By Joseph Francis
Ah Amsterdam! The famed city of liberalism, hemp-scented ‘coffee shops’, clicking bicycles and rattling trams has garnered a status that’s nothing short of legendary. Now hailed as something like Europe’s answer to the boho streets of San Francisco across the water, the city is awash with more quirky drinking dens, cool clubs, interesting museums, independent galleries and bucket-list sights than you can shake a cone of Dutch, mayo-doused chips at.
With so many travelers now making their way here year-on-year (latest estimations put the visitor count at nearly five million people annually!), it would be a good idea to uncover some of the city’s local, less-trodden and unexplored gems. Here is an Amsterdam tourism guide with a difference, covering sights ranging from beer bars in windmills to medieval towns on the outskirts of the city, and offering insider tips and tricks, all so that you can experience the much-loved metropolis of Damsko like a local.
Settle in for a beer with the locals in Brouwerij ‘t IJ
Patrons at the Brouwerij ‘t IJ can check off two of Amsterdam’s top attractions in one go: windmills and beer! Yes sir, this sprawling brewery (the largest independent brewers in the city no less) makes its home below the biggest windmill in town, which makes for one truly interesting al fresco beer garden; one often frequented by the city’s after-work locals to boot. The beer’s top-notch too, with collections of seasonally brewed, and perennially organic, in-house pilsners, dubbels and Belgian creations alike.
Get on two wheels!
Forget the trams and arched walking bridges (no matter how good they look over those UNESCO-attested canals), the only real and local way to make your way around Amsterdam is by bike! In fact, it’s estimated that Amsterdam is home to just shy of one million bicycles, while its streets and contraflow lanes are regularly rated as some of the most bike-friendly in the world. Bike rentals are available on most all streets in the centre, and many Amsterdam tour guide providers now offer guided tours on two wheels, encompassing everything from the famous Vondelpark to the windmills, forests and beaches of Noord and the outer districts.
See Picasso in the Vondelpark
Yep, you heard that one right! Picasso has his very own artwork in the famous Vondelpark of central Amsterdam. Most visitors simply stroll (or cycle) on by, paying no heed to the curiously-titled ‘The Bird’, which rises amidst the ponds and paths of the gardens here, belying all the raw surrealist styles you’d expect of the Spanish master. The work has stood in the spot since the middle of the 1960s, although rarely draws the same booming crowds as Amsterdam’s other art museums, like the Van Goch and the Rijksmuseum. In short: a great off-the-beaten-track option without the queues!
Delve into the well-to-do streets of Jordaan
Whether you’re in search of independent boutiques loaded with quirky art pieces, design galleries backed by some of Holland’s best-known names or alternative clothing stores, Jordaan’s trio of shopping streets – Westerstraat, Elandsgrach and Rozengracht – are sure to have something on the menu. And talking of menus, the area of Jordaan has also risen to become one of the city’s hubs for international eating, boasting the likes of La Olivia (expect mouth-watering staples from the Spanish Basque Country), Balthazar’s Keuken (Expect quirky and innovative reworkings of European classics), and Nomads (Expect all the flavours and spices of Arabia). Then there’s Jordaan’s bustling marketplace, the Noordermarkt, where row upon row of antiques and trinkets, old vinyl and exotic jewellery meet between the canals.
Shun the canals and bed down in the District of Noord
Separated from the heart of the city proper by the waterways and jetties of the IJ harbour, Noord has grown up with its own quirky culture and character over the years. Opting to bed down here instead of the center not only means saving on the price of accommodation (which can become pretty bloated around Dam Square and the trodden Red Light District), but also a unique opportunity to explore some of the metropolis’s hidden gems. For one, the eastern edge of Noord is a protected nature reserve, and, while it remains firmly within the city boundaries, is home to rustic medieval villages like Zunderdorp, waterside Holysloot and Ransdorp, where low-rise Dutch farmhouses mix with creaking windmills. Eminently cycle-able, this green area is a top choice for bikers (who can easily make it to the center on the GVB ferry too), while Noord’s Tolhuistuin hosts festivals during the summer and countless bohemian bars and makeshift drinking dens erupt along the post-squatter NDSM Wharf.
Get a dose of serenity in the He Hua Temple
Unexpected yet interesting in the extreme, the He Hua Temple (also known as the Zeedijk Tempel) makes its home smack bang in the most-visited part of Amsterdam (ironically just a short way from the streets of the Red Light district!). Decorated with effigies inspired by the animals of the Chinese Zodiac, the spot also has a Buddhist monastery and on-site book emporium. In fact, the He Hua Temple is the largest Buddhist temple in all of Europe, and, despite only being completed in 2000, contains plenty of things to see, like the Kwan Yin shrine and a duo of pagodas dedicated to the Buddha Shakyamuni.
Have some feline fun at the Kattencafe Kopjes
In the district of Oud-West, cat-loving Amsterdam locals now enjoy their very own rendition of the Tokyo Cat Café: Kattencafe Kopjes. This curious and quirky coffee shop comes complete with scratching posts and kitten toys, cat beds and baskets, all of which are there for the benefit of the resident population of rescue cats. Patrons can enjoy the company of the felines along with their beverages, and are asked to make a small donation to the continued up-keep of the kitties. In typical Amsterdam fashion, Kattencafe Kopjes has also managed to stay cool and sophisticated, with boho decorations and antique furnishings in abundance!
Joseph ‘Rich’ Francis is a freelance travel writer who has travelled extensively in Asia and Europe. He particularly enjoys the jazz bars of Poland, the ski slopes of Austria and the beaches and cities of India.
Image Details and Licenses: https://flic.kr/p/9XLuRe (Max Elman, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/doncbg (Bill Geneczko, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/gxbwP (Olivier Bruchez, CC BY-SA 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/ThLmH (taver, CC BY-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/57FtzK (Anne Helmond, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/tw3dL6 (Canadian Pacific, CC BY-NC 2.0), https://flic.kr/p/bskbPK (Floris van Halm, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)