Amsterdam, a city of gable roof houses and nearly a million bicycles. There are over 65 miles of canals and more bridges than Venice. It’s the city of Rembrandt, Johan Cruyff and Anne Frank. Possibly the most cosmopolitan small city you’re ever likely to visit, it has the cultural clout of a city triple the size.
The city of Amsterdam is maybe more famous for prostitutes and cannabis smoking which is a shame as it’s a lot more than a tawdry weekend destination. I know some people go there only for the sin city package. They spend the entire weekend not venturing much past Dam Square, the abundant coffee shops and the Red light district and that’s fine if that’s what they want. It is legal there after all but I feel they’re doing the city a disservice by doing so.
I’ve been here 3 times now, each time experiencing a different aspect of this very small city that packs a very big punch so I feel like I’m able to offer an opinion from several perspectives. My girlfriend is Dutch too, from Amsterdam, which helps.
We spent 5 days here back in the middle of April. Arriving at Centraal Station was strangely like returning home despite the fact I hadn’t been for almost 10 years. As we boarded one of the double-decker trains that I found fascinating the first time I saw them here all those years ago, I was excited to see this city that I knew so well from a fresh perspective. My previous 2 visits were great but now I wanted to stay somewhere new and enjoy parts of the city that I hadn’t experienced before. At the very least I wanted to avoid the clichés of the city; stag groups, brothels, and cannabis were not on my wish list.
We spent the majority of our visit in some of the lesser known parts. We did venture into the centre of course, I wanted to cross at least a few canals but this time we explored De Pijp, hardly off the beaten path but far enough away to not be accosted by drug dealers, the Staatsliedenbuurt, which is just west of the Jordaan, the Jodenbuurt, east of the centre and the Rivierenbuurt in the south.
We stayed in the Rivierenbuurt district which is a quick bus ride from Amsterdam Zuid station. The first thing that struck me was the uniformity of the area. Built back in the 20’s & 30’s,the entire district is made up of 4 & 5 storey brown brick buildings with none of those famous canals in sight. It was nice here, if a little boring. There’s nothing wrong with it but it felt a little like suburbia.
It was a great place to stay though. We were located on Lekstraat, a 3 minute walk from the Walstraat tram stop and the number 4 tram took us to Rembrandtplein in about 12 minutes, passing through De Pijp in the process. We stayed for free (the apartment belonged to a family friend) which I was incredibly grateful for but in general it’s a cheaper, less hectic alternative to staying centrally. Hotel rooms are scarce in Amsterdam due to high visitor numbers and the Rivierenbuurt is a fantastic option for a base.
There are plenty of cafes (not that kind) to enjoy a coffee. It was a little light on the restaurant front but it’s so close to De Pijp and the centre that it matters not. There isn’t too much to do culturally here either but there is a statue of Anne Frank in Merwedeplein. She lived here before moving to the now world-famous house on Prinsengracht.
The Staatsliedenbuurt was nice; very quiet and residential. We only spent a couple of hours here but it was nice for a wander. We made our way through the Westerpark on our way to Café-Restaurant Amsterdam, a vast converted factory that offers traditional Dutch and Continental cuisine in a truly impressive setting. The bitterballen (deep fried croquets) were good, the osseworst (raw beef sausage) was not to my liking but it was a nice stop after a leisurely stroll through the park. The Staatsliedenbuurt was also a short tram ride to the Westerkerk, which we scaled for incredible views of the Jordaan and beyond.
The Jodenbuurt, or Jewish neighbourhood, is east of Waterlooplein and is exactly as the name suggests, a Jewish neighbourhood albeit the old one. Judaism isn’t as prevalent here as in the past though; the shadow of the Second World War stills looms heavily. Amsterdam never recovered its pre-war Jewish population and the entire Jewish population of today can fit into the Amsterdam Arena. The Portuguese Synagogue and the Jewish museum complex are here. We caught a Maria Austria photography exhibition at the museum: she was famous Jewish photographer based in Amsterdam and the exhibition displayed some fascinating photos of pre-and-post war Amsterdam life. The museum itself displays Jewish life in Amsterdam throughout the centuries through pictures and interactive exhibits.
From the Jewish cultural quarter we made our along the wide avenues, it’s less compact and more open here, to the Verzetsmuseum in the Plantage district, passing the Artis Zoo and the Holocaust memorial museum along the way. The entry is fairly steep at €11 a ticket, you really appreciate London’s free museum entry at times like these, but it’s an interesting museum charting the Dutch resistance under occupation during World War 2. There are handwritten letters and photographs displaying what life was like under Nazi rule.
