Feature: A Dutch Fairy Tale

Amsterdam is magical in the snow.

By Jessen O’Brien

Once upon a time, Amsterdam’s iconic canals froze over, and men, women, and children laced up their ice skates to see their city from a whole new perspective. Okay, so that time was not so long ago—just last year, actually, when the temperature dropped enough for this rare treat. But the point is: The cheerful, cozy togetherness (a feeling the Dutch call gezelligheid) and childlike sense of possibility that swirl around this culturally rich city are especially strong during the winter. It’s well worth crossing the ocean to experience Amsterdam’s cold-weather-friendly pleasures—if not to twirl along its canals, then to visit some of the world’s best museums, duck into warm restaurants, and wander past rowhouses older than the country you left while snowflakes lazily tumble from the sky.

The Lay of the Land

Amsterdam began as a small fishing village on the Amstel river nearly 800 years ago. Today the heart of the city beats where the Amstel meets the IJ bay. Canals flare out in concentric rings from this point, and many of the city’s landmarks lie within these crescents. In summer, this area and the Museumplein, a square just beyond the outer canal rim, are jammed with travelers; luckily, the crowds fall away as the heat does.

You don’t need to speak Dutch to get around, but do stay alert: Locals bike in all sorts of weather, and cycling lanes can cut through sidewalks as well as the main roads. It’s simple enough, though, to navigate the city on foot and by public transit and even easier with an I amsterdam City Card ($114* for 96 hours). The tourist pass works for public transportation and includes admission to dozens of museums. Just be sure to tap it both when you board and disembark buses, trams, or the metro. If you tap it only once, you’ll invalidate the card.

The Girl in the Annex

It’s all too common for people to romanticize Anne Frank; one of the great accomplishments of the Anne Frank House (20 Westermarkt; 011-31-20-5567105; adults, $12; children 10–17, $6; children 9 and under, free; tickets must be purchased online) is that it humanizes her. Maybe it’s her bedroom walls, plastered with postcards and photos of movie stars. They’re a reminder that Anne was a real person and of how suddenly she was taken from here when the annex was discovered.

The museum completed a major renovation this past fall, adding to the exhibition space devoted to World War II and the Holocaust. What hasn’t changed is the annex itself. Visitors hush as they pass behind a bookcase and climb the stairs to the rooms that Anne and her family, along with the Van Pels family and Fritz Pfeffer, hid in for two years. Anne’s father, Otto, came up with the plan; he would be the only one among them to survive the war.

If you’re looking for a place to take a moment after you leave the museum, you can walk north along the Prinsengracht canal for a few blocks to Café Papeneiland (2 Prinsengracht; 011-31-20-6241989; apple pie for two, $10). It’s what the Dutch call a bruine kroeg—or brown café—a name derived from the inviting dark wood walls. Papeneiland has been around since 1642 and has made apple pie using the same recipe for 100 years. Upstairs you can sit by the window and look out on the canal, watching the day pass between each delicious bite.

The Master and the Feast

For 20 years, until his debts made him give it up, the artist Rembrandt lived in a red-shuttered building along the Zwanenburgwal canal. The Rembrandt House Museum (4 Jodenbreestraat; 011-31-20-520-04-00; adults, $15; children 6–17, $5; children 5 and under, free) is in one sense a time capsule of what life was like in the 17th century; in another, it’s an examination of Rembrandt himself—the curiosities he collected, the artists he admired. And in yet another, it’s a gallery displaying his etchings and paintings. In Rembrandt’s studio, museum guides explain how he made his paints and what pigments he used, and in his etching workshop, there are printmaking demonstrations.

Tourist traps litter Rembrandtplein, a busy square nearby with a statue of the Dutch master. Just off it, you’ll find Guts & Glory (6 Utrechtsestraat; 011-31-20-362-0030; multicourse dinner for two, from $115), a wonderful restaurant that runs at an indulgently slow pace. During a recent meal there, two men asked the waitstaff to take their phones while they ate so that they could better enjoy each other’s company over bowls of beef ramen and eggplant ice cream.

The menu—always themed—changes every few months and doesn’t list out the food for guests, who simply choose the number of courses they’ll be having. “You don’t know what you’re going to get, so you have to trust us,” says co-owner Johanneke van Iwaarden. Past menu themes have run the gamut from “Chicken” to “French Classics.” “We always travel to get inspiration. It’s amazing what we learn during these trips,” Van Iwaarden says. For a hint of what’s to come, you can follow the restaurant’s Facebook and Instagram pages.

