In recent months, I’ve been asked a number of times to advise whether an Airbnb, hotel or apartment is in a safe/well-connected/family friendly area of Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is a tiny city, and accommodation in the centre is at a huge premium which means that it is often unaffordable for travelling families or those on a tighter budget. Airbnb and other providers make options slightly outside the centre tempting but without insider knowledge of a city, you might be concerned that that sweet little apartment is actually in the heart of a sketchy part of town.
So this is my attempt to summarise Amsterdam’s various neighbourhoods and give you a bit of insider knowledge when booking your next getaway.
I’ve broadly grouped areas to the North, South, East and West of the city centre, and within each section I’ve vaguely fanned out from closest to furthest away.
Almost every district has something to offer but understanding the neighbourhood should hopefully give you a little more insight. Remember – Amsterdam is really very, very small, it’s not LA, Mexico City or London, so even the furthest locations out of town are are accessible on public transport and many areas are walking distance to some wonderful sights.
The very core of Amsterdam centre is the canal ring of the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht and Herengracht canals. Accommodation here is eye-wateringly expensive but as beautiful as the area is, it’s also incredibly crowded and you don’t need to be based on the 9 Little Streets to enjoy its wonders.
Dam Square, The Red Light District, Central Station and Nieuwmarkt
As in many large cities, the area around Amsterdam’s Central Station is not particularly lovely. Packed with tourists, souvenir shops and in Amsterdam’s case coffee shops, the streets can feel overwhelmingly full of the stag and hen night brigade, giving visitors to the city a bad name. We always recommend avoiding the fake Argentinian restaurants around Dam Square, the desperately depressing Red Light District with trafficked girls – few of whom actually want to be there – and the polluted Rokin or the chain shops along the Kalverstraat. There are however a few redeeming pockets. Nieuwmarkt (despite its name one of the oldest parts of the city) has some lovely corners and canals and the theatre district around Nes has some hidden highlights. Overall though despite being the very heart of Amsterdam, this is an area best traveled-through rather than somewhere to linger.
Now we’re talking. This used to be the working class area of the city but is now one of the most desirable locations in Amsterdam. Properties here are in huge demand, especially on the Brouwersgracht or Brewers Canal known as one of the most beautiful in the city. The area is still home to many brown cafes – Amsterdam’s equivalent of old smoky pubs and despite the gentrification the area is still packed with character. Home to the Anne Frank House, and the lovely Noordermarkt, if you can afford to stay around here you’re in for a treat.
One of our other favourite areas is The Pijp – the equivalent of Paris’ Left Bank. Formerly home to the city’s students it is now a hip and buzzing neighbourhood packed with restaurants and bars and location of the sweet Sarphatipark. When we buy the pied à terre of our dreams, this is where we’d love to be based. Close to the centre but not in the heart of the tourist trap and surrounded by many of our favourite places to eat and drink, you won’t find canals here but don’t let that put you off – the little streets packed with great food more than make up for it. The students have long since been priced out of The Pijp but it retains a Latin Quarter feel with cafe’s and terraces and the city’s incredible Albert Cuyp Market running through its central artery.
Oud Zuid (Old South)/Museum District
Oud Zuid is a very upmarket area close to the Museum District, the location of the Rijks and Van Gogh Museums as well as the magnificent Vondelpark – Amsterdam’s version of Central Park. Home to many expats and wealthy locals, houses here sell for millions along leafy streets, and its proximity to the city centre makes it a glorious if pricey place to stay. The UK equivalent would be Chelsea or Fulham and the Range Rovers parked along the streets give you as good an indication to the types who reside here.
