What’s new in Amsterdam?

Cecily Layzell

The Observatory on the roof of Felix Meritis has reopened to the public — and this time its telescopes are not pointing towards the skies.

Housed in an imposing neoclassical building on Keizersgracht, Felix Meritis has been an independent center for arts, culture, and science since it was founded in 1788. In celebration of its 225th anniversary in 2013, the center has reopened its astronomical Observatory, the oldest of its kind in the Netherlands.

In addition to offering superb unimpeded views, the lofty vantage point is the setting of an installation by Amsterdam-based artist Joseph Semah. Positioned on a specially designed granite floor, telescopes are no longer focused on the heavens but on quotes by leading thinkers, writers, artists and philosophers written in lights on 10 of the city’s most significant buildings. Titled “Amsterdam of Above, Amsterdam of Below,” the installation aims to connect past and present, stars and city.

The Observatory and art installation can be visited daily (except Sundays) until the end of October 2013. Admission is €6.50 per person and includes a guided tour that starts every half hour. Check the website for opening times, as these vary according to the season.

  • On July 22, 2013
    Cecily Layzell answered the question: Cecily Layzell

    What are the best clothing boutiques in Amsterdam?

    From global brands to up-and-coming local couturiers, Amsterdam’s clothing boutiques offer an outfit  for every occasion.

    Cotton Cake
    Following the trend for multi-functional stores, Cotton Cake in De Pijp combines art, coffee and carefully curated apparel gathered from fashion capitals around the world.

    Tenue de Nimes
    Stocked with iconic denim brands, from Levi’s and Big John, to Mister Freedom and Rag & Bone, Tenue de Nimes is a must for denim devotees in search of the perfect fit, finish and fastening.

    LockStock & Barrel
    Tread the green Moroccan tiles of this airy boutique for an eclectic mix of his-and-hers clothes and accessories, from Parisian chic to metropolitan cool, personally selected by owners Mare Trispel and Elza Matthijssen.

    Young Designers United
    A changing line-up of the Netherlands’ brightest young couturiers is given the chance to build a label (and hopefully a following) with a rack in this Canal Belt womenswear boutique. Under the watchful eye of director Angelika Groenendijk-Wasylewski, the collection is kept wearable and affordable.

    In the Nine Streets, newcomer PRJCT AMS sells original garments that are the product of collaborations between fashion designers, artists, photographers, musicians and other creative types, such as illustrated T-shirts and playful wooden eyewear.
  • On July 22, 2013
    Cecily Layzell answered the question: Cecily Layzell

    What are quirky local customs in Amsterdam?

    Don’t be alarmed if a request for a pint of beer in Amsterdam is refused. Half pints topped with a thick head of foam are the norm here, and just one of the quirky local customs you are likely to encounter in the Dutch capital. The small measure, called a vaasje, and foamy head—ideally three fingers thick—are both meant to enhance the drinking experience: the beer stays cool and the foam ensures a creamy mouth feel.

    Also the norm is the use of bicycles for just about everything. In a city where parking space is limited and waiting times for a parking permit can be years, bikes are the favored mode of transport for commuting, school runs, grocery shopping, even moving house.

    Generally reserved—with the exception of celebrations like Queen’s Day—the Dutch are nevertheless remarkably tactile. Shaking hands with everyone present is customary in business as well as social settings. Close friends and relatives will give each other three kisses on the cheek when they meet and again when they say goodbye.

    Visitors to Amsterdam are often struck by the locals’ apparent dislike of privacy. The blinds of houses are rarely closed, even at night, leaving their residents on full display to neighbors and passersby. This custom is usually attributed to Calvinism and a desire to reassure the world that nothing shameful is going on inside. Ironically, it is considered incredibly rude to check whether that’s actually the case.
  • On July 16, 2013
    Cecily Layzell answered the question: Cecily Layzell

    What are the best stores for designer clothes in Amsterdam?

    Fashion-savvy shoppers will find plenty of reasons to rejoice in Amsterdam, where an abundance of designer clothes means you’ll always be in vogue.

