Why Amsterdam is the perfect creative kickstart

Culture

Why Amsterdam is the perfect creative kickstart

Venice of the North positively bursts with culture, especially in summer. That you can hop there on the train makes it all the more of a salve

Richard MacKichan

BY Richard MacKichan5 August 2022

It’s a draw in itself these days to say it’s just so easy – although now probably cursed. But in theory, gliding effortlessly through France and Belgium on the Eurostar and being deposited in the middle of Amsterdam in less than four hours is luxuriously straightforward. To then, a couple of blocks later, be strolling cobbled canalside streets with Unesco world heritage status makes you wonder why people bother with airports at all.

Arrive in the canal district at dusk and you’ll be struck by two things: the omnipresent soft amber lighting that would make a cinematographer proud (there’s not a harsh white flouro in sight; council mandated it turns out), and the disregard Amsterdammers have for curtains; a fairly obvious example of their open culture.

When the rather innocuous looking door to Canal House creaks open, more of the city’s culture is exposed: its art. More on that topic to come, but suffice to say a narrow, marble-floored corridor lined with ornately framed scenes, still lifes, and subjects of bygone Amsterdam makes for as good an entrance as any. Despite the welcoming presence of a leafy courtyard garden – complete with trickling fountain – I take my kindly proffered arrival drink by the canal-view window, a couple of stray sunbeams illuminating the barroom with painterly panache.

With no jetlag to hinder me, I head out to meet my ‘Dam companions to make plans over beers and bitterballen at perhaps the city’s second most famous type of café: a bruin one. They are pubs in essence: wooden floors, vintage mirrors, convivial locals and, of an evening, perfectly low-lit (of course). This one even has a cat.

That we’re back again, bleary-eyed, for let’s optimistically call it brunch the next day owes a lot to one said companion’s ability to seek out jazz bars wherever they may be. The city has jazz pedigree, mind: Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins played out here as early as the 1930s; Chet Baker died here (we sought out the plaque); and Jazz Café Alto has had musicians crammed onto its tiny stage every night since 1953 (an honour now slightly asterisked by Covid). So we crammed in too – as had Anderson .Paak a few nights prior, it turned out – and toasted the talent until a very European 3am.

Thankfully Café Van Zuylen, our apparent new local, sports one of the more sizeable terraces in town – spanning one of its oldest bridges – so with a bit of solar charging our jazz hangovers are shaken and we amble our way towards the unmistakable spires of the Rijksmuseum. The Rijks is the largest museum in the country, packing in some 800 years of history, and houses works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Hals and other Dutch masters that will make your eyes widen with wonder no matter how often you’ve visited. It’s worth reserving some (hushed) awe for the Cuypers library in the north-east corner, too. Four storeys, and a good two centuries, of art history books line its chapel-like layout, adjoined with an ornate iron spiral staircase.

If you can’t quite stump up the euros for an antique tome then make the short walk to the Mendo flagship where all your art, photography, and generally very-aesthetically-pleasing book needs will be satisfied. Then rejoice further when you realise you can buy a few, pop them in one of their equally aesthetically pleasing tote bags, and not have to worry about paying for excess luggage on the way home. This being something of a cultural tour, I diverted to nearby Athenaeum for another preferred souvenir: magazines. It has one of my favourite collections in Europe.

Not that I’d be short of reading material at my next stop. To continue the cultural immersion, I swap the canal district for the museum quarter and check-in at the Conservatorium. Which, given the setting, is quite the check-in. The 19th century building, originally designed as a bank, stands proudly opposite the Stedelijk. The bank, as banks do, eventually outgrew its HQ in the Seventies and it became – with a bit of acoustic readjustment – a renowned music conservatorium, hence its current name.

Now the regal red-brick duets dramatically with a modernist glass cube, fused with award-winning flair to its side by architect Piero Lissoni. It’s the beating heart of the hotel, where a huge open-plan lobby area – dotted with squashy leather Cassina sofas and side tables piled high with art and design books – plays host to gathering guests and well-dressed locals. The striking black and white portraits of Dutch photographer Bastiaan Woudt appear throughout – and if you’re particularly taken by them, there’s a dedicated Woudt suite in honour of his stint as artist-in-residence. Head beyond the ingenious glass-encased living wall that separates the lobby from the brasserie and you’ll find photos of a few music icons lining the entrance to the Japanese-accented bar. They might be minded to add another: this was the very bar that composer Hans Zimmer celebrated his best original score Oscar win for Dune in his robe, no less – while on tour in the city. Clearly the musical force remains strong here.

Despite the hotel’s distracting diversity – there’s an award-winning Japanese restaurant, an entire parade of high-end shops at its rear, a vast (and monastically calm) Akasha spa in the basement, and there’s the offer of an eco-friendly private VIP tour of horticulture-in-exelcis expo, Floriade (we regretfully decline bit it’s available for suite guests until 9 October) – we tear ourselves away for an entreé of more art across the street before dinner.

The neighbouring Stedelijk is another razor-sharp old-new combination as a building – lovingly (or disparagingly, depending on who you ask) referred to as ‘the bathtub’ for, well, the giant white bathtub grafted to its 19th-century core. Inside it houses the modern and contemporary chapter of art and design, Dutch and otherwise, including Mondrians, Kandinskys, Chagalls, and some iconic designer chairs. Take the escalator from entry level into the belly of the bathtub and you’ll emerge into some giant Barbara Kruger word-art – it packs a visual punch that its countless Instagrams can never quite capture.

Sticking, tenuously, to the art path, our dinner date is on Rembrandtplein where, among the tourist traps and the neon, hides Cafe Schiller: one of Amsterdam’s oldest French restaurants; a long-time gathering spot for the artistically inclined and an art deco delight. We settle into a striped banquette, admire the statuette lamp-holders, and via the medium of escargots, steak tartare, and chardonnay we mentally relocate to turn-of-the-century bohemian Paris.

I’m very happy to wake up in Amsterdam, though. The sun creeps in to my sumptuous Conservatorium suite and illuminates a hefty Van Gogh volume on the coffee table. I take it as a hint to stay another day. So I stroll, I sit, I bask in the sunshine. I take a ferry, I buy more books, I become an accomplice in my stoned friends’ absent-minded pancake heist. I sample natural wines at Bar Pif and sublime sashimi back at the hotel’s aforementioned restaurant. It’s all thoroughly restorative, and only a few stops from St Pancras.

Further your cultural explorations at more of our Amsterdam hotels