Last year I undertook my own Dutch grand tour, with Amsterdam as the final stop. Outside the central station its revival facade stood, imposingly, above my head; from there I could already get a glimpse of its canals, buildings and the bridges that make Amsterdam unique and beloved all around the world. This was my first time in town, and yet I can clearly recall that my mood was tepid: the name Amsterdam had long been erased from my bucket list, following the innumerable tales of mainstream-ness and cheap revels I heard from friends / acquaintances / storytellers since I was a teenager.
I spent a few days in town and – do I really need to state the obvious? – my preconception was oh-so! wrong. But before zigzagging through Amsterdam to discover its more hidden (and local) side, here’s a couple of reasons why at first the city did not appeal to me, and why by the end of my stay I had to admit to myself that my assumptions were far from encompassing the wholeness and the charm of the Dutch capital.
Amsterdam is a bit of a legend, which nobody can deny. Its compact and rather homogeneous historic centre, arranged in concentric canals crossed by smaller, perpendicular ones, as well as its well-renowned red brick buildings and precious museums, captured the world’s attention long before ‘Tourism’ as a diffused practice kicked off. And in case this was not enough, a whole set of ultra-liberal governmental dispositions, an overall tolerant attitude and very active entertainment scene have made it a sort of Pleasure Island for everyone to use and, alas!, abuse.
Before reaching Amsterdam I had appreciated the edginess of Rotterdam and its daring architecture. After that, I delved into the groundbreaking Design Week of Eindhoven – a rather unappealing city where fantastic creative clusters saw the light within the walls of its disused industrial facilities – and the snug, hipster vibe of Utrecht… And Amsterdam? Well, I was in The Netherlands so I couldn’t really miss out on its capital. But all the variables mentioned in the previous paragraph had made Amsterdam unattractive, and almost killed my curiosity: Van Gogh I had seen in many museums around the globe, I had already read Anna Frank’s Diary, I had seen the beautiful houses on postcards books and TV, and… well so don’t need to go to Amsterdam for a good spliff. Of course, only a fool could not recognise that the city is a well-accomplished mix of high and ‘pop’ culture, definitely striking in its beauty and appealing for its opportunities, but… so saturated, maybe? over-exploited and very in-your-face?
However, it didn’t take me long to drop such an unnecessary and silly attitude – basically, I made mine our Spotter Jan’s statement: ‘an open mind is needed when walking or biking in Amsterdam‘. the more I detoured from the main tourist tracks and the loud crowd cramped in the Red Light District and the main streets, the more I grew fond of this city built and shaped by the water. From the merry ‘Latin Quarter’ of De Pijp to the historical warehouses and brand-new architecture of Oostelijke Eilanden (Eastern Docks) and the green Westerpark neighbourhood, Amsterdam is much more than meets the eye (and as you already know, there is already A LOT that meets the eye in town!).
I was lucky enough to have a local friend and a couple of other acquaintances to show me around the hidden gems of Amsterdam. If you can’t boast of having friends in town, not a big deal: let our Spotters take you around the city through this 48-hour itinerary.
Day 1: 09:00 – 13:00
The original plan for De Pijp, a neighbourhood south of Amsterdam’s centre, was a grand one: the streets were supposed to be wide and elegant, and its southern portion was supposed to accommodate the wealthy inhabitants in superb villas. Alas, the plan fell through, and De Pijp was built in a cheap and fast fashion. To this day, De Pijp is a mixed and colourful area: its population, consisting of young professionals, students and immigrants alike, make the city an animated and upcoming hangout.
When in the area, switch from your bed to one of the comfy pillows of YAY Amsterdam if you want an easy start with an exotic touch. On one side of the cafe there’s a health store where you can purchase pure and sustainable products and inspirational zen/-ish; on the other, the proper cafe offers a curious range of raw, healthy food bringing your soul and body some healthy benefits (pssst..: our Spotter Shawn Ruth says wonderful things about their almond cappuccino and homemade coconut yogurt!). While YAY Amsterdam is on the Albert Cuyp Market, close by is the sweet, white world that goes by the name of COTTONCAKE: the garments they sell are clearly visible in their windows, while their organic kitchen is hidden somewhere.. and definitely worth a stop, considering how delicious their smoothies and juices are.
