Insider's guide to Amsterdam

David Downie reveals the best places to eat, stay and play in the Netherlands' most vibrant city.

By David Downie

Published March 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll? Yes, please. Amsterdam's reputation as Europe's swinging capital remains unshakably deserved.

But do not be fooled into thinking that Amsterdammers are mere hedonists: The Netherlands' true passion is business -- the art of the deal. It is no coincidence that the expression "going Dutch" was invented here. If there is a single word to sum up the national character it must be: savvy.

Dutch business-mindedness is underpinned by centuries of religious tolerance and ethical pragmatism. That is why Amsterdam's Red Light District (read prostitution and party hotels) has been run and regulated by city authorities so efficiently since the city's foundation in the Middle Ages. That is also why the city's 300-plus "smoking coffee shops," where soft-drug use is tolerated, are (almost always) clean, safe, law-abiding -- and profit-making.

Statistics show, however, that Amsterdam's drug and sex tourism industry is actually on the decline. The reason is simple: Family and business travel are even more profitable.

One result of this shift is that the standard of hotels has improved dramatically: Nearly half the city's 30,000 or so beds are now in the four- and five-star category. There are also more family- and convention-oriented attractions than ever: more than 40 museums, plus the recently inaugurated Metropolis science and technology center.

Amsterdam's Provos and radical squats are now a historical footnote. Service is the new ideology. Whatever business travelers seek -- high-tech facilities, conference centers, convenience shopping, user-friendly telecommunications, multilingual local staff -- is now readily available in the city.

One example is the telephone company, privatized in 1996-97. Telephone booth instructions are now in Dutch, English and German. Using a local telephone card or a credit card, you can access the Internet via dozens of sidewalk telephone stations scattered around town.

Another example: Business hours and days have been extended in the last two years. Many shops are now open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (until 9 p.m. on Thursdays) six or seven days a week, including Sundays. The dollar has gained significantly against the Dutch guilder ($1 is currently about 2 Dfl). This makes Amsterdam's prices highly competitive, especially compared to London or Paris.

These are a few reasons why Amsterdam, the Netherlands' de facto capital (the administrative capital is The Hague), has in recent years become a major European convention and business city, out of all proportion to its population of 730,000 (about twice that in the Greater Amsterdam area).

The easy entry starts at Schiphol (locals say "skipple") Airport, a thoroughly user-friendly complex 15 minutes by taxi from town. Among its several hotels is the Golden Tulip Barbizon Schiphol, one of the city's best-equipped business and luxury hotels (swimming pools are rare in Amsterdam, but it has one, plus squash and tennis courts and a fitness center).

Schiphol is more than an airport: It includes a mega shopping center popular with locals. In fact, unlike most European airports, this one has become part of the city itself. It is now Amsterdam's second largest employer. Thalys fast trains to Paris, Brussels, London and major Dutch cities stop here, so plane-to-train connections are never a problem.

A taxi from the airport to Centraal Station, the city's heart, costs only 50 Dfl or so. The hotel bus (with stops at the Hilton, Barbizon Center, Pulitzer, Krasnapolsky, Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, Amsterdam Renaissance and Barbizon Palace) is 17.50 Dfl. The train is the cheapest yet: a mere 6.25 Dfl.

Amsterdam has become so popular in recent years that the biggest challenge now is finding a hotel room at short notice. Here are four tips. First, reserve through one of the International Reservations Systems popular here: Golden Tulip International BV; Accor; Bilderberg; Carlton; CIGA; Concorde; Hilton; Holiday Inn; Mercure; Swissotel or Utell.

Second, ask the Netherlands Reservations Center to do the job for you, by writing, faxing or calling them (P.O. Box 404, 2260 AK Leidschendam, NL; telephone 31/70/320-2500, fax 31/70/320-2611) (31 is the international calling code for the Netherlands; remember to drop the first "0" when dialing within the country, unless the number starts with "0800" or "0900").

Third, telephone or visit the Amsterdam VVV Tourist Office (the main offices are inside and opposite Centraal Station, telephone 0900-400-4040). They work miracles to find rooms at the last minute.

Fourth, the city's two biggest business hotels, where you are most likely to find last-minute accommodations, are the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky (over 800 beds; Dam 9; telephone 020/554-9111, fax 020/622-8607) and the Amsterdam Renaissance (more than 400 beds; Kattengat 1; telephone 020/621-223, fax 020/627-5245). In a pinch, stay at an airport hotel.

Tulips fields, the Rijksmuseum, diamond factory tours and the
Heineken brewery make up the first-time visitor's mantra. But once
you have found lodging, you might want to consider budgeting time
instead to explore a few of Amsterdam's most recent attractions.

