A Perfect Day in the Venice of the North
Compact and cosmopolitan, with rows of lofty brownstones to buffer the chilly breeze, Amsterdam is a walkable wonderland, even on the crispest winter days. And when the temperature becomes too brisk, there's always a friendly bar, hip café, or well-stocked store offering a quick warm-up. Pack your warmest sweaters and follow these tips for a relaxing winter weekend in the "Venice of the North."
Admire the Architecture: Wander the Central and Western Canal rings where intricately gabled roofs and wide wooden shutters adorn each dwelling. Winter is the ideal season for an architectural amble of these neighborhoods. Slanting northern light mixes with a light mist to create a soft amber haze. Bare trees allow unobstructed views of the tall, skinny houses squeezed together along the glistening canals. Stroll the Golden Bend, the stretch of grand mansions on Herengracht. Number 475, which features Louis XIV-style details, is said to be Amsterdam's most beautiful home.
The Ultimate Brunch Spot: Don't let the boxy facade of the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky throw you off -- inside it's sheer luxury. Make a beeline for the Winter Garden restaurant (photo, right) and settle in for a long, leisurely brunch. Ask for a corner table and enjoy the room's wide expanse extending from the black-and-white-tiled floor to the soaring ceiling of green cast iron and glass. Dam 9, Nieuwe Zijde, 020/554-9111.
Explore Antique Row: Spend an afternoon window-shopping along the chic five-block strip of Nieuwe Spiegelstraat known as Spiegelkwartier. Gleaming displays of antique furniture, fine porcelain, and rare artwork grace each shop window. Keep the sticker shock at bay by shunning the stores' interiors. Communing with the merchandise and tangling with the savvy Dutch salespeople can be hazardous to the pocketbook. If you lose your resolve and must splurge, this area's collection of estate and Art Deco jewelry is among the best in Europe. Spiegelstraat between Lijnbaansgracht and Keizersgracht, Central Canal Ring.
Enter Chocolate Heaven: When your stomach starts to grumble, head to the southeastern corner of the Oude Zijde district and the tiny sweet shop Puccini Bomboni. Heady scents of cocoa and cinnamon spice the air, and perfectly formed one-inch squares of dense, rich chocolate line the thick marble counters. Pop a candy into your mouth and let it melt on your tongue. Savor the slow release of intense and unexpected flavors, such as sharp lemongrass or tart currant. Yum!
Dine in Deco Splendor: French cuisine-inspired De Belhamel (photo, right) offers a dining experience that is as much about the moody ambiance as it is the cuisine. Finagle a seat near the front windows and bask in the warm glow of Art Noveau lamps as you savor duck breast in apricot sauce or the velvety smoothness of fried perch drizzled with creamy dill. End your evening with the signature parfait -- layers of macadamia nuts and coffee-caramel topped with a poached fig. Brouwersgracht 60, Western Canal Ring, 020/622-1095.
Visit the Van Gogh Museum: From dark peasant scenes to panoramic landscapes to the anguished self-portrait series, the extraordinary Van Gogh Museum presents the full breadth of the acclaimed artist's work. The airy main building, designed by Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld, houses more than 200 Van Gogh paintings and 500 drawings. To avoid museum burnout, concentrate on the back, left section of the first floor, which displays his greatest masterpieces. Paulus Potterstraat 7, Museum Quarter 020/570-5200.
Discover the Flower Frenzy: Founded in 2004, the charming Amsterdam Tulip Museum is one of the city's newest tourist attractions and the perfect cheery destination for a frosty winter day. Interactive exhibits trace the tulip bulb from its ancient wild origins to the 17th-century "Tulipmania" craze that gripped the entire Netherlands. Follow the story of mystery and intrigue as the flower of the Ottoman Empire transformed into the beloved bloom of the Dutch people. Prinsengracht 112, Western Canal Ring, 020/421-0095.
Where to Stay: Hang your winter gear at Ambassade ($$$), a hotel comprised of 10 former merchant mansions overlooking the Herengracht. A writer's enclave (Doris Lessing and Umberto Eco are regulars), Ambassade (photo, right) features exceptional antiques and comfortable rooms with canal views. Budget hotel Acacia ($), in the Jordaan district, is impeccably clean and central to everything.
Where to Eat: The menu and atmosphere at vegetarian hot spot De Bolhoed (Prinsengracht 60, Western Canal Ring, 020/626-1803; $) are both eclectic and funky. Entrees are large, organic, and tasty, and desserts are delightfully decadent. Don't expect to count calories at Van Vlaanderen (Weteringschans 175, Eastern Canal Ring, 020/622-8292; $$$$), a Michelin-rated gourmet eatery where goose liver and suckling pig are menu staples. This is the place to indulge in rich Dutch cooking.
Photo credits: (1) © Stefan Isaacs; (2) © Jeremy Keith; (3) Photo courtesy De Belhamel; (4) Photo courtesy Ambassade.
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