Amsterdam: Walk on water

By Kerri Jackson

Amsterdam's canals are criss-crossed by more than 1000 bridges. Photo / Supplied
Amsterdam's canals are criss-crossed by more than 1000 bridges. Photo / Supplied

The great question of our modern times is, surely, where do people from Amsterdam go for their stag nights?

Come nightfall, the streets of Amsterdam's famous red-light district are teeming with gangs of mostly British, mostly male tourists filled to the brim with Heineken and the smoky wares of the city's coffee shops, leering and giggling at the city's "window girls". It does make you wonder if there are packs of Dutch people, drunk on warm ale, marauding through Essex.

But although the city's famously liberal approach to sex and drugs brings in the tourists (though there is a campaign to clean it up), so, too, does its other reputation - as a city of art and immense history.

In any word-association game of Amsterdam, soon after "sex" and "drugs" would surely come "Van Gogh" or possibly "Rembrandt". Then, of course, there's Anne Frank House, picturesque canals dotted with houseboats, those iconic teetering stacks of townhouses and museums for everything from art, architecture, spectacles and tulips to, well, sex and drugs.

The other thing Amsterdam is, of course, famous for is its bicycles. In a city of 1.6 million people, there are an estimated 700,000 bicycles. There are multi-level parking buildings for them. There are six-deep stacks of them against every pole, post or fence railing.

The flat, compact nature of the city and its cycle-friendly infrastructure - makes biking a fantastic way to get around the city as a visitor. Cycle lanes here are generally separate from the rest of the traffic, sharing only with motor scooters, who politely toot as they approach.

Yes, it is more than likely, if you're from this end of the world, that you'll teeter off down the wrong side of the road at some point, maybe even colliding with a local. But that's when you really know you're in Amsterdam, because in most cases your Dutch victim will politely ask if you're okay, help set you upright and go merrily on their way, after giving directions. No tourist-abusing road rage at all. It's almost disconcerting.

And so, within 15 minutes of leaving the Novotel on the edge of the city centre, we've navigated our way to the Van Gogh Museum where, happily, we've also beaten the early high-season crowds.

The museum is one of the must-dos for any Amsterdam first-timer. It houses the world's largest collection of works by its native son in a modern, compact museum. It sits on one edge of Museumplein, a broad, open square home also to the Diamond Museum, the Stedelijk (modern art) Museum and the epic Rijksmuseum - so it's a good spot to leave your bike while you explore.

A note, though: the Rijksmuseum, home to about one million artworks and artefacts, is currently undergoing a massive refurbishment, expected to be completed in 2013. It is open, but with only about 400 of its masterworks on show - though they include some awe-inspiring Rembrandts and Vermeers, among others. In the meantime there's a new addition the the museum landscape worth visiting. The Dutch branch of Russia's Hermitage museum opened earlier this year with exhibitions portraying Russian history and culture.

Once the artworks are appreciated and pockets are filled with all manner of Van Gogh bookmarks and coasters, it's time to see Amsterdam from the water.

The low-lying city sits on a network of 160 canals, crossed by more than 1000 bridges and any one of the many canal boat tours available. We pick our Holland International canal boat up from outside the elegant - if imposing - Centraal Station in the city's heart.The tour meanders through the canals, and it is from here that the city really comes to life as the guide explains everything from engineering, art and architecture to the city's lively merchant history.

A canal boat tour also means you'll venture further out into the open river, where you'll find the ship-shaped Nemo science museum, and from where you can look back across at the city and marvel at just how the elegant old buildings seem to bob on the water.

Back on land, it's time to explore the city's centre, through the maze of interconnecting lanes that makes up the red light district, and on to Dam Platz - a good landmark point, as you always seem to find your way back to it no matter which direction you head in.

The list of places to visit is endless, but if time is short it's not a bad idea to just wander and see what you come across, from quirky eateries and boutiques to weird little museums and galleries.

If greater Amsterdam is designed for cycling, the inner city is perfect for walking.

There's little traffic, key attractions are signposted and it's compact as well as pretty, so it's easy and pleasant to walk from one side to the other. If you get lost, just keep walking - you'll soon find a landmark, signpost or helpful passerby to help get your bearings.

This is truly one of Europe's easiest, coolest cities. Simple, safe and endlessly fascinating; if only those British stag parties knew what they were missing.

WHAT TO DO

* There's a museum for almost anything in Amsterdam, but history and literature buffs should probably try the famous Anne Frank House. But get there early; no matter what the time of year this is one of the city's most popular attractions and there will be queues. For something slightly different, try the Het Schip Museum in Westerpark, a little further out of the central city but easily accessible by bus or bike, it celebrates the "Amsterdamse school" architectural style, the famous "ship" building designed by Michel de Klerk.

* If you're keen on some shopping, the inner-city area between Centraal Station and Dam Platz is filled with H&Ms and other European chain stores. There is also the Magna Plaza shopping centre housed in the beautiful old post office. For something a little different, if more expensive, head to the network of lanes known as The Nine Streets, near the Prinsengracht and Singel canals.

IF YOU GO

Where to stay: Novotel Amsterdam City is a four-star hotel in Amsterdam's commercial district. It has comfortable rooms, speedy check-in, two new restaurants and a bar. The central city is accessible by bicycle or train, with Rai station a two-minute walk away. It's next to Amstel Park, which makes for a pleasant riverside bike ride.

Getting around: If you're keen on cycling there are plenty of hire shops dotted round the city, and many hotels have their own available to guests.

It's worth picking up an iAmsterdam guide book. You can purchase 24-, 48- or 72-hour versions. They include free or discounted entry into most key attractions, as well as a GVB travel card for use on trains and trams. They can be bought online at iamsterdam.com or from the tourist info centre near Centraal Station. Many hotels sell GVB cards.

Kerri Jackson travelled courtesy of Emirates and Amsterdam Tourism.

- Herald on Sunday

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