You’ve heard about the art museums, flower markets and historic canals – but what about the Amsterdam beyond the big hitters? Swerve off the tourist trail and you’ll find a cutting-edge city packed with quirky cafés, great food and offbeat surprises. Bryony Holland reveals all.
Take an early wander around Amsterdam’s Canal Ring, and snap some classic shots before the city springs into action. Setting off from the Reguliersgracht canal with its unique collection of seven arched brick bridges, work your way slowly west to join up with Herengracht. Pass the gabled Italian Consulate (Vijzelstraat 79) and the beautifully intricate Bartolotti house (Herengracht 170) before looping back into the city centre, where you’ll come across the oldest residential house in Amsterdam (Begijnhof 34). Next? Breakfast. Ready your stomach for some heavy-duty sightseeing at nearby Café Nielsen (Berenstraat 19, 020 330 6006) with organic muesli or a scrummy stuffed bagel. When the sun shines, grab an outside table at Koffiehuis de Hoek (Prinsengracht 341) with gorgeous corner views of Prinsengracht and the canal bridges. Open from 7:30am, it’s a wonderful place to watch the city wake up. For something a little more edgy, head to Cloud Art (Prinsengracht 276): a coffee spot and art gallery rolled into one.
Depending on the season there are two top ways to explore Amsterdam’s famous canals: by bike, or on ice skates. When conditions are cold enough, boat traffic is blocked across many of the canals in the Jordaan to allow the water to freeze. At these times, the waterways become a joyous winter free-for-all, as thousands of rosy-cheeked residents and visitors hit the ice. If you’re not in town over a big freeze then hire a pair of wheels at Bike City (Bloemgracht 68-70, 020 626 3721) and join the locals in what they do best: cycling. Swing by the landmark Westerkerk church, zip through the fragrant flower market (Singel 630 to 600) or sample fresh local produce at the Albert Cupt Street Market in De Pijp (Albert Cuypstraat, between Ferdinand Bolstraat and Van Woustraat). New museums are sprouting like mushrooms in Amsterdam, so take time to explore some eclectic backstreet favourites, including the Houseboat Museum (Prinsengracht 296K, 020 427 0750), the FOAM Photography Museum (Keizersgracht 609), the Jordaan Museum (Vinkenstraat 185, 020 624 4695) and the Hash, Marihuana and Hemp Museum (Oudezijds Achterburgwal 148).
If you’ve already seen Amsterdam’s headliners - the Van Gogh Museum (Paulus Potterstraat 7, 020 570 5200), Anne Frank House (Prinsengracht 263-267, 020 556 7105) and Rijksmuseum (Museumstraat 1, 0900 0745) - head off in search of the city’s lesser-known treasures. De Buurtboerderij (Spaarndammerdijk 319, 020 337 6820) is a public, volunteer-operated farm in the heart of the city that runs a packed programme of workshops, craft events and concerts. Even if there’s nothing on, it’s a brilliant spot to relax with a coffee on a sunny day. Perfect for people-watching, the MC Theatre (Polonceaukade 5, 020 606 beeline for 5050) is an urban arts centre with a gallery, restaurant and plenty going on year-round. Another great outdoor space is the square surrounding the Science Center NEMO (Oosterdok 2, 020 531 3233). Designed by Renzo Piano, architect of the London Shard, its tiered piazza offers wonderful views on all sides. For something truly off the wall, take a turn around The Condomerie (Warmoesstraat 141); You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a condom in the shape of Big Ben.
Dive straight into the street food scene by chowing down on raw herring or picking up a portion of pataje oorlog - fat chips smothered in satay sauce - from the stalls that pop up on most street corners. Snack on bitterballen (breaded and deep-fried balls with a ragout filling) at brown café De Drie Fleschjes (Gravenstraat 18, 020 624 8443). For a culinary stroll down memory lane, head for Restaurant Haesje Claes (Spuistraat 273-275, 020-6249998) serving local classics across six beautiful dining rooms. In winter, it’s a great place to slurp up a bowl of snert - thick Dutch pea soup. Alternatively, join the hungry locals at The Pancake Bakery (Prinsengracht 19, 020 625 13 33). Set within a 17th warehouse formerly owned by the Dutch East India Company, it promises to take your tastebuds on a world tour of pancakes.
