Amsterdam: Winter Nights in a Cool City

Ice skating on a temporary rink in downtown Amsterdam, Netherlands. Max Hartshorne photos.
Ice skating on a temporary rink in downtown Amsterdam, Netherlands. Max Hartshorne photos.

A Midwinter Escape to Amsterdam

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Rijksmuseum, one of the most famous museums in a city filled with great museums.
Rijksmuseum, one of the most famous museums in a city filled with great museums.

listenradioAmsterdam is the perfect city for a mid-winter getaway. It’s the kind of place where you can just feel the exciting pulse in the streets and along the canals, there is a palpable feeling that we’re all in the right place at the right time. Winter is a great time to enjoy a city break in the capital of the Netherlands.

Though Amsterdam is a large city, it doesn’t feel that large, since there are 62 miles of canals that bisect the city streets, and the city lacks the large boulevards with taxis and cars dominating everything. Here, bikes and people still rule.

In Amsterdam, there are as many bikes as there are people, so it is more bikeable, more walkable, and with the one-way streets, easier to navigate by these means than by taxi.

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There are only about 850,000 residents in the city proper, and 1.6 million in greater Amsterdam, which is small by big city standards.

Schiphol Airport

Treasure hunting in the Speigelkwartier, a historic neighborhood filled with antiques, art shops and typical old Dutch houses.
Treasure hunting in the Speigelkwartier, a historic neighborhood filled with antiques, art shops and typical old Dutch houses.

I flew into Schiphol, which some flyers say is one of the world’s best airports because it has so many amenities that make the whole experience more pleasant.

Even the way they handle baggage is high tech—you weigh your own bags in computer controlled lockers. And the staff who walk you through security make you feel like a VIP, not a pain-in-the-ass traveler.

Among Schiphol’s claims to greatness are ubiquitous free wi-fi, meditation rooms, huge lounge chairs to let you sleep in during long layovers, and restaurants that don’t soak you just because you’ll never set foot there again.

This airport is just different than most, (find out more about Schiphol here ). You can actually get a great seafood dinner here!

Amsterdam’s Light Festival

At Schiphol airport, baggage is all high tech, and the security people are very helpful.
At Schiphol airport, baggage is all high tech, and the security people are very helpful.

A highlight of winter in Amsterdam is their annual Light Festival, which brings out extremely creative artists who come up with works of art using light for 55 nights between November and January. Each of the ‘lightworks’ is displayed above one of the canals, so this is one art exhibit you have to see from the water.

We packed into a comfy private barge and set off to take in the art in a nighttime tour. Here is how the local tourism board described it: “From illuminated stick men slam-dunking their way over a bridge, to a corridor of magnificent chandeliers gracefully hovering over a canal, every work at this year’s festival is as bewitching, jaw-dropping or heart-warming as the next.”

Compared to what passes for holiday light shows in the US, Amsterdam’s is much bolder and truly artistic. What I liked is that they don’t try to create art that everyone will understand, like the childish displays of Christmas lights in many US cities, instead, they take an artist’s vision and let it loose on its own.

Since the art uses the water to enhance the effect with reflection, the best way to see the show is by water. The Water Colors route explores the festival in typical Amsterdam fashion – from the water. A range of boat tour operators are running special Amsterdam Light Festival evening cruises, including Rederij Lovers and Canal Company.

A City of Immigrants

A hot hotel kitchen at the Grand Cafe Polansky on Dam Square, where chef Jacob Jan Boerma holds three Michelin stars.
A hot hotel kitchen at the Grand Cafe Polansky on Dam Square, where chef Jacob Jan Boerma holds three Michelin stars.

About a third of Amsterdam’s population is from Turkey, Suriname or Morocco, which gives the city a truly international flavor.

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I visited a brown café in the city center and learned about the Suriname connection from a friendly bud-tender who had retained his accent, and told me about what it’s like to live in Amsterdam as an immigrant.

He’s got plenty of company, and in general, things are positive as the café business is hopping with plenty of curious tourists popping in to experience ‘legal’ marijuana for the first time.

Teslas Everywhere

We arrived at our hotel, the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, on Dam Square in the city center, in style—we learned that all cabs that service Schiphol airport must be $75,000 Tesla Model S sedans.

Running man, one of the artworks in the Amsterdam Light Festival.
Running man, one of the artworks in the Amsterdam Light Festival.

These roomy black cars zip around on battery power, and though they are a nice ride, the drivers said they miss their traditional Mercedes S-Class cars, mostly because the Tesla’s 300-mile range requires lots of charging time. Also despite the fact that underneath the car is a gigantic array of lithium batteries, it’s cold in these cars during the long damp Amsterdam winters.

