Perhaps more than anything else, the Dutch are famous for their creativity, so it’s no wonder that Amsterdam boasts a plethora of unusual and quirky attractions.
Some of Amsterdam’s attractions are a tribute to the preoccupations of its more eccentric citizens, while others are just good fun. However, if you make an effort to branch out from the city’s more famous sights, you are bound to discover something to excite and enthral.
Of all the slick modern buildings in Amsterdam, it’s the EYE Filmmuseum that stands out, its sleek, bright-white lines stretching along the River IJ opposite the train station. The EYE’s main concern is cinema, with its several screens offering a wide range of cult and classic films, but there are also temporary art exhibitions and activities for children, plus exceptionally fine views back towards the city centre. Also hidden away here, and on permanent display, is a cinematic rarity – the vintage films of Jean Desmet, which date back as far as 1907. Take lunch here, too: the café-bar is first-rate.
The small but delightful Pianola Museum, in the Jordaan district, holds a splendid collection of pianolas and automatic music machines dating from the 1910s. They work on rolls of perforated paper – of which the museum has several thousand, featuring tunes by the likes of Scott Joplin and George Gershwin – and a dozen or so machines are in full working order. Listen away, both on an impromptu basis or at one of the museum’s concerts listed on its website. All in all, it’s a lovely way to spend an hour or two. Afterwards, pop along to diVino, a great Italian bar-restaurant just a two-minute walk away.
Beguiling though it is, the charming Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder (Our Dear Lord in the Attic) is a witness to religious intolerance. When Amsterdam went Protestant in 1578, the city’s Catholics were banned from holding Mass in public – and were obliged to create clandestine churches that were hidden from view. Most of these secret churches disappeared long ago, but this one has survived intact, its antique furnishings and fittings located in the loft of an old merchant’s house. The chapel is in the Red Light District – and footsteps from one of the district’s liveliest café-bars, Skek.
Three floors of both antique and modern handbags, purses and wallets make the Tassenmuseum Hendrikje (Museum of Bags and Purses) one of Amsterdam’s most unusual and appealing attractions. Immaculately presented in an old and handsome mansion, highlights include Art Nouveau and Art Deco pieces, a whole cabinet of rare and brightly coloured 1950s handbags made of ‘hard plastic’ – a primitive form of Perspex – and (ethically dubious) vintage handbags made from animals. Temporary exhibitions of contemporary bags and purses round out the collection.
In the heady days of 1969, a famous – and famously hirsute – couple, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, settled down in their suite at the Hilton Amsterdam for a week-long ‘Bed-In for Peace’. A skilful publicity stunt, “Hair, Peace; Bed, Peace” signs were plastered all over the suite, and the world’s press turned up by the taxi load. You can still stay in the suite today – and enjoy both the views of the city and photographs of the event. Ring the Hilton just ahead of time to see if the suite is open for visitors. It’s all rather groovy.
If you have ever wondered what it’s like to live on one of Amsterdam’s houseboats, this is your chance to find out. The friendly owners have opened up their classic houseboat, which was launched in 1914 as a freighter for sand and gravel before being converted in the 1960s. Visitors can nudge their way through the cosy living area, where a handful of explanatory plaques give the low-down on houseboat life. The owners aren’t alone; almost 3,000 barges and houseboats are plugged into Amsterdam’s gas and electricity networks. Curiosity satisfied – you can stroll along the street to an excellent dining establishment, Restaurant de Struisvogel.
Take the bus from Amsterdam Centraal train station to Het Schip, a municipal housing scheme built in an exquisite Expressionist style in the 1910s. The complex takes its name from its ship-like appearance and comes complete with all sorts of appealing decorative details such as wavy brickwork and a cigar-shaped funnel. You can drop into the museum to get the background on the idealistic architect who designed the place and contemplate how his idealism was lost.