Venice of the North: Meet the other Amsterdam
Editor’s note: Most people think sex or drugs when you mention the Dutch capital. Aarthi introduces you to her Amsterdam—a city of canals brimming with great art, movie houses, food and flea markets. Made me want to book my ticket asap:)
Written by: Aarthi Ramnath, Assistant News Editor
Amsterdam is most often associated with decadence thanks to its incredible nightlife—raves and parties—legalised marijuana and the red light district. But the city I know is better described as the ‘Venice of the North’—a city built around a sophisticated canal system—precariously lined with tall and narrow houses that look like they could easily topple like dominos. This Amsterdam is home to legendary paintings by the masters—Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer and of course, Vincent Van Gogh. It’s the city of leisurely walking tours, picnics at the park, art deco movie theatres and cool vintage stores. This is the Amsterdam I fell in love with when I lived there for more than a year. I hope you will love it too.
Where to stay
As a resident, I didn’t stay at the hotels listed below. These are recommendations from my personal network of friends in the city. I’ve tried to include a range that fits most people’s budgets. Pro tip: Pick a hotel that’s close to public transport. Good neighbourhoods include Museum Quarter in Amsterdam South-east, Jordaan in Amsterdam West or anywhere in the city centre.
Conservatorium Hotel: This 19th century music conservatory is now a five-star hotel with opulent interiors by Italian architect Piero Lissoni—who marries the minimalist, clean contemporary look with bright and stand alone pieces such as this chandelier made of violins. It is situated in the museum quarter—and is walking distance from the city’s most visited museums—Rijks, Van Gogh and Stedelijk, as well as the Royal Concert Hall and Vondelpark. The most exquisite bit is the glass ceiling in the courtyard. The hotel’s Japanese-influenced restaurant Taiko and the Akasha spa are among the best rated in the city. (Starting price: € 750-800; Rs 70,000)
The Dylan: Also a five-star hotel, this one overlooks the Keizersgracht canal which connects to the scenic ‘9 streets’—best known as the shopping mecca in the city. The property offers everything from a luxury suite to cosy attic rooms—available with furnishings in three different styles. The hotel’s restaurant Vinkeles is headed by chef Dennis Kuipers who serves Michelin-starred new Dutch cuisine. (Starting price: €700; Rs 61,000)
Hotel Pulitzer: Located in the UNESCO-protected canal ring—called Prinsengracht—the hotel property consists of 25 traditional Dutch houses dating back to the 17th century. While the exteriors have been beautifully preserved, the interiors have handsome modern furnishings. Tourists can lounge in its 225 rooms and suites, a gorgeous lobby, the Jansz restaurant, Pulitzer’s Bar, and a secret garden—which is also visited by the locals. (Starting price: €400; Rs 35,000)
Soho House: This is a far more affordable option and a great place for solo travellers. Housed in The Bungehuis—a 1930s Art Deco building on the edge of the Singel canal—the hotel/club is in the centre of the city, and has a rooftop pool with views overlooking the city. It’s also way cooler than the SH in Mumbai. (Starting price: €160-200; Rs 15000)
Zuko: This ‘hybrid’ hotel is another good option for solo travellers or younger groups of friends who are looking to meet other people their age in the city. They have loft-style rooms, a social space for events, conference rooms, activity rooms, a restaurant and a rooftop bar. The property is a 15-minute walk from the Museum Quarter. (Starting price: €140-160; Rs 14000)
StayOkay: Experience authentic dorm-style living with this hotel chain. They have three locations but the best is StayOkay Vondelpark as it’s close to the Museum Quarter and public transport. They have sharing rooms as well as single rooms. (Starting price: €70 for one person; Rs 6,100)
Note: Airbnb is also a good option. The plus point would be that you’d get to live with a local/local family or you get rooms in the middle of the bustling city for a comfortable price.
First, the basic FAQ…
Will language be a problem? Nope. Most people in The Netherlands are multilingual and are fluent in English. In case you want to impress your hosts, you can shower them with these two uniquely Dutch words—“lekker” which you can describe your delicious meals and “gezellig”—a word that means cosy, comfortable and pleasant!
How do I get around? Amsterdam is an extremely well connected city. You won’t need to hire a car and most of the city centre can be seen on foot. The best option is to get the ‘I Amsterdam City Card’—the transit card which offers access to almost all museums, intracity public transport and bike rentals. You can either book one online or get it at an I Amsterdam counter at the Schiphol airport or the Amsterdam Centraal train station. The cards start from €60 (Rs 5,300) for a day.
