Travel: Take to the water for the best view of Amsterdam’s people and culture

This year it will be 400 years since Amsterdam first began constructing its canal network
This year it will be 400 years since Amsterdam first began constructing its canal network
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IT WAS half past four on a November afternoon, and it was already getting dark. But we’re cheapskates, and the Amsterdam city card we’d bought for the free public transport and free museum entrance promised a gratis canal cruise too.

“Look,” I said to my wife. “Even if they’re still running at this time of the day, we won’t be able to see anything. And even if we can, it’ll be freezing. Why spoil a perfect day?”

“Let’s try it anyway,” said She Who Is Always Right.

So the glass-topped boat – warm and comfortable, naturally – set off along the Singelgracht, pulling away from the Heineken Brewery (that was Plan B) and, true enough, in the dusk you could only just make out the different types of gables – step, bell, and neck – on the merchants’ houses on the quays.

Against that, though, this was about the time of day that the houseboats started to light up. There are 2,500 of them moored on Amsterdam’s 165 canals, originally a cheap source of housing in the aftermath of the Second World War, but now – ever since the city stopped issuing berth permits – among its most expensive. As our boat nosed past them, they blazed with uncurtained light in all their variety, from basic floating Portakabins to the last word in luxury living, like a succession of tableaux-vivants. Just a couple of feet away, a middle aged man would be sitting reading a book in his floating lounge, or a mother preparing tea in her kitchen, and it was impossible not to be a voyeur of their framed domesticity.

Even on the canal-side merchants’ houses, the Dutch have always had a thing about unshuttered windows. Historically, while the British used to put a tax on windows, the Dutch put a tax on width of doors – on grandiosity, on the flamboyance of foyers. Windows were always for looking in as well as out: they were unshuttered because in this godly Protestant republic, their inhabitants had nothing to hide. See us, went the implicit message: we can be trusted. And from trust came trade and trade came tolerance. If you doubt that, just look at how Rembrandt paints Jews: he doesn’t bother with the anti-Semite stereotypes, he just paints them as regular neighbours.

My wife had never been to Amsterdam, and I wanted to show her why I loved it. I wanted to show her the Van Goghs, the flower market, the sheer oddity of the city (the Brazilian part of the red light district, for example, right next to a kindergarten). And because I wanted it to be a special weekend break, I opted for KLM’s more civilised flight times, staying in a 17th-century canal-side hotel, and booking atmospheric restaurants like In de Waag, where Rembrandt painted The Anatomy Lesson (another oddity: 17th-century dissections there took place accompanied by food, wine and music).

More Brits stay overnight in Amsterdam than any other nationality (1,577,000 bed-nights annually, which is more than twice the number of Germans and almost three times the number of French) and it can’t just be because of the soft drugs in the coffee shops. It’s probably more to do with the fact that the city is easy to get to and to get around: its city centre is compact, historic (a greater concentration of 16th-18th century buildings than anywhere else in the world), eminently walkable, a shopper’s paradise (21 markets, an abundance of individual, non-chain shops), and has such a well-organised public transport system that only rich eccentrics bother with taxis. Apart from its north-south underground line, where costs and schedules have overrun even more than Edinburgh’s tram project, this is a city that works.

Yet only recently has it started to come back to its best. The Stedelijk Museum of world-class modern art reopened in September after being closed for years. The Van Gogh museum reopens in May, freeing the Hermitage to concentrate on its primary purpose of showing some of the treasures from St Petersburg. Even more importantly, after a whole decade of renovation, the world-famous Rijksmuseum (8,000 masterpieces, 80 halls) reopens in April, ready once more to cope with the two million visitors it attracts each year.

This year too, it will be 400 years since Amsterdam first began constructing its canal network – a World Heritage site since 2010 – reflecting the city’s status as the richest in Europe. My wife was undoubtedly right to insist on us taking that late evening canal cruise. But I occasionally get things right too: and visiting Amsterdam in the first place is the proof.

• KLM flies from Edinburgh to Amsterdam with return fares from £79,

An Amsterdam City Card – free city transport, free entrance to 40 museums and other discounts, costs E50 for 48 hours. See