When I visit a new city for the first time, I find myself wanting a kind of shortcut. A local in my pocket, offering a detailed insider’s guide to the best streets and photo opportunities.
Being married to an Amsterdammer meant I was lucky enough to have just that – a personal concierge steering me round its picturesque corners and secret squares. Tell most people you’re off to Amsterdam though and you can expect stories of stag nights, lost weekends and knowing winks. For many visitors, the seedy tourist lowlights are all they ever see – a world away from the city we know and love. There may have been a time in your life when exploring the seamy side was fun, but if you’re reading our blog we’re hoping it’s because you want to get to know the real Amsterdam and we’ll do our best to steer you towards all that’s magical about it.
So here then is a guide to the Amsterdam you’ve been dreaming of. The streets packed with concept stores and eateries; the markets that locals actually go to, the squares where they sit on a terrace for an early evening drink and the Instagrammable spots that will make your friends jealous. Time to leave the shadier parts to those who don’t know any better, and let’s be clear, you will never ever find a true Amsterdammer in a city centre coffee shop.
Amsterdam’s canal belt is picture perfect, but if you want to avoid the hen night brigade, stick to the big three – the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht and Herengracht. All along and between these canals, the view and atmosphere is lovely. This area also includes the wonderful Negen Straatjes (9 Streets) which are packed with great places to stop and shop.
By the time you get inwards of the Singel canal however, things get more hectic and less attractive. The Kalverstraat is touristy and packed with cookie-cutter international chain stores; Rokin and Damrak are busy and polluted and despite the Bloemenmarkt romantically calling itself the only floating flower market in the world, it is in fact a total waste of touristy time and somewhere no local would EVER buy flowers. Amsterdammers also avoid the areas around the Leidseplein and Dam Square and do everything to avoid the Rembrandtplein. There are some destination dining gems scattered within the Red Light District, but in general it’s a pretty seedy and unattractive area to wander around – the tourist hostels, burger bars and coffee shops are the best indicator that you’re heading away from the nicer parts of the city.
The museum district is great and includes the area to the south of the Rijksmuseum. Here of course you’ll find a number of the city’s major museums as well as the expansive Museumplein. Sadly the Iamsterdam letters have long gone but there’s skating in Winter or chilling in Summer.
This district is also the area to find Amsterdam’s most upmarket shops – if you’re looking to splash the cash Amsterdam’s version of Bond Street – the nearby PC Hooftstraat – is the place to go.
Alternatively on the southern side of the Vondelpark and south west of the Rijks you’ll find the Oud Zuid area which is one of the most expensive places to live in the city. As well as incredible houses overlooking the park, you’ll find the smart Cornelis Schuytstraat (Amsterdam’s Fulham or Chelsea) which has some beautiful boutiques and classy cafe’s including people-watching classics like Joffers and George WPA If you want to pass for a local, park your Range Rover on the pavement, get your shades on and be sure to see and be seen
Amsterdam Zuid is another upmarket district south of the Rijks with its main artery the Beethovenstraat best described as Amsterdam’s Hampstead High Street. It is a little more low key than Oud Zuid but you’ll still find a pretty upmarket clientele
If you’re looking for a street in the city-centre with independent stores and cafe’s, the Utrechtestraat could be for you. Wander over canals flush with concept stores and some of the city’s restaurant gems, stop for a coffee, some lunch or evening drinks or just grab a herring from the stand.
The Pijp is a cool neighbourhood often described as the city’s “Left Bank”. Formerly a student area, these days sky-high rents mean the students are long gone, but it is packed with hip cafes and quirky boutiques. Start exploring the area around Eerste van der Helstraat, Ferdinand Bolstraat and the gorgeous Gerard Doestraat. Best of all is the traditional Albert Cuyp Market which is still authentic despite the foodie hotspots popping up around its edges.
Looking for somewhere more edgy? Prices have pushed the cool kids further outwards these days. The hippest areas are currently around Javastraat in the eastern Indishce Buurt (literally Indies neighbourhood, a diverse area historically home to many of the city’s immigrants); north of the River Ij around NDSM Wharf – an old shipyard that’s become a cool hotspot; and the western neighborhoods including former no-go areas like De Baarsjes and Bos en Lommer.
The Haarlemmerstraat stretches from the centre of town out towards the wonderful Westerpark (the name changes to Haarlemmerdijk when you cross over the Prinsengracht canal) and its definitely worth a visit. Whilst you’ll spot a few shady coffee shops and bars at the start of the street they quickly fall away as you head further west which is dense with independent stores and cafe’s worth a peek.
De Hallen and the West
The area around the De Hallen complex (a former tramshed converted into a thriving cultural centre) has been completely transformed in the last few years. What was once a downmarket area is now vibrant and packed with shops and eateries. The Kinkerstraat is a good place to start. From there be sure to head out to Bilderdijkstraat, Bellamystraat, De Clerqstraat and Jan Evertenstraat.
Best Amsterdam Square
If you want to find an authentic square to stop and have a drink or a bite to eat, head to the Noordmarkt in the Jordaan. Its home to the wonderful Winkel 43 where you can taste the world’s greatest apple pie but you’ll also find an organic farmers’ market on Saturdays and flea market on Sundays.
Amsterdam’s best secret garden
Looking for some greenery? Amsterdam’s parks and green spaces are a must. Head to the incredible Vondelpark which is the city’s version of Central Park or check out on of my favourites the Begijnhof. This amazingly peaceful spot off the hectic Spui is an inner courtyard from the Middle Ages which used to house a Catholic sisterhood and where older single women still reside in traditional 16th and 17th century houses today. There’s also a lovely little church and chapel in the square and it’s accessed by a sweet vaulted tunnel. It’s not quite a secret garden as it features in most guide books but there’s still something utterly gorgeous and calm about it in the middle of one of the most bustling parts of the city.
If however you really after a hidden garden, make your way to Lion Noir which has one of the city’s most beautiful and tranquil spots for outside dining.
Best Amsterdam terrace
Amsterdammers argue endlessly about the city’s best terrace. There are hundreds to choose from and they range from urban beaches to riverside cafes. You can finds lots listed on our Amsterdam by season post but for me there’s something special about the tiny, canalside terrace of Cafe t’Smalle in the Jordaan.
Amsterdam’s most “Instagrammable” spot
Photo opportunities in the city abound, and there’s an Instagram moment around every corner. We’d recommend the Brouwersgracht or “Brewers Canal” – allegedly the most beautiful street in the city. Another notoriously gorgeous location is on Staalstraat, if you stand on the small bridge where it meets Groenburgwal you’ll have a perfectly framed shot down the canal with houses on either side and a small church tower in the middle. My personal favourite though is where the Keizersgracht meets the Reguliersgracht, giving bridge and canal views in all directions – apparently if you get the angle right it’s possible to see 7 bridges in a row.
As you can tell, there are so many gorgeous hotspots that it’s hard to narrow things down, however by broadly sticking to the locations above you’re pretty much guaranteed to fall in love with the city I’ve come to think of as my second home