“SEE HER? THAT’S Doutzen,” says my new Dutch friend Koen. “She’s a famous model.”
I’m in the see-and-be-seen top floor bar of W Hotel in Amsterdam, newly opened in late 2015. The Netherlands’ capital, with its storybook canals and cobblestone streets, used to be a city best experienced from the street level. But here I am, floating above its many steeples and steep roofs.
I’m on higher ground — and not just physically so. This second encounter with Amsterdam is a much more elevated one than our first date, 10 years before. I was a backpacker then, traveling with other fresh-out-of-college Americans. My friends were jonesing to get high on legal pot, and I, ever the boring, straitlaced one, ended up running after them around town and corralling them back to our hostel room when they began getting paranoid.
Needless to say, I didn’t have a good time.
But look at what a difference a decade can make. With pot tourism moving elsewhere (Colorado, I’m looking at you), Amsterdam is looking less like the Haight. And yes, I’m also older and wiser — not to mention luckier, with a cocktail in hand and spotting a creature as rare as a supermodel in her native habitat, a trendy nightlife spot called Mr. Porter.
My local informant is a Dutch architect, a man I just struck up a conversation with at the bar. Chatting with a stranger is something I rarely do at home, but hey, I’m abroad and the distance from home amplifies the freedom to approach people. Koen is helpful and eager to point out all the important figures in our midst — a soap actor named Froukje here, a TV personality named Valerio there; it’s quite a star-studded cast that has assembled here. Too bad I don’t recognize any of them.
During the days leading to this evening, I didn’t miss out on the other celestial tableaux of Amsterdam either. The Van Gogh Museum, chock-full of swirly and starry paintings like “The Bedroom” and “Sunflowers,” is a charming art institution that honors one of Holland’s most famous sons. But it’s far from stuck in its quaint past. Earlier in 2015, its gleaming new wing and entrance made of glass were unveiled, making this world-famous gallery literally and figuratively clear — apt in a country whose people prize transparency, going as far as living without curtains to show they have nothing to hide.
And why would you want to obscure anything in Amsterdam, where you could turn a street corner and feel like you’re in a pop-up storybook? The Museum District is a romantic European postcard, come alive in bricks-and-mortar and greenery. This stately enclave has glamorous shopping and exclusive residences galore. And yes, as the name suggests, it’s a cultural heavyweight. In addition to the Van Gogh Museum, the crown jewel Rijksmuseum is a one-stop survey of the cultural riches of the Netherlands and beyond, with art collections featuring Dutch masters like Rembrandt. This monumental museum reopened in 2013 after 10 years of extensive renovations, and while crowded, the (rightfully) popular place feels as grand and awe-inspiring as it must have been when it finally opened in its current location in 1885.
But the spot that impressed me the most was the Stedelijk Museum, which rounds out the visual art offerings of the large open square Museumplein. This modern and contemporary art museum contains 90,000 artworks and objects that encompass art in an ever-expanding number of media, covering major homegrown movements like De Stijl and the Amsterdam School, a style of architecture and decorative arts that peaked between the world wars.
With a striking new wing dubbed “the bathtub” for its sleek appearance, the Stedelijk reopened a few years ago after extensive renovations. (See the pattern? Amsterdam doesn’t rest on its laurels.) On my visit that day, I happened upon the work of Tino Sehgal, who employs performers to interact with visitors for his art, or “constructed situations,” as he calls it.
His piece “This Progress” featured a number of locals taking turns guiding visitors through a series of unadorned museum halls. They chatted about their ideas of what progress means to them and, in turn, asked me what I thought the word meant. I could only stammer a few nonsensical sentences on the spot. But as I was leaving the museum, it occurred to me that Amsterdam, a city this quaint and yet so forward-thinking, embodies progress.
Progress isn’t about building gleaming new structures but making the most out of what we have. I hopped on a rented bike and joined the throng of Amsterdammers on two wheels, heading to De Hallen, a tram depot turned into a series of shops. In the impressive space awash in light, I found a busy food market reflecting the city’s diversity, from gouda to Bahn mi, satay to bitterballen, the savory Dutch croquettes filled with a velvety roux of minced meat. This bustling place could easily stand up to and even exceed the gourmet centers of the world like Copenhagen’s Torvehallerne and Munich’s Viktualienmarkt.
There’s more to Amsterdam’s culinary offerings than quick and easy food market fare. Sure, I didn’t know and couldn’t afford better than fast-food falafels on my previous visit — though there’s always a time and place for fried chickpea balls, of course. But all signs show that Amsterdam has become much more conscious about its food. There are classic destinations like Restaurant Vinkeles, a contemporary French restaurant with an experimental spirit, and two-Michelin-star Librije’s Zusje, which approaches hyperlocal ingredients with an international attitude, offering dishes like a grilled tulip bulb. Then there are more casual but equally excellent spots like Ron Gastrobar, where you would encounter such playful dishes as scallop tartare married with hibiscus and aged Beemster. De Kas, inside a series of the city’s greenhouses built in the 1920s, highlights greens from the surrounding farm with Mediterranean-inspired plates. And joining these favorites is the newly opened Duchess, inside a cavernous space that retains the original flourishes and staggering ceilings of a former bank, already famous for a theatrical Chocolate Explosion dessert that — without giving too much away — the waiter will detonate in front of you.
After all the indulgent food, I was happy to settle for a simple demitasse of espresso and a tiny stroopwafel, or syrupy wafer, one afternoon at Cloud Art Coffee, one of Amsterdam’s many indie art spots. For a city its size — with less than a million inhabitants in the city proper — Amsterdam is one artsy town, galleries and studios popping up between corner shops on residential streets. The exhibition space-cum-cafe was hosting an intriguing photography show, but I was more mesmerized by the big picture window looking out to its canal-side street. Bicyclists of all ages sped by, as did pedestrians carrying home groceries and tourists wielding selfie sticks. And really, that’s the best kind of trip you can have: when you can experience ordinary life and watch the city go about its business.
To move from such a relaxed, pedestrian scene to mingling with celebrities, of course, can be thrilling. But as the supermodel sashays by us, I realize I’m more interested in hearing what Koen, my new Dutch friend, has to say about his train commute and cool roommates. Maybe that’s what’s making my trip special: yes, Amsterdam has become more chic, and I’ve grown up, but instead of approaching it as a spectacle — the pot cafes! the Red Light District! — I’m seeing it for its manifold glory. What more can you want from visiting a new place than to feel like you’re part of it?
IF YOU GO
STAY The new W Amsterdam, located on the iconic Dam Square behind the Royal Palace, adds Dutch touches like handwoven bedspreads, curtains printed with motifs of canal houses, and showers inspired by classic payphone booths (wamsterdam.com).
EAT De Hallen, a former tram depot, boasts a food market featuring cuisines from all around the world (dehallen-amsterdam.nl/en). Venus & Adonis, a bar and grill in the Canal District, features a Dutch take on surf and turf (venusenadonis.nl/?lang=en).
FLIGHTS KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flies direct from SFO to Amsterdam daily (klm.us).