    Van Ravenstein
    This minimalist store in a corner building on Keizersgracht specializes in women’s fashion by leading Dutch and Belgian designers, from Dirk Bikkemberg to Viktor & Rolf. 

    Neutral tones and sharp tailoring are the hallmarks of this popular Dutch women’s clothing brand. Stop into any of the city’s six branches for classically feminine wardrobe essentials.

    Maison de Bonneterie
    Under the stunning glass roof of this Parisian-style mini department store on Kalverstraat, three floors are dedicated to local and international designer labels for men, women and children.

    Browse the racks of this spacious store in the genteel Oud Zuid neighborhood for women’s casual and formal wear and accessories by carefully curated brands including Paul & Joe, Antik Batik and Isabel Marant.

    Look Out
    Men with an eye for style should check out this stylish store on Utrechtsestraat, where the small but airy interior shows off head-turning couture by Paul Smith, Kenzo and others to full effect.
  • On July 16, 2013
    Cecily Layzell answered the question: Cecily Layzell

    What are the best art galleries in Amsterdam?

    Amsterdam's art galleries form a vibrant counterpart to the city's many museums. What's more, entrance is invariably free and lines non-existent. It's advisable to check opening times before your visit, as many galleries don't open before midday.

    Galerie Fons Welters
    Located on a residential street in the Jordaan neighborhood, Galerie Fons Welters is an unlikely hotspot for cutting-edge contemporary art. Local and foreign talent is promoted in the gallery’s main exhibition space, while the smaller Playstation project area is reserved for young artists at the start of their careers.

    Torch Gallery
    Torch Gallery has blazed a trail for emerging artists and photographers since it opened in 1984. Dutch celebrity snapper and filmmaker Anton Corbijn got his start here, as did German artist Loretta Lux, best known for her surreal portraits of young children.

    Annet Gelink Gallery
    Founded in 2000, Annet Gelink Gallery embraces drawing, painting, photography, installation and video art by established Dutch and international artists. Its project space, The Bakery, exhibits up-and-coming talent.

    Akinci Gallery
    Housed in a complex on Lijnbaansgracht with several other galleries, Akinci focuses on contemporary visual art, from Esther Tieleman’s spatial installations to Anne Wenzel’s large-scale sculptures.

    Edward Pranger Oriental Art Gallery
    In the Spiegelkwartier, Amsterdam's antiques quarter, Edward Pranger Oriental Art Gallery presents work by internationally recognized Asian artists, such as painter and illustrator Wei Guangqing, as well as talent rarely seen in the West.
  • On June 30, 2013
    Cecily Layzell answered the question: Cecily Layzell

    What are the best spas in Amsterdam?

    Pampering is not restricted to any one time of year, although the cold winter months make Amsterdam’s spas particularly enticing. Curl up in a fluffy bathrobe as we detail the Dutch capital’s best places to relax and recharge.

    It’s worth noting that the Dutch have a liberal attitude to nudity. Changing rooms and showers may be mixed and saunas are often clothes-free (although wandering around the premises in a towel is acceptable). If the thought of steaming in the buff makes you uncomfortable, check before you reserve.

    Sauna Deco. Surrounded by the clean lines and magnificent stained glass of the art deco interior—salvaged from a department store in Paris—enjoy the Finnish sauna, cold plunge pool, massage and beauty treatments at this spa facility on the elegant Herengracht canal.

    Koan Float. On the same canal is Koan Float, offering massages and sensory-deprivation flotation tanks designed for ‘maximum relaxation in a minimum of time.’

    Zuiver. Amid the green expanse of Amsterdamse Bos, a wooded common south of downtown, this tranquil and spacious spa runs the gamut of wellness treatments, from steam room and massages, to nutrition, yoga and tennis.

    Wellness 1926. In Amsterdam East, Wellness 1926 has a steam room, plunge pool, relaxation and beauty areas, a café and private south-facing garden overlooking a beautiful old church.
  • On June 30, 2013
    Cecily Layzell answered the question: Cecily Layzell

    What are the best places to see a play in Amsterdam?

