Doing Amsterdam the Dutch way

From a cycle tour leader to a bartender at a brown cafe, the people behind classic Amsterdam experiences share the lesser-known places that they love, far from the tourist crowds.

From a cycle tour leader to a bartender at a brown cafe, the people behind classic Amsterdam experiences share the lesser-known places that they love, far from the tourist crowds.

Pieter Roelofs, curator at the Rijksmuseum

The day job: It’s a busy afternoon in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour. At one end of the vaulted hall, visitors gather around a large painting. On its canvas, another crowd is amassing: a patrol of guardsmen readying their arms, their vigilant faces peering out of the shadows. The picture is Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, and it’s the centrepiece of the museum, newly re-opened after a decade of renovation.

‘The building was conceived around this picture, the national icon at the high altar of the cathedral for the arts,’ explains Pieter Roelofs as he surveys the room. As curator of 17th-century Dutch painting, he is responsible for 3,500 works, the core of a collection spanning 800 years. ‘As an art lover interested in the Dutch Golden Age, this is the best place in the whole world to work,’ he says. Nearly half the rooms here bear the fruits of this period, when the Dutch republic ruled the waves and dominated global trade, its new bourgeois pouring wealth into the arts.

‘Imagine, there were 1½ million people here in the 17th century, and they must have created between six and 10 million paintings,’ says Pieter. ‘All in this tiny piece of land next to the sea.’

And what they created was revolutionary. ‘Art emerged where everything was worth depicting – even a girl standing in the corner of a kitchen pouring milk in a bowl,’ he says. ‘This way of making the everyday into something transcendent – it’s wonderful.’

The day off: When not at the Rijksmuseum, one of Roelof’s favourite places to visit is the Tassenmuseum Hendrikje, which throws a window on to history through one object in particular: the bag. The 4,000 or so in the museum form the largest collection in the world and include 500-year-old leather pouches, embroidered purses for carrying love letters, and even a cat-shaped handbag belonging to Hillary Clinton. The museum is almost an accident – its owner, Hendrikje Ivo, started collecting bags as a hobby – but Pieter thinks its collection is worthy of the Rijksmuseum. Naturally, he is drawn to the 17th-century bags, embellished with materials like pearls and silver. ‘They show how wealthy these people were in that short time span – it’s not without reason that we call it the Golden Age.’

A few streets away, the house of one prosperous family is preserved intact as the Museum Van Loon. Its rooms chronicle centuries of accumulated grandeur alongside decadent quirks like hidden libraries and false doors, installed when symmetry was all the rage. Outside, visitors are privy to the greenery often hidden behind the city’s façades, and can sip tea in formal gardens blossoming with roses. ‘You get the feeling of walking back in time,’ says Pieter. ‘That’s the wonderful thing about Amsterdam – we show all these high-quality artworks, but then you walk outside, and the canal band still looks like it did 400 years ago, and this house still gives you a glimpse into the past.’

Amsterdam’s rich heritage is only part of its cultural clout. ‘It’s not just an open-air museum – there’s so much more going on,’ explains Pieter. One place that’s fast become a fixture of his leisure time is the Westergasfabriek, a derelict gasworks on the edge of town that now hosts music, film, theatre and art. On a warm evening, people stream into a music festival, the thump of a bass line drifting over from a colossal gas cylinder; others sit with pizzas and pints outside the weathered buildings that house restaurants and galleries. The surrounding park is full of art, from the giant table and chairs where locals laze, to the canvases getting a spray paint from blue-caped students. Pieter clearly approves. ‘It’s great how one of the most polluted areas in Amsterdam has been transformed into its new cultural heart.’

The scene is typical of a city that draws inspiration from its rich past. ‘It reinvents itself time after time, but it’s standing on the shoulders of a long tradition of artists,’ says Pieter. ‘If you were thinking of visiting Amsterdam, this is the moment to come.’

Pete Botman, cycle tour leader

The day job: There are certain sounds that underscore a visit to Amsterdam: the low hum of motor boats puttering down narrow canals, the intricate, music-box chimes ringing out from churches and, above all, the jingle of bicycle bells. As the sun stretches over the city’s rooftops each morning, a pageant plays out on two wheels below: students whizz by on colourful frames, friends hitch side-saddle rides, dogs sit nonchalantly in bicycle baskets, and children gaze out from wooden carts as their parents ferry them to school.

