After three months in lockdown, our resident expert Rodney Bolt discovers how to enjoy a city learning how to be together-yet-apart
Amsterdam is bursting like a party popper from the strictures of lockdown. The Dutch have long lauded the delights of being a “toerist in eigen stad”: a tourist in your own city. After three months of rarely venturing from my neighbourhood, it seemed time to put that to the test.
Tourism has been a touchy subject over the past few years, as a swelling tsunami of visitors swept through museums, inundated the narrow streets and flooded out restaurants and cafés. One of the joys of lockdown was the quiet. I delighted in the peace that wrapped the deserted city, relished the warm bath of its beauty as I relaxed beside a canal and sunset tinged stucco on old gables pink.
But, oh how I missed spontaneously stopping off somewhere for coffee and traditional apple tart, idling with a glass of wine at a canalside café, dropping into a museum for a few moments with a favourite painting or simply to be surprised by something new.
The first testing of post-lockdown waters scalded my toe, however. Authorities and Amsterdammers alike have been taken aback by the numbers of visitors flocking over the borders from Belgium and Germany by car since restrictions eased. On the first couple of weekends, social distancing became all but impossible in areas around the Dam (Amsterdam’s central square), along the main shopping drag of Kalverstraat, and in the narrow streets of the red-light district – despite attempts at introducing one-way pedestrian flows. Negotiating these areas over weekends is scary unless you feel indestructible or immune.
Clearly, a strategy is needed to get the most out of Amsterdam at a safe social distance. Luckily, there are plenty of alluring parts of town where you can do that, Amsterdam’s compact size meaning you can walk or cycle rather than rely on public transport – and ingenious solutions to being together-yet-apart abound. As toerist in eigen stad, I’ve come across some gems.
Museums and theatres have reopened to strictly limited numbers. Imagine! A blockbuster exhibition where you don’t have to jostle to see the paintings. In the Picture at the Van Gogh Museum (vangoghmuseum.nl/en, until Aug 30) is a superb show of portraits by Van Gogh and such contemporaries as Edvard Munch and Toulouse-Lautrec, after which you can wander around the wide sweep of Van Gogh’s other works in relative solitude.
The 2,000-seat Concertgebouw (concertgebouw.nl/en) now admits only 350 people. A one-way system directs you via the bar into the grand hall, where row upon row of seats have been removed and you repose in luxury, for what feels like a private recital.
The post-lockdown surge is mostly made up of young people coming to party and day-trippers coming to shop, so is concentrated on the Dam, the red-light district and mainstream shopping streets. But you can absorb the essence of Amsterdam – the gabled buildings, houseboats and bridge-bumped canals – in spots that preserve the blissful peace of lockdown.
My favourites include the top end of the grand Herengracht canal around Brouwersgracht and the Herenmarkt; and the Amstelveld, a vast square beside a 17th-century wooden church in the southern part of the Canal Belt, shaded by wingnut trees and with views of two canals (and seven of those humpback bridges). Even on the edge of the red-light district, if you pass from busy Nieuwmarkt to Recht Boomssloot and Krom Boomssloot, it’s as if someone has flipped a noise-dampening switch.
Food from afar
During lockdown, care homes had cosily furnished cabins built outside, one end opening directly into the home and the other with a door to the street, the two halves divided by a glass screen so people could visit their elderly relatives safely. A similar inventiveness emerges at Mediamatic ETEN restaurant (eten.mediamatic.nl), where you can book a Serre Séparée – a waterside table in its own glasshouse beside the old Eastern Docks – for a four-course meal served through a hatch using a long wooden plank. And The Grand Hotel (sofitel-legend-thegrand.com) will – with suitable aplomb – bring its belt-busting afternoon tea, oysters and champagne, or light meals with wine down to its private jetty, for you to enjoy on your boat (rentable from mokumbootverhuur.nl, if you don’t happen to have brought one with you).
Drinks at a distance
One of my pre-Covid favourite cafés, Hannekes Boom (hannekesboom.nl) – tucked into an obscure corner of the Eastern Docks, still stands out in this strange new world as a great place for a drink. Large tables are amply spaced under the trees, and staff stay at a responsible distance and assiduously disinfect surfaces between guests. Café De Jaren (cafedejaren.nl), in the centre, has two waterside terraces and a spacious interior. Café van Zuylen (Torensteeg 8) has a terrace that stretches over a wide bridge across the Singel canal, offering room to set tables well apart. And at Café Ruis (cafe-ruis.nl), which spills on to a large, shaded square, you can enjoy the buzz of De Pijp café and dining district without having to confront its bustle.
Sweets hotel (sweetshotel.amsterdam) could have been conceived with social distancing in mind – it’s a collection of bridge operators’ cabins, dating from 1673 to 2009, on bridges all over town, ingeniously converted into personal suites. You pay online, gain entry by electronic key, and all services are remote.
Staying within the Canal Belt means you can walk or cycle almost anywhere. Dutch Masters (dutch-masters.com) offers nine self-contained apartments in a canal-house mansion in a relatively quiet part of the centre. Hotel Pulitzer (pulitzeramsterdam.com), an amalgam of canal-houses, has four suites with private entrances on Keizersgracht. The Grand (sofitel-legend-thegrand.com) also has a few luxury suites with private entrances, wider corridors, and its own car park.
Eurostar (eurostar.com) is running around three trains a day from London St Pancras to Amsterdam Centraal (direct once a day, taking four hours; on other trains and for the return journey you need to change in Brussels, five to six hours). Masks are mandatory while travelling, and you are advised to take water and all other food and drink with you, as nothing is served on the train and many food outlets at stations are closed.
Checklist for a safer visit
Visit during the week and avoid the Dam and red-light area.
Opt for walking or cycling. MacBike (macbike.nl).
Masks are mandatory on public transport.
Make sure your phone has a QR reader. Many cafés have a QR code at the table via which you order.
“Shared Space” painted in yellow on the cobbles means that motorists, cyclists and pedestrians all make way for each other.