    Amsterdam's many theaters play host to a busy and eclectic calendar of plays. The majority is in Dutch, but the high level of English in the city means that international companies are regularly invited to perform. Look out, too, for plays with English surtitles, the theater equivalent of foreign movie subtitles.

    The best place to find theater listings is the monthly TimeOut Amsterdam magazine, which details upcoming English-language plays or performances where language is no problem. Alternatively, peruse the websites of the following institutions.

    Stadsschouwburg. Housed in a beautiful 19th-century building on Leidseplein, the Stadsschouwburg stages contemporary music, dance and theater performances, usually by big national and international names.

    Koninklijk Theater Carré. Once a circus, this grand theater on the River Amstel hosts theater, cabaret and opera performances as well as Dutch versions of popular musicals such as Grease (you can still sing along to the tunes).

    De Brakke Grond, De Engelenbak and Frascati are all located on Nes, a narrow street running parallel to Rokin. De Brakke Grond promotes Flemish culture, you'll find productions by amateurs at De Engelenbak, while Frascati aims to push theatrical boundaries by bringing together trained actors, street performers and multimedia artists.
  • On June 30, 2013
    Cecily Layzell answered the question: Cecily Layzell

    What are the best bookstores in Amsterdam?

    Whether you are looking for the latest bestseller in English or a beautifully designed coffee-table book to take home as a souvenir, Amsterdam has a number of wonderful bookstores. Read on for our top five.

    American Book Center. Covering three floors on Spui square, ABC is where you'll find an extensive collection of English-language imports, from novels and biographies to travel guides and image-led design and fashion titles.

    Waterstone’s. On the other side of Spui square is the Amsterdam outpost of this British chain. Alongside fiction and non-fiction, Waterstone's is the place to hunt out the latest offerings from the UK’s many celebrity chefs, including Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and the grand dame of British cuisine, Delia Smith.

    Athenaeum. Across the street from ABC is arguably the most prestigious independent bookstore in Amsterdam. Although it has a more limited English selection, it is the place to go for academic titles, dictionaries and iconic Dutch children's books such as Jip en Janneke and Miffy. The attached Nieuwscentrum carries the main international daily newspapers and weekly magazines.

    The Book Exchange. Packed to the rafters with second-hand books, the quirky Book Exchange is a browser's paradise. Unearth a paperback classic or trade in your old titles for fresh reading material.

    Oudemanhuispoort. If you visit The Book Exchange, be sure to drop by this nearby book market. Occupying a covered alley near the central University of Amsterdam buildings, it is less a formal bookstore and more an informal gathering of second-hand book stalls. Dig through the dusty piles of mainly Dutch titles for beautiful old maps and out-of-print English cookbooks.
  • On June 30, 2013
    Cecily Layzell answered the question: Cecily Layzell

    What are the best tours of Amsterdam?

    Small-scale tours run by locals offer a unique insider’s view of a city. Go beyond the normal tourist itineraries with our suggested tours of Amsterdam.

    Boat tour. Plenty of boat companies ply Amsterdam’s famous canals, generally offering a similar one-hour tour with commentary. For a more leisurely view of the waterways, reserve a table on the Henry Schmitz, a beautiful antique riverboat that serves up an evening canal cruise with a three-course dinner. 

    Duration: 3 hours. Price: €99 per person.

    Photo tour. See Amsterdam from a different angle on a photo tour founded and led by professional travel photographer and Amsterdam native Tom van der Leij. In groups of up to six people, he teaches beginners and experienced photographers to see and capture his city through the lens of a camera.

    Duration: 4 hours. Price: €35 per person (including coffee and Dutch apple pie).

    Food tour. Feed your curiosity and body on an Amsterdam food tour. Explore the city’s streets and canals on foot while learning about the spice trade that made the city rich, sample Dutch cheese, bite into crispy Vlaamse frites (fries, topped with mayonnaise of course) and sip on a traditional spirit from a 17th-century distillery.

    Duration: 3 hours. Price: €36 per person (including four or five snacks and a traditional drink).

