Hubert Burda Media

An Insider's Guide to Amsterdam

During a stay in Amsterdam, we discover the Dutch capital is far more than canals, bicycles, Van Gogh and pot-head cafes.

The Conservatorium Hotel in Amsterdam

It’s very early Saturday morning and a gigantic Miffy stares me down as I enter the lobby of the Conservatorium Hotel. Her cool greeting is matched by a much warmer one, courtesy of front-desk staff in the deserted lobby. That’s fair – the bunny babe of Dutch origins is only a statue, and one with a cross for a mouth, so she’s understandably not particularly chatty, and certainly not at this hour.

While Miffy’s signature look is a blue smock dress, this version is clad in a skeleton suit, her typical white complexion having taken on a bronze cast. Her new look is the brainchild of Dutch artist Raphael Hermans, and was designed as part of an initiative celebrating the bunny’s 60th birthday last year, called the Miffy Art Parade, in which 45 incarnations were put up all across the Netherlands. Another 15 circumnavigated the world with an exhibition travelling to Japan, all of which were eventually auctioned off to benefit Unicef — that’s how this Miffy made it into the hotel’s permanent collection.

Not all of the artists involved are Dutch – the line-up included photographers Inez & Vinoodh, fashion illustrator Piet Paris and a number of Japanese creatives – but it’s natural that the Miffy acquired by the Conservatorium comes from the hands of a Netherlands native, as the hotel is wholly dedicated to supporting and championing its home base. All of the artefacts that sit in the expansive glass shelves are designed exclusively for the property by Royal Delft, its bar Tunes specialises in gin drinks (the spirit is argued to have Dutch origins), and even the smattering of shops in the connected emporium features jeweller Bonebakker, designer of the royal crown.

The I Heart Amsterdam suite at The Conservatorium Hotel

The I Heart Amsterdam suite at The Conservatorium Hotel

Despite its name, and the fact that the hotel was converted from a music conservatory, the building actually began life as a bank in the late 1800s, and many of the design features from that era have endured, whether it’s the pig motifs on the original wall tiles (signifying piggy banks and hidden under protective soundproof carpeting during the music conservatory years) or the heavy vault that now hosts a Kiehl’s counter. Italian architect Piero Lissoni has done a fine job of melding old and new within the structure, best evinced in the I Heart Amsterdam suite, a four-floor penthouse featuring a roof terrace, in-floor sunken bathtub, an attic-style bedroom and lots of stairs, which is apparently quite popular for proposals. I can already picture the trail of rose petals leading to the pinnacle of the room and hotel.

I’m in a Deluxe Duplex room, which is one of the most generous Deluxe-category accommodations I’ve ever seen, with an internal staircase and two bathrooms so sleekly hidden that, apparently, one guest complained after his stay that his room was “missing the second bathroom”. I’ll give that guest the benefit of the doubt – he probably spent most of his time outside exploring the city’s fast-rising luxury scene.

Hotels are great harbingers of when a city is on the rise, and Conservatorium isn’t the only hotel to take up unique property in the ’dam. The Waldorf Astoria converted six canal-side mansions into a 93-room hotel that’s equal parts cosy and lavish. The Hyatt Group’s design-led brand Andaz took on the city library, which has since become a kooky-fabulous place to rest your head. And since what’s old is new is cool nowadays, down in hip de Pijp, Sir Albert did a number on a former diamond factory, emerging a contemporary boutique hotel complete with plush, dark interior details of the ilk favoured by Design Hotels — it’s been so popular with the up-and-coming set that a sister property (or brother, perhaps, is more appropriate), Sir Adam, opens this month in A’DAM Toren, the creative hub-slash-tower that also supports a skybar, restaurants and a music school within its vertiginous campus. 

De Kas in Amsterdam

Nearby, some five-minute stroll from the nearby Centraal Station, is Haarlemmerstraat — think of it as Amsterdam’s answer to L.A’s Abbot Kinney. It’s friendly, it’s bright, it’s a street filled with adorable shops and darling little restaurants. At jamon palace Ibericus, pick up a paper cone stuffed with Spanish ham, or a croissant sandwich stuffed with salty goodness, both of which you can eat as you stroll. I get both, because we’re on holiday – and have the staff vacuum-pack some of Joselito’s best in 100-gram portions to take home for friends. Friends I call “my belly”.

That doesn’t stop me from stopping in at Petit Gateau for a tiny tart – with a six-centimetre diametre, the salted caramel with crunchy balls atop it won’t do too much damage to my waistline. While munching away, you can check out the countless curated boutiques offering a seemingly endless selection of dainty necklaces, pretty plates and design knick-knacks.

When your feet are weary, you can walk further into the Jordaan area, or the famed Nine Streets: possibly an even cuter rendition of Haarlemmerstraat, three by three blocks of canal-side shopping and eating. If, like me, you can’t make it in one walking session, then take a break at Winkel 43, home of the best apple tart in a city famed for apple tarts (don’t skimp on the whipped cream, dairy is a dream in the ‘dam), or indulge in a full meal at Hummus Bistro, which will fulfil all your Middle Eastern dreams, but in an airy, hippie cafe setting. You can pick your poison yourself, but if you order “A little bit of this, a little bit of that”, the staff will set you up with a grand spread of their best dishes – just make sure you have enough room on your table, and in your stomach.

Inside Rijkmuseum

Inside Rijkmuseum

Substantial meals can also be had nearby at Amsterdam’s best pancake house, the whimsically named Pancakes! Amsterdam (poffertjes, aka mini pancakes covered in icing sugar, are the national speciality) – or if five-star dining is more your tune, then the white-tablecloth Italian Bussia may be more up your alley. There, I discover I’ve come a long way since my first visit to the city so many years ago, when eating meals out of coin-operated fast-food “drawers” was de rigueur – here you can sample tasting menus that include homemade rigatoni with veal and fennel and an elegant organic Duroc pork with porcini, lentils and roasted red onion.

Though perhaps, if you’ve come to Amsterdam, you’re hoping to do a little bit of Dutch dining. Moeders is known to be a down-and-dirty spot to try home-style Netherlands classics, but fancier fare (though Dutch food is, by definition, not fancy) can be found at Restaurant Greetje – just try and stay away from the bread, which is served with goose fat in place of butter.

For a proper high-end experience, though, you’ll need to venture to De Kas, a 20-minute drive from the city centre but a world away, situated in a greenhouse whose light, airy interiors are a wonder by day, but completely transform by night. The cuisine is based on what’s grown in the organic farm, and would give any Michelin-star menu a run for its money thanks to fresh vegetables in colours your eye can’t even comprehend. 

Of course, non-culinary excursions exist in Holland’s capital. Thanks to a large population of young tourists (those lax marijuana laws are certainly a draw), the party scene is thriving, with big-name DJs stopping by regularly to nurse the scene. And there are those who come for the culture: to purchase a museum pass and hit all the stops in Museumkwartier, from the recently renovated Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk to the newly opened Moco Museum, which debuted this Spring and is showing a duet of retrospectives featuring pop-art stars Banksy and Andy Warhol. 

But often, the best of Amsterdam can’t be found in a club, cafe of even one of its naughty little “coffeeshops”. Pick a spot by a canal, order a coffee and an open-face sandwich, and watch the world go by. That’s probably the greatest luxury of all.