A weekend in the Dutch capital renowned for its waterways, beautiful architecture and civilised pace of life proves a tonic for the soul. Don't forget to order pancakes.
My Kind of Place: Amsterdam beguiles with old charm and modern pace
Amsterdam is a distillation of everything that is winsome and redolent about Europe. It's polite, egalitarian, cultured and unpretentious. Forget about the red lights and late nights; do that in your youth, and don't forsake what the city really has to offer.
Amsterdam walks a diligent tightrope between archaic charm and modern metropolis, and has few of the shortcomings usually associated with big cities. Everything is a walk or bicycle ride away, and the quaint, gabled buildings evoke a village-like aesthetic.
The capital's showpiece is its legacy: no matter how many times you visit the namesake museum, Van Gogh's starry skies never weary; and though it is still undergoing restoration, many rooms of the Rijksmuseum remain open, with such masterpieces as Rembrandt's Night Watch.
Then there are the Dutch people who, apart from being utterly magnetic, refined and agreeable, are perfectly Anglophonic through their exclamation-mark accents. That said, learning some key Dutch phrases will always win a wink and a smile.
A comfortable bed
Choosing a hotel within the Grachtengordel, or Canal Belt, means most things are convenient and walkable. Citizen M (www.citizenm.com; 00 31 20 8117 055) is a chic, capsule-like hotel, though with more space, stylish fittings and an unexpectedly savoury atmosphere. It's only a five-minute walk from the central canals and squares, too, with prices starting at €95 (Dh481), including taxes. The Seven Bridges Hotel (www.sevenbridgeshotel.nl; 00 31 20 6231 329), conversely, is a 300-year-old canal house, antiquely furnished throughout, on an intersection of two canals: the Reguliersgracht and the Keizersgracht. Its rooms have one of the city's most enviable views (from €105 [Dh532], including taxes).
Just as Paris has the Ritz, Amsterdam has the Amstel InterContinental (amsterdam.intercontinental.com; 00 31 20 6226 060). Overlooking its eponymous river, the Amstel's palatial facade, ascending archways and chandeliers all have a regressive effect. Rooms start from €360 (Dh1,824) per night, including taxes.
Find your feet
The pulse of urbanism in Amsterdam starts at Centraal Station. In summer, there isn't a more convivial scene. Walking to Dam Square from here, however, means crossing through Damrak, a street colonised with tasteless restaurants and souvenir shops. Half-way down Damrak, though, you will find the Beurs, a diamond exchange-turned-exhibition hall, designed by Dutch modernist H P Berlage. Scale the building's clock tower (via a disconcertingly enfeebled staircase) for 360-degree city views.
At first sight, Amsterdam's canal-married streets can appear both convoluted and samey; a seamless granite hue. To prevent any head-scratching moments, remember that the three canal rings fan out from Centraal Station in alphabetical order: Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht, which make up the famed "Belt". Prinsengracht is the least grandiose, but the area still pulls visitors because of its restaurants and boutiques.
Meet the locals
Canal Ring West is one of the few places that doesn't go wild after sundown and thus a good opportunity to mingle inconspicuously with the residents. The flea market at Waterloopein is where you'll find Amsterdammers at their rambunctious best. Cafe Loetje (loetje.com; 00 31 20 6628 173), on Johannes Vermeerstraat 52, is a favourite among residents for its historic steaks, while the off-piste neighbourhood provides respite from the touring masses.
Book a table
Dutch cuisine is not what it once was - and that's probably for the best. No longer stodgy stews or something-with-fries, Amsterdam epitomises the country's gastronomic revolution. De Kas (restaurantdekas.nl; 00 3120 4624 562), which means greenhouse in Dutch, is, appropriately, a giant glasshouse. They grow vegetables in one half and serve them in the other. The emphasis is on organics and freshness, all with modern ingenuity. Located on Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3, two can eat for €99 (Dh501).
For epicureans, the Michelin-starred Ciel Bleu (cielbleu.nl; 00 31 20 6787 450), located on Ferdinand Bolstraat 333, offers some splendidly vanguard creations - proper laboratory cooking - such as pigeon with pistachio cream, and 15-ways with tomato and cucumber. Sitting on the 23rd floor, the eatery has virtually unlimited views across the city. Expect to pay around €150 (Dh760) per head, but it also offers a prix fixe menu from €85 (Dh430).
Starting at Reestraat through to Wijde Heisteeg, Negen Straatjes is Amsterdam's most effervescent retail quarter, with its walkways crisscrossing the main canals. It used to be known for its quirkiness but has slowly adopted a penchant for designer goods and vintage fashion. The streets leading to the Rijksmuseum are abundant in art dealerships and antique shops, but for less pricey curiosities, the De Looier Market can be found between Elandsgracht and Looiersgracht.
What to avoid
Tourist traps such as Madame Tussauds and the Holland Experience. De Wallen (the red light district) borders the Oudezijds Voorburgwal canal in the heart of the city. Though unconventional and enticing for walks, it has little to offer in terms of cultural panache. Except for their nightclubs, Leidseplein and Rembrandtplain are nondescript, with anaemic atmospheres and unreasonably priced food and drink.
Despite its proximity to De Wallen, you can often hear the sound of pipe organs at the Oude Kerk, or catch one of its fanciful art exhibitions. And there's nothing like imbibing the city from the solitude of a canal boat; the aura of Amsterdam completely changes. Stop at Pannenkoekenhuis Upstairs for the capital's best pancakes.