Now is the time to discover – or rediscover – Amsterdam

Attention all art lovers! Culture vultures! Museum mavens! When were you last in Amsterdam? Last year? Never? You have an amazing experience waiting for you.

Not only is Amsterdam one of the most interesting, and accessible, cities in Europe. It also possesses one of the world’s great art museums plus a host of other enticing and unique attractions. And I’m not talking about the tourist traps, like the Erotic and Sex Museums (and their concomitant red light district), the Diamond Museum, the Cheese Museum or the Beer Museum.

Helga and I flew from London to Amsterdam in mid-August for a long weekend of culture, and we weren’t disappointed. Our initial motivation was to see the Rijksmuseum, reopened in April after nine years of being closed for extensive renovations. In fact, the museum more than lived up to its press releases. It is simply grand – spacious and inviting.

The art is beautifully hung and presented and the accompanying explanations and descriptions (all in English) absolutely spot on. The big draw is Rembrandt, and particularly his huge masterpiece “Night Watch” canvas dating from 1642 when he was just 36. But, as you might expect from such a great museum, there are countless rooms filled with treasures. We were particularly interested in the Vermeers because that artist’s output was so limited. We spent half a day wandering the halls but there is plenty left unseen to entice us back.

Another museum that enthralled us was the Van Gogh Museum. It has existed since the early 1970s but has also recently been completely renovated, reopening in May after almost a year’s closure. This well known Dutch artist died young, at 37, and only painted for the last 10 years of his life. But his output was prodigious – and much more varied than we had realised.

This museum is completely dedicated to his life, with literally hundreds of his works on display (including many loans that normally hang elsewhere), plus exhibits showing how he used various tools, mixed colours, reused canvases, copied others’ work, etc, and many hundreds of letters between Vincent and his art dealer older brother Theo (who only outlived Vincent by a few months).

The links between Amsterdam and St Petersburg date from Peter the Great’s extended visits over 300 years ago and are still strong today. The world famous Hermitage Museum has recently opened its first foreign branch in Amsterdam with, fittingly enough, an extensive exhibit devoted to Peter the Great. It is tremendously informative but, sadly, will end on September 13.

One of the last of our museum stops was the Amsterdam Museum, which gives a thorough and unblinkingly frank and honest review of Amsterdam’s history, using a variety of multi-media techniques. Perhaps this more productively should be a first, rather than last, stop, as the information imparted really helps one appreciate the city.

All was not only patrolling halls of artworks for us, however. Music is an art, too, and we heard a lovely Brahms concert in the fabulous Concertgebouw (extraordinary acoustics) and preceded this memorable experience with a two-hour dinner cruise on Amsterdam’s canals. The food was actually remarkably good (and accompanied by two bottles of good Spanish wine) and the views really beautiful. As 2013 is the 400th anniversary of the grachtengordel, the ring of four canals around the city centre, this cruise was particularly appropriate.

Amsterdam may be a city, like Venice, that is defined by water but it is, in reality, a city on two wheels. Bicycles are everywhere and are pedalled by young and old, lovely ladies (even in high heels) and practical mums (it is not uncommon to see two kids sandwiching a hard pedalling mum). They even pull over 1,500 bikes out of the canals each year. Stepping into the path of an onrushing bike is probably the single biggest danger on Amsterdam’s roads and sidewalks.

The city is small (800,000 people), quite compact and great fun to walk around. The best place to stay is probably one of the many hotels around Dam Square, the centre of the Old City, where the Royal Palace and the Nieuwe Kerk (it’s “new” – only 475 years old, as opposed to the nearby Oude Kerk, which is 800 years old) are located.

Many of the important museums plus the Concertgebouw, however, are grouped together around a large green space called, appropriately enough, Museum Plein. The tram system is excellent and easy to decipher. Restaurants are plentiful, although many were much too tourist-oriented for our taste. We liked Mappa and van Kerkwijk, both a short walk from our RHO Hotel just off Dam Square, and Brasserie Keyzer, right next to the Concertgebouw, where we lunched outside twice in blazing sunshine.

But don’t go to Amsterdam for the food – or the beer (which is excellent). Go for the fabulous art, the unique museums and the vibrant feel of a unique city that is full of life. We will certainly be going back.