Amsterdam is a city defined by diametric forces: land vs. water, preservation vs. progress, art vs. commerce, high vs. low culture. In between these opposing forces, the most populous city in the Netherlands finds itself enjoying a renaissance as an international art and design hub, bustling with activity…but never too hurriedly so. For Dutch citizens in Amsterdam embody a convivial spirit referred to as gezellig – in essence the pursuit and appreciation of creating a pleasing atmosphere. And indeed, I quickly discovered there is much to find pleasing about this city’s canal-laden curves and corners requiring hardly any effort except walking out the hotel door.
As a first time visitor, my expectations of Amsterdam were woefully modest, attributed to a vague ignorance of what the city had to offer beyond the storied canals, a few notable museums, and of course, its storied red light district. But by the end of my first day, I had already decided Amsterdam was my new favorite European metropolis, an opinion only strengthened over the span of a few days exploring by foot, boat, or bus.
I discovered what I most admire about Amsterdam is its incorporation of the city’s storied history into the flow of its emerging future; the city emanates atmosphere, but without the trappings of a preserved museum piece, with older buildings reconfigured to the needs and tastes of its citizens today. The city isn’t just picturesque – and indeed, the architecture across public and private spaces can be the cause of a stiff neck from persistent staring upward – but purposeful in all corners, the cultural effect of a merchant-based history where beauty served to communicate more than simple ornamentation. It’s also an extremely tolerant and progressive city welcoming to all, with vibrant gallery, dining, and retail scenes serving residents and visitors alike. Or as one resident explained to me during a boat ride along the canals, “Amsterdam is Amsterdam because we’re culturally tolerant, allowing people to do what they want to do as long as they’re not bothering or hurting anyone else. Historically we’re curious about exploring possibilities because conditions demanded we explore new ideas – so in design and life, we appreciate exploring the next big idea.” A city that rewards the curious and open-minded? How could I not love that?
WHERE TO STAY
Located just across from the cultural heart of Amsterdam’s Museumplein, this Neo-Gothic hotel could be mistaken for one of the numerous surrounding museums, such is its stately presence. In fact, history reveals both a cultural and monetary heredity, the building originally serving as a bank, then later hosting the Amsterdam’s Sweelinck Music Conservatorium by which the hotel owes its name. But this is no museum in purpose or design, for Dutch architect Daniel Knuttel has infused contemporary touches that elevate both public and private spaces with a harmonious interplay between the past’s structures with today’s appointments and technologies, blurring the demarcation between interior and exterior spaces. Custom designed monolithic flat panel display in the rooms are straight out of 2001: A Space Odyssey and temple-like bathrooms in some suites exhibit a Blade Runner neo-Art Deco atmosphere that make bathing a cinematic affair, luxurious details from the hand of Milanese interior designer, Piero Lissoni.
Van Baerlestraat 27 , 1071 AN, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Hotel Not Hotel
The name implies an uncertain state of accommodations and some might find the Hotel Not Hotel a perplexing oddity, existing somewhere between an enormous Playmobil playset and a hostel (note: communal bathrooms). And indeed, it wouldn’t be surprising to find a Schrödinger’s Cat room offered amongst the 15 themed rooms, ranging from an elevated perspective offered by the Crow’s Nest room, to the Transylvanian wood latticework embellishing the Crisis Free Zone room, or the truly wee Amsterdam Tram Cart room, just large enough to accommodate a king-sized bed and not much more for a “if the tram is a’rocking, don’t come a knocking” stay.
Piri Reisplein 34, 1057 KH, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Renny Ramakers, co-founder and director of Dutch design brand Droog, envisioned guests of the Hôtel Droog would find such endless options for exploration, play, dining, and learning, retiring back to their rooms to sleep would be the very last thing on their mind. “Hôtel Droog brings all of our activities under one roof—from curation to product design, exhibitions and lectures—and invites people to plug in as they choose.” In other words, everything for a design lover, all under one 17th century roof.
Staalstraat 7B, 1011 JJ, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Other notable accommodations: Student Hotel \\\ Hotel the Exchange \\\ The Botel
WHERE TO PLAY
One thing you’ll learn quickly in Amsterdam is to never judge a building by its exterior. Inside this unassuming early 1900s townhouse located in Amsterdam’s Museum Square awaits one of the city’s more intimate contemporary art experiences, where visitors are invited front stage to view of the works of the “Rockstars of Art” – Banksy, Warhol and Basquiat. The museum – redone by Dutch design company Studio Piet Boon – was founded by Lionel and Kim Logchies, a couple whose interest and collections span from Pop Art to Street. Upcoming exhibitions showcase the works from the likes of Os Gemeos, KAWS and Maya Hayuk.
Honthorststraat 20, 1071 Amsterdam, Netherlands
Alongside the Louvre, the Prado, and the Hermitage is Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the fourth pillar of world class global art collections with 8,000 works on display from a collection totaling an enormous 1,000,000 art objects. Notable permanent pieces include the works of Rembrandt, Vermeer, and most memorably, a Van Gogh self-portrait that practically vibrates with the kinetic paint strokes of the artist (of all the pieces, it was this modest sized piece which captured my imagination most). The museum re-emerged from a decade-long renovation based upon the design plans of Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz with equal amounts of drama and fanfare, recently documented in the film, The New Rijksmuseum – not a bad movie to load onto tablet or laptop for the long flight over. Tip: Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and plan at least a half day to enjoy the museum’s collection at a reasonable pace.
