Travel: An insider’s guide to Amsterdam
It may be renowned for its coffeeshop culture, but Amsterdam is a strikingly beautiful destination with fascinating attractions, fabulous shops and fine food and drink. What makes it all the more appealing is you can reach it in under 90 minutes with regular flights from Liverpool.
Natasha Young explores the Netherlands capital, following tips from former Liverpool residents who have set up home in the city.
Words by Natasha Young
Whether you’re exploring the city on foot, via public transport or by pedalling along its famous cycle path network, Amsterdam is easy to travel around.
On arrival it’s worth heading to the AKO news stand on Schiphol Airport’s train station concourse to pick up a travel ticket for your break.
Priced at €16 for one day, €21 for two days or €26 for three days, the pass covers one return journey between the airport and the city as well as unlimited travel on trams, buses, metros and ferries.
Bike hire is available from shops around the city but be sure to cycle carefully along the fast-paced paths and roads – it’s a prime way for locals to get around so expect to see more bicycles than cars.
Walking along the picturesque canal-side streets is also a pleasant way to take in Amsterdam, which is surprisingly compact. A lot of ground can be covered during a long weekend, especially with Google Maps to hand!
From arty boutiques and hip brands to vintage threads, Amsterdam is perfect for a spot of retail therapy if you’re looking for something different.
Venture to Utrechsestraat; a street filled with great clothes shops, plenty of cafés and restaurants for a pit stop, and the mother of all record shops – Concerto.
Spread across multiple stores and multiple floors, Concerto is a digger’s dream with its vast offering of new and used vinyl, brand new releases, CDs and DVDs across all genres. You can also sit back and enjoy the music in the shop’s own café, or watch one of its in-store performances.
If you like keeping up with the coolest labels and vintage styles then you really can’t go wrong with De 9 Straatjes, or ‘nine little streets’.
“There’s a rich cultural offering which continues off the beaten track.”
The cluster of short shopping avenues is situated within Amsterdam’s Canal Belt between the four main canals; Singel, Herengreacht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht, making it a particular delight to stroll around.
There you’ll find small units selling in vogue brands like backpack favourite Fjallraven and folding bike specialist Brompton to the likes of Vans and Toms. There are also arty and independent boutiques aplenty and vintage clothing outlets for shoestring through to luxury budgets.
Bij Ons Vintage on Reestraat stands out as an affordable Aladdin’s cave of retro clothing and accessories.
Of course De 9 Straatjes isn’t without its eateries too, which can get busy during the prime lunchtime hours on a Saturday afternoon.
I can vouch that Screaming Beans on Hartenstraat provides a comfy corner away from the bustle with a top cup of coffee.
The world famous Van Gogh Museum and the sprawling, architecturally stunning Rijksmuseum may have placed Amsterdam firmly on the map when it comes to art galleries, but there’s a rich cultural offering which continues off the beaten track.
Photography museum Foam came highly recommended to me and didn’t disappoint. You can lose hours walking around several floors of diverse exhibitions and collections within this somewhat discreet, canal-side venue on Keizersgracht.
Everything from hard-hitting photojournalism to artistic imagery sits inside the gallery, which brings works by international artists together under one roof and charges a reasonable ticket price of €11 for a standard adult entry. The price covers admission to the full museum including all temporary exhibitions.
Be sure to check out the newly launched Masahisa Fukase retrospective ‘Private Scenes’ which, until 12 December, provides a moving showcase of the work of the Japanese photographer (1934-2012).
Having been born into a family of photographers, Fukase achieved acclaim for experimental yet deeply personal exhibitions including ‘Kill the Pig’ and ‘Ravens’, of which work is currently on show at Foam.
Fit for a feast
- The food hall concept may have truly arrived in Liverpool during the last couple of years, but Amsterdam was ahead of the game.
Back in 2014 the Foodhallen opened inside De Hallen Amsterdam – an old tram depot turned leisure destination – bringing a range of bars and food stalls together under one roof.
A visit to the hall, which offers French patisserie treats to Vietnamese street food, dished up the perfect opportunity to try the Dutch bar snack bitterballen – croquette-like balls which are usually filled with meat.
De BallenBar, opened by Michelin star chef Peter Gast and his former sous chef Jeroen Elijzen in the hall, sells delicious taster trays of the traditional beef bitterballen alongside more creative fillings such as truffle and spinach and cheese from €6.50, and they’re definitely worth a try.
Foodhallen’s surroundings within De Hallen also feature a cinema, occasional stalls, and shops including The Maker Store filled with quality gifts by Amsterdam brands and makers.
- The historic Anne Frank House draws crowds of visitors and its Prinsengracht location, also facing the Amsterdam Tulip Museum, can be a busy place to be on a weekend.
If you’re braving the crowds to avoid missing out on these attractions, you can retreat to a quieter spot for lunch or dinner just minutes around the corner.
Tweede Tuindwarsstraat is a narrow street tucked away from the main roads and is brimming with eateries.