Pete Botman has roamed around the city on two wheels since he moved here 24 years ago. Working as a cycle guide for Mike’s Bike Tours for nigh on a decade, he inducts visitors into the free-wheeling, cobble-cruising world of Amsterdam – a city with more bikes than people. Born in Canada to Dutch parents, he sports a cowboy hat and a wide grin to accompany the many anecdotes that spill from his lips. ‘I make people feel comfortable and make sure that nobody gets into an accident,’ he smiles. ‘And beyond that, I help them appreciate all things Dutch and Amsterdam.’ One of Pete’s particular pleasures is introducing participants to the more sedentary joys of Dutch life. ‘We sit down in a traditional old café and eat herring and blocks of cheese with beer.’

Pete leads short tours and longer excursions alike, though he’s always free to go off grid. ‘We don’t have a formula – that’s the nice thing about Mike’s Bike Tours,’ he says. ‘If people want to chill out, we go to the park; if they want to go shopping, I show them the market.’ It’s a variety he never tires of. ‘You just see everything Amsterdam is,’ he says, leaning on his handlebars. ‘I like to see that and I like to show people that.’

The day off: In his downtime, Pete heads beyond the well-worn trails of the inner canal belt and explores the countryside north of Amsterdam – a realm of dykes and polders that feels a world away from the city.

His preferred route out of town takes him through a few less-visited corners of Amsterdam, such as the Western Islands, where cobbled streets weave past wild gardens and handsome old warehouses decorated with colourful ship-sail shutters. At the nearby ferry terminal, passengers pile on to whirring ferries for the short journey across the IJ lake to the modern borough of Amsterdam-Noord. Here, Pete’s route leads through Noorderpark, where cyclists glide beside the North Holland Canal under the shelter of a shady colonnade of trees. This wide spine of water once ferried goods from the North Sea. Now, on a warm day, families mess around in boats and teenagers leap noisily from a bridge into the depths below.

Further on, the landscape unfolds into the open expanse of the polders (land reclaimed from the sea). Cows and horses graze in meadows fringed with reeds and bright flowers, while herons and oystercatchers skim the glassy lines of water that form a grid around them. The distant outlines of the spires and brick towers of villages interrupt the low horizon. ‘You don’t need a compass here,’ says Pete. ‘You can just orientate yourself by the churches.’ Strung along the waterways are a succession of tiny villages, such as Ransdorp, where men fish and a languid canal rolls like a red carpet between wooden houses. ‘I love the open space,’ enthuses Pete. ‘You get a sense of distance that you can only achieve by going at a nice easy pace on a bicycle.’

Further on, the land rises and curves beside a lake lined with brightly painted houses. This cobbled row is the main street of Durgerdam, a one-time fishing village whose marina still teems with the tall masts of sailing boats. Pete often comes here with a coolbox of sandwiches and beer. ‘If the sun’s shining, I’ll just sit on the dykeside, and jump in the water for a swim.’

To him, the landscape, reclaimed piece by piece via dykes, ditches and windmills, is also unique for the history that has shaped it. ‘If you see a ridge in the middle of a field, then you know that’s a dyke and that probably hiding behind that is a canal. Seeing sailboats sailing past above your head at a higher altitude, that’s surreal too,’ he says. ‘I really want to impress on people that this isn’t just boring, flat countryside. Seeing how the whole landscape has been transformed by man, that was a phenomenal revelation for me. That is what makes the Dutch Dutch.’

Yvette van Boven, restaurateur and food writer

The day job: Service is just starting at Aan de Amstel, and the kitchen clatters into life. Yvette van Boven, the restaurant’s owner, chats affectionately with her chefs. The first diners take up their seats on the riverfront and in the white-tiled interior, overseen by a row of inquisitive anglepoises, ready to tuck into dishes of wild sea bass or Fleckvich beef. The gregarious Yvette scribbled her first cookbooks when she was a toddler, and has been cooking furiously ever since, working as a food columnist, author of three internationally successful cookbooks and one of the country’s best-known chefs.

Yvette is at the forefront of a burgeoning movement in Amsterdam. Aan de Amstel, which she founded seven years ago in a run-down snack bar, bears the hallmarks. ‘When we first started this restaurant, people used to only have sandwiches for lunch,’ she says. ‘Now this has completely changed.’ Its seasonal menu is sourced directly from producers, from a vegetable gardener outside the city to fishermen on the North Sea. ‘We try to keep the food really local and homemade. It’s well prepared and it’s good. There’s nothing on top of that. That’s also the character of the Dutch – no bullshit.’

Yvette believes the honest approach to food and the creative venues used to serve it filled the void caused by the temporary closure of the Rijksmuseum and other museums in the city. ‘Everybody was angry that things were closing, so everyone got inventive. It’s been called a punk food movement.’ This is punk Dutch style: green, down to earth and, above all, straight talking.

