Is Amsterdam the new Paris?

At last, Eurostar has opened a non-stop link from London to Amsterdam. You still have to change trains on the way home, but the Dutch city is easier to get to than ever, and there are lots of reasons to go.

Canals lined with decorative gabled houses; cosy wood-panelled cafés, flowers bursting from buckets on street corners, boats gently gliding on the waterways, flocks of cyclists, and a famously easy-going populace all help create Amsterdam’s allure. But while it may be one of Europe’s most visually and temperamentally charming cities, it is also one of the most culturally rich. Its artistic abundance – painting, architecture and photography; opera, music, dance and a thriving contemporary arts scene – make an alchemical mix that only deepens the appeal. With a direct rail connection at last in place, now is the time to explore Amsterdam in depth – you may find it even rivals Paris.

The Old Masters from Holland’s 17th century Golden Age are the mainstay of its artistic heritage, of course. You will find dozens of these paintings with their extraordinarily beautiful and poignant insights into the everyday life of the time, not only in the Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl) but in the richly stocked Amsterdam Museum (amsterdammuseum.nl), and several historic canalside mansions. Many of these, such as the splendid yet still somehow domestic Museum Van Loon (museumvanloon.nl), are open to the public. And it’s not just art which dazzles in the Rijksmuseum – the collection takes you on a journey far beyond grand old paintings, via exquisite artefacts in its Asian Pavilion to ornate 17th-century dolls’ houses (showpieces for wealthy adults, rather than playthings). Across the way, the Van Gogh Museum (vangoghmuseum.nl) shows more of the tortured artist’s brilliant and most memorable paintings than anywhere else in the world, and next door to that, the Stedelijk (stedelijk.nl) not only has a strong and varied collection of modern art (especially Malevich, Mondrian and De Stijl) but also houses some prime 20th and 21st-century design. The Stedelijk’s changing exhibitions inspire, challenge (and sometimes bewilder) with work from the very forefront of contemporary art – as do a host of smaller galleries, many in the Jordaan quarter of town. 

Few cities can beat it for art and culture

Credit:
FRANS LEMMENS

In these days of rising rents, many artists have decamped to Berlin, and more recently Lisbon, but Amsterdam still has a vigorous art scene. Regular “Open Atelier” weekends in different neighbour­hoods open studio doors to you, for one-to-one chats with artists about their work. Photography is hottest of all in Amsterdam at the moment. For many visitors to town, the FOAM Museum of Photography (foam.org) tops the list of must-sees, for its shows uncovering lesser-known historical corners of the art, for blockbuster exhibitions of famous photographers, and intriguing new work. Huis Marseille (huismarseille.nl) not only comes up with exhibitions of engaging and challenging contemporary work, but is housed in two monumental canal houses, one with a fine 18th-century ceiling painting. The Amsterdam City Archive (amsterdam.nl/stadsarchief) adds a warming dash of nostalgia with frequent shows of old photos from its huge collection, and the Unseen Amsterdam festival (unseenamsterdam.com) brings the very latest photography from all over the world to town each September.

Unseen marks the tail end of a busy summer festival programme, with such offerings as the annual Holland Festival (hollandfestival.nl; the Netherlands’ answer to Edinburgh), followed by Julidans (julidans.nl; international contemporary dance) and De Parade (deparade.nl; zanier, more circus-like fare), along with many more. 

Amsterdam is one of the world’s greatest cycling cities

Credit:
DANIEL HERNANZ RAMOS

The new kid on the block is rapidly becoming the most popular of all: each October, Amsterdam Dance Event (amsterdam-dance-event.nl), billed as the world’s biggest club festival for electronic music, brings more than 2,000 artists, DJs and other musicians from around the globe, along with thousands more clubbers, for day and night events all over town. Somewhat more sedate, but with just as much cultural clout, is the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (idfa.nl) in November, one of the leading events of its kind.

Of course, fine music and ground-breaking performance are not confined to the festival months. Amsterdam has impressive cultural fixtures. The Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (concertgebouworkest.nl) justifiably has a reputation for being one of the best there is, and is particularly renowned for interpretations of Mahler. 

The superb acoustics of the historic Concertgebouw (concertgebouw.nl) makes it a favourite among visiting musicians, bringing the very cream to Amsterdam. The Dutch National Opera (operaballet.nl) is known for top-quality adventurous productions, where budgets are fruitfully spread, rather than being channelled towards one or two soloists. And though it has shed its cosy, scuffed venue for a new home with perhaps less atmosphere, the BIMhuis (bimhuis.nl) continues to draw jazz and improvised music aficionados, as it has done for decades. From time to time, Amsterdam has also experienced rich periods of intense architectural creativity. Another is happening now: witness the exhilarating aerodynamic zigzag of the EYE film museum (eyefilm.nl), across the water behind Central Station. (The museum houses a wide-ranging collection of sometimes extremely rare films, dating back to the 19th century.) 

Modern architecture in the Zuidas district

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GETTY

Other outbreaks of bravura modern architecture can be found in the former Eastern Docklands nearby, and among the bigger-than-you company headquarters buildings in the Zuidas district, south of the city centre. Of course, the Golden Age boom, which gave Amsterdam its main canals, provides the city with its most august architectural heritage, but quirkier moments from the past – such as the undulating, almost Gaudí-esque buildings of the architects of the early 20th-century Amsterdam School – can be even more rewarding. You’ll find prime examples in the Rivierenbuurt, south of the centre, and Scheepvaartbuurt to the west.

Dancing until dawn, puzzling over a curious installation, listening to a top string quartet, or standing quietly before a Vermeer: hopefully your appetite for Amsterdam has been whetted. In which case, before you go, you may like to peruse our selection of the city’s best cafes and restaurants – the foodie vibe is as resurgent and as culturally rich as the arts scene.

Getting there by train 

Eurostar’s non-stop London to Rotterdam (3hr 1min) and Amsterdam (3hr 41min) services beings on Wednesday  with two trains a day departing at 08.31 and 17.31. Fares start at £70 return. Until passport protocols are agreed (which is promised by the end of next year), returning passengers will have to change in Brussels for immigration and security screening.

The first direct service departs on Wednesday

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BLOOMBERG FINANCE LP/CHRIS J. RATCLIFFE

Getting there by air

There are also dozens of air services to the city from London and regional airports all over the UK. The easiest way to search for fares and routes is via skyscanner.net.

More information

Read Rodney Bolt’s detailed guide to the city’s sights, hotels and restaurants. The tourist information site is (iamsterdam.com).

The Golden Age on show in Britain

So sort after were paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, that many were bought by wealthy collectors for stately homes in Britain. A new exhibition of major works now owned by the National Trust including paintings by Rembrandt, Gabriel Metsu, and Aelbert Cuyp opens at the Holburne Museum in Bath on May 25 and runs until September 16 (holburne.org). 

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