Amsterdam: Bikes, Bridges, and Boats

In Amsterdam, canal bridges light up the way.

In terms of size, you could tuck all of Amsterdam, a city without skyscrapers, into a corner of Tokyo or Los Angeles and it might pass for a village. But that would be an oversight. Culturally rich, aesthetically beautiful, easily navigable, tiny Amsterdam stands tall among cities of the world.

In fact, its size contributes greatly to its sensuality. The music box chime of church bells, the ring of trams jostling along metal tracks, the cry of an overhead heron, the low hum of a water taxi as I stroll across a curved bridge; all these sounds, elsewhere deafened by motor vehicles, here in Amsterdam add life and music to its ambiance. Accompanying my aimless strolls, they remind me that it has been way too long since I last had the pleasure of this people-friendly city.

Amsterdam: Bikes, bridges, and boats.

Most famous are its canals and the bridges that cross them. And then, of course, there’s the matter of the bicycles. Nearly everyone owns one. Some folks own two or three. Almost 900,000 bicycles park their pedals in a city that is home to just under 800,000 residents. My ears became quickly attuned to the gentle, sometimes urgent, ring of a bicycle bell that let me know I was in its path. Bikes, bridges and boats are everywhere.

Bicyclists crowd a canal crossing while a lone couple waits to cross.

You’ll see very little, if any, gentrification in Amsterdam. This is a working city, comfortable with itself, flush with its rich history. Amsterdam displays its rough edges openly. We, the tourists, cramming its central zone, really do share a place where people go about their lives despite our presence. They have not gussied up their 17th-century canal houses or gilded their barges for our benefit. Amsterdam is not a theme park of its history. It is its history, a city with a living past that amplifies and electrifies its residents’ everyday lives. If you are like me, it will take only a day at most to tune in to that vibe, to breathe in the sea-scented air and absorb its energy as you walk the brick cobbled streets past those leaning row houses while basking in the beauty of curved bridges and tree-shaded canals.

Canal walks past vintage row houses offer leisure time between museum visits.

Artful pursuits: Besotted by Amsterdam’s artful ambiance, a natural progression of activities mandated a visit to one or two of the city’s more than twenty museums. The three most well-known are the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh and the Anne Frank House.

Looking at Rembrandt, Rijksmuseum.

At the splendid Rijksmuseum, I immersed myself in Rembrandt’s “Nightwatch,” Frans Hals’ “Wedding Portrait in the Garden of Love,” and Vermeer’s “Milkmaid.” During my most recent visit, the museum had mounted an “outdoor gallery” exhibit of about fourteen monumental sculptures and mobiles by American sculptor Alexander Calder. The outside gardens offer a welcome rest, as does the ground level Atrium Café.

Calder mobile with Rodin sculpture in the background at the Rijksmuseum.

Wandering the galleries can build up an appetite. If you make your way back to the entrance hall and look up, you’ll see a Calder mobile suspended over the Atrium Café’s inviting tables. Museum cafés are my weakness and the Atrium Café does not disappoint. Along with a glass of crisp Prosecco, I enjoyed a fresh wild salmon salad served with sliced, natural sourdough bread. The bread tasted uniquely Dutch: a solid crust with a slightly sour, chewy interior and, according to our server, made without yeast. Mint tea came with vibrant green leaves steeped in an Art Deco-style pot. My companion enjoyed Dutch coffee brewed from a master blend especially developed for the museum cafe, a combination of the fruity, sweet notes of Ethiopian beans and the heavier character of Sumatran coffee. We later learned that Sumatra was where the Dutch started the cultivation of coffee.

Canal rides provide transport along with viewing the sights. A knowledgeable guide describes the local architecture and history.

The Van Gogh Museum: Vincent was not to be denied, so we made the pilgrimage to the Van Gogh Museum early enough to avoid the long lines found later in the day. Van Gogh lived in Amsterdam for a short while. The museum dedicated to his work houses some of his most famous paintings, including “Sunflowers.” Very well laid out, the exhibits take you from the artist’s early days as a neophyte. We meet him as a young man learning his trade and are introduced to his influences, his friendships and passions; then on to the creation of his later transcendent works and ultimately to his poignant correspondence at the end of his life. His brilliance, his frailties and his dedication are evident throughout. The exhibits create a biographical portrait of a man whose life journey makes him greater than his myth. Van Gogh himself was not famous during his lifetime. As he wrote in one of his letters, “artists perpetuate themselves, passing on the torch.

Wide canals support two-way traffic and dining on board.

Houseboats line the canals along with working vessels. Many are restored ships that hail from Amsterdam’s seafaring and trading legacy. Today, they help solve Amsterdam’s housing shortage. Flower boxes adorn homes lavishly around town and houseboats are no exception. I found myself referring to flower-bedecked vessels as “blossom boats.”

Departure came all too soon. As I stepped off the curb in front of my hotel and passed my suitcase to the shuttle driver, I heard a vibrant jingle and looked up to see a bicyclist approaching. I couldn’t help but feel he read my thoughts when he smiled and said, “Come back soon.”

A local resident adds to the public art scene on display everywhere in Amsterdam.

When to go: Amsterdam is truly a year-round destination. Spring and summer bring warm weather with pubs and canal-side cafés setting tables outside for al fresco dining. Fall brings vibrant colors to the tree-lined canals. The winter season fills its calendar with concerts, openings, ice skating and more.

Rijksmuseum: You can learn more about the museum and its collection of some of the world’s finest masterpieces by downloading the free multimedia tour app, available for iOS and Android: www.itunes.apple.com/us/app/rijksmuseum/id621307961?mt=8

With this official resource, you can browse through the museum’s collection and research the artworks at your leisure. Or you can follow one of the selected tours, guided by a narrator, to a selection of the museum’s highlights. When you visit in person, bring your own headphones so you can, with the app, enjoy the full 3D audio experience.

Van Gogh Museum: Every Friday, the Van Gogh Museum is open late into the evening with a packed program. Every first Friday, the museum organizes a grand event. The other Friday Nights are designed a bit smaller with a DJ, cocktail bar, free guided tours and a return of one of the acts of the First Night. You only need a ticket to the museum to join in the festivities. Order your ticket online: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en

Anne Frank House: Much to my disappointment, visits to the Anne Frank House were completely booked during my time in Amsterdam.This biographical museum is dedicated to Jewish wartime diarist Anne Frank. Centrally located, the museum resides on the Prinsengracht Canal. Advance reservations can be booked at https://www.annefrank.org/en/museum/tickets/choose-your-ticket/

Come evening, Amsterdam canals and bridges transform into magical light shows.

Lodging in Amsterdam books up quickly, especially during the summer months. Guesthouses and inns offer the chance to stay in a 17th-century Dutch house. I stayed at the Apple Inn Hotel. While not directly on a canal, the hotel is ensconced in a recently updated vintage, multi-floored home located within walking distance to the tram, cafés, restaurants and shops. Rooms 20 and 21 are quiet and face a peaceful garden. Each morning, we enjoyed the hotel’s delicious buffet breakfast which included fresh-baked bread. The staff is extremely helpful. www.apple-inn.nl

An earlier version of this story appears on Epicurean Destinations where you can view dozens of award-winning national and international travel destination articles. Visit here: https://epicureandestinations.com/

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Bay Area Travel Writers tell stories through media, old and new — newspapers, magazines, broadcasts, blogs, videos, books, and online publications.

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Lee Daley

Travel writer, photographer, editor, I cover travel, culture, art & architecture. Featured in NY Times. Share the journey at https://epicureandestinations.com