    Beer tour. Explicitly not a pub crawl, this beer tour eschews the global Heineken and Amstel brands for small-batch and seasonal beers produced by the city’s microbreweries and sold in a number of specialist bars.

    Duration: 3-4 hours. Price: €40 (participants must be 18 or over and able to prove it).
  • On June 27, 2013
    Cecily Layzell answered the question: Cecily Layzell

    What are the best concert venues in Amsterdam?

    From intimate music halls to cultural powerhouses, Forbes Travel Guide editors line up Amsterdam’s best concert venues.

    Paradiso. Take a pew in this former church for a memorable night of pop, rock and more. One of Amsterdam's busiest concert venues, the 1,500 capacity means you'll never be far from the action.

    Melkweg. A stone's throw from Paradiso, this cultural center programs theater performances, art-house movies, exhibitions and an eclectic mix of music acts in its two concert halls.

    Concertgebouw. Boasting world-famous acoustics and a grand setting, Concertgebouw is the city's classical music behemoth. Check the calendar for details of upcoming concerts by the likes of Dutch violinist Janine Jansen.

    Bimhuis. Jutting from the side of the futuristic Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ building, Bimhuis is one of Amsterdam's finest jazz venues. Expect a diverse mix of local improvisation talent and international stars.

    Tolhuistuin. Across the IJ from the Bimhuis—but a world away musically—is Tolhuistuin. Part of the regeneration of the waterfront area of Amsterdam Noord which includes the EYE Film Institute, this bar and performance venue hosts small pop, folk and indie acts in its lovely summer garden.
  • On June 25, 2013
    Cecily Layzell answered the question: Cecily Layzell

    What is the one must-do activity when visiting Amsterdam?

    It may seem like an obvious answer, but cycling should top your list of must-do activities when visiting Amsterdam. There is a great sense of freedom that comes with having your own (two) wheels in a city waiting to be explored.

    With few inclines and kilometers of dedicated cycle paths, Amsterdam is a biker’s paradise, even if your cycling skills are as rusty as some of the frames chained to the bridges. Bikes can be rented at locations across town. Macbike is probably the best-known rental company and offers the option of "standard" brakes on the handlebars or Dutch back-pedal brakes, which can take some getting used to. The likelihood of being offered a helmet, however, is slim. The good news is that the roads are generally very safe and most traffic moves at a sedate pace.

    Amsterdam is a compact capital and getting around is easy, even on foot. But on a bike you can whistle from one attraction to another in a matter of minutes. Or delve into the city's less visited corners, safe in the knowledge that your trusty fiets will get you home again even after public transport has stopped running.
  • On June 25, 2013
    Cecily Layzell answered the question: Cecily Layzell

    What are the best outdoor activities in Amsterdam?

    Years of battling the wind and weather on their bikes have made the Dutch a generally robust and outdoorsy bunch. Get in on the action with our roundup of the best outdoor activities in Amsterdam.

    1. Walk. Compact and light on traffic, Amsterdam's historic center is a joy to explore on foot. Put away the map and wander the narrow streets at will.

    2. Cycle. Rent a bike and join the throngs of locals on two wheels. Or pedal out of town along the River Amstel to Oudekerk aan de Amstel, a pretty village surrounded by farms and pastures. There’s even a windmill along the route.

    3. Skate. For a different kind of wheeled experience, rent a pair of in-line skates and explore the network of paths in Vondelpark. Skilled skaters should check out the Friday Night Skate, which heads out of the park and into the city on streets closed to traffic for the event.

    4. Swim. Taking a dip in Amsterdam's canals is not recommended, no matter how enticing they look on a hot day. Instead, cool off at one of the city's outdoor pools, such as the Olympic-sized Flevoparkbad in Amsterdam Oost or Mirandabad in Amsterdam Zuid.

    5. Canoe. For a day outdoors and out of the city, take the bus to Broek in Waterland, about 15 minutes north of Amsterdam. Rent a canoe and paddle the peaceful dykes of Waterland nature reserve.