Catharine Hewitson nips over to Amsterdam for a short break.

LAST month, my friend and I decided we needed a short break. We came up with the following destination wish-list: a European city with good food and drink, architecture and culture.

With flights from Durham Tees Valley Airport practically on our doorsteps, we chose Amsterdam, and booked a B&B through Easytobook.

com We landed at noon and spent our first afternoon at de Hortus botanical gardens in the south-east of the city, arriving at just the right time to enjoy the late afternoon sun, with hardly a sound but the scrunching of gravel and the occasional twitter of a bird.

Founded in 1638, de Hortus features more than 4,000 plant species.

You can pick up a leaflet at the entrance and walk a route of 24 different trees, some hundreds of years old. There is also a three-climate greenhouse and butterfly house and if you aren’t already calmed by this oasis, you can call in at the resident cafe, The Orangery, for a cup of herbal tea and an organically- sourced snack.

After our relaxed afternoon, we were ready for something a bit more rewarding than a cuppa. We walked around the corner to a traditional brown bar, Eik en Linde, to sample Amstel in its hometown (£4 a pint). Brown bars are so-called for their typically dark wood interiors and walls nicotine-stained from decades of cigarette smoke.

The next morning we headed over to Spuistraat for a market selling antique prints and second-hand books. After some shopping on Kalverstraat – Amsterdam’s answer to Oxford Street – we headed over to Damrak to indulge in a simple but delicious local specialty: chips with fritessaus – a condiment like mayonnaise, but infinitely tastier. Clutching our fries, we made our way out of the throng of tourists and headed towards de Negen Straatjes (Nine Streets), a network of streets devoted to independent boutiques and galleries.

We browsed in shops selling vintage clothing and home wares, authentic metal house-numbers, huge wheels of Edam and bottle after bottle of premier Dutch ale. This was more like it.

We spent the afternoon wandering through the Jordaan neighbourhood in the north-west of the city, peering into the windows of artists’ ateliers on Palmwarsstraat and side-stepping into some of the city’s elusive hofjes; little green havens created for gardenless apartment dwellers.

That night, we started our evening with a hotel-room picnic of goodies from the stalls at Nieuwmarkt then headed to the bars on Wolvenstraat. Our bartender recommended a sky-high bar called De Kroon, at Rembrandtplein, so we headed over to enjoy cocktails while looking out at the bright lights of the city.

THE next day, my companion departed early to catch a flight to London, giving me five hours to kill before my own flight. I decided to do something I hadn’t done for a decade: cycling. I went to Mac Bike, at Centraal Station, and, for £7, a shiny red bike – and the city’s 400km of cycleways – was mine for three hours.

The plan was to cycle for an hour or so, then stop at the Rijksmuseum to soak up some culture, but as I pulled up to the grounds, I decided I was having way too much fun on the bike. I continued cycling, exploring the neighbourhoods of Vondelpark and de Pijp.

I reluctantly returned the bicycle and headed to the airport. Even as I sat on the plane nibbling my complimentary crackers I couldn’t help but think how liberating riding a bike had been and made a mental note to sign up to Darlington’s Velo- Darlo scheme.

After a seven-year urban regeneration project, many of Amsterdam’s neighbourhoods have been given a new lease of life and there will be a gala of cycling events in May.

I can’t wait to return.

■ Catharine flew to Amsterdam Schipol airport from Durham Tees Valley with KLM (£120 return)