Being from Rotterdam myself, going to Amsterdam always feels a bit like cheating. The two cities have a history of hating eachother with a passion, whether it’s soccer related or not. People from Rotterdam think “Amsterdammers” are arrogant and vain. People from Amsterdam think “Rotterdammers” are blunt and lack style. Dandy vs. rolled up sleeves.
Even though Rotterdam is where my heart is, I love visiting Amsterdam every once in a while. I love the cozy streets, the canals and the “brown cafés”. I love the people and the vibe of the city. One downside: The city is overrun by tourists. To avoid the crowds, you have to avoid the center in general and that’s what I usually do. I felt it was time to change that and asked one of my best friends Helena – who happens to be an Amsterdammer – to show me what she loves doing in the most touristy area of town: The Canal District!
Exploring Amsterdam with a local
When we hopped off the train at Amsterdam Central Station, we took a left towards the red light district to avoid the crowds at Dam Square. We started off the day as my friend always does when she is in Amsterdam: With a drink at Hotel Internationaal. It was cold and rainy outside so I was glad we started off with a nice hot cup of tea before a long walk through the city. This pub is a perfect example of what we call a “brown café” in the Netherlands. It’s cozy and well.. brown. It was still early and it was as good as empty but I can imagine that the place is crowded at night.
*Note to self: Fix your hair FFS!
Strolling and Shopping along the canals
After tea we decided to totally ignore the rain and wandered around the Canal district for a while. What surprised me was that Helena managed to show me streets I had never been to before, even though I’ve been in Amsterdam countless times. She also shared some great stories about the city and it’s history that I would never have known about if it wasn’t for her. Seriously, if you go to Amsterdam, find a local to show you around!
Along the way we chatted and stopped at some really cute shops and bookstores. If you are anything like me and you hate shopping for clothes, avoid the Kalverstraat, the main shopping area filled with massive chain stores and expensive brands. Just stroll around town and you will find plenty of cute little gems! Like the Upcycle store and a bookstore called Athenaeum where you can litterally spend hours just browsing books. And the biggest surprise was a secondhand bookmarket in a passage of what used to be an elderly home in the 1600’s!
When you are in Amsterdam and you love contemporary art, make sure to visit W139 in the Red Light District, a free art gallery with changing expositions. I had never heard of the place but I’m glad Helena took me there. Not in the mood for contemporary? Just keep your eyes open as you stroll along the canals… You might pass some impressive murals hidden away in pretty courtyards and in tiny alleys.
After spending a whole day walking, chatting and defying the terrible weather, we absolutely deserved a drink. Or 2, or 3. What better way to start then by visiting a 350 years old distillery in the middle of the city? Wynand Fockink is another local gem I had never heard about. The tiny tasting bar is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen! But don’t let the limited size fool you: The variety of liquers, genevers and brandies is staggering. There are over 50 different drinks available! The bartenders will help you choose though. So once you ordered your poison, the bartender will pour a glass so full that you can’t pick it up without spilling your drink. You have to bend forwards to take the first sip, and thereby “bow to the spirit”. Liked your drink? You can buy a bottle in their little store in the next room.
Before we headed back home, we stopped by a few other bars along the way. We ended in a nice brown café called Aepjen, or translated: “In the monkeys”. Situated in one of the oldes buildings in the city, the place comes with it’s own legend. The bar was located near the harbour and sailors could spend the night there. Aparantly having a pet monkey was a thing in those days and when visitors were low on cash, the owner would tak their monkey pets as payment… Imagine a guesthouse full of monkeys and flees… This would be where we got our Dutch saying: You stayed in the monkeys.
It was such a nice day and I can’t believe I’m saying this but I’m looking forward to do this again soon!
Visiting the Netherlands: Would I recommend going to Amsterdam?
The best way to enjoy Amsterdam -or any other city for that matter- is on foot. Simply wandering around cities is one of my favorite things to do. (And I actually made it my profession!) Strolling around in Amsterdam always gives me a cozy feeling inside. Looking up at the buildings, down at the canals and to the tiny little streets on the left and right, the city seems to have become the (stereo)typical image of the Netherlands. Just being there makes me feel really.. Dutch. Yes, I always tell people NOT to go to Amsterdam when they visit my country but the truth is: I kinda get it. Amsterdam gives you exactly what you expect from this country, even though the rest of the Netherlands is completely different from that image.
The verdict: Yes, you should absolutely visit Amsterdam! But if you have more time than one or two days, make sure to also visit another city like Rotterdam, Utrecht or Haarlem so you get to experience what the country is really like!