27 May Two tales of one city: On and off the beaten path in Amsterdam
From architecture to attractions, breweries to bike rides, there’s something for everyone in the Dutch capital. Here’s my guide to some of the best that Amsterdam has to offer on a short break, as well as some of it’s hidden gems. They’re perfect for getting off the beaten path and exploring without the crowds.
We arrived in Amsterdam fresh from two days in Rotterdam. The second city of the Netherlands had surprised and charmed me, and I was eager to see if the capital did the same.
I didn’t know what to expect of Rotterdam, but I had a mixed bag of expectations about Amsterdam. On one hand, its reputation as a Stag Party destination remained imprinted on my mind, even though it’s heyday as a hedonistic weekend escape seems to have diminished in recent years. On the other, I was hugely excited to explore the Rijksmuseum (somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for years). And I’d heard great things from friends about the pretty canal districts and fabulous eateries.
Happily, I very quickly fell for Amsterdam. I challenge anyone to not be charmed by the cobbled streets, welcoming atmosphere and fantastic food and drink. But I’m not sure I was prepared for how busy it would be. To be fair, we were here just a few short days before Easter but so, it seems, was the rest of the world. So, rather than frustrating ourselves with one museum entrance queue too many, we tried our best to explore off the beaten path alongside the eagerly anticipated highlights of the city. The plan paid off, and we left after four days wanting to return.
So I’ve written this post a little differently. I want to share with you what I loved most about Amsterdam, but I’ve divided it into two parts. First up, the highlights and better-known attractions of the city, then those a little less expected.
Shall we get started?
Before you head to Amsterdam
Plenty of things surprised me about this city (although be reassured that many of them are good). So I’ve written a separate post about what to know before you go. From which landmarks aren’t quite what you expect to how to pay and what needs to be booked in advance, it’s some honest advice for planning your trip.
How we spent our time in Amsterdam
Before I crack on, I want to give a quick overview of how we spent our time. I always think it’s helpful to know how long to dedicate to each part of town. We had three and a half days in the Dutch capital, time to pack in plenty.
Arriving at noon, we headed straight to the old centre. After getting our bearings, we spent an enjoyable afternoon meandering out towards the Oost district, taking in the Magere Bridge and plenty of pretty canals. We grabbed a bite to eat on the edge of De Pijp before heading closer to our hotel (near Vondelpark) for an evening at Foodhallen.
Our morning was spent in the delightful Jordaan district, getting lost in its charming streets and enjoying a leisurely breakfast. We then hopped over the water to hipster Amsterdam Noord, an area I wanted to like but didn’t quite understand. We indulged in an afternoon at the Rijksmuseum before a few bevvies (and fantastic pub grub) at Troost Brewery in De Pijp.
I won’t say too much here about this day as I’ve written a whole post dedicated to it. Our day was spent exploring the nearby countryside by bike, and it was fantastic. Ravenous after our adventures, we spent the evening sampling the outstanding brews at Brouwerij ‘t Ij and cuisine at Bazar.
Read more: Blooming brilliant: Exploring tulip fields by bike from Amsterdam
Our last day was probably our most laid back. We spent time enjoying Vondelpark and our favourite canal districts and took in the serene beauty of the Begijnhof.
Discovering Amsterdam best-loved attractions
When it comes to things to see and do in Amsterdam, you’re spoilt for choice. It’s one of the reasons why the city is so popular. But it can also seem a little overwhelming, and expensive. My advice? Choose a few highlights and allow yourself plenty of time so that you can really take it all in.
Canals, bridges and beautiful architecture
Amsterdam has an abundance of beautiful districts to explore.
From Centraal station, where you’ll probably first arrive, the old centre fans out in concentric semi-circles of loveliness. Residential and retail streets of red-brick townhouses are intersected by the half-moon shaped canals that are the beating heart of the old town.
I could wax lyrical about this part of Amsterdam for almost as long as it would take you to meander its pretty streets. And honestly, that could take days. The sheer joy of this city is that the more you wander, the more you find to enjoy. But to get you started, here are two of my favourite areas we strolled through.
