Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look

Post originally Published December 28, 2023 || Last Updated December 29, 2023

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Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - More Than Just the Red Light District

Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look

Amsterdam's Red Light District undoubtedly garners much attention from tourists. While the legalized prostitution and cannabis coffee shops offer an eye-opening experience, there is far more to this historic city than just the seedier elements that often dominate travel guides.

Beyond the neon lights and window brothels exists a vibrant, progressive city full of rich culture, stunning architecture, and an energetic population. Amsterdam has spent decades working to reduce the scale and seediness of the Red Light District, while reinvesting in the community.

Visitors willing to explore neighborhoods beyond the city center are rewarded with a distinctly local vibe brimming with authentic cafes, breweries, markets, and more. Trendy De Pijp draws the young and artistic crowd with its cozy bars and bistros. The Jordaan delivers a slice of old Amsterdam with its charming canals and classic brown cafes. Multicultural Oost is home to the city's Chinatown and plenty of diverse eateries.

Amsterdam locals are eager to highlight the breadth of their city. Many lament that the Red Light District overshadows everything else Amsterdam has to offer. Visitors seeking a deeper understanding of this progressive capital should spend time wandering outside the city core.

Stroll along the Amstel river or picnic in Vondelpark. Make time for lesser-known yet worthwhile museums like the Rembrandt House and the Van Gogh Museum's remote outpost. Seek out small galleries and studios promoting up-and-coming artists.

What else is in this post?

  1. Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - More Than Just the Red Light District
  2. Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - Art and Architecture Abound
  3. Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - A Cycling Paradise
  4. Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - Green Spaces Galore
  5. Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - Sample the Local Cuisine
  6. Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - Diverse Neighborhoods to Explore
  7. Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - Waterways Worth Wandering
  8. Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - Festivals and Events Year-Round

Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - Art and Architecture Abound

Beyond the seedy storefronts, Amsterdam overflows with inspired art and architecture. Masterful paintings hang in world-class museums while creative works fill indie galleries. The city’s varied buildings tell a rich story spanning nearly 800 years.

Start at the Van Gogh Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of Vincent’s legendary work. Traverse three floors showcasing over 200 paintings, 500 drawings, and more than 750 personal letters. Delve into the evolution of his style during his brief yet prolific career. Compare classic works like The Potato Eaters and Almond Blossoms to lesser-known pieces like Sorrow and Still Life with Bible.

Afterward, cross the street to the Stedelijk Museum for a contrasting contemporary collection. This modern art haven houses works by Picasso, Matisse, Warhol, and more big names across 20th and 21st century pieces. Don’t miss grand installations like Jean Tinguely’s playful, motorized sculpture in the lobby.

Smaller galleries provide an intimate look into Amsterdam’s arts scene. Local favorites like Galerie Rob Koudijs and Annet Gelink showcase emerging Dutch and international artists. Offbeat spots like Electric Ladyland highlight illuminated UV artwork, while Red Light Records combines vinyl and visuals.
Amsterdam’s architecture offers eye candy covering nearly every era since the 13th century. The iconic Canal Ring comprises a UNESCO site with gabled buildings lining atmospheric waterways. Stroll the narrow lanes to admire the diverse housefronts standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

Neo-Renaissance structures like the Royal Palace and Central Station reveal 19th century grandeur. Contrasting modern landmarks include the controversial Stopera and whimsical NEMO Science Museum. Quirky contemporary projects like the giant Super A nestled beside a tower display Amsterdam’s experimental side.

Venture outside the core for architectural gems in lively neighborhoods. The De Pijp blends old and new with indie shops flanked by ornate brick facades. The Eastern Docklands flaunts innovative residential buildings like geometric Silodam. Retro spots like the De Gooyer Windmill brewpub exemplify Amsterdam’s ability to seamlessly merge past and present.

Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - A Cycling Paradise

Two wheels rule in Amsterdam, where cycling is engrained in the local culture. With over 900,000 bikes buzzing around the city daily, bicycles easily outnumber cars here. Amsterdam earns its reputation as one of the world’s most bike-friendly metropolises through thoughtful urban planning and passionate pedaling residents.