Rivierenbuurt and Buitenveldert
These two areas have a very different feel but are located either side of Amsterdam’s main ring road. Both are strongly residential areas and both have a history of housing Amsterdam’s Jewish population after they moved away from the Plantage area or Jodenbuurt (Jewish neighbourhood) at the time of the war. Rivierenbuurt was built in the 20’s and 30’s and features numerous examples of Amsterdam School architecture. Before the war, many German Jews fled here and indeed it is where Anne Frank lived and went to school before going into hiding. After the war, the few surviving Jews moved a little further out, often to suburbs like Buitenveldert. The area around the upmarket shopping centre the Gelderlandplein is the core of today’s Jewish population and the Beethovenstraat which runs up to the Oud Zuid district is equivalent to London’s Hampstead High Street.
Amstelveen, several stops further along tram lines 5 and 51 is one of the largest suburbs around Amsterdam. Really a city in itself with its own (very good) city-centre shopping complex, it contains residential neighbourhoods and a large number of expats. Although there are are apartment buildings in the area, most residents live in houses with small gardens and the Amsterdamse Bos – the city’s vast and wonderful man-made forest runs along the western edge. This is where Marc’s mum lives and we commute regularly into the city along its tram arteries – a 20 minute hop to the city centre canals.
Formerly known as the Jodenbuurt or Jewish neighbourhood, this small and elegant district has many large and historic properties and is home to Artis the city’s marvellous zoo. Other highlights include Hortus Botanicus the botantical gardens and a number of museums as well as the gorgeous Hoftuin gardens with the lovely little Dignita Cafe.
Oost has traditionally been one of the most diverse areas of Amsterdam. At its core is the Indische Buurt or Indies Neighbourhood and street names like Balistraat and Javastraat further underline its heritage. As the students were pushed out of The Pijp, many migrated further East and have settled in this hip, edgy district. As with most Amsterdam neighbourhoods, at the heart of the area lies a park – in this case the large and communal Oosterpark, home to hiphop festival Appelsap as well as world music festival Roots and the unique Keti Koti festival celebrating Surinamese independence from slavery. One of our favourite restaurants – Wilde Zwijnen – is also based here.
Oosterlijke Eilanden (Eastern Docklands)
Amsterdam’s Eastern Docklands are an interesting and quirky area to explore. Formerly the shipyards of the East India Trading Company they feature modern architecture and some landmark buildings like the extraordinary Scheepvaart (Maritime) Museum as well as the Muziekgebouw Concert Hall. Other highlights include urban beach Roest, hip hangout Hanneke’s Boom and Brouwerij T’Ij microbrewery – in general this is not a particularly residential area but definitely a vibrant one. Do be aware however that it is not especially well served by the tram network.
Still further Southeast, you will come to Ijburg, four reclaimed islands that were only constructed in the late 90’s . With new islands still in development, this is a young district with a very different feel to old Amsterdam centre. Famous in the main for its urban party beach Blijburg that is a mecca for hipsters and sun-seekers and just 15 minutes from Central Station by tram, this is an interesting and very young district.
This residential area (a former polder and the lowest lying part of the city) was traditionally a very working class neighbourhood that has always had a strong sense of community. Still home to many lower and middle income families, it provides affordable housing along with small gardens to its many residents. It’s most famous former resident was football icon Johan Cruijff and his childhood home has been preserved along with more visible tributes such as the huge mural that has been created in his memory. By complete contrast, the gorgeous Frankendael Park is the last remnant of 17th and 18th century life in the area when wealthy Amsterdammers built estates as a way of escaping the city on weekends. It is now home to the extraordinary greenhouse restaurant De Kas. One of the dining highlights in this foodie city.
Less busy than the Vondelpark, we are huge fans of the Westerpark and surrounding area. Home to the extraordinary Westergasfabriek complex, this area also includes the Haarlemmerstraat and Haarlemmerdijk – streets full of quirky independent businesses and a really independent vibe. Walking distance to the Jordaan and town. This is another super area to base yourself and another place we would love to live.
Oud West (Old West)
The Oud West district has been transformed in recent years with the arrival of the regenerated De Hallen complex. Home to the fantastic Foodhallen food mecca as well as a gorgeous cinema and some hip businesses, the whole area has seen an influx of some of the hottest eateries in the city. Well connected to the centre via public transport, the area is also home to the Ten Kate market which is an authentic Amsterdam market packed with produce, clothing, plants and more. Many families are moving out to this area, again priced out of the more traditionally desirable areas.
