened up a whole new part of Amsterdam, and widened creative possibilities.
MTV moved their main Dutch studios there in 2007 and cutting-edge music festivals and art galleries have followed. Chris Keulemans, the artistic director of Tolhuistuin, a hodge podge of buildings and parks which hosts artists and events, says the attitude of Amsterdamers to Noord was akin to how Australia used to be viewed by us English, though that mentality is rapidly changing. The district was where the city “sent their criminals, their alcoholics, their homeless, their general outcasts” over 100 years ago, he says.
Now Noord boasts the EYE Film Institute, opened last April by Queen Beatrix, which stoops majestically over the harbour and is arguably the best facility of its kind in the world, blowing away The Tanks at Tate Modern. “The EYE is part of whole new living and working area of Amsterdam called Overhoeks, which will grow over the next five to 10 years to become a major area of the centre of Amsterdam,” marketing director Marnix Van Wijk tells me.
The distinctive and angular EYE, reached on the Buiksloterweg ferry, was designed by Viennese firm Delugan Meissl Associated Architects and is hugely absorbing. With over 40,000 rare and restored titles (inherited from the defunct National Film Museum in the Vondelpark) it’s not just a cinema: it’s a visual art dream. There are four screens and anything can be shown, from avant-garde films to Hollywood classics, accompanied by live organ music, and young directors are encouraged to showcase their work.
Additionally, there will be four large exhibitions a year – last year’s Stanley Kubrick retrospective attracted almost 50,000 visitors in just 10 weeks and Federico Fellini’s show, beginning in late June, is expected to attract similar crowds. There is also an education facility, with futuristic viewing pods, where one can learn vital movie-making skills.
There are scores of other new places to explore, too. Amsterdam claims to have the most museums per square mile of any city. The newly opened Stedwijk, which had been closed for a dozen years, now has a huge front building designed by Dutchman Mels Crouwel, lovingly nicknamed ‘The Bath Tub’, and is home to 300,000 objects of modern art.
Amsterdamers have caught on to “pop-up” experiences, too – on any given weekend there will be temporary fashion shows in churches, short-term jazz bars or one-night-only warehouse raves. Nightlife is important to most locals, and they are licking their lips in prospect of another building being developed in Noord. In 2014 the former Shell Tower, which stands next to the EYE on Overhoeks, will be transformed into a creative and party hub. In December “Twenty4Amsterdam” – a partnership of event organiser ID&T (known for global festivals and club nights like Sensation White), Club Air and developer Lingotto – announced their intention to build two nightclubs, a panorama bar with dance floor, a 70-metre-high sky deck, sound studios and a hotel.
Already the Noord club and bar scene is bouncing. There’s Pllek, a stylish “beach bar” cocooned by freight containers, and you should circle the first Saturday of September in your diaries as MTV’s Valtifest, held on the NDSM-wharf, is fast-becoming one of the hottest electro music events.
Elsewhere in Amsterdam, Trouw and Canvas, located in another nascent district on Wilbautstraat, are currently the places to be seen on weekend evenings. Here, where the national daily newspapers were printed, the expansive buildings offer awesome views over the city.
For those sniffing out the best eateries in Noord there is IJ-Kantine, the old NDSM shipyard canteen, and Pannenkoekenboot, which serves up an array of pancakes on a boat. Then there is BAUT, also in Wilbaustraat, where photographers, fashionistas and stylists dine, while &Samhoud Places in Oosterdok (close to Central Station) took just two months to win two Michelin stars after opening in late October.
The seven-course “inspiration” tasting menu is deliciously decedent, and when I’m told “we are striving to be the best restaurant in the world,” I sense they really mean business.
However, the Dutch have often been in the vanguard – a naval term, fittingly – when it comes to discoveries and creativity. It should, therefore, come as little surprise that the country who invented the yacht (1585), microscope (1590), stock market (1606) and compact disc (1979), among many, many others, is trailblazing in 2013.
A progressive and open-minded attitude is catalytic. Indeed, those in Holland must have chocked on their stroopwafels when David Cameron’s bid to push through legislation on same-sex marriage met firm opposition from his own party in early February; Amsterdam was the first capital city in the world to legalise gay weddings, 12 years ago.
Furthermore, when Queen Beatrix announced plans of her abdication on the eve of her 75th birthday in late January, Prince Charles might have cursed his own mother’s pertinacious approach. Beatrix’s eldest son, 45-year-old Willem-Alexander, will take charge on April 30 – Queensday – as his mother wishes to pass on “the responsibilities of our country ... to a new generation”.
And Amsterdam as a city is growing in confidence. If you discard the tourist hotspots in 2013 and search out atypical, fresh entertainment, you will be more richly rewarded. This could be Amsterdam’s new Golden Age.
&Samhoud Places’s “inspiration” seven-course taster menu is €159.50 (£135) a head and a three-course lunch is €69.50: samhoudplaces.com
Andaz Amsterdam has double rooms from £260: amsterdam.prinsengracht.andaz.com
British Airways fly to Amsterdam from £98 return from Gatwick, and other London airports: britishairways.com
DUTCH design is enjoying a renaissance, and the Marcel Wanders-designed Andaz Amsterdam hotel, which opened in October where the old Public Library was situated, is attracting many curious visitors. The top designer, who produces a range for Marks & Spencer, has work on display at the Stedwijk, and here he takes his flamboyance up a few notches. All staff have iPads and, with 38 screens showing visual art (such as bin bags being towed by a car and a young woman jumping excitedly on a bed), it can be overwhelming. The adjoining Blue Spoon restaurant is winning plaudits for it’s simplicity, generous portions and service. “We have a saying here in Holland,” says waitress Loes “‘The customer is king, but we are the emperor.’ We are working on changing that here.”
The even-newer Hôtel Droog (where there is only one bedroom) is even more wacky. You can escape in the “Fairy Tale Garden” and wander around the design exhibition. “The concept of a hotel has been reversed” says Renny Ramakers, co-founder and director of Droog. “A hotel is usually mostly about sleeping, but here we have enlarged and emphasised all the aspects that many hotels also offer and made them central to the hotel experience.”
Around old textile hub Staalstraat, where Hôtel Droog is situated, there are a number of other notable design shops, like Wanders’ Moooi, Restored, Sukha and shop without a home. It’s a great area to explore after Saturday morning at the Noordermarkt flea market and the cosy (or “gezelligheid”) Negen Straatjes in the canal belt.