A more flexible alternative: The OV Chipkaart which is exclusively for public transport inter and intra city. You can buy this from any metro stop machine and load as much money as you need—starting with €7.5 (Rs 660) for a single use. Note: If you are a student, don’t forget to ask for discounts at museums and other attractions.
How about bicycles? Excellent choice! Did you know there are more bikes than people in The Netherlands? You can rent a bike at MacBike or OV Fiets which has many locations across the city. You can also use the I Amsterdam City Card at bike rental shops around Centraal Station. Bike rental is often possible from 3 hours per day with the average daily rental price being €10 (Rs 880).
A list of leisurely things to do…
Amsterdam is a city to be savoured on foot—and boat. Below are two of the best ways to see the sights.
Canal cruises: You can take a canal tour of the city from Amsterdam Centraal or hire boats from boat rental shops such as Boaty or Mokumboot. You can book the cruises using the I Amsterdam Card, as well. You can find a handy list of canal cruises over here. My recommendation: the Evening Cruise. The average cost is €80-€100 (Rs 7,000-8,800) for an hour.
A self guided walking tour: The old city is best seen on foot. Here’s a handy map of the route described below.
Let’s start at the Amsterdam Centraal station—which is a beauty in itself.
Dam square: Exit the station towards the city and keep walking south. You will find people lined up in front of Manneken Pis—a specialty french fries shop which serves them with a range of customisable sauces and toppings. Next, make your way to Dam Square which is typically bustling with people, food trucks and has a line-up of small museums—including Madame Tussauds. You can also see the Koninklijk Paleis van Amsterdam aka the Royal Palace and Nieuwe Kerk (translation: New Church) which is a Catholic church that has been turned into an exhibition space.
9 Streets: From here, make your way to the 9 Streets aka the shopping street (map)—lined with designer and vintage boutiques, galleries, quaint cafes, and antique shops. These beautiful cobbled streets by the Singel canal will get you to Spui Square. You can make a quick pit stop at the Van Stapele (map)—a shop that sells the most delicious chocolate cookies. Hidden from plain sight is the opening to Begijnhof which is a courtyard that is home to the oldest wooden Dutch house. Spui square also hosts a book market on the weekends.
Staalmeestersbrug: Now you can either head towards the flower market by the canal called Bloemenmarkt (map) or head towards one of the my most favourite bridges in the city—Staalmeestersbrug (map)—which lends itself to the perfect photo op—as you can see from the image below. Similar to the lock bridge in Paris, you will find locks on this bridge as well.
Final destination: You can head towards the Red Light District (map)—or make Chinatown your last stop. There you can enjoy fresh breads and custard pastry from Hoi Tin (map) or enjoy a sip of chilled beer at the bars in Nieuwmarkt (map).
Don’t forget: We’ve created a handy map of all the above locations to help you navigate the city centre.
Crossing the Amstel river: In the evening, you can take a free ferry ride to the North island called Amsterdam Noord. After walking around NDSM Werf (map)—taking in the colourful graffiti art, you can either retire at the riverfront bar Pllek (map) or go to the Amsterdam Lookout (map) to see the sunset over the old city.
Get yer skates on: Every winter—starting from November to February, the city puts up skating rinks in front of the Rijksmuseum. You can even rent the skating gear for about €14 (Rs 1,200) for two hours. Other areas where you can enjoy skating are Amsterdam RAI (map). But a truly Dutch daredevil thing to do would be skating on the frozen canals!
A list for art enthusiasts
Here are my picks of the best museums in town. There’s something for everyone—whether you want to see the great Masters, Modernists or just check out some cool microbes!
Rijksmuseum: is a must-do for any art lover. The museum houses more than 8,000 works of art from Dutch Realism to Modern Art to sculptures—including masterpieces by Rembrandt’s ‘Night’s Watch’ and ‘The Sampling Officials’, Vermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid’ and six of Van Gogh’s works. There is also a library and research space inside the building which is often used by the locals and students. The compound usually has artists playing classical music. So you can actually live this scene from the movie ‘Fault In Our Stars’.
Van Gogh Museum: The four-storied museum charts the progression of his style from an Impressionist to developing his unique colour palette—while also mapping his mental state. I’m reminded of this clip from episode ten of the fifth ‘Doctor Who’ season. On display are more of his sunflowers, fields, self portraits and one version of his famous ‘Bedroom’.
Stedelijk Museum: Located right next to the Van Gogh—the museum boasts an incredible collection of Modern and Contemporary Art. The curation includes global artists from the 1950s to now. Among the must-see are works of Pablo Piccaso, Marc Chagall, Cindy Sherman, Quintus Jan Telting, El Anatsui, Steve McQueen et al.
