What It’s Like to Visit Amsterdam Now
(Bloomberg) -- Tracey Ingram is editor at large of the Amsterdam-based Frame magazine
On Saturday, June 26, Amsterdammers celebrated the lifting of pandemic restrictions by symbolically throwing their face masks into the air as if they were new graduates tossing their mortarboards. Summer holidays were no longer mere fantasy. Even nightclubs could reopen under the “test for entry” system, with no social distancing or masks required as long as attendees produced a negative PCR test upon entry.
But then everything changed. Within a week, the nationwide graph of new daily Covid infections soared from 500 to nearly 3,500. By July 10, the government clamped down again, shutting clubs and reinstating a midnight curfew for bars and restaurants.
Like the world’s least-fun rollercoaster, what went up quickly went back down. Six weeks later, more than 60% of the Dutch population has been fully vaccinated, and weekly cases have dropped to around 2,300. But the second-round restrictions remain—along with ongoing recommendations that locals distance socially and wear masks on public transit.
Nonetheless, visitors won’t see much sign of the virus here. Restaurants and their terraces are humming, parks and streets are packed, and shops are bustling again. Unlike other cities that have felt patchy in their reopenings, Amsterdam is vibrant citywide, be it in the negen straatjes canal district, the main shopping drag of the Kalverstraat, De Pijp’s nightlife zone, or the Museumplein.
It’s not difficult to get here, either. As of August, travelers from countries or regions outside the EU that the government deems “safe” must present a negative test result or proof of vaccination, and even those from “high risk areas” like the U.K. are allowed if they complete a 10-day self-quarantine.
All that said, after months of quietude, Amsterdam is reconsidering who should come. In 2019, there were 10 visitors for every local—tourism accounts for 4.5% of the city’s economy and 11% of its jobs—many of them attracted to pot cafes and the Red Light District; this year the government expects less than half that amount.
A new marketing campaign targeting culture and history buffs rather than no-holds-barred revelers aims to restart tourism with a different crowd. Increased policing and spot fines for minor offenses like drunkenness may help deter partiers, too. There is even talk of moving the Red Light District, one of the city’s rare ghost towns during the height of the pandemic, toward the edge of city limits.
For now, here are the subtler changes to be aware of—and the new places not to miss—on your next trip to Amsterdam.
The Dining Scene
The hospitality industry has been hit hard, with restaurants shut for a large portion of lockdowns. Among the notable closures is Amsterdam institution Restaurant As, though its chef, Sander Overeinder, has since joined the lockdown-induced sourdough craze by opening a bakery near Centraal Station, Stadsbakkerij As. Go for excellent sandwiches, frangipane tarts, and brioche rolls stuffed with ice cream.
Many more neighborhood spots have permanently closed and were then quickly replaced with new ventures from creative hospitality groups such as De Drie Wijzen uit Oost. Among its recent openings is Karavaan in Amsterdam Oud West, where it’s all about laptops and coffee by day and takeout-friendly meze at night.
The temporary craze for grab-and-go dining proved to be just that: temporary. Take 101 Gowrie, a high-end izakaya run by Michelin’s 2021 Young Chef of the Year, Alex Haupt. The De Pijp restaurantscrapped its pandemic menu of lower-priced, street-food dishes—all made with his typical multi-culti approach to Japanese food—once the theater of indoor dining could resume.
The best-positioned spots these days have giant terraces and enough indoor space to social distance; it’s an advantage that’s common in the still-developing neighborhood of Amsterdam Noord (North), one of the areas the city is championing in hopes of dispersing crowds from the center. A new draw there is the Palm Springs-inspired Pink Beach, which uses a ticketed entry system for a resort-style outdoor “beach” bar strewn with surreal pink sand. As for the menu, think nachos and hot dogs served alongside slushy “Mermaid’s Tears” cocktails.
Also in Amsterdam Noord is Corner Store, a Scandi-styled follow up to the wine-centric Café Binnenvisser, which is further south off De Clercqstraat. While its kitchen sends out such Asian-influenced, vegetable-focused dishes as mushroom karaage (a twist on Japanese fried chicken), the bar is packed with natural wines, vintage hi-fi speakers, and vinyl records for a DJ to spin.
Culture Makes a Comeback
The government may have made a U-turn on giving large summer festivals the green light this year, but plenty of options remain for an artistic fix.
If you’re still Covid-wary: Try one of the established summer outdoor events such as Pluk de Nacht or Vondelpark’s Openluchttheater (open-air theater) both running with limited capacity and required seat reservations. The former—an open-air film festival that stitches together the best entries from Cannes and other such venues—is free and will run from Aug. 25 to Sept. 4); reservations get snatched up quickly. The latter will run each weekend through Sept. 26; the lineup of local artists includes afro-jazz band New Cool Collective and Brazilian funk group Zuco 103.
If you need a gentle reentry: After experiencing on-and-off closures, museums can currently admit one visitor per five square meters—translating to an orderly and spacious 77% occupancy at the Rijksmuseum, for example. You can often find same-day tickets for that iconic institution, as well as the Van Gogh Museum and the modern art-focused Stedelijk, if you’re not too picky about the time slot. (Until Oct. 24, the Stedelijk’s marquee show will contain rarely seen and never-seen works by American multimedia artist Bruce Nauman.)
In the midst of the pandemic, the city managed to gain its first new-media art museum, the Nxt Museum, which is filled with immersive multisensory installations. Among them is the trippy “Distortions in Spacetime,” a full-room video projection that makes you feel as if you’re inside a black hole. No surprise, it’s an Instagrammer’s paradise, made all the more appealing without hundreds of bystanders to block the views.
If you want to pretend the pandemic never happened: Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced plans in August to abandon all remaining restrictions by Nov. 1 if infection and hospitalization rates allow. So if partying is what you’re after, cross your fingers and aim to travel after then.
How to Get Around
As one of the most cycle-friendly places on the planet, Amsterdam wasn’t overly affected by public transport restrictions, even at the height of the pandemic. Until Sept. 20, masks will still be required on trams and metros—on which it’s impossible to social distance. That includes the brand-new North-South subway line, which ducks under the IJ river to connect Amsterdam Noord to a large number of central locations. (Masks are also required in taxis and Ubers.)
A more novel way of traversing the city’s canals has recently gained popularity: stand-up paddle boards (SUPs). Rental companies including Canal Sup, Sup Rental, and Sup NU charge €10 to €15 ($12 to $18) per hour. Plan to book ahead. Ferries to and from Amsterdam and Amsterdam Noord offer a further option; they’re open-air and free of charge.
The Lingering Covid Etiquette
You’ll still find bottles of hand sanitizer inside most stores. Smaller shops typically have a queue outside; like museums, they can currently admit only one visitor per five square meters. While face masks aren’t mandatory, fluctuating infection numbers have inspired some locals to cover up again indoors.
Amsterdammers won’t miss social distancing if the rules are dismissed in September, as planned, but they might feel nostalgia for the city’s clever signage. “Ik hou (afstand) van jou”—the motto on ubiquitous posters reminding people to stay 1.5 meters apart—is a genius example of Dutch wordplay, meaning both “I love you” and “I keep my distance from you.” Look for it while it lasts.
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