Cruise destination focus: Amsterdam

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The historical and hip Dutch capital plays host to thousands of river and ocean cruise ships every year


From the pretty tree-lined canals, to the myriad museums, quirky shops and quaint cafés, Amsterdam is one of Europe’s great cities to wander aimlessly around, whether that’s over a few hours or a few days.

Those cold northerly winds aside, it’s the perfect cruise port of call: enchanting, intriguing and, as it’s relatively compact, easy to navigate. In fact, few destinations can claim to be as important to cruise as the Dutch capital. The gateway to the Rhine, the city is from where river cruises on Europe’s most popular waterway usually begin or end, and where Clia hosts its annual River Conference, inviting six or seven operators to showcase ships at the city’s impressive docks. It’s also an important ocean call: a popular mini-cruise destination (particularly when paired with Bruges) and often part of a wider itinerary around the region (be it cruises to Scandinavia or the Baltic). It handles an average of 140 ocean and 1,500 river cruise ships a year, according to the ship-tracking website CruiseMapper.

amsterdam 5Amsterdam is now Europe’s eighth most by popular city by visitor numbers, and cruise contributes considerably to this. The city was named the Best Cruise Destination in the British Isles & Western Europe in the first Cruise Critic Cruisers’ Choice Destination Awards, and not without good reason. The port – one of Northern Europe’s largest – is conveniently located (walking distance from Centraal station and 20 minutes from the airport) and allows easy access to the city centre. It’s a busy capital city – with a population of around 845,000 – but is small enough to get to know. Once you’ve mastered the complex network of canals (of which there are at least 165) it’s easy to navigate, too, particularly by bike. There are more than 880,000 bicycles in Amsterdam (yes, more than there are people) and 400km of bike paths, making it the undisputed cycling capital of the world. A staggering 57 per cent of locals use their bikes every day, and there’s no better or more authentic way to enjoy the city. It’s no surprise that many river cruise lines now organise bike tours through the city.
The first stop for any tourist has to be the canals, which are surrounded by the picturesque Golden Age houses. The period, roughly spanning the 17th century, was when the Netherlands was an economic, artistic and military powerhouse: the Bank of Amsterdam was established in 1609, a precursor to the first true central bank, as trade boomed. Artists such as Bartholomeus van der Helst, Pieter Pietersz Nedek, Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn were born in the first half of this century.

About 7,000 historic buildings from the period – many of them merchants’ mansions near the canals – remain, as do many of the masterpieces by artists of the time. At the sprawling Rijksmuseum you’ll find The Night Watch by Rembrandt, as well as paintings by Jan Steen, Vermeer and Frans Hals. The museum has 8,000 pieces on display, from a total collection of one million. The Rijksmuseum jostles for attention in the city’s Museum Quarter with the Stedelijk Museum (modern art), and the Royal Concertgebouw (concert hall) and the Van Gogh Museum.

Anne Frank House, found on the Prinsengracht canal, and close to the Westerkerk (Western church), attracts more than a million tourists a year.

A visit to the house, where the Jewish diarist and her family hid for two years during the Nazis’ occupation of the Netherlands, is deeply moving.

Those wanting to see a different side of the city can board one of the many free ferries from behind Centraal station. Head for NDSM, an old shipping wharf that now hosts music and a flea market in an industrial setting. Noorderlicht Café – in a massive greenhouse – is one of the city’s best, albeit hard to find, places to grab a bite to eat and a beer.

Another must is Vondelpark, the city’s most popular green space, which boasts an open-air theatre with shows from June until August and a sculpture by Pablo Picasso. It’s also only a stone’s throw from the Museum Quarter and not far (in the other direction) from Foodhallen, one of the city’s best spots to grab some street food. Viet View (Vietnamese) and Jabugo Iberico Bar (Spanish) are particularly notable.

But Amsterdam is best enjoyed sat outside a bar or café on the canals – there are few better places to watch the world go by. A particular favourite is the Eetcafe Singel 404, while the nearby d’Vijff Vlieghen, found in a 17th century canal house, is one of the city’s most storied venues. There are original works by Rembrandt inside, and its chairs have copper plates inscribed with the names of famous guests: Mick Jagger and Walt Disney have dined there (not together).

With many cruises beginning or ending in the city (Holland America Line’s ms Amsterdam is homeported here), there are plenty of opportunities for guests to enjoy this endlessly fascinating city.

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