Get Cultured: Amsterdam – A Local Guide to the City’s Food, Canals and Pastimes
Bart van Poll, co-founder of Spotted by Locals, the network of apps and blogs by locals in 51 cities, shares his favorite local spots in the city he always loves coming home to, Amsterdam.
On your first day here, seeing this is a must:
What you definitely don’t want to miss, is Amsterdam’s canals. Walk, bike or “hitchhike” a boat with locals (do not take a touristy canal boat. It’s not expensive and may sound tempting, but you’ll see almost nothing because they travel much too quickly to really allow the people aboard to soak in and learn about the many beautiful and historic sites. Plus, you are surrounded by tourists – the horror!).
Pick any of the big canals (Keizersgracht, Prinsengracht, Herengracht or Singel) for your walk, bike ride or boat tour, and stop frequently to admire the beautiful houses.
One of The Netherland’s former colonies is Suriname. We are lucky to have a number of Surinamese people in Amsterdam. Suriname cuisine is wonderful, and indulging in its gastronomy is a great way to get a feel for the “local” culture.
For a glimpse of daily life, I recommend this form of transportation:
The bicycle is by far the best way to get around. However, you’ll have the most fun on a boat. The canals look drastically different from the water. It’s very easy to “hitchhike” on the canals, especially if you carry a six-pack of beer (or two)!
I had my best night’s sleep at:
As a local, I don’t sleep at hotels. I do go to the new Andaz hotel regularly – it’s a very cool hotel located on one of the canals. It has a very local and pleasant feel, a great (and suprisingly – very affordable) restaurant and a very well stocked bar!
The meal at this local eatery had me salivating for days:
Pata Negra, the tapas restaurant I’ve been visiting since I was a student 15 years ago, continues to surprise me with fantastic plates and wonderful wine. The same Spanish waiters have been working there for at least the last 15 years, but they seemed to have not learned any additional Dutch words. It’s super chaotic in a good way, and oozes atmosphere!
Photo by Bart van Poll
Best place to find artisan handicrafts:
The “9 streets” area is one of the few shopping areas in Amsterdam where not one big international shopping chain is active. It’s a haven for boutiques, galleries and artisan shops. I love visiting the shoemaker “Sir Max” in the “9 streets” area. I’ve given up hope though that one day I might be able to splurge to buy a pair of their beautiful shoes…
Local celebration not to be missed:
Queens day! About a million people dressed in orange go crazy to celebrate the birthday of our former Queen Juliana. There is music and parties everywhere, and plenty of madness! It’s really Amsterdam’s bash of the year.
Interestingly, in 2012 the late Queen Juliana’s grandson Alexander took over as king. So beginning in 2014, we’ll celebrate King’s day, on 26 April.
For a more bucolic/green setting I escape here:
My favorite park in the world is the Vondelpark. I live about a minute walk away, and go there every day. In the summer I play late night frisbee with friends (we have frisbees with LED lights!), have picnics, read a book, or just chill out and look at the Amsterdam locals passing by on their bikes and skateboards.
It can get awfully busy in Vondelpark during summer. If I really want to escape, I take my bike and go to the Oeverlanden – just north of Amsterdam. It’s approximately 45 minutes by bike to virtually the middle of nowhere. It is beautiful with plenty of farms, waterways and lush countryside, with the skyline of Amsterdam as a backdrop.
The art/music scene is alive and well here:
For great underground music follow the squat scene! Many old squats have been transformed into fantastic art & music places.
OT301 is one of the most active. Almost every day, something is going on there. From ping-pong nights, to Korean film festivals, to glam rock parties.
Photo by Kasper Vogelzang
OCCI is oftentimes a bit too alternative for my taste, however I have enjoyed some truly memorable nights there, and the quality of bands is always very good.
The Vondelbunker is another alternative culture hotspot that’s privy only to locals and it’s located right in the Vondelpark. They don’t organize very many events (and when they do, they usually don’t post them on their website), however they’re always special.
Where the locals get tipsy:
One of the most happening nightlife spots in Amsterdam at this moment is Roest in Amsterdam East. They have an event almost every night of the week. You can stay here for a “do it yourself” barbecue and campfire with locals. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find a good party stirring late night.
Most ludicrous stereotype about the people here:
As softdrugs are semi-legal in Amsterdam, many people are under the impression that most Amsterdam locals get high all the time. The truth is, we smoke a lot less weed than in countries around us where softdrugs are illegal. And we certainly smoke less than tourists! Being able to buy weed legally in a shop makes using softdrugs uninteresting for most locals. Most people try it a couple of times, and decide it’s not for them.
Some “coffee shops” (that’s how the shops where you can buy softdrugs are referred to) used to be my favorite places to go, because of their relaxed atmosphere. Coffee shops used to be great places to drink beer with friends, but unfortunately many laws changed in the last few years. It’s no longer possible to buy alcohol in coffee shops, or to smoke. Unfortunately, most coffee shops are now deserted and have lost their lively soul.
If I had only 24 hours to explore Amsterdam I would:
Amsterdam is a relatively small city, so you can see a lot in one day. On a typical weekend, my wife and I bike from the South (where we live) to North Amsterdam, to West Amsterdam, to East Amsterdam and back South. You’ll get a good glimpse of the city if you do what we do almost every week!
First, head to one of the big canals and bike the entire length, stopping frequently to admire the beautiful houses. If the weather is nice, buy a sandwich and sit as you watch the boats go by.
Then bike towards central station (try to avoid the awful touristy Leidseplein, Rembrandtplein and Rokin) and hop on the free ferry to cross the river IJ to NDSM wharf (you can take your bike along free of charge).
The NDSM wharf area is where the world’s first super large container ships were made. Nowadays, it’s a creative hotspot with lots of artists and galleries. A great place to have coffee is at the “beach” bar Pllek.
Photo by Lauren Murphy
Take the ferry across the canal again. Not to Central Station, but to Houthavens. Check out the wonderful warehouses near the river from the ferry and the view of the center of Amsterdam. The former Gas factory “Westergasfabriek” is another beautiful factory turned into a cultural hotspot with lots of galleries and cafés. It’s situated in one of my favorite local parks – Westerpark.
Hit the road again with your rental bike, to the far East of Amsterdam, about a 30-minute bike ride. Amsterdam East is the most international part of Amsterdam. Take advantage of it by having Suriname food at the Dappermarkt.
After that, you deserve a beer at one of the most iconic breweries in Amsterdam – Brouwerij ‘t IJ. It’s located in an old windmill, so you’ll also be able to enjoy some Dutch nuances!
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