Amsterdam, the Canal City of the North!
Updated: Jun 5, 2022
What began as a small fishing settlement on the dikes containing the Amstel River, Amsterdam became established as a village in the late 13th century. The city experienced its 'Golden Age' during the 17th century when it became a global leader of trade and exploration. Amsterdam's pivotal role in TRADE, largely due to its ideal location, fueled its TOLERANT attitudes, for they needed to GET ALONG with ALL, in order to facilitate trade. Over the years this has resulted in a country that, TODAY, is a hotbed destination as a bastion of progressive ideologies and alternative lifestyles. With its many canals, bicycles, museums, galleries, bars, and coffee shops, Amsterdam attracts 10 million foreign tourists during the hot summer months of July and August, alone. The "off-season", however, could be more attractive and charming, as the crowds are thinner, the canals icy, and the bicycles dusted with snow.
I visited during late October prior to the pandemic. Despite the cooler crisp weather, the bars and restaurants were still bustling and overflowing to the outdoors under the many heat lamps. I particularly enjoyed settling into the warm cozy art museums and getting lost in the collections of the Masters! In this blog, I want to share with you some fun things to see and do in Amsterdam, EVEN during the "off-season's" cooler months. I am fortunate to have an amazing and talented cousin, named Klara, who is half Dutch and lived in Amsterdam for several years, having just recently moved back to the USA. I asked her to be a guest contributor to this blog so that she could offer recommendations from the perspective of a 'local', or an 'ex-pat' to be more accurate. I hope you enjoy her insights, as follows.
Hello! Klara here— I lived in Amsterdam and the surrounding area for about 3 1/2 years and WOW, what a fantastic city it is. The locals BIKE everywhere no matter the season— winter does not deter them. It is the absolute best way to get around. So if you dare, I highly recommend renting one for your visit. If you are not quite that bold, the trams are another great option. Something I love about the Netherlands is that outdoor seating is commonly open throughout the winter, as well. The temperatures are fairly mild, the indoor spaces are often tight and with a couple of heat lamps and sometimes even a blanket in the offering, it can be the best place to sit, watch the passersby, enjoy your food, and a nice warm beverage. So, pack warm clothes and rain-gear, particularly during the winter months, as rain is a regular guest in the Netherlands and there is nothing worse than walking or biking around sopping wet! Lastly, download an offline google map, or buy yourself an old-school one, so that you can easily navigate stress-free.
Due to COVID-19 some of my recommendations may be temporarily closed or running with limitations for the time being. Let’s hope that they will withstand these hard times and can open again when we are on the other side of this pandemic.
Hop on the ferry at Central Station and cross the Ij River up to the NDSM stop in Amsterdam Noord (north). A short, 5-10 minute walk away, bearing towards the right, you’ll see what appears to be a mass of shipping containers. Walk through the door and you’ll be greeted by an airy, spacious room full of eclectic furniture with an amazing view towards the main part of Amsterdam. The food and beer are excellent. Be sure to check out their bathroom at some point during your visit— you won’t regret it. Pllek, a play on the word 'plek' meaning spot in Dutch, IS A SPOT that also hosts all kinds of music, yoga, and dance events.
If you are interested in delicious, organic, vegetarian food and sustainable practices, this is the place for you. Located on the water in Amsterdam Noord, it is one part of a conglomerate of sustainably planned workspaces for creative and social enterprises. It was a former shipyard but now is home to entrepreneurs and artists. It is a pretty wild concept, so I've added the picture below, taken from their website to show you the overall complex. The cafe is at the top left corner. Many of the studios are built out of old boats!! In addition to the workspaces and the café, the plot hosts a cultural venue, spaces to rent, and even a floating bed and breakfast. Guests are very welcome to walk around the area. I will say that this place is very laid-back, relaxed, slow-moving with strong hippie vibes; so if that’s not for you perhaps trying another place on this list would be a better option!
Hotel de Goudfazant ('gold pheasant hotel')
Here is another one in Amsterdam Noord. I clearly favor this part of the city. This place is the epitome of industrial chic. The menu is a Dutch-French combo and though it is only written in Dutch, the staff, nearly all fluent in English, are more than happy to translate. There are even old classic cars parked throughout the vast space as an ode to its past “life” as a massive GARAGE. Be sure to make a reservation in advance.
This one is in Oost, the eastern part of the city. Do not be deceived by the name. Though Bar Botanique serves alcohol, it is more of a cafe and restaurant than a bar. This space is a modern, art deco greenhouse full of lush plants and light, with each detail thoughtfully designed by Studio Modijefsky, a group of female designers. The greenery is sure to brighten your spirit during the grey, Dutch winter months. It goes without saying that the menu matches the visual deliciousness of the restaurant’s design.
Bars + Music Venues
Nowadays, much of the Dutch population is secular. As religion began to fade, CHURCHES such as this one became vacant. In the late 60’s it was squatted by hippies who wanted to convert it into an entertainment club. That same year the government intervened and shortly after reopened it as a publicly subsidized youth entertainment center. It has evolved into a truly amazing music venue, hosting an impressive array of internationally acclaimed artists from David Bowie to the Chemical Brothers. The stained glass windows and electric atmosphere make for a very special music experience. Have a look at their show schedule online and be sure to order your tickets in advance.