From there, the Stedelijk Museum is at an easy walking distance. The museum has much more to display than a quality range of modern and contemporary art: its 5-year-long renovation has preserved the beautiful facade and reshaped the interior in the fashion of a ‘giant bathtub’, as Martin put it. If you like or want to get acquainted with the Amsterdam School style, a devoted exhibition is on until August. On top of that, its terrace features a relaxing cafe: an ideal spot for a drink while leafing through the book you might have just bought in the Stedelijk’s sleek bookshop.
Day 1: 13:00 – 19:00
I’m a voracious burger eater so well, this recommendation might be not devoid of bias but… hey, Burgermeester takes the craft of this juicy, rich meal to superb heights; from standard to more adventurous, all their burgers are prepared on the spot. And, just in case you can’t make up your mind on which one of them you want to try, go for a plate of 3 different miniburgers. Find Burgemeester in De Pijp along with Dim Sum Now. After driving their street food truck to several festivals, the team behind Dim Sum Now has set up a pleasant, small take-away or eat-in spot. Here the protagonists are their mouthwatering gyozas (dumplings filled with different ingredients), steamy buns and all the other tasty specialities from Asia. Very reasonable prices and organic and MSG-free ingredients further add to this culinary experience.
Too much good food and feeling like you can longer contain your belly in your trousers? Then pop over to Hutspot and search for a pair… Alright, this was a bad excuse. Of course Hutspot is not all about trousers – how could it be with such a name (the meaning of ‘hutspot’ coming close to the English ‘hotchpotch’)? Its two floors are pure galore of pretty awesome brand-new and vintage clothes, accessories, pieces of furniture and works of art. Again, it’s much more than that: in the middle of the second floor find a cafe, and a barbershop too.
West of De Pijp, end a full afternoon in the ritzy Oud-Zuid (Old South) neighbourhood (where the Stedelijk Museum is). Among the most affluent and desirable areas in Amsterdam, the grandeur of Oud-Zuid openly manifests itself in the Obrechtkerk, a lavishly decorated church with catchy and unrivalled architecture, and in the fin de siècle villas gracing the Van Eeghenstraat, a pristine street west of the equally pristine Vondelpark.
Day 1: 19:00 – 23:00
On the other side of Vondelpark, in the trendy neighbourhood of Oud-West (Old West) is OT301. The venue, a mecca for Amsterdam’s counterculture representatives, provides a quality alternative to the mainstream culture and hosts experimental performances, political debates and out-the-box music nights. Why am I mentioning this spot in this time frame then? Because it turns out that OT301 is also home to De Peper, an all-vegan restaurant serving terrific organic dishes at not-so-expensive fares.
I used the word ‘trendy’ to define Oud-West, but then I could also add ‘arsty’, and ‘cool’, and all the other synonyms too… anyway they won’t define enough the atmosphere of Hotel Not Hotel and its bar, the Kevin Bacon, well enough. As the name says, this place is not ok with being pigeonholed in a category: Hotel Not Hotel is a comprehensive venue, a gathering place for locals and visitors with gorgeously odd rooms and quirky interior decorating. When it comes to Kevin Bacon, the bar and its lovely summer terrace are a serious hot spot for both cocktails and top-notch street-food platters.
Alternatively, stroll along the canals towards the north-eastern edge and rest your tired legs at Waterkant. The drink and food menu, inspired by the Surinamese tradition, is as good as the parties often hosted on its panoramic terrace overlooking the Singelgracht, the most external of the canals surrounding Amsterdam’s historic core. Ah, our Spotter Gisela warns you: Waterkant is a temporary spot; the fact that it is still uncertain till when it will remain open should work as a further incentive to pay a visit.
Day 1: 23:00 – …
By this time my feet, my stomach and a few other organs of mine would be asking for mercy, but if you’re fitter than me and ready to embark on more exciting times, here are two suggestions. On Vondelpark’s western side, OCCII was originally a tram shed. In 1984 it was occupied by squatters, and eventually became an independent, volunteer-run concert hall. OCCII lines up a series of underground events with a particular focus on indie, punk and hardcore crossover music sessions for brave customers who don’t fear the noise.
Geographically opposite to OCCII, go funky and carefree at The Winston Kingdom. The club is located in the heart of the Red Light District, a touristy area par excellence. Does The Winston match the trend of the district? Given its location it does, sometimes. However, as people come and go at a fast pace, the crowd is likely to change quite consistently throughout the night, as well as the style of the music played, so… just go for it!