Museumstraat 1, 1071 XX Amsterdam, Netherlands
Looking for an illuminated experience while in Amsterdam? The Electric Ladyland is the First Museum of Fluorescent Art, housing room-sized fluorescent installations arranged to fully encompass visitors and incorporate them as participants of the unnaturally colorful and glowing environments. Somehow, the museum’s effects seem perfectly complementary to the city’s lax drug laws.
Tweede Leliedwarsstraat 5, 1015 TB, Amsterdam, Netherlands
WHERE TO SHOP
Store Without a Home
Those with an appreciation for the quirky and surreal will likely find something to return home with from this design boutique stocked with contemporary and colorful decorative home accessories representing a pop-up shop aesthetic (the store began in 2010 as a pop-up before settling into permanent digs). Scope out the wares before dropping in via the store’s pretty-in-pink Instagram.
Haarlemmerdijk 26, 1013JD, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Established international brands like Ligne Roset, Moroso, Vitra and Pastoe are represented here amongst the store’s vast catalog of modern home furnishings and decorative items (so large, it spans two buildings). But where the store sets itself apart is their connections with younger designers emerging from various art academies in the Netherlands and abroad, making the shop a preview of up-and-coming talent.
Prinsengracht 629, 1016 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands
The Danish design brand HAY has earned an international following for their minimalist modernist wares characterized by a joy-inducing affinity for pastel hues, gridwork, geometric shapes and color blocks. Take in the entirety of their collection at their flagship shop located in the trendy shopping district known as De Negen Straatjes, or nine side streets known for particularly notable vintage and designer shopping. Arriving with an extra empty suitcase for the return trip might be advisable.
Spuistraat 281 abc, 1012 VR Amsterdam, Netherlands
ARCHITECTURE OF AMSTERDAM
Attempting to summarize the architecture of Amsterdam into a condensed “must see” list seems a futile folly, for nearly every street and canal in and around the city is populated by buildings of both small and great design significance spanning the city’s history. My neck hurt the first few days from craning, twisting, and turning to take in all the details evident in both public city structures and private developments.
The most apparent and renowned are the city’s defining slim and tall canal houses, many built by the merchant class and ruling class during the height of the Dutch Golden Age. This civic commitment to the city’s architectural past is paired with a progressive view of incorporating futuristic contemporary structures against the city’s backdrop of canals, bridges, and traditional architecture. A few of the more outstanding examples are listed below, many viewable by architectural canal tour:
- ARCAM by René van Zuuk
- Science Center Nemo by Renzo Piano
- Europe Building by DUS Architects
- Marineterrein Amsterdam by Bureau SLA
- Islamic Funeral Pavilion by Atelier PUUUR
- Stedelijk Museum by Benthem Crouwel Architekten
- Noorderparkbar by Bureau SLA
- Jan Schaeferbrug Bridge by Venhoeven CS
- Siloam by MVRDV
- The Pyramids by Soeters Van Eldonk architecten
- Piet Hein Tunnel Building by UN Studio
- Borneo + Sporenburg Bridges by West 8
- EYE Filmmuseum
WHAT TO DO
Amsterdam Architectural Boat Tour
Amsterdam reveals itself best not by car, foot, or bus like most cities, but while gently navigating the waterways of its postcard perfect canals on board a motorized boat, a leisurely introduction to the city’s architectural landscape. During our 3-hour architectural tour under the guidance of a practicing local architect and university instructor, we found ourselves entranced by our guide’s grasp of historical, social, as well as the architectural context related to each building we passed, ranging from traditional residential canal homes to the most cutting-edge constructions designed by world renowned architecture firms. Easily the best three hours spent as a first-time visitor, we’d return to do it all over again to see more and learn more about Amsterdam’s ever-evolving cityscape.
3D Print Canal House
Futurists have long predict one day houses won’t be built, but simply printed. Sounds like science fiction until you visit the KamerMaker (the Room Builder), a gigantic 3D printer designed by DUS Architects as a proof of concept manufacturing tool currently being used to build a full-size canal house, one bio-plastic piece at a time. Visitors are invited to learn more about the 3D Print Canal House by free downloadable smartphone audio tour or by paid reserved private tours.
Crash Course & Guided Tour
Every Friday class is in session with the Architectuurcentrum Amsterdam offering a 45-minute Crash Course (in English) focused upon the city’s dynamic contemporary architecture, a walking classroom that continues onto a 2-kilometer, 2-hour route starting from the Architecture Centre Amsterdam, across by ferry to the northern shore of Het IJ, and concluding at iconic EYE Film Institute. You’ll even enjoy complimentary coffee and tea during this alternative to the architectural boat tour noted above.
Amsterdam offers countless destinations, eateries, and shopping destinations for first-time and returning visitors. But there a couple destinations worth a day-long excursion if the itch to explore the Netherlands arises, including the bibliophile’s dream come true, the Spijkenisse Library Book Mountain (1.5 hours by train), alongside the museum-experience-by-bicycle, Kröller-Müller Museum (1.75 hours by train).
Flights outbound flying with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines to nearby European destinations from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol deserves setting aside a buffer of time to visit the Rijksmuseum Schiphol Airport, small museum exhibiting eight to ten thematically curated masterpiece paintings. Those fortunate enough to make the intercontinental journey and back aboard KLM’s business class will also come away with a coveted architecture/design memento.
Anywhere we missed? Tell us in the comments below.