By David Hochman
Photography By Mirjam Bleeker
“The sheer number of riders can be intimidating at first, but exploring Amsterdam on a bike is the best way to live like a local,” says Lauren Parry, a Virtuoso advisor from Jackson, Mississippi, who recently returned from a mother-daughter trip to the city. “Just be sure to look both ways before heading out into traffic.”
Parry also recommends De 9 Straatjes neighborhood, “a favorite for vintage shops, designer boutiques, and cool cafés. When you spot the six-inch-high apple pie in Ree7’s window, it’s time for a coffee break.”
In this compact, active city of flat terrain and narrow bridges, bicycles are as elemental to everyday life as the glittering canals and scent of herring. Amsterdam’s roughly 811,000 residents own more than 880,000 bikes, and by daybreak the streets clink and whoosh with pedal power, rain or shine.
From the window of my waterfront room inside the restored seventeenth-century palaces that now make up the Waldorf Astoria, I gawk in jet-lagged wonder as a fashionable mom totes four kids in a wooden cabin bolted over her two front wheels. From the opposite direction, a plumber bikes to work with a PVC pipe strapped to his rack. He neatly avoids a gent in a tux who scarcely glances up from his phone. In keeping with the region’s free- spirited liberalism, nobody wears a helmet.
To see Amsterdam by bicycle, as my wife and I plan to do for a week, is to experience this thriving city in a way that’s both fully immersive and frequently confounding. The sprawling outdoor cycle garage we saw upon arrival at Amsterdam Centraal Station, the main transit hub, accommodates a staggering 2,500 bikes – yet it’s not nearly large enough. The city recently announced plans to dig a subaquatic bike catacomb to park 7,000 more, and by 2030 two floating islands will each hold an additional 2,000 spaces. Nearly 60 percent of central Amsterdam journeys are made by cycle, which means everyone does it: toddlers, couples on first dates, billionaires. Even Willem-Alexander, the Netherlands’ king, is frequently spotted on two wheels.
Our plan is to wheel around without any help from taxis, buses, or chauffeurs (trams and trains provide quick and easy airport transfers). Virtuoso’s on-site connection set us up with a local guide, Yvonne Zumpolle, and bikes to cover as much ground as possible around Amsterdam’s 60 miles of canals. That may sound vast – and, in fact, we’re talking about an urban network of some 90 islands – but the city’s tight horseshoe layout means most points of interest are separated by no more than a ten-minute spin.
Getting around takes practice and a little nerve. The hulking black chariots awaiting us that first morning outside the Waldorf are classic “granny” bikes that must weigh 50 pounds and are fronted by massive wicker baskets. “You should see the grandpa version,” Yvonne says, reminding us that the Dutch are the tallest humans on earth. Still, the rules are universal: Stay in your lane, signal before stopping or turning, and lock your ride up – or else. (Locals like to say the canals are a meter deep with water and another meter deep with tossed bicycles.)
In a city with roughly 250 miles of cycle lanes, 140 bicycle shops, and an estimated million-plus miles collectively pedaled each day, people assume that bikes have always ruled these roads. It actually took the 1970s oil crisis to spark a movement. A series of car-free Sundays showed government officials how safe, clean, and efficient it is to get around this way.
Biking certainly makes exploring a joy. The Waldorf sits near the Golden Bend of Herengracht, or “Gentlemen’s Canal,” the prized center of Amsterdam’s Canal Ring, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010.
A few days in, we find a satisfying balance ourselves. Feeling confident enough to brave the streets on our own, we follow Yvonne’s hand-drawn map to landmarks old and new.
Holland’s citizens are not only among the world’s tallest, but also its healthiest. Perhaps long days of biking help alleviate the guilt over indulging at restaurants such as Vinkeles, a Michelin- starred dinner spot set in a former eighteenth-century bread bakery. You can also feel good about fueling up in the morning, as we did with the elaborate spread of cheeses, fresh breads, and local meats in The Conservatorium hotel’s breakfast room. (If the Waldorf reimagines Amsterdam’s gilded past, the Conservatorium – with its modern glass roof soaring over the cleaned-up courtyard of a former music academy – suggests the future of Dutch design.)
Great food, regular exercise, gorgeous surroundings, easygoing people – it’s a combination that gives Amsterdam yet another oft-cited designation as one of the happiest cities on earth.
By week’s end, we’re pedaling around like contented home-towners. After the morning rush on our final day, we breeze from the hotel past the Rembrandt House Museum to Centraal Station, where we walk our bikes onto the first ferry heading north. Following Noordhollandsch Canal into the countryside, we come upon Krijtmolen d’Admiraal, one of Amsterdam’s last old-fashioned windmills still in operation. In the afternoon, we ride back to the center, wending through Vondelpark, with its clusters of picnickers, en route to the Rijksmuseum. A few days earlier, we’d joined patrons inside gazing at Vermeer’s Milkmaid and other Dutch masterworks. Now we just want to savor the building’s bike passageway, which we roll through once, and again, and again, our handlebar bells chiming all the way.
Reopened in 2014 after a canal-to-rooftop renovation, the 93-room Waldorf Astoria Amsterdam
occupies six landmark seventeenth- and eighteenth-century buildings as sophisticated and grand as the “Gentle- men’s Canal” it sits upon.
Architect Piero Lissoni transformed a former music school into the stunning Conservatorium
hotel, with a glass-box lobby and 129 glass- and stone-filled guest rooms steps from Museum Square.
Open since 1867 on the banks of the Amstel River, the InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam’
s 79 rooms channel the city’s elegance through period Dutch antiques, hand- painted wallpaper, and restaurant La Rive, considered among the city’s best.
Built on the grounds of two medieval convents, Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam’s
177 rooms display a much more contemporary style than you might expect, with iridescent bath tiles and bold fabrics and artwork.
Nineteenth-century De L’Europe Amsterdam
goes for luxe modern whimsy in its 111 rooms: The Provocateur Suite features a van Gogh “starry night” lighting display over a circular bed.
Originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of