The Genius and the Dollhouses

Amsterdam’s museum quarter fans out from the Rijksmuseum (1 Museumstraat; 011-31-20-6747-000; adults, $20; children 18 and under, free), a massive redbrick building that displays more than 8,000 art and historical objects at a time. Rembrandt’s famous The Night Watch is on the second floor, along with paintings by Johannes Vermeer. Also worth a look: the museum’s collection of antique dollhouses, some of which contain miniature blue-and-white porcelain from China and, at the time, cost as much as one of the actual houses that lined the city’s canals.

You can glide around Ice*Amsterdam (Museumplein; 011-31-20-262-32-55; skating admission, $7; two-hour skate rentals, $7), an ice-skating rink that pops up each winter in front of the Rijksmuseum, before heading to the Van Gogh Museum (6 Museumplein; 011-31-20-570-5200; adults, $21; children 17 and under, free). On the ground floor, Van Gogh’s artistic progression is apparent as well as his physical and mental condition as seen through his self-portraits. Many of his masterpieces—painted toward the end of his life—are three floors up.

When you’re ready to leave the Museumplein, consider making your way to Westerpark for a change of scene. Vondelpark may be closer, but it’s often crowded and doesn’t contain Mossel & Gin (12 Gosschalklaan; 011-31-20-486-5869; dinner for two, $38), a restaurant that’s serious about both of its namesakes. Mussels from south Holland are soaked in a spicy coconut curry, slathered in a creamy Roquefort sauce, or doused in white wine. Fries come with the restaurant’s special gin-infused mayonnaise—you can take home a tube—and the lineup of gin-and-tonic cocktails is just as experimental. Many feature Dutch gins. “Like Bobby’s [Dry Gin], which we use in our Gin Mayo, or Vørding’s Gin—the [distiller] adds a smoked-cedar-wood flavor that he makes in his own kitchen in Amsterdam—or Jajem, a brand that some friends of ours recently made,” says co-owner Wouter Ten Velde.

The Hero and the Depot

Football is in full swing in winter, and it’s fun to take in a match here even if you don’t usually follow Europe’s favorite sport. Amsterdam’s team, Ajax, is named for the mighty Greek hero who appears in the Iliad. It was one of the first teams to practice Total Football—which won’t mean much to nonfans but makes it legendary to devotees. (In Total Football, every outfield player is allowed to play in any position as needed.) If you can’t catch a match, you can still tour the Johan Cruijff Arena (1 Arena Blvd.; 011-31-20-311-1333; game tickets, prices vary; arena tours, $19 a person; children 5–12, $13), about five miles southeast of downtown. Amusingly, in the away team’s locker room, coat hooks are placed high enough that players have to stand on chairs to reach them—except for a few ultralow hooks for 5′7″ Lionel Messi, one of the game’s greatest (and shortest) players.

When you’ve had your fill of psychological warfare, head to Foodhallen (51 Bellamyplein; dinner for two, $15). The Netherlands’ first indoor food market consists of more than 20 stalls inside De Hallen, a converted electric-tram depot—there are still tracks in the floor—and serves everything from falafel to sushi.


Souvenirs

You may want to pick up a few things to remember the city by. The same converted depot containing Foodhallen also holds shops. You can browse dip-dyed cups, small ceramic canal houses, or acacia bowls with maps of Amsterdam carved inside at The Maker Store (39 Hannie Dankbaarpassage; 011-31-20-261-76-67; site in Dutch), or tulip-shaped purses and whimsical shoes by Dutch designer Jan Jansen at DSIGN.Amsterdam (13A Straalstraat; 011-31-20-770-3588).


The End

Before packing your bags for home, consider taking a nighttime stroll along the canals. Dozens of installations cast fanciful shapes and colors onto the waterways each winter as part of the Amsterdam Light Festival. These lights shine during only the darkest months of the year and add an extra bit of charm to the snow-laden city.


STAY
RCI® affiliated resorts near Amsterdam include:
Camping Duinrell R137

Great for families who love both the outdoors—the resort is set inside a nature reserve—and theme parks—there’s one on-site, complete with roller coasters and waterslides. 1 Duinrell, 2242 JP Wassenaar, Netherlands
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Non-RCI affiliated resorts in Amsterdam include:
Hotel De Hallen

A comfy boutique hotel that makes clever use of its setting in a former tram depot. 47 Bellamyplein; 011-31-20-820-8670; hoteldehallen.com; doubles from $119 a night

  • *Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax, or tip.
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  • Published: Winter 2018