Anne Frank Huis: Located on the Prinsengracht 263—hidden in plain sight—is the house where Anne Frank hid during the war. The curated house tour invokes her experience reconstructed through quotes, photographs, videos and original items. The museum can only be visited with a ticket bought online for a specific time slot.
Rembrandthuis: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn created his life’s work in this very house. On display are his commissioned pieces from the government which involved painting bureaucrats, surgical operations, human anatomy lectures etc. You can see how he manipulated the light and texture in his paintings that gave them a deep, three-dimensional effect.
Micropia Museum: The world’s only museum of microbes is located inside the Artis Zoo. Here you can find harmless and common single-celled and multicellular organisms displayed under a microscope such as yeast, ‘good’ bacteria present in the body and what happens on a mouldy piece of bread. There is also a full body scanner which detects microbe concentration in your own body. The museum also doubles as an educational centre with activities to make one more familiar with the invisible world around them.
Eye Film Museum: Across the Amstel river is this magnificent building which resembles the shape of an eye—aptly named as it is a film museum. With a permanent exhibition on film history—with displays of film negatives and cameras—and a changing special focus on directors from around the world, the museum is a paradise for film and art enthusiasts. There are also commercial and art film screenings that run throughout the day.
The National Maritime Museum: The Dutch were known for their sea exploration and ship making. This museum is an ode to that 500-year-old history. On display are maritime maps, paintings, ship models and navigation tools. You can also visit the replica of a Dutch East Indiaman ship which has a close-up view of the tools and instruments used.
The National Opera & Ballet: This building is one of the most eye-catching ones in the city with its circular structure looking over the river in Waterlooplein. You can book tickets for the programmes from the website or you may call them to make a reservation. Alternatively, you may also find resold tickets on Ticketmaster.
A list of places to chill out
Picnic at the park: Amsterdam has very many parks and they are popular for walking, jogging or cycling in the tracks laid inside. You can bring out your picnic blankets and enjoy the sun with some barbeque and games. You can find a disposal barbeque set and fresh baked items and cheeses from the supermarket chains Albert Heijn or Jumbo closest to you.
Vondelpark (map) is the city’s biggest park. Many flea markets and activities also take place here such as Pride March and music festivals.
Westerpark (map) is also a favourite hangout spot among locals. Every first Sunday of the month, the park is bustling with a vintage flea market. During the summers, there are student/volunteer led film festivals and concerts. In the winter, look for lovely wooden Christmas trinkets to decorate your tree.
Flevopark (map): This one is perfect if you’re looking for a quieter place. Located on the outskirts of the city. It has a brewery called Nieuwe Diep Distillery (below) inside which you can enjoy apple ciders, wines, spirits along with bar snacks.
A list for the cinema buff
Studios and filmmakers from around the world come to Amsterdam to showcase their best work. The movie-going culture is different from the US and India. The city caters to cinephiles interested in art house productions and festival cinema. You can read more about the history of Dutch cinema and its festival run over here.
- Filmhuis Cavia (map): is known for programming avant garde cinema—from short films to deeply political and important indie films from around the world. The theatre is run by cinephiles from all walks of life.
- LAB 111 (map) and Filmtheatre Kriterion (map): are popular independent film theatres in the city. They show commercial films but are better known for their film festival programmes. You can check their lineup on their websites.
- Pathe Tuschinski Theatre (map): Be sure to visit this beautiful Art Deco theatre—which was one of the first built in Amsterdam. It is one of the most opulent cinema halls I have ever seen—with the most exquisite interiors and comfortable sofa seats. Also a bonus: Bar Abraham. This bar serves chilled beers, fancy cocktails inspired by movies and small bites—makes for an excellent change from PVR popcorn.
A quick list for a night owl…
There are plenty of places to party—and it isn’t hard to find guides online. But if you’re looking for something a little unconventional, Paradiso (map) is the place to be! It is a concert space built inside a nineteenth-century church. Originally used as a municipality building, it was taken over by hippies in 1967.
Psst: If noisy clubs are not your vibe, you can take a night-time stroll at the Magere brug aka Skinny Bridge (map). From the end of November to the end of January, the city celebrates the Amsterdam Light Festival—where streets and canals are adorned with lights as the city welcomes the holiday season. Visit this website to book your tickets for the famous canal cruise.
