With its canals, elegant gabled houses, laidback lifestyle and superb museums, the Dutch capital makes a delightful stay before or after a river cruise, says Oliver Hughes

Groenburgwal Canal, Amsterdam
Groenburgwal Canal, Amsterdam

Effortlessly cool but with a village-like charm, Amsterdam is probably one of the easiest cities in Europe to explore. One of its most compelling features has to be its history.

Founded as a fishing village around a dam on the Amstel river in the 13th century, Amsterdam developed quickly during the 14th and 15th centuries. However, it was during the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century that it really started to enjoy commercial success and became a centre of trade and power and a leading centre for finance and diamonds.

From this city of canals and islands, the Dutch became one of the world’s mightiest naval powers and forged an empire across the world. Amsterdam flourished, becoming the wealthiest city in the world, and developing into a hub of culture and art. Its prosperity declined in the 18th and 19th centuries, although the establishment of the Amsterdam-Rhine canal at the end of the 19th century gave it a second Golden Age.

It remained neutral during the First World War, but on 10 May 1940, during the Second World War, German troops entered Amsterdam, and the Netherlands fell under Nazi occupation for five years. About 80,000 Jews, including Anne Frank and her family, were deported from Amsterdam to concentration camps.

Today, Amsterdam is renowned for its culture and nightlife. The city centre is a protected area, and three of its canals are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Houses in Amsterdam
Amsterdam town houses along the canal

Must Sees

Amsterdam is fairly compact and is jam-packed with things to see and do. While the major attractions include Dam Square, the Royal Palace and the enchanting Bloemenmarkt (flower market), it’s renowned as a city of museums, with more than 50 major destinations covering everything from ancient to modern art to sex, military history and even microbiology.

The old masters at the Rijksmuseum including works by Rembrandt and Vermeer, while the Van Gogh Museum is likely to be  high on your must-do list.

To avoid the crowds, try to get there as soon as it opens or at the end of the day. That way, you should be able to enjoy the paintings without having your view obstructed by someone taking a selfie.

The Anne Frank House, on the Prinsengracht Canal, is a compelling and moving museum depicting the writer’s life against the turbulent backdrop of world history, and provides an opportunity to see the secret annex where the Franks and their friends hid from the Nazis. Tickets must be purchased in advance online at annefrank.org

Also worth visiting is the National Maritime Museum, near the Eastern Docklands and the central station. The building itself is an architectural marvel from the mid 1600s, rising up out of the water, and boasting exquisite exterior and interior design.

There are several exhibitions across multiple floors, detailing how the Netherlands rose to prominence as a naval superpower. There’s also a full-size Dutch East India Company ship docked outside. Perhaps the real treasure here, though, is the cartography exhibition showcasing  beautifully hand-drawn maps dating back hundreds of years. They are so fragile they can only be shown in limited light, but they are stunning.

De Wallen (the Red Light District) is in the medieval city centre, and while some of the window displays can be a bit of a shock, particularly if you’re on a morning walking tour, it is interesting.

There are 165 canals in Amsterdam and 1,281 bridges. Much of the city is pedestrianised, so the best way to explore is by foot, and it’s a pleasure to stroll along the canals. The easiest option for getting around if you don’t want to walk is to hop on a bike (these are available for hire all over the city) or take a bike taxi.

And, of course, don’t forget to buy some bulbs – tulips and orange ranunculus, for which Amsterdam is famous – to take home.

Wooden tulips in Bloemenmarkt, Amsterdam
Wooden tulips in Bloemenmarkt, Amsterdam

Eating

Dam Square is fantastic for people-watching, and you’ll find plenty of cafés both in the square and on the side streets where you can relax with a stroopwafel (a waffle made from two thin layers with a caramel filling) – hold it over your coffee until the caramel melts.

You’ll find there are a lot of Asian restaurants in Amsterdam, and plenty of vegetarian and vegan cafes, too. Koffie ende Koeck is the place to go for cake, while The Dutch Weed Burger is one of the best vegan places around. Its signature burger is made using seaweed cultivated in the Netherlands. It sounds a little strange, but it works.

Amsterdam accommodationWhere to stay

Offering spectacular views over the city and river IJ, and within walking distance of all the city’s main attractions including Dam Square, the 4-star Mövenpick Hotel Amsterdam is ideal for anyone embarking on or finishing a river cruise. Rooms are contemporary and brightly furnished, with organic bed linens and elevated river views. Wifi and free shuttle bus transfers from the station are included, and Executive Lounge rooms also give you access to the lounge and complimentary breakfast in the excellent Silk Road Restaurant. Rooms from £211pp per night (movenpick.com).

Cycling is the main form of transport in Amsterdam
Cycling is the main form of transport in Amsterdam

Getting there

The I amsterdam card gives you free entry to more than 50 museums and attractions, a one-hour canal cruise and free unlimited public transport. For more information visit iamsterdam.com

Go online: To read about a Rhine river cruise from Cologne to Amsterdam go to cruise-international.com/ms-serenade-1-cruise-ship-review/

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