Amsterdam Journal: Annual Music Festival on the Canals Draws Europeans, Few Americans

by Ron Bernthal

Colorful houseboats and historic canal houses in central Amsterdam. (photo: Ron Bernthal)

In Amsterdam last summer, the 12th Annual Grachtenfestival began with the world premier of a Stravinsky piece called “Svadebka! The Village Wedding.” Not only was this piece performed for the first time, thanks to the permission of Igor Stravinsky’s heirs, but the festival’s producers presented it at the Hermitage Amsterdam, a 17th -century building that houses the city’s newest museum, a branch of the famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The Grachtenfestival, or Festival of the Canals, offers ten days of classical music in venues throughout this beautiful city, and there is always a canal, or body of water, nearby. “We always try and be creative when it comes to organizing music venues for this festival,” said festival director Alma Netten, who started the annual summer event more than decade ago. “We really make use of the canals, the city’s architecture, and its classical music heritage.”

The Grachtenfestival, which started out 12 years ago presenting only a few performances along the major canals of the city, has been spreading its lovely tentacles throughout the city, arranging for concerts in private apartments located in out of the way neighborhoods, in off-beat museums, warehouses, on boats, and in public parks. In most cases, there is always a water view to massage the senses. “We try to audition performers who are either very talented young musicians, somewhat untested in a major festival, but who have won awards in European competitions, or the older, well-known performers who are part of our themed series. In 2009, for instance, to tie in with the opening of Hermitage Amsterdam ( one of the themes was Russians-in-Residence, with performances by a selection of very talented professional Russian musicians now living in the Netherlands, like Olga Martinova, violinist Mark Lubotsky, oboist Alexei Ogrintchouk, and pianist Mila Baslawskaja. We had a great variety of concerts, everything from opera to ballet to dance. And most of the performances are original pieces that you could not hear anywhere else,” said director Netten, a well known personality in Amsterdam in broadcasting and the arts.

Opening night of the 2009 Grachtenfestival at Hermitage-Amsterdam (photo: Courtesy Ronald Knapp Grachtenfestival)

Amsterdam is a great walking city, but for visitors attending the festival, and taking in the many museums and restaurants between concerts, do what the locals do –ride a bike. “Amterdam is probably the world’s most bicycle friendly cities,” said Bas Oosterhout, owner of Macbike, a leading bicycle rental company in the city. “Amsterdam is flat, and we have bike paths all over the city. It is so easy to get around the entire city, and into the countryside, by using a bike. There are no traffic or parking problems, and it’s good exercise as well.”

Although the Grachtenfestival attracts thousands of Amsterdammers each year, along with many other Dutch and European residents, it is still flying under the radar when it comes to American visitors. Americans are traveling here, despite the slow-down in international travel caused by the world economic crisis, and American tourists do know about the city’s connection to Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Gogh, Anne Frank, diamonds, Heineken, a world famous Red Light District, liberal marijuana laws, flowers, and, of course, the canals. But few American travelers have even heard about the Grachtenfestival, which is a shame since watching and listening to talented singers, dancers, and musicians, in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, can be a very rewarding travel experience. “I never knew about this festival until I moved to Amsterdam last year,” said Susan, an American from Minneapolis who now works for Starbucks Europe as she watched a group of Grachtenfestival dancers perform on a pontoon on Prinsengracht, one of Amsterdam’s largest and most beautiful canals. “It is such an amazing city to live in, and I really feel like a local being able to walk out the door of my house and have festival events right here on the canal near my house.”

With more than 160 festival events scheduled for the 2009 Grachtenfestival, scattered throughout the city, organizers must be careful to respect local feelings. “When we hold so many activities, including music concerts, walking and boating tours, classes, and children’s concerts, all within a relatively small geographic area, festival staffers have to be considerate of the residents of Amsterdam who live nearby, and sometimes within the same building, where a concert is being performed” said Harm Witteveen, one of the festival’s business managers. Fortunately, Amsterdam’s reputation for being a tolerant city pays off during the ten summer days of the Grachtenfestival, when oboes, pianos, cellos, classical guitars, and ethereal voices take over the city and, thankfully, there are few places to hide.