I also learned about Stolpersteine whilst here. These are small 10cm x 10cm commemorative brass cubes which are placed outside of the last known addresses of the Jewish residents before they were transported to the concentration camps, usually via Westerbork, during the war. They feature the names, dates of birth and the dates of death. They also sometimes list where they were killed. My girlfriend showed me the stolpesteine commemorating the last known address of her grandfather’s brother before he was killed during the Holocaust. The war really does still loom heavily here. It was a reflective, personal moment and I’d never have noticed these if I’d just relied on a guidebook to get around.
We spent the majority of our time in De Pijp. Once labelled as Amsterdam’s answer to Shoreditch, it’s no longer up and coming but arrived some time ago. A bustling area full of boutique shops, elegant houses and some fantastic multi-cultural bars and restaurants: from the Neapolitan style pizzeria, De Pizzabakkers to Walia Ibex, an Ethiopan restaurant were the food is served on injera, a flatbread that you eat entirely with your hands. This may be my new favourite part of Amsterdam.
Wandering the long tree-lined streets of De Pijp, enjoying the atmosphere was the highlight of my time here. Sarphati Park was lovely for a stroll in the sun. It’s a small city park surrounded by incredible 1 million Euro mansions. There’s the Albert Cuyp market, the largest street market in the Netherlands. I’m not generally a fan of street markets but it’s a popular spot amongst tourists and locals alike. You can also visit the famous stroopwafel stall here; these are made fresh while you wait and are an unmissable Amsterdam experience.There’s an abundance of cafés, and vintage shops and independent stores were the norm not the exception.It has a bohemian, laid-back vibethat lends itself to chilling out for a couple of hours with a coffee or a cocktail.
I arrived on my 3rd visit here with the singular goal of seeing the city through fresh eyes and I certainly did. My entire stay was spent more like a local than a tourist. The famous sights like the Rijksmuseum, the Royal Palace and the 65 miles of canals are all still here and are of course worthy of a visit. As is the Anne Frank house and the numerous other cultural highlights the city offers but this time I experienced a different Amsterdam to the one I knew and already loved.
From eating in a packed Loetje, a veritable Amsterdam institution, to enjoying a superb Surinamese sandwich in a small shop in the Metro station under the Waterlooplein to occupying an outdoor table at Volt, feeling like we had the place to ourselves, it was a much more rewarding experience than most tourists would usually have. Amsterdam is an incredibly multi-faceted city; it is very beautiful in the centre and it is jam packed with fantastic sights, museums and monuments but if you venture off the beaten path just a little bit, you’ll find there is so much more to discover in this extraordinary little city that could.
Thanks for reading.
Jewish cultural quarter:
The Jewish Cultural Quarter in the Jodenbuurt contains the Jewish Historical Museum, the Jewish Children’s Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue, the Hollandsche Schouwburg, and the National Holocaust Museum. A single €15 ticket allows you to visit all five locations and is valid for a month.
The resistance museum is located on Plantage Kerklaan opposite the planetarium and the Artis Zoo. The museum is well laid out with thoughtfully chosen artefacts relating to life under occupation between 1940-1945. Anyone with an interest in the Second World War should follow the suggested itinerary on the website for a walk around the Plantage neighbourhood. It was a hive of activity during the war. There is a café and restaurant attached where we stopped for a coffee afterwards. It wasn’t the best coffee in the world but there was a sudden downpour when we left and was nice enough to stop at. Entry was €11.
Plantage Kerklaan 61, 1018 CX Amsterdam.
A large city park with a boating lake; it’s less busy than the famous Vondelpark and a lovely place for a stroll. Its proximity to the Jordaan also makes it a great option if you’re exploring that part of Amsterdam.
The Westerkerk is a magnificent Protestant church built in the renaissance style. The spire is 245ft high and you can climb it for fantastic views of the city. It’s also very close to Anne Frank’s house and the bells she described hearing in her diary were the bells of Westerkerk. The tower is only open between 1st April-1st November and the ticket to climb the tower costs €8. Rembrandt is also interred here.
Prinsengracht 279, 1016 GW Amsterdam.
Oudemanhuispoort book market:
This narrow alleyway between Oudezijds Achterburgwal and Kloveniersburgwal houses a used book market. There are hundreds of books available, piled high on tables, mostly in Dutch but there are English books too. I picked up a like-new copy of ‘The Outsider’ by Albert Camus for €5.