There you’ll find everything from sushi to vegetarian bites, but I’m told by Amsterdam insiders that pizza place La Perla and northern Spanish restaurant La Oliva are great options.
- Eat like a local by taking a trip to the haven of top produce that is Noordermarkt.
A farmer’s market joins the outdoor market from 9am-4pm on Saturdays and appears to be a hit with tourists and Amsterdam residents alike.
Cheeses, vegetables, bread, olives, meat, seafood, honey and cakes are among the treats for sale across the many stalls, which sit alongside the weekly offering of clothing and homeware.
- Spice up your visit with an evening meal of rijsttafel, meaning ‘rice table’. A popular dining experience around Amsterdam, it involves a long list of Indonesian dishes from a set menu being brought to the table at once with a hot plate to keep them warm.
Whilst the sweet and spicy dishes, accompanied by rice as well as cooling coconut and pickled vegetables, are authentically Indonesian, this serving concept has been adapted by the Dutch.
Puri Mas, situated along the busy hub of bars and eateries that is Lange Leidsedwarsstraat, is a bit of a hidden gem situated up on the first floor.
Head up the stairs and you’ll be welcomed by the long-running restaurant’s friendly and efficient staff, who’ll serve a substantial helping of flavoursome food.
All about ale
Amsterdam has a thriving offering of artisan beers, served in bars as exciting and diverse as their flavours.
Located under east Amsterdam’s De Gooyer Windmill, Brouwerij’t IJ is a must-visit for any ale fan.
Established in 1985, the brewery creates an assortment of always available beers as well as seasonal and limited edition brews in its old bathhouse building, which also houses its pub.
Open from 2-8pm daily, the bar provides a compact, atmospheric place to drink indoors or, if the weather allows, you can sit outside and enjoy the sight of the windmill which dates back to 1725.
And for unique character you surely can’t beat Roest – a converted warehouse on Oostenburg Island that’s brimming with creativity.
An interesting selection of bottled beers, including the likes of locally made botanical brews by Lowlander, are on offer at the quirky venue, which has an outdoor terrace and ‘beach’.
More than a bar though, Roest opens until late and hosts a programme of DJs and events.
Up close and personal
If you like a museum that’s unique, interactive and interesting for all ages, you can’t go wrong with Micropia – the world’s first museum of microbes.
Introducing visitors to millions of the living beings we can’t see, this fascinating ticketed attraction also highlights the effect they have on man and nature.
Scan your body to discover how many microbes are on it and what they do, and peep through microscopes to get a close up glimpse of samples of tiny life.
There are also exhibits to touch and smell as well as screens displaying engaging animations to tell the story of microbes and their potential benefits.
And when you’re not peering through the window into a functioning laboratory, insight into household microbes, infections and the possibility of using microbes as sustainable materials are particularly thought-provoking.
Situated in the city’s lovely Plantage district, described as the ‘Cultural Garden of Amsterdam’, Micropia forms part of ARTIS Amsterdam Royal Zoo.
Away from major tourist traps, it’s surrounded by greenspaces like Oosterpark and a host of other attractions including The Dutch Resistance Museum, which is worthy of a visit as it explores the difficult choices faced by Dutch people during World War II.
Nearby café Box Sociaal is ideally placed as a brunch spot to fuel a day of zoo and museum exploring, and serves up delicious dishes including stroopwafels, breakfast sandwiches and locally roasted coffee in a chilled out setting.
A fast-paced food scene
Since moving to Amsterdam 22 years ago, Kirkby chef Graham Mee has achieved Michelin stars and set up new foodie ventures.
He now runs his own casual-style fine dining restaurant, Graham’s Kitchen, in the city’s trendy De Pijp district. The eatery, which has been open for two and a half years, focuses on quality produce and incorporates the Roby-trained chef’s British background through ingredients, culinary twists and vibrant murals and photographs of Liverpool.
He brings us up to speed on Amsterdam’s fast-paced and thriving food and drink scene:
- Why did you choose the De Pijp area for Graham’s Kitchen?
“It’s slightly off the beaten track, which can go against you of course but it’s a really nice area.“Twenty years ago when I first came to live here it wasn’t very good, but it’s not even up and coming any more, it’s already arrived!”
- Was there a broad food and drink scene when you moved to Amsterdam?
“No, but I think the whole world has upped itself in the food scene. Everything’s gone super fresh and super local with as much organic produce as possible, and that’s how we work now as well.“When I first came it was casual pub food and Indonesian rice tables and that’s all there was, but now it’s a huge food scene.”
- What are the best things about Amsterdam’s food and drink scene now?
“They have great products in Holland – fantastic fish and seafood, fantastic meats, fantastic vegetables. They’re really great products and that’s really changed. The scene is much more about the flavours, about [using] local.“Amsterdam is also a bit of a hip and trendy city so you have trends. A restaurant will open and everyone flocks to it and it’s all about ‘this scene’, and then six months later the crowd moves and you’re left empty so it’s important to build and build and not just be like that. Luckily we’ve been here for two and a half years now and we’re not that.”