Towards the north of the canal district, Jordaan is one of the most peaceful areas of central Amsterdam. A warren of narrow streets, with occasional elegant bridges crossing canals here and there, it’s an escape from the expected. You won’t find big retail stores, swarming cafes or many tourist attractions here. I loved the slower pace of life here, and the charming houseboats and townhouses.
Settle down for a coffee and breakfast in one of the many independent cafes (Piqniq, with its modest exterior, is a real gem), enjoy the pretty shopfronts and pop into a historic church or two.
Keizersgracht and Prisengratcht
Of all the canals in Amsterdam, these were my absolute favourites. Cobbled streets run along both sides of the water, flanked by red brick or black townhouses, some with smart shutters and others with blooming planters or tall trees outside. Close enough to the centre and museum district to be a little lively and easy to reach, these streets never busy enough to feel crowded.
Parts of these canals make up the area known as de 9 straatjes, or nine streets, recognised as being amongst the prettiest in Amsterdam. I’d have to agree. They’re a great spot to head to first.
The Rijksmuseum is one of Amsterdam’s most popular attractions, and for very good reason. As well as being housed in a fantastically opulent building on the edge of the museum quarter, it’s home to the most astonishing collection of art. Whilst you’ll find a huge variety of pieces here, it’s the second floor that the crowds flock to – the Dutch Masters collection.
I might be all in favour of escaping the crowds but this gallery is fantastic. I’d wanted to visit for years, and I wasn’t disappointed.
Whilst you’ll want to see Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, there’s so much more to explore from this period. I could have spent hours on this floor. If you love the story-telling and ambience of The Night Watch, I’d recommend seeking out the paintings of Jan van der Heyden. And keep your eyes peeled for the many paintings of Amsterdam in the 17th century, and its surrounding countryside, for a fascinating insight into the city’s past.
You’ll want to book in advance for the Rijksmuseum to save time queueing and to see the special collections. I’ve included more about how to enjoy this museum at its best in Everything you need to know before you visit Amsterdam.
Oh Vondelpark, you stole my heart!
Now I love a city park, but not all are created equal. Some are strictly formal, and others are such a wild space you don’t know where to start. Dare I say it, but Vondelpark might just be the perfect city park.
For starters, it’s an enormous space. But it’s been designed in such a way that it’s an expanse of smaller pocket-sized parks, each with their own identity. Some are open lawns and green spaces where children play and impromptu football matches are the order of the day. Others are more structured spaces, pretty with plants. And all are interlaced with wide shaded boulevards busy with folks strolling, cycling and dog-walking at every hour of the day.
We meandered through Vondelpark several times and at different times of day. It was always a pleasure – and in part because it’s such a significant part of city life here. There are always locals enjoying this space, and that speaks volumes.
Discovering De Pijp
De Pijp is a little way out from the centre of Amsterdam. And much to my surprise, it was my absolute favourite area to explore.
Whilst by no means a hidden gem – it’s well-known as a great spot to eat, drink and meander through the Albert Cuyp street market. But it’s easily overlooked as it’s not within the canal district. There are beautiful residential streets, especially close to the museum district, and a young and vibrant atmosphere that’s more than a little inviting. This is where Amsterdammers live, work and play and it’s evident in bucketloads.
We indulged at a couple of outstanding restaurants and bars here including Cafe Flamingo, Bakers & Roasters, Brouwerij Troost and the phenomenal Bazar. More on these later (I’m just whetting your appetite).
Getting off the beaten path in Amsterdam
If you want to escape the crowds and take the route less travelled in Amsterdam, it helps to get away from the canal district. But you’ll also find hidden gems in unexpected places. Here’s a little inspiration to make your stay here more exciting.
Unexpected beauty at the Begijnhof
Hidden in plain sight just around the corner from the Singel canal, in central Amsterdam, is the Begijnhof.