Go Dutch: An excellent list of eateries
The best of street food: Albert Cuyp market (map) and IJ Hallen (map) are the places to be if you want to experience street food. Here you’ll get the famous Dutch snacks like kibbeling (which is fried pollack or catfish), raw herring, pofferjes (mini pancakes) and stroopwafels (see the image below). Other than that, the markets also have stalls that sell homemade chocolates, cheeses, sauces and dips, fresh fruits, vegetables. You name it, it’s there! FYI: The Netherlands is known for its Gouda and Edam—both of which are made from cow milk. Do not forget to try the Turkish pizzas:)
If you want a less touristy area with good food joints, you can head over to De Pijp which has a street full of cafes and bars but these are some favourites: De Tulp (map), Restaurant Zaza’s (map) and Kaasbar Amsterdam (map). Two vegan options are: The Vegan Junk Food Bar (map) and MOAK pancakes (map).
In the mood for pizza: Speaking of good firewood pizzas, you can head over to nNea (map) for amazing Neapolitan-style pizzas that have the crispy bases with the perfect charring on the top. Vegans may want to check out Trevi’s (map) which has a 100% plant-based authentic Italian menu!
In the mood for Asian: As for Indonesian, you can give Ron Gastrobar (map) a shot. It is headed by Ron Blaauw who started the Asian-inspired cuisine trend years ago. In Chinatown, there are two restaurants that you need to try—the Chinese restaurant Sichuan Restaurant (map) and Bird Thais (map) for some (tom) yum food. My all time favourite for Japanese is Umaimon (map) or you could also try Izakaya (map) for an elevated fusion cuisine. If you feel homesick, you can also hit Sarawana Bhawan (map) and Anjappar Chettinad (map) for Indian food.
Prefer a cool cafe? Breakfast can be a little tricky to find so here are two vegan options—Pluk (map) that serves colourful acai bowls and The Avocado Show (map) who whip up a variety of dishes with its main ingredient—avocado. For a chill evening cafe vibe, you can sit at Cafe Soundgarden (map) which has a lovely riverfront view. You can also check out De Balie (map) which is in the centre of the city but truly has a gezellig feel to it! In case you’re on the North island, you can chill out at the Pllek (map). They have plenty of vegetarian options as well.
About my favourite Bars: These just set a higher bar (bad pun intended lol). I highly recommend Brouwerij t’IJ (map). As you can see below, it is shaped like a traditonal Dutch windmill and is always busy but you get craft beers on tap and they are simply refreshing! Bar Bukowski (map) is another local favourite. For a completely different form of entertainment, you can also head to Duke of Tokyo (map) which is a karaoke bar. Don’t forget to try these Dutch beer snacks—bitterballen (fried meatballs), kaassoufflé (cheese filled puff) and frietjes (potato fries) with your drinks.
A list for the shopaholic
Rokin (map): This street is called the red carpet of the city—extending from Dam Square to Amsterdam Centraal, the street is full of global designer stores. You will find your usual Zara, H&M and Primark here. You can also check out the Magna Plaza behind Dam Square (map) for global brands like Swarovski, Gucci and Mango.
Vintage item: Vintage jeans and bags can be found easily at flea markets like IJ Hallen (map) and Waterlooplein market (map). The best places to shop these items are Rumors Vintage store (map) and Bij Ons vintage (map)—known for denim and jackets. Another store you can splurge on is L’Etoile de Saint Honore (map)—where you can get vintage designer bags such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chloe, Hermes and Prada.
More nerdy shops: Henk Comics (map) has an excellent collection of comic books and manga. By Popular Demand (map) is a gift shop where you might find some quirky souvenirs. For fantasy genre aficionados—check out Fantasyshop Chimera (map).
Near Amsterdam: A list of one day trips
There are plenty of activities to do outside the main city too!
Zaanse Schans (map): This is the reconstruction of an 18th century village—famous for its working windmills, cheese -and clog- making workshops, with a small farm. It is very touristy in the summers but definitely worth it for first time visitors.
Haarlem (map): Just about 30 km from Amsterdam, this city offers a quaint getaway. The old city is almost identical to Amsterdam—built around canals, hosting flea markets in the city centre and cyclists pacing up and down the cobbled streets. I highly recommend trying out this former church-turned brewery De Jopenkerk (map). For more things to do in Haarlem, check out this website.
Giethoorn (map): Almost 100 km from Amsterdam, this beautiful car-free village is a unique destination. With only waterways as the primary means of transport, it is known as the ‘Venice of Netherlands’. You can hire a speed boat and a bike at the entrance of the village and spend your entire day cruising around. The best time to visit the place is in the summer months.
Zandvoort Beach (map): Did you know Amsterdam had a beach? Well, not quite in the main city but just about half an hour away by train and 40 minutes by car. During the summers it is packed with people and festive events!
Het Amsterdam Bos (map): This is a large forest area under the municipality of Amsterdam and Amstelveen. It is part of the Amstelveen park which is famous for its cherry blossom trees—which is a summer picnic spot for locals.