Amsterdam: where people are outnumbered by bicycles

Five hours away by train, Amsterdam is both a picturesque and a lively city to live in, discovers Cathy Hawker
Less than five hours by high-speed train from St Pancras, changing in Brussels, is Amsterdam, an international city in miniature that is home to 820,000 people — and more than 900,000 bicycles. Reflective canals, spindly-looking townhouses and an enviable arts collection make it a very liveable city.

Despite a grating recession in the Netherlands, this year is shaping up to be Amsterdam's annus mirabilis with a number of special events. There's the 400th anniversary of the city's signature canal ring, the 160th anniversary of the birth of Van Gogh and, most notable of all, the reopening this month of the magnificent Rijksmueum after a decade of renovation, housing Rembrandt and Vermeer in an unmatched collection of pictures from the Dutch Golden Age. In April, celebrations kicked off with the coronation of King Willem-Alexander in Amsterdam after the abdication of much-loved Queen Beatrix.

Amsterdam holiday homes
© Alamy
Gable houses line Brouwersgracht in Amsterdam's Jordaan district

Amsterdam is considered one of Europe's safer cities despite its liberal approach to soft drugs and prostitution. The famous red-light district is filled with camera-touting tourists for much of the day. Official advice is to be aware of pickpockets, especially around Central Station. The City Mayor abandoned plans set up by the previous administration to ban tourists from using the estimated 700 cannabis cafés from the end of last year after fierce opposition from the café owners. All drugs remain banned except in these cafés.

Lower buying costs and bijou homes
Records show 11,000 Britons live in Amsterdam. Many of them are employed by global legal and financial firms and businesses such as Nike and Vodafone. With low buying costs and reasonable prices, many opt to buy rather than rent, says Kees Kemp of Knight Frank's associate Broersma.

"The government has reduced buying costs dramatically in the past year, from six to two per cent, and with prices back to 2003 levels there are some interesting opportunities," he says. "Increasingly people want to live in the centre close to the international schools." But homes are small: 80 per cent are less than 1,000sq ft.

Unlike London, the inner circle of Amsterdam is predominantly residential and quiet, with businesses and offices clustered on the city's outskirts. But with a small radius and good public transport system — not to mention the ease of getting around on those ubiquitous bikes — few commutes are more than 25 minutes.

Amsterdam's average property price is £189,300, which buys a modest apartment close to the Canal District or in Oud Zuid, which is 10 minutes' cycle ride away.

Families prefer the large, handsome 1900s buildings of Oud Zuid around the green Vondelpark where a substantial three-bedroom, two-floor apartment with garden is £682,000. A six-bedroom house on four floors run as a successful B&B is £2.2 million through Knight Frank.

Amsterdam holiday homes
A light-filled canalside two-bedroom flat with a balcony is £552,600. Visit Knightfrank.com
A city of history and narrow houses
Amsterdam's Canal Ring, a Unesco Heritage Site since 2010, combines city-centre living with 17th-century architecture characterised by narrow houses less than 30ft wide, steep staircases and large windows. Broersma has a comparatively large, two-bedroom apartment of 1,300sq ft with nice canal views for £552,600, and one with three bedrooms and a roof terrace currently owned by a British family for £554,300.

Engel & Volkers has property from £144,120 for a tiny 376sq ft studio to £2.13 million for an entire renovated canal house with garden. A two-bedroom apartment in the historic centre that rents for £2,000 a month is £490,350.

New-build apartments in the centre
On an island beside Central Station, new-build modern apartments at ODE start from £268,600 for one bedroom with monthly maintenance charges from £110, through Broersma. There are 194 new apartments in four buildings all with good city views. Underground parking is £50,000. Sales have been strong to international buyers, who like the convenient location.

Contacts and factfile:
Broersma: through Knight Frank (knightfrank.com; 020 7629 8171).
Engel & Volkers: engelvoelkers.com/amsterdam
Where to stay: for the ultimate Amsterdam experience it has to be a room overlooking the canals. Canal House is a glossy renovation of three 17th-century merchants' houses on Keizersgracht Canal, completed with panache by Jessica Sainsbury and Peter Frankopan, the British couple behind much-loved Cowley Manor in the Cotswolds. Black walls, purple velvet sofas and grey silk wallpaper are matched by modern comforts in the 23 bedrooms, including cavernous showers and pitch-perfect lighting. Doubles from £166 a night (canalhouse.nl; 00 31 20 622 5182).

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