Day 2: 09:00 – 13:00
Our Spotter Stephen has admitted he often finds himself longing for his mother’s apple pie; when this happens, he resorts to Café Winkel 43 for the best substitute of this sugary delight. Find Café Winkel 43 in the once-working-class, now-hyper-gentrified De Jordaan neighbourhood in the northern portion of Amsterdam centre. It’s open from morning until 03:00 in the weekends! However, another Spotter of ours has a different opinion when it comes to excellent apple pies: according to Gerben, the best one in town is in the Westerpark district west of De Jordaan, at Espressofabriek. Aside from the pie, the cafe boasts a fantastic outdoor terrace and outrageously good coffee (FYI, a few years ago Espressofabriek was awarded the title of Best Independent Coffee Bar in Amsterdam.
From both places, the Westelijke Eilanden (Dutch for Western Islands) are a few minutes away. Directly located on the IJ, the area has retained its original charm and old warehouses – come here to taste a bit of Amsterdam’s past without being surrounded by big groups of tourists. South of the islands and back in De Jordaan, enter Tommy Page, one of the best menswear vintage shops in Amsterdam; from 60s pilot jackets to sophisticated retro ties, Tommy Page is heaven for any urban, contemporary gentleman.
Day 2: 13:00 – 19:00
Chinese restaurants and delis have been colonising the world over the last few decades, and that’s a fact. Second fact is, many of us are unable to discern between good and not-so-good Chinese food (and I admit I’m one in that bunch). So what do you do when you want to try the seriously tasty flavours from the Far East? In Amsterdam, you follow the Chinese crowd and find yourself in front of the door of Oriental City, one of the best Asian restaurants in the city centre. 3 floors of pure flavoursome dim sum for lunch, which stops around 17:00 to make way for the dinner menu. Careful: there are two menus in Oriental City; one is in Chinese and the other is for tourists. If you can’t read the ideograms – or don’t manage to get your hands on one of the menus – don’t worry: everything here is mouthwatering and you can’t really go wrong.
Alternatively, try out Frank’s Smoke House: smoked mussels, beef, poultry, fish… everything you’ll find on the menu is homemade and smoked following artisanal techniques. Pair them with their smoked butter, and your taste buds will thank you. Find Frank’s in the Eastern Docklands area of the city, which among old port structures and new, eye-catching architecture also features what was elected as the best shopping street of The Netherlands, that is Czaar Peterstraat. One after the other, tiny high-end boutiques line up next to small independent shops, the only peanut butter store in the country and much more for you to discover.
Venture south, and find your way to the Dappermarkt: it is one of the biggest and liveliest among Amsterdam’s markets, selling a wide variety of local food products.
Day 2: 19:00 – 23:00
Defining Amsterdam Roest a ‘beach bar’ wouldn’t do it justice. Amsterdam’s ‘Rusty’ – that’s what ‘roest’ means in Dutch – is set along a quay of Amsterdam’s Eastern Docklands overlooking old, run-down industrial buildings. A major hot spot for the creative folks of the city, Roest is home to a variety of events such as flea and art markets and awesome DJ sets; also, it is now equipped with its own open kitchen (‘Flammkuchen’) serving burgers and salad.
If you were lazy as I am, you’d be spending hours at Amsterdam Roest, chilling and chatting and drinking, your feet dangling over the water while waiting for food, more drinks and great tunes to dance at, but… if you don’t mind exploring a bit more of the surroundings, walk to the Indische Buurt (‘Indies Neigbhourhood’). First, enjoy an overload of bacon-topped food and juicy Bloody Marys at Drovers Dog, a laid-back, Aussie-run restaurant that rocks the block. Later, have some beers and blend with the locals at Studio/K, a friendly hangout for films, drinks, nibbles and – during the weekends – parties.
Day 2: 23:00 – …
Have you decided to ditch barefoot dances at Amsterdam Roest, or are you bound for new spots as an alternative to Studio/K? If you stay east, on the 7th floor of the former headquarters of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, Canvas op de 7e offers generous cocktails and dancing nights with a breathtaking view over Amsterdam.
Keen on drifting towards the centre? For a little more than a year Reguliersdwarsstraat (the gay street of Amsterdam) has been home to Club Nyx. Since it first opened its doors, Nyx quickly stood out as one of the hottest new entries in the city’s club scene. If Club Nyx sounds thrilling, you might consider checking out what their merry crew has set up: the music choice varies quite a lot depending on the night. Yet apparently, the club is a blast regardless of one’s music taste, sexual orientation and provenience. Tourist? Local? Amsterdam is for everyone really, and that’s one of many reasons it’s so special and unique. And this comes from a once-skeptical Amsterdam lover.