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The green and perfumed city on the water

Costa Rica

More canals than Venice, more flowers than anywhere, Amsterdam is an elegant, easy-going and eco-friendly city, one of our favourite destinations in Europe. Now it’s quicker still by Eurostar. The writer checks out its many attractions to draw up his don’t miss list of things to do. (Photo: Tim Davies, www.timkdavies.co.uk)

Saddle up

London to Amsterdam by train (Eurostar to Brussels, then high-speed Thalys train) is now under six hours. Ferry from Harwich is longer, but cheaper. And there are lots of flights from UK airports. But however you go, Amsterdam
offers the true carbon neutral travel option, the bike. The locals respect pedaling tourists because they cycle so much themselves. There are bike paths everywhere. Mike’s Bike Tours (www.mikesbiketoursamsterdam.com, 0031 20 622 7970, offers trips around “real” Amsterdam, and the surrounding
countryside. Or they (and many others) hire bikes, around €10 a day. Why
not make your own itinerary outside the busy tourist areas. Try the old dock
area, for the National Center for Science and Technology, where the replica of
the 18th-century Amsterdam, wrecked off Hastings in 1749, is moored.

Fine dining

Imagine a year-round Shrove Tuesday, and you can almost grasp Amsterdam’s
passion for the pancake. The new Pancakes! cafe (38 Berenstraat,
www.pancakesamsterdam.com) is well worth a try, with no combination (with
a drink,) costing more than €10.
The serve-yourself FEBO, a very Dutch fast food institution,
is a good snatched-snack option while sightseeing.
For a serious evening meal, it’s worth beating a path through the colourful
characters of the red-light district to Blauw aan de Wal (Blue on the Quay, 99
Oudezijds Achterburgwal, 00 31 20 330 2257) Outside, the calm of a former
monastery courtyard; inside, original wood floors and exposed brick walls. Try
the signature pea soup. D'Vijff Vlieghen (The Five Flies) in Spuistraat is a
restaurant made from five adjoining historic houses full of antiques and
Rembrandt etchings. Cooking is French influenced 'New Dutch.' Past guests
include Orson Welles and Walt Disney.

Flower power

Flowers are Holland’s weapons of mass seduction. And while spring is high
season for local blooms, (go to Keukenhof Gardens in Lisse, just south of the
city) the city’s many fine florists have enough flower power to brighten up
whatever time of year you visit. One of the best known outlets is the floating
flower market Bloemenmarkt at Singel, 600 yards from Dam Square, where
they sell the flowers of the world throughout the year. They sell (and you can
take them home to the UK) old and unusual daffodil bulbs such as Butter and
Eggs, Firetail, Mrs Langtry, Seagull and White Lady ready for planting this
autumn. All at one euro each. (www.keesbevaart.nl - in English
). Flowers are even cheaper at the bustling, open air
Albert Cuyp Market, alongside spices and chocolates, shoes and bike parts,
and much more. www.21stcenturyamsterdam.com gives a full list of
Amsterdam markets and independent shops.

Fine art

Amsterdam is a small city, but it has knockout art. The glorious Rijksmuseum
reopens in 2010 after a major makeover, but you can see its best works
(including Rembrandt's Night Watch and Vermeer's Kitchen Maid ) in the
already finished Philips Wing. If you fly, catch the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam at
Schiphol airport.
The Van Gogh Museum houses some of the greatest works by the tortured
artist. The first part of the Hermitage Amsterdam Netherlands, an outpost of
the great St Petersburg Hermitage Museum, is already open
(www.hermitage.nl). Phase 2 opens in 2009. Then there is Rembrandt’s House,
the Royal Palace on Dam Square - worth the admission for the marble
carvings alone, and Westerkerk , the church where Rembrandt was buried. My
bonus would be the Tuschinski Theater, an Art Deco masterpiece and one of
the world's most beautiful cinemas.

Super streets

There are parts of Amsterdam to avoid when you book a hotel, such as the
red light district around Central Station, Nieuwmarkt and the Dam. (And don’t
look for coffee in a “coffee shop”, where cannabis smoking goes on, excluded
from the general tobacco smoking ban imposed this year.) A perfect place to
stay, eat and browse is that serene antidote to the international shopping
mall, the Nine Streets area, (www.theninestreets.com).
It is centred around some of the city’s finest 17th Century canals, from the
Singel to the Prinsengracht, and is full of fabulous one-of-a-kind shops. It’s
the random shopper’s delight. Browse through vintage clothing, sewing
machines, antique light fittings, Asian carpets, silk sari tablecloths and
handmade jewellery. Where else would a barber shop double as an art gallery
(www.galerie-de-salon.nl)? Lots of buzzy little restaurants, tapas bars and
cafes, and good places to stay.

Cruise control

Amsterdam or Bruges as the Venice of the North? The debate goes on.
Statistically the Dutch city beats them both. Amsterdam has more canals and
waterways than Venice and more bridges, including the bright new red steel
Python Bridge on Borneo Island, than almost anywhere. Find time for at least
one trip on the water. The big boats do well enough, and dining on the water
at dusk, with the bridges lit up, is very fine. But there’s a neat alternative.
And it would probably only happen in Holland. Turn up at the comedy club
Boom Chicago, in the Leidesplein, and book on a St. Nicholaas
canal tour. The small boats can fit under under bridges the bigger craft can’t
manage. And, so rare in world tourism, they don’t charge. The donation is up
to you. They are happy, knowledgeable crew and they let you take your own
drink on board.

* Most convenient Eurostar - leave St Pancras 12.57pm, arrive Amsterdam
7.36 pm. www.raileurope.co.uk

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