The day off: When Yvette can tear herself away from her own kitchen, she heads to the Hotel de Goudfazant for plates piled with steak tartare with smoked herring or catfish with samphire. Set on the industrial waterfront of Amsterdam-Noord, the restaurant occupies a cavernous former garage that preserves more than a little of its past life.

An intricate glass chandelier crowns an interior of metal girders and muted paintwork, with the occasional classic car parked in a corner or raised on a ramp. At one side is an open kitchen, where chefs with cowlicks and stubble tend to steaming pots and neat rows of white plates.

The restaurant is the vision of restaurateur Niels Wouters and his friends, who, with limited funds, decided to take a DIY approach to the design, recycling nearly everything from the garage. ‘We even re-used the nails,’ he says. Their passion has paid off, with the restaurant becoming an instant hit. ‘It’s really artistic and it has a very nice atmosphere,’ says Yvette. ‘They serve 200 or 300 people a night, but they have made it intimate in a strange way.’

For her own DIY creations, Yvette finds it hard to beat the selection of fresh local produce at the Saturday market at the Noordermarkt, a canal-side square in west Amsterdam. ‘It’s very pretty and they sell really good stuff,’ she says. ‘There are people who only sell herbs, or butter, or olives. It’s a real farmers’ market.’

On a sunny morning, locals sip coffee and share conversation at cafés around the Noordermarkt before disappearing into its aromatic maze of stalls. There are crates of glossy cherries and bristling artichokes, pyramids of spices and baskets of delicate mushrooms: lemon yellow, inky blue, rose red and curled like petals.

One stall is heaped with fat discs of cheese from a nearby farm, while another sells cockles and oysters, fresh from the North Sea. ‘These are all local producers,’ explains Yvette. ‘I know almost everybody by name, which is so nice.’

As enthusiastic shoppers start their journeys home, laden with bulging bags, it would appear that there’s no end in sight to the city’s recent gastronomic upswing. ‘There’s a lot happening right now, I really think so,’ says Yvette, pausing at a market stall to examine a stack of goat’s cheese wrapped in leaves. ‘I think it’s worth coming to Amsterdam for the food scene alone.’

Willemijn van Breda, canal boat captain

The day job: Willemijn van Breda talks spiritedly as she steers her small boat down the treelined canals of west Amsterdam, pausing only to answer the intermittent crackle of her radio mic or pull off an especially tricky manoeuvre. Today she’s navigating the Prinsengracht, the outermost of three canals that loop round the city’s medieval centre to form its canal ring – the Unesco-World-Heritage-listed, 400-year-old heart of a network of 165 canals that flows for more than 60 miles. As a guide for the Canal Company, Willemijn has been leading tours along the city’s waterways since she arrived here as a student 17 years ago. ‘I’ve been on a canal boat almost half my life. The company and the boats are like my family,’ she says. Having spent much of her childhood living on an old Dutch river barge, taking to the water once more felt natural. ‘I’ve had a very strong relationship with water since I was young,’ she says. ‘Everything in my life has a connection to it. On the water, in the water, I feel different to how I do on the street. There’s a certain realm of calmness there.’

Willemijn is a qualified historian and her love of water is rivalled only by her love of art and architecture, which she also brings to her tours. ‘I like that I can make people look differently at a building, and make them passionate about the things I know.’ For her, navigating the canals is a journey that leads straight into the past. ‘Every building has a long history, and that includes the people who lived there and the stories of what happened there.’

The day off: Montelbaanstoren is an elegant whitespired tower on the eastern tip of the old town. Although today it stands sentinel at the junction of two canals, it once looked out to sea. Initially it was part of the city walls, but in the 17th century it had a more poignant role as the departure point for sailors voyaging to Asia. It is a building that has long drawn Willemijn’s eye. ‘It has a lot of history,’ she says, guiding her boat down a sun-dappled canal. ‘You might think, “okay, a defence tower”, but actually there are many stories to tell.’ The sailors’ farewells are the subject of one of her favourite paintings, with a name that roughly translates as the Embarkment on the Montelbaan, held in Amsterdam’s stately Maritime Museum. ‘It captures this dramatic moment where women said goodbye to their husbands and sons, who were going to sea and might never return.’

Just metres from the Prinsengracht is another of her favourite places, the Van Brienenhofje. Hidden behind an austere brick façade is a courtyard garden of shady trees, manicured hedges and a riot of flowers: blooming in bright beds, spilling from window ledges, arranged on the steps of doorways in colourful ziggurats. In a corner, an old man sits enjoying the sunshine, one of two centuries’ worth of residents to occupy the Van Brienenhofje, built by a philanthropic merchant as housing for the elderly. Its tenants once contributed only to its upkeep, men gathering water from its central pump and women cleaning. ‘The centre of Amsterdam is quite hectic, but the courtyard is quiet,’ says Willemijn. ‘It’s an oasis of peace.’

