The No5 tram pulled round the corner, sending a few loitering pigeons into the grey sky. I was somewhere close to Rembrandtpark to the west of central Amsterdam, looking for the towering Ramada Apollo hotel.
I got off and crossed a busy dual carriageway, trusting my completely unreliable sense of direction. This was not the Amsterdam I was familiar with, the Amsterdam of cobbled canal bridges and red light reflections in the water; little sign here of sticky pancakes and Van Goghs, or herring sandwiches. I had taken the wrong tram and was a little bit lost. Eventually I reached the southern fringes of the park and headed to the hotel, plotting my course between and around the skaters, dog walkers and lovers. Near a small lake I spotted a TV crew interviewing a dishevelled looking man. I wondered who he could be, and why he was being interviewed by this muddy, tree-lined pond. Were they recording a Dutch crime series, or did something sinister actually happen here? My curiosity was piqued. Now my favourite Amsterdam mindset was switched on. Expect the unexpected.
I dropped my bags off in my 13th floor bedroom and headed up to the top floor skybar, seeking something to slay my thirst. I pulled up a chair at the bar and took in the spectacular panorama, shooting the breeze with a friendly Irishman who was waiting for his mates to turn up before exploring the city’s nocturnal attractions. Time was slipping by all too easily so we exchanged numbers and I headed in to town, a straightforward 15 minute tram ride into the familiar Amsterdam of concentric canals and perpendicular streets, through the arty, slightly edgy but also gentrified Jordaan district, to Dam Square. This is where many an Amsterdam adventure starts, being a convenient meeting place for friends and the gateway to the pot houses and regulated sleaze of the red light district.
The rest of the evening saw numerous visits to nearby bars with my new friends, the exuberant (and by this time fairly drunk) Irish man, along with an amusing guy making his 11th pilgrimage to the city (for the drugs, obviously) and his inquisitive girlfriend, who was keen to discuss the future of press regulation and potential Scottish independence, but less forthcoming on the subject of her job. Her coyness got me thinking what she could possibly do for a living. Maybe she was a leading surgeon, or even better, a ministerial adviser. More likely she was probably something boring like an accountant.
Anyway. We toured the dimly lit streets below the station, passing into one bar and the next. On the fringes of the red light zone, just far enough away to avoid the stag parties, but close enough to get that sense of something slightly illicit – the perfect atmosphere for an evening’s carousing. I called it a night at 1am. With only a couple of days in town, there was much to see.
After breakfast I transferred to the Doubletree by Hilton – my base for the rest of the short trip. It’s impossible to miss, situated next to the Central Station and only a few minutes’ walk from Dam Square and the surrounding tourist-friendly streets. A relatively recent addition to Amsterdam’s luxury hotel scene, it also boasts an impressive roof top bar, where later I would find myself sipping an Old Fashioned as the sun slowly dropped over a distinctive skyline of spires and canal house rooftops. But right now I had little time for such pleasures, I needed to jump on another tram and head for the city’s museum zone, south of the centre.
My trip had been timed to follow the reopening of the city’s sprawling Reijkmuseum after a ten-year refit for the national museum. Built on the southern fringes of central Amsterdam in 1885, the Rijksmuseum is among the world’s great museums and one of the city’s main tourist attractions. To some locals, the Pierre Cuypers-built museum remains a red brick monstrosity, but the refurbishment has transformed the interior, doing away with the labyrinth of dark rooms. Two whole floors were removed to make way for a glass roof central foyer in the £317 million refurbishment.
Wonderful as the collections of 17th and 18th century furniture, sculpture and porcelain are, at the heart of any visit to the Rijksmuseum is the huge Gallery of Honour on the second floor, where the best of the Dutch Golden Age paintings hang. It is here I headed for, eager to immerse myself in the famous paintings by Vermeer and de Hooch, Frans Hals and van Ruisdael. The sheer number of masterpieces means it is surprisingly easy to engage with many of the classic artworks, such as Vermeer’s astonishing The Milk Maid. Perhaps that’s due to irresistible pull of the Gallery of Honour’s magnificent centrepiece – Rembrandt’s huge Night Watch.
After much gawping, and a little jostling, I headed to the nearby Stedelijk Museum – home to an eclectic collection of modern art – which was showing the Dutch video artist Aernot Mik, whose films based on footage of news events, from a car crash in Latin America to the corruption trial of Silvio Berlusconi, cleverly blur the lines between reality and performance. With the Van Gogh Museum also located close by, Amsterdam can undoubtedly lay claim to having one of the most important cultural districts in the world.
Intent on packing in as much as much culture as possible, I battled through the crowds of Ajax fans out celebrating their team winning league, and headed back up towards the centre of town to De Oude Kirk to see this year’s prize-winning entries in the World Press Photo Exhibition. All of humanity is captured within the church’s walls, the all too obvious human suffering of Syrians caught up in the ongoing conflict contrasted with the life-affirming feats of Paralympians in London last year. You don’t have to travel to Amsterdam to see the collection – it tours several major cities – but it’s another great reason to go there around this time of year.
I returned to the Doubletree and, being a news junkie, took full use of my room’s iMac to catch up on the major events of the day. Soon enough, I was back in amongst the crowds of revellers, tourists and happy-go-lucky locals, soaking up more of this city’s irrepressible vibe, content to be flying home the next morning in the knowledge it won’t be too long before I’m back.
DoubleTree by Hilton Amsterdam Centraal, Oosterdoksstraat 4, Amsterdam, 1011 DK. Tel: +31 20 5300800.
Ramada Apollo Amsterdam Centre, Staalmeesterslaan 410, Amsterdam, 1057 NL. Tel: +31 20 2070000.
Getting there: easyJet flies from Gatwick to Amsterdam. Price start at around £39 each way.