Authentic Amsterdam

Bridges Fins & Vins restaurant attracted great international buzz after the Netherlands’ top food critic scored it 10 out of 10.

It’s a quiet village, a thriving artistic community and a cultural dark horse. The people are relaxed and cheerful; helpfully, English is the Netherlands’ second language. The city has galleries to rival Paris and waterways to challenge Venice, and it is said the Russian tsar, Peter the Great, took Amsterdam as the inspiration for St Petersburg. From its shores the Dutch ruled the seas for a century. Why, then, is this city with so much to offer usually only associated with its red-light district? 

Sure, Amsterdam’s red-light district reflects the liberal, practical attitude of the locals and offers a vibrant point of difference in comparison to other European cities. However, Amsterdam’s tolerance of prostitution and marijuana has attracted a particular type, leading to its dismissal as ‘seedy’ among travellers. 

“Whenever I say I live in Amsterdam, people think of the red-light district and the coffee shops,” says Australian expat Pia Jane Bijkerk, author of Amsterdam: Made By Hand, a guide to exploring the city’s artistic community. “It’s the perfect facade because it keeps people away from the real Amsterdam – the international city with a village atmosphere.”

Known to the locals as De Wallen, the red-light district is one of the most interesting and historical areas to explore. The areas grouped around Amsterdam’s concentric rings of canals are just as fascinating and perfect for exploring on foot or by bike or boat. Start in De Wallen and work your way around.

Grand Canals

The medieval Zeedijk, where gabled buildings warp at odd angles, exhausted from centuries of standing up straight, is one of the best streets for experiencing old Amsterdam. Walking along, you 

pass the Café ’t Mandje, a gay-friendly bar opened in 1927 by Bet van Beeren, a lesbian known as Queen of the Zeedijk, as well as a Buddhist temple and character-filled cafes such as Wijs & Sons tea house, where a surly ginger house cat called Pipi rules the roost. 

The Zeedijk ends where the canal begins, and if you continue walking south you’ll find a slender passageway called Oudemanhuispoort on your right. It’s the entrance to one of Amsterdam’s hidden gems, a second-hand book market held in a tiny, covered passageway used by locals as a short cut to the city centre. If you rummage here you might find a first edition of The Little Prince, a dog-eared copy of The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh or a book of African lullabies.

The other side of the passage leads to a series of quiet canals lined with residential buildings, part of a network of canals that was recently inscribed on the World Heritage List. Located here is the city’s most exclusive and historical hotel, Sofitel Legend The Grand, which underwent a A$66-million, three-and-a-half-year renovation that was completed in 2010. The building was the headquarters of the Dutch Admiralty in the 1600s, it served as the city’s town hall, and it’s where the current ruling monarch, Queen Beatrix, was married in 1966.

The hotel is an example of the city’s ability to balance history with modern design, winning the coveted Villegiature Award for Best Hotel Interior Design in Europe 2010. French interior designer Sybille de Margerie hand-picked seven students from the Netherlands’ Design Academy Eindhoven to consult on the refurbishment, capitalising on their knowledge of Dutch history to illuminate the historical features of the hotel. The Grand has an elegant, modern interior that combines fairytale lighting with a deep purple, chocolate and orange palette.

The hotel is also behind the renowned culinary event Stars Food & Art, which takes place annually in November and involves 12 Michelin-starred chefs (with 24 stars between them) preparing an exclusive six-course dinner to raise money for the Dutch Red Cross.

Just down the road from The Grand is Bridges Fins & Vins, a restaurant that attracted great international buzz after the Netherlands’ top food critic, Johannes van Dam, scored it 10 out of 10 within the first three months of its opening in 2009. The New York Times agreed, declaring it “the best seafood restaurant in Amsterdam”.

“I believe it is important to work with delicious seasonal and locally sourced products. They provide the ultimate flavour,” says chef de cuisine Aurélien Poirot, whose creations include gratinated oysters from Zeeland with hollandaise sauce and orange, and yellowfin tuna tartare American-style with pommes pont neuf and baby leaf salad.

Considering its critically acclaimed fine diners, luxury hotels, old-world book market and historical cafes, Amsterdam’s De Wallen isn’t exactly what you might expect – proof that the red-light district is not the sum of the city’s parts but simply a thread in the many experiences woven throughout the city.

De Wallen isn’t the only neighbourhood worth exploring. Choosing which areas to explore is key to enjoying a destination, says Bijkerk, whose memoir, My Heart Wanders, recounts her experience of living on a houseboat in Amsterdam. “Walking, wandering and cycling is the perfect way to get to know Amsterdam and discover the little local parts,” she says. “If you can avoid the main thoroughfares you’ll find the quintessential Amsterdam life.”