Willemijn is also an enthusiastic visitor to the Groenburgwal in the south of the old town, one of the smaller and less frequented of Amsterdam’s canals. Here, an avenue of trees frames the Zuiderkerk, an ornate church that was a favourite subject of Monet on his visits to the city; the reflection of its wedding-cake spire dances on the dimpled water in a suitably Impressionistic way. Along the canal’s length, locals are enjoying a lazy weekend afternoon, dining by the water or reading on their front steps. At the southern end, where the canals flows into the river Amstel, the sound of their chatter mingles with cawing seagulls and chugging boats. It’s an enchanting spot – though, even for Willemijn, it’s hard to choose a definitive favourite amongst Amsterdam’s embarrassment of canals. ‘Even if you’ve sailed along a canal a million times, every time there’s something new.’

Angelique Mater, bartender at a brown cafe

The day job: Framed by its façade of windows, the interior of In ‘t Aepjen looks like the dark, deep-hued canvas of a Golden Age painting. Inside a timber-beamed room full of aged bottles, paintings and barrels, locals converse at wooden tables and a couple of bespectacled old regulars sit at the bar, where Angelique Mater chats and jokes as she measures out glasses of honey-coloured ale. ‘You have to understand people to do this job,’ she says. ‘I serve them, I listen to them and I make sure they have a good time. That’s important.’ Angelique has spent half of her eight years working as a bartender at this old-town brown café, one of the historic neighbourhood pubs named for their wooden interiors and smoke-stained walls.

As with so many buildings in the city, In ‘t Aepjen has a book’s worth of tales to its name. Located in a wooden house – one of only two left in the city – on one of Amsterdam’s oldest streets, in the 16th and 17th centuries it was a notorious haunt of sailors, who’d pile in from the nearby docks for long-awaited drinking and debauchery. If short of cash, some would pay with monkeys or parrots, gifting the inn a flea-ridden menagerie that left those who slept there with uncomfortable itches. Thus  ‘in ‘t aepjen’ (‘in the monkey’) came to mean a state of mild misfortune, and the bar acquired its name. Today the only monkeys around are on statues and posters, and Angelique hopes the pub is memorable for different reasons. Polishing the bar to a shine, she says: ‘I love making people feel at home and seeing them leave with a smile, and come back. That’s such a compliment.’

The day off: ‘If you’re in Amsterdam, you should try genever,’ says Angelique. Named after the Dutch for juniper, its key ingredient, this potent spirit has been a popular intoxicant for centuries. A possible source of the infamous ‘Dutch courage’, it also inspired another juniper-based tipple, gin, though its two varieties taste more like whisky and vodka respectively. For a comprehensive sampling, Angelique recommends a visit to one of the city’s two remaining distilleries.

Inside the tiny, dimly lit tasting room of Wynand Fockink – open since 1679 – shelves sag under rows of ceramic jugs and colourful bottles, and bartender Thomas Huijgen shows customers how to drink genever in the time-honoured way. He measures the liquid into a small, tulipshaped glass until it’s about to spill over, and the punter bends, hands behind back, to take the first sip. ‘The saying goes that Dutch people are very stingy, and if we spill it then it’s going to go to waste,’ explains Thomas. Typically, it’s chased down with a pint of beer – a potent combination known as a ‘kopstootje’ (headbutt).

For sweeter palettes, there is another speciality: liqueurs. Luminous as stained glass, these colourful mixtures look like rare elixirs and, with their obscure, folkloric names, sound like them too. One glass brims with Bridal Tears, an orange liqueur with gold and silver flakes traditionally served after marriage vows; another glass with Angelique’s own favourite, a pink blend called Rose Without Thorns.

The distillery creates new flavours too – liquorice and banana mixtures are currently in the works. And the city’s drinking culture keeps pace. ‘More and more, people are turning old industrial buildings into bars and restaurants,’ says Angelique. One of her favourites is Roest, a beach bar that looks as though it’s been whisked up from a tropical island and set down by accident among Amsterdam’s industrial Eastern Islands district. On the night of a pool-themed party, party-goers in leis and armbands throng the artificial beach, drinking beer on the waterside or lazing in hammocks. Inside, cocktails the colours of sweets are served up at a futuristic pipe-entangled bar. The carousing Amsterdammers of centuries past would surely approve – though, so far, no-one’s tried to pay with a monkey.

The article 'Doing Amsterdam the Dutch way' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.