Established back in the 1400s, the Begijnhof was home to a community of religious women for more than 500 years. And whilst the buildings have evolved over time to reflect changing needs, fashions and building technology, they remain excellent examples of the traditional architecture of the city. Clustered around a lush green you’ll find two historic chapels, one of the city’s two remaining wooden townhouses and a handful of beautifully-maintained gardens.
Standing on the street outside, there’s no indication of what’s inside. Dip your head as you enter through the narrow passageway, and wait for the sounds of the city to subside. You can’t fail to feel a sense of peace and tranquillity here.
Uncovering the city’s craft beer scene
Amsterdam might be home to Heineken, but it’s craft beer that’s making its mark on the city at the moment. There’s an incredible number of a smaller, artisan brewers based in the city, and we loved exploring their offerings.
Brouwerij ‘t Ij
Brouwerij ‘t Ij is the most well-established ‘local’ brewery in the city – you’ll find their beers popping up all over the place. I’d really recommend heading out of the centre to their brewery and taproom, as it’s one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. Housed in an old bathhouse next to a canal and beautiful old windmill (one of the few in the Dutch capital), you won’t find many beer gardens with such a unique view. Their beers are many and varied, although stray largely in a Belgian direction. We loved their seasonal Easter bock (traditionally brewed and drunk in Lent, when we were visiting) and the outrageously good snack platters.
Brouwerij ‘t Ij, Funenkade 7 1018AL Amsterdam
If you’re in Centraal, give De Prael a try. Tucked away in a warren of streets not far from the station, an atmospheric taproom backs onto this microbrewery. Their weizen is well worth a try – but there’s a huge range of other house brews to sample as well.
Brouwerij De Prael, Oudezijds Armsteeg 20, 1012 JD Amsterdam
Troost’s microbrewery and taproom in De Pijp is the perfect place to stop if you’re both hungry and thirsty (and as we all know, a day on your feet exploring a new city will do this to you). It’s one of three sites in the city where these folks are brewing up a storm. Here they produce their smaller seasonal offerings and serves up fantastic pub grub into the bargain. Try their bitterballen to start and any one of their beers – and don’t dismiss the house pilsner, it’s delicious.
Brouwerij Troost De Pijp, Cornelis Troostplein 21, 1072 JJ Amsterdam
Don’t want to limit yourself to trying just one brewery? Pop into Cafe Flamingo in De Pijp, right next to Albert Cujp market. We loved this dark and atmospheric bar so much we visited twice. Serving up beers from Brouwerij t’ Ij as well as other Dutch craft brewers, it’s a great place to start exploring the local offering. On sunny days, enjoy a drink at the trestle tables outside and watch the world go by.
Cafe Flamingo, Eerste van der Helststraat 37, 1073 AC Amsterdam
Craft & Draft
We stumbled across this gem of a bar a few doors down from our hotel. With more than 20 Dutch and international craft beers on tap, it’s full of temptation. We tried a few local beers here, then meandered off to try some other curiosities. Spotting a beer from one of our local breweries back home, Vibrant Forest, was rather fun too. Cosy atmosphere, friendly and helpful staff and great beers – what more could you want? Well worth the effort of heading out of the centre.
Craft & Draft, Overtoom 417, 1054 JR Amsterdam
Eating off the beaten path
Oh Amsterdam, what good food you have!
There were three extra-special places we ate, where it felt like we were feasting like kings. Heading away city centre helped us uncover some real delights, independent and unexpected.
Incredibly, I wasn’t sure about visiting Foodhallen. It’s run by the same folks as Foodhallen in Rotterdam, where we ate at the beginning of our trip. I wasn’t sure I wanted to repeat myself, but thankfully Ben convinced me otherwise.
Come here for the architecture as much as the food. This vibrant street food market is housed in a beautifully restored, turn of the century tram depot. It’s home to several dozen independent food stalls creating everything from handmade pizza to delicious dim sum and traditional-style tapas. We tucked into fantastic ramen bowls from Pastrami, fresh and topped with home-cured beef.
Foodhallen Amsterdam, Bellamyplein 51 1053AT Amsterdam
Bazar wasn’t just the best place I ate in Amsterdam, it’s probably the best place I’ve eaten all year.
