Herring sandwiches, expressionist style and post-industrial cultural hubs – this is not your typical Amsterdam. Do as the locals do and explore the city on two wheels, with this, your alternative guide to the city.
Most hotels offer bike hire, with plenty of hire shops to try too. The city is covered in cycle lanes, making it super safe; plus it’s one of the flattest places on earth, so no need to break into a sweat. Onwards!
We start our cycle expedition at Wildschut. A stalwart grand café in Oud Zuid, Wildschut is an Amsterdam-School marvel, an expressionist-cum-art-deco vision of red brick and timeless grandeur. The whole junction is flanked by these matching brick-expressionist projects. But enough of that; time for coffee. There’s a really good Dutch lunch menu here with decent prices, but hold off for now; there’s plenty of food stops coming up.
Albert Cuypmarkt over in De Pijp is the busiest and most electric market in the city. Between cheap clothes and cheap gadgets, vendors shout their wares in a comedic fanfare that unsurprisingly you’ll understand little of unless your Dutch is adequate — just smirk along with the locals and you won’t give anything away. We’re here for one thing though: food. Seek out raw-herring sandwiches, a tray of kibbling, fresh stroopwafels and more — you’re cycling, so indulge yourself in gut-busting Dutch treats.
As the market ends by the canalside, a nostalgic landmark appears across the water. You can’t really miss Brouwerij ‘t IJ. The iconic windmill, the tallest in the Netherlands, has become a calling card for this stalwart brewery, emblazoned on all their bottles the world over. Hoppy IPAs and heady Tripels offer ample refreshment on the outdoor terrace, before it’s time to pedal to our next stop.
The Portuguese Synagogue has been the centre of Jewish life in Amsterdam for centuries.
When first opened in 1675, it was the largest synagogue in Europe, home to the Sephardic community who had fled persecution in Iberia during the Inquisition nearly two centuries before. There’s an understated beauty to the place, with its vast columns and heavy candelabras, neat wooden pews and bare walls. Real treasures lie in the Ets Haim library, the world’s oldest, still-operating Jewish library. The collection is unparalleled, having survived the Inquisition and 20th century fascism. Your ticket also includes entry to the Jood Historisch Museum, where you can find out more about the Jewish community of Amsterdam.
Just across the street, neat rows of white tents spill curious goods onto the road; this is Waterloopleinmarkt, Amsterdam’s coveted flea market. Get your bargain-hunt sensors on — treasures lie ahead. Cheap vintage clothes, odd Dutch curios and, admittedly, an assortment of tat. Pick your antique, bungee strap it onto your rear rack, and hit the pedals for our next stop.
Okay. So here’s a classic. It would be a shame to not at least cycle past this bountiful Dam icon; the heaven-scented, irresistibly colourful Bloemenmarkt. Lining the canal, endless bunches of flowers are sold from stilted shacks, a tradition going back centuries. Tulips are the go-to when in season; better still, buy a bag of bulbs for the allotment and bring a spot of Dutch colour to your home.
A little deeper into the heart of the canal ring now. The Oudemanhuispoort Book Market is a hub for the city’s academics, intellectuals, and all-round clever-clogs. Hidden under the arches of the university building, thick tomes and dusty novels are piled high. And there’s plenty to find in english if you don’t fancy learning Dutch; it’s a rather serene scene perfect for quick respite amongst the bustle of the city’s canalside trails. So, grab yourself a holiday read before we make for our next destination.
An inconspicuous alleyway in the heart of Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District hides a heady relic. Wynand Fockink is one of the oldest proeflokaals in the city, a Dutch tasting tavern that has been distilling its own jenever, on site, since 1679. Dark oak shelves bend under the weight of a colourful host of liquors; the barkeep will gladly let you try a few before you settle on one, accompanied by a short history of the bar and the spirit. Your tipple will be poured into an iconic curved glass, right to the brim, forcing you to stoop and sip before you pick it up. Just go for the one though, as we’re off for another drink.
Cafe Brandon, one of many a fine traditional brown cafe – a kind of Dutch pub – is a rather unique spot. Sat on a corner with the canal running down one side, the cafe is a veritable timewarp. The same couple ran the bar for over 40 years, shutting up shop in the 80s. 20 years later, the new owners opened the doors, and changed absolutely nothing. There’s still a portrait of the original owners hanging in one of the lounges.
Two bridges down and two canals over sits another picturesque brown cafe, only this time we’re not here to drink; apologies. Cafe Papeneiland is famed for its apple pie. Lauded as the best in the city and attracting celebs the world-over (they seem to be particularly smitten with Bill Clinton’s visit), take a seat in one of its delft-tiled, dark-oak cubby holes. The homely interior is pretty special; be sure to have a good gander (it’s been like this since 1642) between greedy helpings of pie.
Work off those extra sweet calories with a cycle. Dashing through the corner of Westerpark (which hosts a cultural centre cloaked by a turn-of-the-century industrial complex) head for that other Amsterdam School project: Het Schip. ‘The Ship’ was a social housing project designed by Michel de Klerk in 1921 for railway employees; it is often referred to as a worker’s temple, owing to its lavish yet eminently-practical expressionist style. It’s focal point is a mast-like tower, with wings falling away to give the impression of a looming hull. Cycle around the estate and marvel at the details that pop from its fluid and rounded exterior.
Dinner. A short hop from Het Schip over by the harbour lie two remarkable restaurants. The choice is yours; luckily they’re right next to each other. Pont 13 is a permanently moored and converted IJ ferry from the 30s, now serving gastro-pub delights in a rather special setting; think hearty steaks and gut-busting burgers. If that’s too uncouth for you, pop-over to REM Eiland. You can’t miss it; it’s fire-red exterior looms high over the pontoon, a curious spectacle. The structure, once lashed by waves in the North Sea, was a 60s rig used for pirate radio (cool!) but now houses a fine-dining restaurant. If the weather’s good, go al fresco, and enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail at the bar – it’s on the helipad, straight up the stairs.
As the sun sinks, you could skip a pontoon over and take the free IJ ferry from here to NDSM. At the northern water’s edge, a post-industrial collective of street art and trendy bars make for a backdrop a world away from the UNESCO-treasure Canal Ring. After a swift one, the ferry can take you back into the heart of the city, with the lights of Amsterdam’s post-modern docklands stretching illuminated tendrils across the water.
That’s it! A whistlestop tour, but one that shows a side to the city you might otherwise have missed. And who doesn’t like apple pie?