Houthavens and Zeeheldenbuurt
Not to be outdone by the Eastern Docklands, seven new islands are being built on the Western side of Central Station. This massive development involves numerous high rise and high-end apartments and will see a complete regeneration of the area. It’s worth noting that both the Eastern and Western islands are very exposed, and likely to be bitterly cold when the wind blows!
Zeeheldenbuurt – a more established area and home to the lovely Yays is closer to the Westerpark and Haarlemmerbuurt. It is a small residential area with some lovely local restaurants and businesses as well as a number of regenerated warehouses and once again, just a short hop from town.
Bos en Lommer and De Baarsjes
These districts are best described as the Hackney or Brixton of Amsterdam. Diverse and multicultural, they have become more happening over recent years as the cost of living in the city has pushed increasing numbers of young people further out. Lots of concept stores and restaurants are now dotted around its central streets and there are very good connections to the centre. De Baarsjes still retains a strong Surinamese, Turkish and Moroccan population and some of the country’s most famous footballers grew up and learned to play in this area including Ruud Gullit, Dennis Bergkamp and Frank Rijkaard.
Nieuw-West, Sloterdijk and Slotermeer
Sloterdijk is a fairly unlovely business area to the West of the City. It benefits from great transport connections to Schipol and Central Station but has little to redeem it as an area to stay unless you are working in the business park. Nieuw-West has more to offer with lots of green areas, post war housing and a large man made lake, though again it is not the picture-perfect Amsterdam you might be dreaming of.
The North side of the River Ij is an interesting part of Amsterdam. Although it has seen numerous exciting developments in its warehouse restaurants and cultural centres along the water’s edge, it has typically been under-served by public transport. Right now, aside from commuters using the free ferry over to Central Station, the majority of people take buses or cars along the Ijtunnel which can get hugely congested at peak times. This Summer sees the opening of Amsterdam’s North-South metro line which is a huge development, however there are still only two stops on the North side of the river in contrast to the 6 scattered through the South. For first time visitors, I would not particularly recommend a base in Amsterdam Noord given the huge variety of options available and more accessible to the South.
The Bijlmer has an enormously interesting history and I’d strongly recommend anyone who wants to know more about the area to listen to the brilliant two-part Roman Mars ‘99% Invisible’ podcast that was made recently about it. Initially devised as an Modernist architectural dream, the reality turned into somewhat of a disaster and it has been through a number of incarnations since – not least following the dreadful El Al plane crash of 1992 in which 48 people were killed. What remains are large numbers of high-rise purpose-built buildings in honeycomb shapes, in stark contrast to the clogs and tulips Amsterdam idyll imagined by tourists. It is one of the city’s most diverse neighbourhoods with both more recent and long-standing immigrants from over 150 different countries (the Surinamese community is particularly highly represented). More recently it has become the city’s entertainment centre with the city’s premiere music venue the Ziggo Dome and the Johan Cruijff Arena – home to Amsterdam’s mighty football club Ajax.
Out of Town
Just 20 minutes from Amsterdam’s Central Station by train lies the lovely old city of Haarlem. Packed with history, great shopping and dining options as well as great schools, many families have relocated to Haarlem and for those looking for a slightly cheaper place to stay should definitely consider this area. Not only are transport links to Amsterdam frequent and quick but the city is also close to some of the Netherlands’ loveliest beaches at Zandvoort and Bloemendaal so for a slightly longer Summer stay its a great option to consider.
If you want to find more about where to eat and what to do in each of Amsterdam’s areas, click on the area links in the site navigation.
Or for a list of our foodie highlights, check out this post with our favourite Amsterdam restaurants and cafés and this link for heaps of inspiration for places to go with kids both in and out of town.