Serving up Middle Eastern inspired food in a converted church in De Pijp, this place is a million miles away from any restaurant you might find in the city centre. Colourful, loud, fragrant – it’s a riot for the senses. Everything on their menu sounds irresistible, and everything we ate tasted incredible. We started with a sharing platter of delicious dips and fresh bread, then I moved on to a dish of lamb shank with spiced stew, couscous AND tabouleh. It was divine. Ben’s main went down well too and after devouring much of what I couldn’t manage he moved onto a small plate of Middle Eastern sweets and desserts. Heaven on (rather a lot of) plate(s).
Bazar, Albert Cuypstraat 182, 1073 BL Amsterdam
Please note: The restaurant is currently temporarily closed for an exciting redecoration project until 22nd July
Only very recently opened, we stumbled across this charming little spot opposite our hotel. It focuses on fresh local produce and serves up the best breakfast we found in Amsterdam. If the first meal of the day is anything to go by, I can only imagine their bigger plates must be excellent.
A bowl of homemade organic granola with yoghurt, crackers and fruit compote cost just over €6 and filled me up for hours. As an aside, their coffee was also surprisingly good. Pop by if you’re heading to or from Vondelpark.
Schuurmanoomkensgrassotti, Overtoom 558, 1054 LN Amsterdam
Get to know Amsterdamse Bos and the Dutch countryside
The bicycle is king in Amsterdam. And whilst it might be tempting to make like a local in the city centre, the cobbles are best explored at a slower pace.
Instead, I’d recommend hopping on two wheels to get a little further out from the centre. On the edge of the city, you’ll find Amsterdamse Bos, a huge country park where locals escape to walk, run, cycle and have fun. Part woodland, part open space, there’s a thousand acres of greenery for you to explore at your own pace.
If you want to head out a little further, consider following the fantastically flat cycle paths to charming Haarlem, a historic market town not far from the capital. We headed on from Haarlem to tackle a circular route that took us through Amsterdam’s closest tulip-growing region, and it was spectacular. You could, of course, head to the nearby and extremely popular Keukenhof gardens to see tulips in bloom. But there’s something really special about experiencing the true scale of tulip fields in the countryside.
The practical bit
Getting to Amsterdam
Amsterdam Schipol airport is just a few kilometres from the Dutch capital. As Europe’s third largest airport, finding flights here isn’t difficult. We flew from Southampton airport in the UK with Flybe. We spent well under an hour in the air – making Amsterdam a perfect short break destination for us.
You’ll find the airport train station at arrivals at Schipol airport. Taking the train is the quickest way to the city centre and really easy. Purchase your ticket at one of the vending machines on the concourse, where you can also check the departure boards. With your ticket in hand, take the escalator down to the platforms below and hop on your train. It takes around 15 minutes to reach the city centre.
You can book your train tickets in advance and check train times on the NS website.
Staying in Amsterdam
We booked ourselves into the surprisingly good Conscious Hotel Vondelpark. This self-proclaimed ‘eco-sexy’ hotel promises a more sustainable hotel experience without compromising on comfort or convenience.
There were plenty of nods to their eco-credentials, like the green roof on the first floor and low energy and water choices throughout the hotel. But it was also very comfortable and the staff were really helpful – setting us up with bike hire and advice.
A little way out from the centre, the location offered good transport links as well as fantastic access to the green spaces of Vondelpark. It also meant that we could enjoy the perks of the Conscious Hotel at a much more affordable price than staying somewhere comparable in the canal district.
Conscious Hotel Vondelpark, Overtoom 519 1054 LH Amsterdam
Amsterdam is a fantastic city. Lively, beautiful and packed with places crying out to be explored.
But the best thing about the Dutch capital is that you can choose your own adventure here. Head away from the popular attractions and discover underrated delights. Eat and drink your way around the city. Take time to enjoy the fabulous galleries and find new artists to fall in love with. Or just enjoy getting lost in its myriad of pretty streets, both well known and lesser known.
I’ve no doubt I’ll be back.