Small Amstel River villages, like this one south of Amsterdam, can easily be reached using riverside bike paths (photo: Ron Bernthal)

Cultural performances and exhibitions in Amsterdam do not begin and end with the Grachtenfestival. The city has over 60 theatres and concert halls, 42 museums, and 141 commercial art galleries, all operating throughout the year with an enormous variety of offerings. The Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra, and the Netherlands Chamber Choir are popular all over the world, as is the Dutch National Ballet and the Netherlands Dance Theatre. The historic Muziektheater is the home of the Netherlands Opera, and other musicians and cabaret entertainers find a home in the Royal Carre Theatre on the River Amstel and in the nearby Kleine Komedie, a wonderful little theatre that dates back to 1788.

With high-speed rail lines being extended throughout Europe, getting to Amsterdam from other cities is fast and easy. For example, the opening of the long-delayed Antwerp to Amsterdam Thalys high-speed line through Belgium and the Netherlands has cut travel time on the popular Paris-Amsterdam route by almost an hour, reducing the journey to only three hours and 18 minutes.

Ticket prices for festival concerts are inexpensive, often from about 5-12 Euros ($8-$19), with somewhat higher prices for the opening and closing concerts, and many of the outdoor events are free. For next summer’s Grachtenfestival concert information and online ticket purchase instructions,

Hotel Suggestions:

Ambassade Hotel, Herengracht 341,, Phone: 31 (0) 20 555 0222. Ten 17th-century canal houses have been creatively restored and combined into a beautiful 59-room hotel property with canal views, within walking or biking distance of museums, restaurants, Central Station, and interesting residential neighborhoods. The hotel’s breakfast room is a traditional, high-ceilinged canal-side house living room, with huge windows overlooking Herengracht, one of the city’s prettiest canals.

The College Hotel, Roelof Hartstraat 1,, Phone: 31 (0) 20 571 1511. Set within a former 19th-century school building, this is a 40-room, opened in 2005, is an elegant, 4-star hotel located near Amsterdam’s Museum District and excellent shopping streets. Professional hotel managers direct friendly Hospitality and Culinary Department students from the Amsterdam Hotel School in running all aspects of the property, and the results are extraordinary. The property received the 2004/-05 Hospitality & Style Award as well as “Best New Hotel” category, and the architecture, art-deco design elements, and hand-designed furniture are some of the reasons for its quality reputation, along with excellent Dutch cuisine in its restaurant-bar.

Permanent and rotating art exhibits fill the lobby of Hotel Artemis, a Dutch Design hotel on Amsterdam's southern edge, about 20 minutes from city center. (photo: Ron Bernthal)

Hotel Artemis, John M. Keynesplein 2,, Phone: 31 (0) 20 714 1000. Located off a major highway, in the southern part of the city, but only 20 minutes from central Amsterdam using public transportation or taxi, the theme for this deluxe, 256-room property is Dutch Design. The glass fa�ade is a colorful grid of colors, and rotating art exhibitions, by Dutch artists, fill the atrium lobby and other public areas, giving the hotel a museum-quality ambience. The hotel’s stylish and popular Restaurant-Bar De Stijl provides indoor dining, or by the waterside terrace outside. Situated between Amterdam and the airport, with a large underground parking garage and convenient to the new corporate office parks in this part of the city.

View of Michelin award Yamagato Restaurant in Hotel Okura. (photo: Courtesy Hotel Okura)

Hotel Okura, Ferdinand Bolstraat 333,, 31 (0) 20 678 7111. Japanese style and efficiency combine with 5-star amenities, to make this property one of the top hotels in the city. Michelin star restaurants, state-of-the-art health club, heated indoor pool, and extensive Wi-Fi capability create a luxurious 301-room hotel close to the city center, with great views of the entire area from the higher floors. The Ciel Bleu Restaurant, on the 23rd floor, has won two Michelin stars, and the Michelin star Yamazato Restaurant offers authentic Japanese cuisine.

Restaurant Suggestions:

Customers at the Restaurant De Kas can eat in the greenhouse, or outside on the patio, facing the restaurant's extensive organic gardens. Much of the vegetables and salad ingredients are grown just a few yards from your table. (photo: Courtesy Restaurant De Kas Jet van Fastenhout)

Restaurant De Kas, Kamerlingh Onneslaan 3,, Phone: 31 (0) 20 462 4562. A 24-foot high steel and glass greenhouse, dating from the 1920’s, has been converted into a stylish indoor/outdoor restaurant where much of the vegetables are grown from the restaurant’s large garden, part of which is in the greenhouse itself. There is no printed menu here, you are served five courses of fresh, organic food, perhaps starting with ravioli and dried tomato salad, a goat cheese mousse, or a red, white, and yellow beet salad, whatever is fresh that day. Continue with a dozen small Dutch shrimp, zucchinis with mashed potatoes and basil, and a plate of halibut, gnocchi, chanterelles and cabbage.