There are more electric vehicles here in the Netherlands than in any other country in Europe.

Amsterdam Cool

Amsterdam has always had a cool feel to it. I felt that way when we sat down in a crowded jazz club called Café Kobalt, where a quintet of top notch jazz players entertained us while we had an early evening nosh. Yes, it was quite the scene, and the pretty Christmas colors all over the streets added to the city’s festive glow.

 The new W Hotel in Amsterdam, the first W in the Netherlands.
The new W Hotel in Amsterdam, the first W in the Netherlands.

We went out into the decorated streets and walked through the center. We were on our way to the Bijenkorf, the city’s largest department store, which has morphed from a traditional store to one that features just 14 high-end brands, like Chanel, Dior, Armani and Gassan diamonds, for a perfect concierge shopping experience.  There were plenty of wealthy foreigners checking out the designer merchandise as we made our way to the top floor to meet a man with diamonds.

Gassan Diamonds: Fake or real?

Ever wondered what it takes to determine whether a diamond is real or fake? At Gassan Diamonds they offer a chance to watch an expert make the call. We entered a conference room, where all ten of us were handed a flute of fine champagne.

One, we were told, had a real diamond sunk down in it, and the others had cubic zirconium ‘diamonds.’ Which was real? We took a sip and listened to how the diamond experts can spot a fake.

Touring the Royal Theater Carre, the city's most famous theater that was built as a circus theater 126 years ago.
Touring the Royal Theater Carre, the city’s most famous theater that was built as a circus theater 126 years ago.

It turns out that under the microscope, fake diamonds are too symmetrical, and break the light differently than the real thing.

It’s the lack of imperfections that brand a fake a fake. And the real stones have sharp edges, while the fakes may have rounded edges. After we all passed the diamond expert our champagne flutes, mine ended up having the real diamond! Sweet!

The new W Hotel

Houses on the Spiegelkwartier, an arts and antiques district in Amsterdam.
Houses on the Spiegelkwartier, an arts and antiques district in Amsterdam.

A cool city has to have equally cool hotels to house the cool visitors who are coming from all over the world to spend time in Amsterdam. The new W Hotel that just opened in late 2015 has a few ‘wow’ rooms and a few ‘oh WOW!” rooms.

One has 119 square feet of space, an LP record player and a small pool table that converts to a table for six!

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We learned as we toured this swank new hotel that W is all about the concierge and figuring out the best ways to ‘get the guests where they want to be in the city.’

Places like the Café Kobalt for some jazz would certainly qualify. The W is located right off Dam Square, with views of the Royal Palace and just seven minutes walk from the Anne Frank House, one of the city’s premier tourist attractions.

The W has a rooftop bar with the city’s only rooftop pool which goes on for yards and yards and a modern fireplace that guests like to gather around. There are 238 rooms, and it’s the first W Hotel to open in the country.

The Royal Theatre Carre

Amsterdam is excited this winter for a new production of a pretty old musical, Pippin, that will light up the stage for the first time in Europe in March 2016. In a funny twist, the son of the actor who played the lead in the 1970s when the show was on Broadway in New York will star in this production, which will be done in English.

We toured the basement of this city-owned historic theater that has been here for 126 years, where horses are kept during the three-week circus season. Nearly every night at the Carre, a play, concert or other show lights up this venerable stage, which can be lowered and raised depending on the show.

Amsterdam is indeed an exciting place, whether it’s during the dead of winter, or in the bright sunshine of summer. Enjoy it yourself!

Strolling the Museumplein near the temporary ice rink in Amsterdam.
Strolling the Museumplein near the temporary ice rink in Amsterdam.

Where to stay in the ‘Dam

We stayed at the Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, on Dam Square, which is a classically elegant city hotel.
Reservations: +1 212 219 7607
Tel.: +31 (0) 20 554 9111

Dining in the ‘Dam

There are so many great choices in Amsterdam, including 21 restaurants with Michelin stars. Here are a few of our favorites:

Conservatorium
Museumplein
Conservatoriumhotel.com
31 0 20 570 0000

Grand Cafe Krasnapolsky
Michelin Star chef Jacob Jan Boerma brought his star power and creative mind to a newly opened cafe at this grand hotel. His touch is light, with an emphasis on seafood and vegetables, and his presentation is outstanding.

Rijks
In the Rijksmuseum
Museumstraat 2
1070 DN Amsterdam
Creative, light fare in the beautiful and famous Rijksmuseum

Find out more about visiting Amsterdam at their website.

Visit Amsterdam hosted this writer but the opinions are his own.