She recommends visitors seek out residential areas such as De Pijp and the Jordaan, a bohemian community filled with artists and ateliers. The streets of the Jordaan are lined with small cafes and pubs, and tall chestnut trees shade the multicoloured houseboats moored along the canals. In spring, ducks and swans nest in sheltered spots, ready to accept a dry bread crust thrown from a window. The Jordaan is also one of the best places to sneak a look at the hofjes, the inner courtyards hidden behind the slender gabled buildings, which are often left unlocked. 

Walking along the canals at night, it is striking how quiet the city can be. Often, your only company is the swans, a glimpse of gliding white ghosts. The buildings slouch into one another as if asleep, and there is an opportunity to see, in passing, the ground-floor homes of Dutch neighbours unhidden by curtains.

Museum Central

To understand the cultural heart of the city, Bijkerk recommends starting with Rembrandt House, which has been restored and furnished as it was during the artist’s lifetime. “Of the museums, 

it’s the most understated. It’s Rembrandt’s house as it was in the 1600s with all his paintings, his incredible collection of artefacts and his studio,” she says.

It’s awe-inspiring to stand in Rembrandt’s studio, sunlight pouring into the top-floor rooms. Often, the museum has a portrait artist working, and during most visits there are demonstrations of Rembrandt’s etching and printing techniques, with visitors’ hands becoming pitch-black as they help the attendant press the etchings just as Rembrandt did hundreds of years ago.

It’s this kind of distinctive experience that makes Amsterdam one of the most culturally rich cities in Europe. In fact, Amsterdam has more museums per square metre than any other country.

The establishment of the Hermitage Amsterdam in 2009 exemplifies the city’s increasing cultural capital. Situated in a prize location on the Amstel River, it is the first satellite museum for the Hermitage in St Petersburg. 

Opening a branch in Amsterdam was an easy choice for one of the world’s largest and most prestigious museums. The two cities have always had close ties. According to Frans van der Avert of the Hermitage, “Peter the Great was a Dutchophile. He loved the Netherlands. He took the whole semi-crescent canal model with him to St Petersburg, but there it was 10 times as big.”

The Hermitage is a permanent space for temporary exhibitions. “You always find something unique and temporary – a big blockbuster show that offers something you can’t find elsewhere in Amsterdam,” says van der Avert. The museum is currently showing Splendour and Glory: Art of the Russian Orthodox Church, which follows a diverse program that has included exhibitions on Alexander the Great, modernism and the Russian court.

The Hermitage is one of many museums that takes part in the annual Museum Night, where more than 45 museums and galleries throw open the doors until 2am with special events, bars, displays and performances. More than 80 festivals are held throughout the year in Amsterdam, but it’s Museum Night in November that is the pinnacle of the city’s cultural life. Thousands of locals roam the streets, hopping from one gallery to another, art installations take over the canals and shopfronts, and cultural barriers come down as young people fill the museums.

Underground Scene

Amsterdam possesses a unique night-time scene a world away from the red-light district. The best places are, of course, the ones only the locals know, such as Brug9, a club located underneath a bridge in a 16th-century cellar. Finding it is half the battle; a set of nondescript stairs to the side of the bridge leads down to the watermark, and behind an unmarked door is a secret space that has variously been used as a prison, as storage for illegal fireworks and, now, as an underground jazz bar. The space reflects the real Amsterdam – you might have to look a little harder, but you’ll be well rewarded.

The key to understanding Amsterdam is knowing it’s the place you want it to be – at once a village and a hip city, a compact place full of hidden gems. Get ready to find your Amsterdam.     

Every Which Way

Explore Amsterdam’s famous canals and streets by gondola, bicycle or a boat with a view and all-you-can-eat pancakes.

Gondola Ride

Why should Venice have all the romance? Hire a gondola to explore Amsterdam in true style. 

Pedal Boat

Explore the city under your own steam on a pedal boat. 

Pancake Boat

The Dutch adore their pannekoeken (pancakes) and the Pancake Boat is a much-loved city tradition. Trips include all the pancakes you can eat. 

Keukenhof Boat Trip

Boat tours sail the canals through fields of tulips within the Keukenhof gardens. 

Cycling City and Country

Cycle through city parks, along canals with floating houseboats and into windmill-dotted countryside on a four-hour bike tour.  

Words by Shaney Hudson - Published in Voyeur May 2011
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 830,000
Time Zone GMT +2 hours
Languages Dutch (official language)
Currency Euro
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