Customers at the Restaurant De Kas can eat in the greenhouse, or outside on the patio, facing the restaurant's extensive organic gardens. Much of the vegetables and salad ingredients are grown just a few yards from your table. (photo: Courtesy Restaurant De Kas Jet van Fastenhout)

Café Restaurant Neva, Hermitage Museum,, Phone: 31 (0) 20 5307 483. This new restaurant in the new Hermitage Amsterdam Museum, decorated in white and grey, is pricy for the formal table-service lunches and dinners, but prix fixe lunch specials in the less-formal cafeteria-style area make it well worth a visit. The pricy menu has excellent Russian fare– Pommes Tsarina, blinis, stroganoff — with sandwiches, Russian beet soup, bread, and salads good bets for a quick lunch between viewing the incredible exhibits of paintings and authentic 19th-century grand Russian costumes.

At Restaurant As, visitors dine at outdoor communal tables, not far from the brick, Tuscan oven where the food is cooked. Co-owners Koen (far right) and Astrid (center left) and friends share a table. (photo: Ron Bernthal)

Restaurant As, Prinses Irenestraat 19,, Phone: 31 (0) 020/644-0100. Located in Amsterdam’s South Axis area, across from Beatrixpark, it is one of the city’s most creative restaurants, part of Platform 21, an experimental space for design and fashion. Set behind an artistic-looking, rust-colored tall lattice-iron fence, diners sit outside (in good weather) at long communal tables, some covered with a bamboo canopy, food is cooked in an outdoor Tuscan oven. A unusual, round stucco building is used as the restaurant during inclement weather. The menu changes daily, and has included asparagus with pecorino, turbot with fennel stalks, and barigoule of artichokes and cipollini onions. A lunch menu of about $25 provides eclectic dining in a friendly, off-the-beaten track location. A backyard garden is used for fresh herbs. Conversing with friendly, young Dutch professionals from nearby offices, or local artists affiliated with Platform 21, some of whom may be eating at your table, is priceless.

Blauw aan de Wal, Oudezijds Achterburgwal 99,, Phone: 31 (0)20 3302257. Don’t be put-off by this restaurant’s location in the Red Light District. The name translates as “Blue on the Quay” and is housed in a former monastery, now a lovely two story 17th-century building with exposed-brick walls. The fact that it is located within Amsterdam’s Red Light District only adds to its charm. At the end of a narrow alley you are confronted with a small, clean, and efficiently run Dutch restaurant with friendly service and excellent food. During warm weather, reserve a table on the intimate, candle-lit patio (there are only seven tables outside, so reserve as early as possible). Octopus salad, baked cod marinated with lime and butter, fresh cheese, Austrian ice wine, and watermelon sorbet make for an excellent dinner. Mediterranean cuisine is nicely prepared 3ed cook choice.

Young woman rides a bike over one of the many canal bridges during last year's Grachtenfestival. (Photo: Ron Bernthal)

Restaurant d’Theeboom, Singel 210, Phone: 31 (0)20 623 8420. For a wonderful dinner of French-inspired cuisine, using the freshest Dutch ingredients, visit Georges Thubert’s excellent canal-side restaurant. Monsieur Thubert has been living and working in Amsterdam for years, but has brought his knowledge and training in French food to Holland, and offers a traditional and exquisite menu in a cozy, former cheese warehouse dating from 1712. The prix fixe menu du jour offers a great opportunity for a dinner that may include rack of lamb with au gratin potatoes and fennel, brochette of prawns and monkfish, or fillets of sea bass. With Edith Piaf singing softly in the background, fresh flowers and candles on the table, and street lights glittering off the Singel Canal, Restaurant d’Theeboom is the perfect venue for a romantic evening.

Travel Information:

Offers non-stop flights from several U.S. destinations to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport.
Phone: 800-225-2525

For brochures, maps, organized tour information, and passport requirements.
Phone: 212- 370-7360

Bicycle rentals with daily or weekly rates, provides three convenient locations for pick-up and drop-off, with a variety of bike types and sizes, includes helmets and bike locks.
Nieuwe Uilenburgerstraat 116,


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