Summertime in Amsterdam means festivals, green parks and gardens, strolls along sunny canals and a lively dose of the bohemian, cultured spirit that makes this city so agreeable.

Words Brian Johnson

F04BJ1 Cruise tourist boat on a Damrak canal in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on a summer day. Traditional houses in the background.

There’s no denying the sun can sometimes be rather elusive in the Netherlands, but when it breaks out from the scudding clouds of the northern sky, it illuminates gabled houses with all the deftness of a Dutch Master at his canvas.

Locals peel off their layers of clothing and turn their faces towards the warmth like the heads of nodding sunflowers. In Amsterdam, outdoor cafés spring to life, chatter sounds from parks and everyone smiles. There’s no better time to be here than in summer.

Walking Amsterdam’s concentric rings of canals and across some of its 400-odd bridges is one of the great summer pleasures, as flowerboxes bloom and locals sit out at café tables, forking up pancakes. Townhouses from as early as the 17th century are reflected in canal waters; at night, their wobbling, reflected lights are straight out of an Impressionist painting. They provide a pretty picture of burgher life in old Amsterdam, and the intimacy of the canals makes for a pleasant change from the grand boulevards and palaces of Europe’s other capitals.


A boat tour, though touristy, is another delightful way to appreciate the city’s canal setting; if you want to work up an appetite, you can rent a pedalo and do it yourself. Stop off at the rather informative Canal Museum, which charts the importance of Amsterdam’s canals to its physical and cultural development. Water has always been both a challenge and the chief delight of Amsterdam residents.

Also not to be missed along the canals is the Bloemenmarkt. This market has been selling flowers to residents of Amsterdam since the 1860s, originally straight off canal boats, though it now sits on permanently moored barges. The Netherlands might be most famous for its tulips, which bloom in spring, but the market provides glorious perfume and colour at any season. Roses, phlox, cornflowers, sweet peas and snapdragons are among summer blooms; the Bloemenmarkt also sells flower bulbs and floral souvenirs.


Summer in Amsterdam brings out the festival vibes as well as the roses, as people emerge to enjoy the short-lived Netherlands sun and heat. One of the city’s premier festivals, the Grachtenfestival, runs on August 12–21 this year and showcases classical music, with occasional forays into jazz and other genres. What makes it especially agreeable are its locations on Amsterdam’s grachten or canals: some concerts are held on boats, some on floating pontoons or canal-side stages. The culminating event is the Prinsengracht Concert on the canal of the same name, attended by big crowds and broadcast on Dutch television. Running almost concurrently (August 12–28) is De Parade, a wandering show that moves from city to city and combines funfair elements with alternative theatre,music and dance performances; held in Martin Luther King Park.


Away from the canal-encircled old town are other areas particularly lively in summer. The arty, alternative district of Jordaan – once working class, now hipster – is filled with agreeably quirky boutiques and cafés dishing up huge slabs of Dutch-style apple pie. De Pijp district has one of Europe’s largest street markets along lengthy Albert Cuypstraat. Lively little street cafés are the place for a coffee and perhaps that favourite Dutch morning snack: fried eggs and ham on toast.

You might also want to investigate one of the newest parts of town, Eastern Harbour, which lies just beyond the main train station. Vast redevelopment projects here have transformed this former port area with new residential and entertainment districts, a large concert hall, and the excellent, hands-on NEMO Science Museum. The very family-friendly science museum allows kids to make electrical circuits and perform experiments on soap bubbles. NEMO’s rooftop is scattered with sand in summer, becoming an unusual beach venue with a bar and some welcome lounge chairs, on which you can lie back and watch the clouds.


You could, of course, also escape the city all together: locals certainly like the urban beach near Beatrix Park or another at Strand West on the Ij River, where weekends develop a party atmosphere as DJs spin music and cocktails flow. On Sloterplas Lake you can rent windsurfs and sailboats. Still, as a visitor, you’ll probably want to linger in the city centre. A good urban retreat is the green space of downtown Hortus Botanicus, one of the world’s oldest botanical gardens. It has interesting displays on the commercial crops once central to the Dutch colonial economy, such as cocoa, rubber and coffee, as well as terrific glasshouses showcasing tropical and desert plants.

Many of the potted plants of Hortus Botanicus’s palm greenhouse are taken outdoors in summer, though you should pop inside to see the Eastern Cape giant cyclad, which, at over three centuries old, lays claim to being one of the world’s oldest potted plants. The garden also has a particularly lovely fuchsia collection, which flowers in late summer. The terrace of the café, which occupies the former orangerie, is a lovely place for a shady drink. The garden stays open until 7pm on Sunday evenings throughout July and August, and on Thursday evenings hosts musical performances as part of the Hortus Festival.


You’ll find more room to move about – or even play Frisbee – at Museumplein, where buskers fiddle and locals walk their dogs and exercise their kids. It’s really just a big, oddly angled grassy area fringed by a few rows of trees, but you’re likely to end up here for some fresh air between bouts of visiting the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum with its renowned Dutch Masters, or less famous (but equally fabulous) Stedelijk Museum, which focuses on modern art from the likes of Pollock, Mondrian, Warhol, Chagall and Lichtenstein. Running through July is a special exhibition on US artist Avery Singer; another that runs until August 28 features graphics, furniture, ceramics and other works from the Amsterdam School: all part of the rich fabric of summer life in Amsterdam.

Day trip to Rotterdam

Rotterdam is just an hour by train from Amsterdam, yet could hardly be more different. It lacks long history and a cosy, canal-side atmosphere, but makes up for it with its contemporary style, great shopping and harbour-front location, which includes Europe’s busiest port. Remnants of Rotterdam’s old town linger near the waterfront, but post-Second World War reconstruction has bequeathed the city impressive architecture, from innovative glass office blocks to cube-shaped apartment buildings.

NEMO; Science Center, Amsterdam

Rotterdam town centre is carefully planned, with Museumpark an attractive core of greenery adjacent to the excellent Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum, a showcase of Western art through the centuries with a particularly large collection from Dutch Master Pieter Breughel. A 10-minute walk away, World Art Museum has a superb collection of tribal art, silk textiles and antique Indonesian batik.

Rotterdam loves its summer festivals. The annual North Sea Jazz Festival runs on July 8–10 and pulls in internationally recognised jazz greats; this year it features the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, the Branford Marsalis Quartet, Simply Red and Diana Krall. In the last weekend of July (29–30), Rotterdam Unlimited sees a wide range of multicultural artists perform, as well as a street carnival, drumming competition and food market.

Jakarta to Amsterdam

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From Colours July 2016


5 Senses – Sound

The open-air stage in Amsterdam’s Vondelpark features a free programme of varied music throughout summer weekends, including classical, pop, rock, Latin and jazz, a genre always popular in the city’s live-music bars. Many locals bring picnics and tuck in as they listen to the concerts. Vondelpark is Amsterdam’s largest green space, favoured for its restaurants, cycle lanes, lawns and pretty lakes; at times in summer an almost party atmosphere reigns.