Amsterdam may be known as the city where almost everything is legal, but its appeal goes far beyond the occasional late night window shopping.
It is one of the most cultural cities in the world, with historic architecture dating to medieval times, trend setting contemporary design, with museums for everything. From a museum of tulips to one for bags and purses to one displaying medieval instruments of torture, the Dutch capital is home to some 40 museums, including, of course, one each for Van Gogh, Rembrandt and Anne Frank.
Many of these are free or discounted with the I Amsterdam card, which admits visitors to over 30 cultural hot spots for free, as well as throwing in a free canal cruise and subway transportation. It is available from $48 and valid for 24 hours.
But one initiative will find favour with the late-rising Middle eastern tourist on holiday: many museums can also be visited at night on certain days of the month, and remain open as late as 2 am.
This year has been declared the year of Hidden Treasures by the Amsterdam Tourism and Convention Board (ATCB), where the focus is firmly on the Netherlands’ art, performance, history and design.
"It’s a great place to grab some culture in the day time and unwind around the city’s clubs at night," says Shyam R, an Indian marketing professional living in Dubai, who has often travelled to Amsterdam on leisure breaks. He confesses to hitting the city’s jazz clubs, while his girlfriend drags him to the rather more culturally elevated Concertgebouw.
"What I like best is that the city is so cosmopolitan," he adds. According to the ATCB, the city is home to 173 nationalities. A fair number of Arabs means the Arabic speaking guest is never far away from someone who speaks the same language, says Claire Van Campen, general manager at the city’s iconic Amsterdam American Hotel, part of the Dutch owned Eden Hotel Group and sited in the centre of the city on the Leidseplein square.
The city is home to some thirty four star hotels and under ten five star properties, she says. Many former five star hotels have been downgraded to four star following new regulations based on specific facilities and room size.
Van Campen says the city’s hotels can cope with the special demands of the Middle Eastern tourist. "Providing inter-connecting rooms is not a problem, and in the case of the smaller hotels, the entire property can be booked out. For sufficiently large groups, too, particular foods can always be arranged." Indeed, the ubiquitous doner kebab stand ensures that the Middle Eastern visitor never quite misses home, but for the business traveller looking for something a bit more highbrow, the city plates nearly 150 different types of cuisine at its various restaurants, including sushi bars and a genuine Bedouin tent at the Shibli restaurant.
Amsterdam hosts a total of 38,200 hotel beds. These accommodate 8.3 million bed nights annually, while some 15.8 million day visitors make their way to the city each year. With much of the Netherlands within a two hour train ride, many tourists also choose to stay outside the city, in one of the picturesque villages on its outskirts. Among the newest places to stay is IFA’s new Yotel at Schipol Airport.
Tourists looking for adventure can even choose to stay in a boatel – the aptly named boat hotels. While perhaps not the ideal solution for your average large Arab family, these nevertheless are perfect for the tourist looking to save a little money on a holiday that gives them something to talk about. 6
The best time to visit is without doubt the summer season, but the city also finds favour with visitors in the winter, with plenty of ice skating on the Museumplein (museum square) and the 400 metre Jaap Edenbaan track.
Getting around is easy: small as the old city is, tourists can explore on foot, by coach, boat or, of course, on a bicycle – the city centre is home to almost as many bicycles (600,000) as people (738,000).
Best of all, there’s also lots of shopping around the city’s concentric canals, which ripple outwards from the historic Dam Square – also home to Madame Tussaud’s.
And for those clients that insist on something beyond the ordinary, the tour operator like-a-local offers claims to offer the alternative to tour guide tourism by connecting tourists with the city residents who have made it their hobby to introduce travellers to their own favourite restaurants or activities.
The city is currently connected to the Middle East by KLM routes to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but several Arab airlines are believed to be mulling new connections.
by Clark Kelly
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