Cafe Gollem (Raamsteeg)
My precious!! This cozy, little brown bar has the most authentic, ‘gezellig’ atmosphere and an unbelievable selection of beers. It is classic Dutch! 'Brown bars' literally have a goldish-brown color from years and years of exposure to cigarette smoke. I must say, I'm so glad that smoking is no longer permitted inside, but there is something quite fetching about this patinaed look and feel. They have six locations and I’d bet that they are all great, although I’ve only been to the Raamsteeg location myself.
A small brewery located next to a windmill with scrumptious beers and cheese platters. You can’t get more Dutch than that!
Shops & Markets
This flea market, located inside of a former SHIPYARD, is the biggest in Europe! The vendors have everything you can imagine from Delftware to clothing to bikes. Unfortunately, it is only held 1-2x per month. Be sure to check online for the schedule. If your trip does not fall on an event date, do not fret. This whole area is surrounded by street art, creative studios, and cafes, including Pllek, mentioned above. So go have a gander, regardless!
De 9 Straatjes / The 9 little Streets
Not just one shop, but an entire little neighborhood of them! This charming part of Amsterdam is full of hip, independent boutiques and cafes. It is a short walk from the city center and is well worth seeing. Make a pit stop at Cafe Gollem while you’re there.
“Droog” meaning dry, is a Dutch conceptual design company. The shop and showroom are full of special objects, some cheeky and quirky ('dry-humored', if you will), others simple and elegant. Aside from the shop, there is a maze of galleries and a wonderful cafe. Peruse around and be sure to treat yourself to a cappuccino and sandwich before you head out.
My favorite home and kitchen store! If you like to cook, this place is paradise. All of their goods are affordable and simple.
This is an amazing treasure trove that you should NOT miss in Amsterdam. It is the Dutch national museum showcasing the history and art of the country including many masterpieces by the Dutch artists Rembrandt, Hals, and Vermeer. Online tickets with time-slot reservations are essential to adhere to social distancing policies.
The VanGogh Museum
Located just across the museum plaza from the Rijksmuseum sits the Van Gogh Museum. I particularly loved this museum and found it to be very intimate; smaller and focused on ONE individual ... the post-impressionist master, Vincent VanGogh. In addition to a display of hundreds of his paintings are personal letters that were written between him and his brother, Theo. Time-slot reservations are required.
The Stedelijk Museum
Neighboring the Van Gogh and Rijks museums is a building that resembles a larger-than-life bathtub. This is the new wing of the Stedelijk, designed by Benthem Crouwel Architects. This international museum is dedicated to modern and contemporary art and design. The permanent collection is vast with work by artists such as Pablo Picasso, Alvar Aalto, Piet Mondriaan, Gerrit Reitveld, and Andy Warhol.
Rembrandt van Rijn is considered to be one of the most prolific artists in the history of art. This museum was his HOME for much of his life during the Dutch Golden Age. Through your visit, you will get to understand the artist's life, his inspirations, and the techniques that he used to create his work.
As Klara noted above, Holland, today, has become quite secular. But in the 17th century, the religious climate was quite different, as Holland was in the thick of the Protestant Reformation. Most of the religious at that time were Calvinists, whereas Catholics were persecuted and forbidden to openly practice their faith. During that time the Roman Catholic churches needed to 'go into hiding'. But rather than going 'underground', they established themselves in attic spaces of various canal homes throughout the city. One such church which I visited is called Our Lord in the Attic (Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder). Having seen countless churches, cathedrals, and basilicas throughout Europe during my years of travel, I have never seen anything quite like this. The merchant's canal house consisted of living quarters on the lower few floors with a secret wooden staircase that led to the 'sacred' attic space. This hidden "attic church" is open both for services or simply touring. Whether you are a believer, or not, the attic church is certainly very interesting from a historical perspective. This attic church is located on the top two floors of the canal house in the photo below, surprisingly, in the Red Light District.
Having mentioned the Red Light District, I want to point out that while both prostitution AND Catholicism were once illegal, BOTH were TOLERATED. In a fascinating way, both 'sex workers' and Catholics were great for the ECONOMY. Sex workers provided services for merchants and tradesmen for financial gain, whereas Catholics stoked miracles that attracted pilgrims who were a boom to the economy. Such tolerance enabled Amsterdam to thrive.
With the gracious help of Klara, we hope to have enlightened you to some authentic venues in Amsterdam, less frequented by tourists. I am amazed by the diversity that the city offers. From restaurants, markets, galleries, and design, the city is clearly at the forefront of PROGRESSIVE thought. Amsterdam exudes energy and excitement for the promotion of a future that is clean, green, and sustainable. Although I have been to Amsterdam previously, I am anxious to re-visit the city and explore the "locals scene" based on the recommendations of none other than ... a LOCAL!
My cousin, Klara Varosy, is an artist and designer who now lives in Salem, NY. You can check out her many projects at https://www.klaravarosy.com. If you happen to catch the 'Meet Vincent Van Gogh' multi-sensory exhibit as it tours the world, then you may encounter her talent firsthand.