Set in the harbor, between Centraal Station and the Maritime
Museum, is the new Metropolis science and technology center.
Virtual reality displays are the high point of this cutting-edge complex
designed by Renzo Piano (architect of Paris' Pompidou Center),
inaugurated in 1997 (open daily, telephone 0900-9191-100; address
Oosterdok 2). The view from the rooftop cafe alone is worth the

Another new and unusual attraction is ArenA, the 51,000-seat
Ajax soccer stadium and concert venue, opened in 1996. It has a
sliding roof and includes a shopping center, restaurants, gift and
souvenir boutiques and an Ajax Museum (open daily, telephone 020/311-1333; address Amsterdam ArenA, Zuidoost; accessible by Dutch
Railways trains, via Duivendrecht or Bijlmer, or by subway to
Strandvliet/ArenA or Bijlmer stations).

Mainstream culture aficionados should note that the
Rijksmuseum's newly re-opened South Wing will house the Van
Gogh Museum's collections from September 1998 through April
1999 (the Van Gogh will be closed for renovation).

If Amsterdam's spring and summer tourist crowds prove an
irritant, or if you are set on top-end culture with an exclusive twist,
Artifex is a specialized tour operator that can get you into the Royal
Palace when it's closed to the public and show you the city's art and
architecture treasures that others miss. Artifex's made-to-measure
tours are pricey (550 Dfl per day, plus tax). Clients include international corporate executives, heads of government and the like
(342 Herengracht; telephone 020/620-8112, fax 020/620-6908, e-mail

Boat tours are still the best way to see the city and its maze of
canals lined by about 6,800 historic buildings (for information on the
half-dozen main tour operators, call or visit the VVV Amsterdam
Tourist Office). If you want an antique saloon boat all to yourself,
however, you should hire one -- captain and hostess included -- from
Aquadam (service available March through November; Hilton Hotel
Marina, 138-140 Apollolaan; telephone 020/421-2374).

A cheaper sightseeing alternative -- the price of a bus ticket --
is the new Circle Tram, a streetcar that runs in a loop around
central Amsterdam, stopping at tourist attractions and big hotels. For
visitors with limited time, the tram has one distinct advantage over
boats: It is fast.

Renting a bike and bumping around town like a local is an
option for anyone wanting to stay fit. Bear in mind that Dutch bikes
are usually heavy, old-style one-speeds and Amsterdam streets are
cobbled, so the challenges are not lacking. Bikes can be in short
supply in high season; the bigger rental companies are more likely to
have bikes on hand, and Holland Rent-A-Bike (247 Damrak; telephone
020/622-3207) even has mountain and multi-speed bikes. Take-A-
Bike, at Centraal Station (telephone 020/624-8391), has hundreds of bikes
to choose from.

A favorite activity of bike-riding locals is a cycling tour of the
city's centuries-old Brown Cafes, so-called because they have a
patina of smoke and age. Start at the 1629 Cafe Karpershoek
(facing Centraal Station), Amsterdam's second-oldest cafe. Head
west to the Jordaan neighborhood near Noorderkerk for Cafe
Papeneiland, opened in 1642, and nearby Cafe Hegeraad (mid-1600s),
Cafe 't Smalle (1786) and Cafe Chris, the city's oldest (1624).
Southwest of the Jordaan, at Spui in the center of town, is Cafe
Hoppe (1670), a literary hangout. Swing east to Cafe de Sluyswacht
(1695) and its terrace overlooking the Oude Schans canal. Wind up
at Cafe de Druif (1631), near the Maritime Museum.

Eating used to be a chore in Amsterdam, unless you liked a
constant diet of pot roast, pancakes and raw herring. Over the last
decade, though, the city has become one of the Continent's foodie

Amsterdam's top-rated French restaurant is now La Rive, a
two-star Michelin luxury operation at the Amstel-Intercontinental
Hotel (Professor Tulpplein 1; telephone 020/622-6060).

Smaller and hipper, Christophe (Leliegracht 46; telephone 020/625-0807) remains a favorite of local gourmets. Bordewijk, an
ultramodern designer restaurant in the Jordaan neighborhood, spins
together French and northern Italian dishes (Noordermarkt 7; telephone

The newest French-inspired place in town is Le Hollandais, a
small, casual spot run by chef Adriaan van Canstein, who learned
his craft at Christophe's (Amsteldijk 41; telephone 020/679-1248).

Traditional Dutch fare is limited indeed, which explains why
locals have accepted the food of Indonesia, a former Dutch colony,
as their own. Consequently some of the world's best Indonesian
restaurants are in Amsterdam. They serve a parade of small dishes
-- chicken, beef, lamb or goat with peanut, chili or macadamia nut
sauces -- called Rijsttafel.

The list is long, but two Indonesian restaurants stand out as
the city's most authentic -- meaning spicy food designed to please
demanding diners: Long Pura (Rozengracht 46-48; telephone 020/623-8950) and Tempo Doeloe (Utrechtstraat 75; telephone 020/625-6718). A
full meal with beverages at either can get pricey ($50 and up per
person). Just remember, you can always go Dutch.

David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

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