Let the snert settle with a dose of fresh air in the leafy Vondelpark, a large landscaped park stretching 1.5 kilometres west from Leidseplein. Known as the lungs of Amsterdam, it’s a mecca for cyclists, joggers and walkers, all taking a break from the city. Wander along the broad paths, picnic beside the lagoons and admire the resident colony of parakeets as they swoop among the treetops. In summer, catch a concert at the open-air theatre as you laze in the grass or hire a pair of skates and work off lunch. On rainy day, duck into Electric Ladyland (2e Leliedwarsstraat 5, 020 420 3776) the world’s first museum of fluorescent art. Packed with trippy art and set to a psychedelic soundtrack, it’s a combination of beautiful and truly bizarre. For a singularly Dutch experience, make a beeline for Brouwerij 't IJ (Funenkade 7 and Zeeburgerpad 55, 020 528 6237): a small local brewery built in the bathhouse below a windmill.
The next two hours are all about unwinding. Get ready for a night on the town with a visit to one of the luxury spas and saunas scattered across the city. Relax in a flotation tank at city centre spa Koan Float (Herengracht 321, 020 555 0333), or indulge in some canal-side pampering at The City Street Spa (Prinsengracht 764 020 2214 102). Alternatively, head skywards for a rooftop cocktail at the Twenty Third Bar. On the 23rd floor of the Hotel Okura Amsterdam (Ferdinand Bolstraat 333, 020 678 7111); this swanky terrace is the perfect spot to catch a sunset before dining in its two-Michelin-starred Ciel Bleu Restaurant (Ferdinand Bolstraat 333, 020 678 7450).
Amsterdam is home to a thriving and diverse food scene. One trend currently sweeping the city is living-room restaurants, where talented cooks open up their homes to a small number of diners for an intimate and unique gastronomic experience. Caro Kookt whips up delectable dishes from local ingredients at her historic Jordaan home (Nieuwe Leliestraat 16A). For traditional plates there’s Moeders (Rozengracht 251 020 626 7957), a cosy super-kitsch den serving up local dishes to make Dutch grannies proud. Amsterdam’s Indonesian restaurants are famed for their rijsttafel, a tasting platter served in tapas style. A tasty by-product of Dutch colonialism, it’s great for social eating and Tempo Doeloe (Utrechtsestraat 75, 020 625 6718) is the pick of the bunch, serving up to 30 bite-sized dishes in one sitting. For something more left field, book a table at the REM Eiland (Haparandadam 45, 020 688 5501), an offshore platform towering 22 metres above the IJ in an old pirate television tower, or grab a heartwarming meal at Sociaal Restaurant Freud (Spaarndammerstraat 424, 020 688 5548) run by staff with mental health, addiction and exclusion issues.
After dinner, grab a cocktail at the Bond-themed Vesper Bar (Vinkenstraat 57, 020 846 4458) in Jordaan before heading off in search of some live music. Melkweg (Lijnbaansgracht 234a, 020 531 8181) and Paradiso (Weteringschans 6-8, 020 626 4521) both host regular rock and pop acts, while De OCCII (Amstelveenseweg 134, 020 671 7778), is the home of subbacultcha music in Amsterdam and Sugar Factory (Lijnbaansgracht 238, 020 627 0008) is the place to dance your socks off to live garage, soul and triphop. Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ (Piet Heinkade 1, 020 788 2000) is rapidly becoming one of the most acclaimed concert halls in the Netherlands; located in the former Eastern Docklands, it showcases everything from classical, opera and jazz to modern world music. If drinking is the focus, choose from over 200 cutting-edge beers at In De Wildeman (Kolksteeg 3, 020 638 2348), or sample top notch cocktails at Hiding in Plain Sight (Rapenburg 18, 062 529 3620). Before bed, stop in for a nightcap at Tales and Spirits (Lijnbaanssteeg 5-7, 065 535 6467), a tiny hidden gem tucked away in an alley off Singel.