There is a word that the Dutch use called “gezellig”. While almost impossible to translate accurately, it’s broadly used to express a warm feeling; the sense of being cosy or comfortable, in fun surroundings or in pleasant company. The term is widely considered to encompass the heart of Dutch culture; but to be more specific, for me, “gezelleig” encapsulates perfectly the sentiment of being in Amsterdam – once there, no one can fail to understand it’s meaning.
Indeed, everyone’s at home in Amsterdam: it’s like visiting an old friend, or making a new and exciting one. The coast capital of Netherlands, it’s a place of all-round appeal, giving a combined sense of comfortable familiarity and uninhibited adventure. From stag-do weekends to cultural breaks, museum fanatics to spacey hedonists, few other cities in Europe attract such a diverse mixture of crowds. Quaint, but with ambience, it’s an inspiring city to look at, and even more inspiring to be in.
While Amsterdam is loaded with historical landmarks and cultural hotspots, you can come home with an unticked checklist and feel no less fulfilled. Whether in the Jordaan or De Pijp, every corner of the city feels immersive. Tilting houses rise above stalls of orange tulips; canals wind endlessly through verdant spaces; the ring of bike bells mixes with the cling of beer glasses. Back again to the notion of “gezellig”, you could easily spend your whole time wandering around, absorbing the magic.
Yet this is also a paradise for culture seekers. Amsterdam has a plentiful selection of art galleries, from the modern exhibitions at the Stedelijk Museum to Middle Age masterpieces at the Rijksmuseum. A particular highlight is the definitive Van Gogh Museum, an enlightening exposition of one of the world’s most famous artists, which houses the largest collection of paintings (including Sunflowers), drawings and letters. On the last Friday night of every month, it’s also a great spot for pre-drinks, as the central hall becomes a dancefloor with DJs, live acts and cocktails.
The museums are similarly varied. There’s the infamous Venus Template, the world’s first and oldest sex museum, and the Rembrandt Museum, the famous painter’s old home restored as it was in the 17th century. For a more sobering afternoon, the Anne Frank House, where the Holocaust victim lived in hiding before her capture, is an incredibly moving must-see – but with infinite queues all-year round, it’s advisable to buy tickets well in advance.
As the Netherlands is a relatively small country, it’s also easy to venture further afield (should you even want to). Rotterdam and The Hague are only an hour away, but for a much-recommended journey into the Dutch countryside, Keukenhof is suitably idyllic. Known as the Garden of Europe, its sea of tulips provides an iconic vista. But there’s plenty of nature in Amsterdam itself: the Vondelpark is a haven for afternoon picnics, relaxing walks and, if you’re not a hardcore cyclist like the inner city locals, gentle bike rides.
You’ll find an excellent set of restaurants – alternatively, just try the Dutch raw herring on street stalls – but I think Amsterdam is more notable for its bars. This is the city to experiment with new spirits and specialty beers, and the canal-side balcony at Café de Jaren is a “gezellig” place to start. The Berlin-style Café Brecht also ended up a favourite: with retro armchairs, antique lamps and vintage wallpaper, time stands still, and you momentarily forget you’re in a foreign place.
However long you’re there, you won’t fit it all in, and neither should you leave thinking that you did. You can lose yourself in the wonder of Amsterdam again and again, and such a quality is rarely found elsewhere. It’s a city which feels good for the soul: ultimately, that “gezellig” feeling is its greatest drug. Beautiful and buzzing with life, this is a dreamy place that never sleeps – and it’ll long keep you awake with it.