Oudemanhuispoort, 1012 CN Amsterdam.
Spanjer en van Twist:
This canalside cafe in the western canal ring has a seasonal, eclectic menu and serves good coffee. The real highlight though is the terrace overlooking the canal. It’s a great spot to sit in the sun and watch the boats meander along the canal. If you’re really lucky you might get a table on the canal. Alas, we weren’t but it was still a nice place to pass an hour or so. 2 cappuccinos cost €4.60.
Leliegracht 60, 1015 DJ Amsterdam.
Vascobelo on Rijnstraat in the Rivierenbuurt is a Belgian coffee chain serving up good coffee and delicious pastries including pasteis de nata. We had brunch here and the space is bright and quiet.They have a fairly limited lunch menu too, offering sandwiches, charcuterie, soups, and salads.
Rijnstraat 117, 1079 HB Amsterdam.
This iconic stall on the Albert Cuyp market has been serving up this delicious Dutch sweet treat, according to the original recipe for generations. Made fresh while you wait, they’re a bargain at €1.50 and are an experience not to be missed.
Albert Cuyp Straat t/o 182, Stand 134, 1073 BL Amsterdam.
Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx:
This hole in the wall friteshuis is an Amsterdam institution. Serving up delicious fries since 1957 with a choice of 25 sauces; there’s always a long queue but it moves swiftly. I’ve been twice now and I go for the large size with mayonnaise and spicy ketchup. A small portion of fries start from €2.30 and the sauces start from €0.70 per sauce per portion.
Voetboogstraat 33, 1012 XK Amsterdam.
De Hapjeshoek is a small Surinamese sandwich shop and takeaway located in Waterlooplein metro station. Despite the terrible translation of the name, it means “snack corner” in English, the food was good. We went for the sandwich pom, a Surinamese chicken curry baguette and spekkoek which is a dense, multi-layered sweet cake. 2 sandwiches, 1 slice of cake and 2 bottles of water came to €12.
Metrostation Waterlooplein 6, 1011 MS Amsterdam.
This pizzeria is just off the Albert Cuyp market and serves up authentic Neapolitan pizza in a small, intimate setting. I always go for the margherita, which was great. The edges were puffy and crisp and there was a good ration of cheese to sauce. It was good value too. 3 pizzas cost €29.55.
1e Sweelinckstraat 16, 1073 CM Amsterdam.
Walia Ibex is an Ethiopian restaurant on the fringe of De Pijp. This was the first time I’d eaten Ethiopan and it was a fun experience. All the dishes you order are served up on a flat bread. How you get through the food is up to you: you can dip the bread, scoop the food or make little food parcels. We ordered a combination of meat and vegetarian dishes, ranging from a lentil dahl to a beef curry. The food was good, if a little greasy. It’s more about the experience though. The banana beer was also much better than it sounds. Meal for 2 with drinks €40.
Eerste Jacob van Campenstraat 41, 1072 BD Amsterdam.
Café Restaurant Amsterdam:
Café Restaurant Amsterdam is a classic European brassiere in an incredible setting. We sat in the former engine room of this converted factory, all brick walls and steel girders, with light pouring through the giant sash windows, bathing the dining area in light. It was a beautiful space and certainly worth going out of your way for. The food was good, especially the cakes but the actual space is the real draw here. Lunch for 2 including dessert cost €20.
Watertorenplein 6, 1051 PA Amsterdam.
Loetje in De Pijp:
Loetje is a small chain of restaurants that has taken Amsterdam and the rest of the country by storm. From operating out of a pub, they now have several restaurants throughout Amsterdam and the rest of the country. The big draw here is the steak and the juice it’s served with. Cooked perfectly with delicious chunky chips on the side, the food was great and the restaurant was teeming with locals. Meal for 2 with drinks came to €45.
Ferdinand Bolstraat 188A, 1072 LV Amsterdam.
Venster 33 is a cafe-restaurant in De Pijp. Occupying a large corner plot, there is plenty of outdoor seating with heating and is a good spot for an evening drink and people watching. There’s a range of beers available including international and local craft beers. Wines and spirits are also available.
Eerste van der Helststraat 42, 1072 NV Amsterdam.
Volt is very similar to Venster 33, it’s a cafe-restaurant in De Pijp occupying a corner plot but it’s a bit more out of the way so it’s a quieter option for a more intimate drink. We took a table outside and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. The drinks list is extensive and the staff were friendly.
Ferdinand Bolstraat 178, 1072 LT Amsterdam.