Charming canals, a thriving art scene, hip shopping districts and an egalitarian culture — Amsterdam is certainly the capital of cool. Here’s how to soak it all in.
Museumplein, in Amsterdam-Zuid, is home to three splendid museums. The Rijksmuseum, the largest museum in the Netherlands, reopened last year after an extensive refurbishment. Make your way to the second floor Gallery of Honour, which displays some of the most important paintings in the museum’s collection, including Rembrandt’s masterpiece, The Night Watch. At the neighbouring Van Gogh Museum, spend some time admiring Vincent’s bold brushstrokes, and browsing through his letters to his brother Theo. Then head next door to gawk at modern and contemporary art at the Stedelijk Museum. Finally, don’t miss the Anne Frank House in Prinsengracht; visiting the biographical museum is a poignant experience (buy your tickets online to avoid standing in the serpentine queue outside).
While Dam Square, Spui and Jordaan are the most popular neighbourhoods (and De Pijp is climbing up the charts as well), venture a bit further from the crowds and discover the Amsterdam of the locals. Just west of the city’s Central Station lie three islands — Realen, Prinsen and Bickers, collectively called the Western Islands. The area is largely residential, with charming 17th century canal houses, pretty wooden drawbridges, public parks, art studios and former warehouses turned into apartments. From here, you can take a free ferry and reach NDSM, a former shipping wharf that’s been turned into a mixed use space — modern offices for media and creative companies, cafes, restaurants and even an old shipyard crane converted into a luxury hotel. Mingle with the locals at Pllek, a waterfront café with an outdoor terrace, which transforms into a city beach in summer.
Amsterdam has a thriving café culture — from regular bars and cafés to the special ‘coffee shops’. Cool ‘third wave’ cafés are ubiquitous, especially in the hipster enclaves of Jordaan, Nine Streets, and De Pijp. Try Screaming Beans or Winkel 43 (they serve the best apple pie you’re likely to eat). Next, hop into a typical ‘brown café’, a pub with a lot of character, and usually a dark, wood-panelled ambience. Sip a jenever (a very potent Dutch gin), and if you’re brave enough, try the kopstoot (translated as head-butt, where you down a shot of jenever and follow it up with beer). We recommend the atmospheric Café Hoppe in Spui, which was originally established as a jenever distillery in 1670. Amsterdam is famous for cannabis and, indeed, smells of it. There are more than 200 ‘coffee shops’ in the city, identified by the green-and-white license sticker on the window, where you can go for a legal high; try Grey Area near Dam Square or Mellow Yellow on Vijzelgracht, which is the oldest coffee shop in the city.
While the De Bijenkorf department store in Dam Square and the two streets of Kalverstraat and Leidsestraat are the best places for high street fashion, the cool, indie shops are located in other neighbourhoods. De Negen Straatjes is an area of nine tiny streets that are choc-a-bloc with local boutiques and vintage shops — pop in at Les Deux Frères or Prjct AMS, two of the finest men’s outfitters in the city, then visit GMZ Collection for unique handmade leather accessories. On Utrechtsestraat, you will find more concept stores, interior design boutiques, and Concerto, one of the best music and vinyl shops in the city. Check out P.C. Hoofstraat in the museum district, for everything from Chanel to Louis Vuitton.
WHERE TO STAY
Nothing beats staying canal-side and waking up to a view. Opened as an inn in 1636, De L’Europe is today one of Amsterdam’s best luxury hotels, set in a historical building. Occupying prime location on a bend in the Amstel River, the hotel is close to major tourist attractions and shopping streets. Begin your day with a breakfast-with-a-view at the Hoofdstad Brasserie, and then savour a three-course lunch at the Michelin-starred restaurant Bord’Eau. Before dinner, knock back a Bloody Mary at Freddy’s Bar, often voted Amsterdam’s finest hotel bar.
Amsterdam’s culinary scene is a mix of Dutch flavours and immigrant influences. Have a traditional Dutch breakfast at Klaver 4 on Utrechtsestrasse, which serves all sorts of breakfast breads including a delectable gingerbread, homemade jams, eggs, and chocoladehagel, a Dutch favourite of chocolate sprinkles served on bread and butter. In street food, try haring, the Dutch brined herring served with chopped onions and pickle, sold at fish stands all over the city; we recommend Frens Haringhandel in Koningsplein, very close to the floating flower market. Nearby at Eetsalon Van Dobben, try the broodje kroket, meat croquette served in a bread roll with mustard on the side. For a wider variety, head to Oud-West’s De Hallen, a former tram terminus converted into a cultural centre with a library, theatre, cinema, design stores and the massive Foodhallen – an indoor food market with bars and street food restaurants. Here you can find everything from Vietnamese food at Viêt View to excellent burgers at The Butcher. The Indonesian food scene is huge in Amsterdam, a colonial legacy that has carried on in the form of the ubiquitous rijsttafel, a ‘rice table’ that includes an array of Indonesian specialties such as satay, rendang, gado-gado, and more; try it at Kantjil & De Tijger in Spui. Satisfy your sweet tooth in De Pijp’s Albert Cuypmarkt; look for a white food truck named Original Stroopwafels, which doles out fresh stroopwafels with caramel syrup.
Spend some time communing with nature at these green spaces
A massive urban public park near the museum district, complete with cycling and jogging tracks, a playground, a lake and an open-air theatre.
Pretty as a picture, and one of the oldest inner courtyards in Amsterdam, located between two churches in Spui.
Another quiet inner courtyard in Jordaan, especially if you like feline company.
When tulips are in season, make a short trip outside Amsterdam to see them at the one of the world’s largest flower gardens.
HOW TO ‘DO’ AMSTERDAM
- Make the most of your time in Amsterdam with the I Amsterdam City Card, which allows you free use of public transport and free entry to many of Amsterdam’s museums and attractions. Get discounts and offers at shops and restaurants, plus there’s a free canal cruise thrown in. Order the card online and collect it at Schiphol Airport or Amsterdam Central Station. iamsterdam.com
- Experience Amsterdam like a local, with a private tour from Tom’s Travel Tours. Whether you want to see the city highlights or the museums or a particular neighbourhood, Tom and his team of private guides will customise a tour for you. tomstraveltours.com
- Get a taste of Amsterdam on a food tour with Hungry Birds. Go on a street food trail, visit small, familyowned specialty shops, or down local craft beers along with some hapjes (bar snacks). hungrybirds.nl
- Bicycles outnumber cars in Amsterdam, and there’s no better way of seeing the city than cycling around. Take a guided bike tour, or rent a bike from Mac Bike. macbike.nl
Photo credits: Philipp Benedikt, Koen Smilde, Prachi Joshi, Merijn Roubroeks, Amsterdam Marketing & Shutterstock