The city boasts an extensive network of protected bike paths spanning over 400 kilometers. These wide lanes separate cyclists from vehicle traffic, keeping riders of all ages feeling safe and comfortable. Thoughtful route planning means you can traverse much of the city while avoiding busy roads. Helpful wayfinding signposts guide cyclists to key destinations like train stations, museums, and parks.

Amsterdam’s flat landscape and compact size also make it ideal for biking. A 20-minute ride whisks you from the city center to a quiet neighborhood. Hopping between attractions often proves quicker by bike than by tram or bus. Many locals opt for cycling over driving to avoid traffic congestion in the historic core.
Bikes become an extension of residents’ lives, used for everything from commuting to school to grabbing groceries. Young children bike alongside parents from an early age. Teens congregate around bike parking at secondary schools across the city. You’ll spot everyone from businessmen to grandmothers pedaling along during rush hour.
Visitors wishing to travel like a local should consider renting bikes during their stay. Plentiful rental shops around Centraal Station offer city bikes starting around €12 per day. Opt for bikes with a rear rack for hauling purchases home from the market.

Try a test ride first since some rental bikes use a pedal-backwards braking system that takes getting used to. Also pay attention to whether your seat and handlebars adjust for maximum comfort.

Once you’ve got wheels, the city becomes your playground. Cruise along the grand canals soaking up Amsterdam’s maritime history. Ring your bell to scatter flocks of tourists crowding the narrow lanes. Pull over for a picnic lunch in the lush Vondelpark or the lively Rembrandtplein.

Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - Green Spaces Galore

Though Amsterdam feels like a concrete jungle at times, over 20% of the city is actually green space. Locals highly value their public parks and gardens, considering them essential to quality of life in the densely populated capital.

Vondelpark stands out as Amsterdam’s most famous green space. At nearly 50 hectares, it’s the largest park within the city limits. Yet Vondelpark feels intimate thanks to winding footpaths, ponds, and diverse trees offering pockets of seclusion. Picnicking families, jogging couples, and chill 20-somethings populate the lawns on sunny days. Free summer concerts at the Open Air Theatre accommodate over 10,000 people.

Nearby Sarphatipark delivers a more local vibe. Parents push strollers along the central promenade. Kids clamber over the massive modern jungle gym, while tai chi practitioners move through poses in a tranquil corner. Grab a bench overlooking the oval pond to snap photos of gliding swans.

Oosterpark in Amsterdam East provides another popular inner-city oasis. Active locals flock here for the yoga classes, running track, tennis courts and bicycle paths. On weekends, especially in summer, Oosterpark morphs into a vibrant multi-cultural gathering space. Pick up fresh Mediterranean ingredients at the Sunday market before joining huge extended families for elaborate picnics.
Further afield, young families frequent the sprawling Beatrixpark in Old South. Let kids burn off energy at the petting farm before refueling at the pancake house. Luxuriate under soaring redwoods in the lush arboretum, or admire the creative allotment gardens cultivated by residents.

For more secluded green space, head to Amsterdam-Noord. Noorderpark, the city’s newest major park, blends 140 hectares of reforested nature with modern elements like an artificial island. Woodsy trails past grazing sheep and a sustainable goat farm feel worlds away from the city center just across the river.

Hortus Botanicus, on the eastern edge of the Canal Ring, also provides a peaceful escape. Hortus lays claim to the country’s oldest botanical garden, with over 6,000 plant species populating thirty unique greenhouses and outdoor gardens.

This carefully curated oasis has served as a soothing retreat for locals and visitors alike for over three centuries. Let your stress melt away while inhaling floral scents in the butterfly greenhouse and oriental garden.
Those looking to extend time spent immersed in nature can pedal along Amsterdam’s green cycling routes. The Amstel route follows the river through parklands into the countryside. Or ride the coast north reaching beaches, dunes, and windmills around quaint villages like Durgerdam.

Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - Sample the Local Cuisine

Beyond pancakes and bitterballen, Amsterdam’s eclectic food scene reflects the city’s open, progressive nature. Creative chefs put global twists on Dutch classics while keeping ingredients hyper-local. Trendy eateries churn out inspired small plates perfect for sharing. And the city’s multicultural makeup infuses diverse flavors into homey neighborhood joints.

For an upscale spin on regional cuisine, book a table at Bougainville. The seasonal tasting menus source primarily from Dutch farms and fisheries. Dishes like fried oysters with celery and lemon or veal with local onions and smoked butter seamlessly fuse French techniques with local ingredients. Don’t miss the wine pairing featuring natural selections from independent Dutch vintners.

Amsterdammers’ adventurous, laidback attitudes breed experimentation. Sample creative cross-cultural fusion at the Lloyd Hotel’s trendy East-West eatery. Indonesian satay skewers, Vietnamese summer rolls, and Japanese dumplings all make appearances alongside Dutch stamppot.
The city’s markets also provide an edible education into its diverse food culture. Sample cheeses from small Dutch producers alongside olives and dolmas at the Noordermarkt's Saturday organic market. Albert Cuypmarkt in multicultural De Pijp offers a world tour from Surinamese roti to Turkish kebabs to Indonesian sambal.

For the true local experience, join the queues at no-frills neighborhood institutions. Wilde Zwijnen serves hearty German fare and obscure brews inside a cozy former butcher shop. Brouwerij de Prael crafts exceptional beers alongside seasonal fare in a monastic 13th century setting. And late-night institution Cafe Karpershoek has perfected the ultimate Indonesian rijsttafel spread.
Don’t forget to indulge Amsterdam’s sweet tooth! The city boasts a rich baking tradition alongside Belgium and Austria. Old-school bakkerijs like Banketbakkerij Van der Linde specialize in classic pastries from stroopwafels to almond kransers to seasonal specialties like kerststol. For contemporary creations, head to Puccini Bomboni where master chocolatiers marry premium couverture with quality Dutch ingredients like licorice, saffron and hazelnuts.

Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - Diverse Neighborhoods to Explore

Venture down the Negen Straatjes (“Nine Little Streets”) spanning the Western Canal Ring. Boutique shops stocking trendy fashions, quirky homewares, and gourmet foods cram the narrow lanes. Young creatives flock to cafes doubling as unconventional galleries or showrooms. Soak up the artsy atmosphere while snapping Instagram-worthy shots of the brick facades draped in greenery.

Multicultural De Pijp flaunts an eclectic, bohemian edge. Stroll past eateries spanning Thai and Syrian to Ethiopian lining Albert Cuypstraat market. Duck into concept stores like Hutspot selling sustainably made clothing and furnishings. Sip craft ales at Brouwerij Troost before mingling with locals over shared plates under the Heineken sign at Biercafe Gollem.

The Jordaan delivers a slice of historic Amsterdam with its postcard canals and cozy cafés. Linger in tucked-away gardens like Johnny Jordaanplein, then pop into offbeat shops like vintage mecca Episode. Quaff Belgian brews at a classic brown cafe before strolling the Noordermarkt's bustling Saturday farmers' market.

Oud-West blends Amsterdam's gritty past and trendy present. Lofty design boutiques rub shoulders with dive bars around Bellamyplein and Ten Katestraat. Street artists splash color across facades, while cool kids queue outside cult coffee shops like CT Coffee and Tea. Evenings bring thumping dance clubs, underground steak dinners, and comedy at Toomler.
Venture north across the river to Amsterdam-Noord's NDSM Wharf, a gritty-turned-hip arts complex occupying a former shipyard. Browse edgy galleries inside repurposed shipping containers, then watch the sunset from the absurd Super A sculpture. Hang with the young creative set sipping craft beers at Pllek or Noorderlicht before dancing til dawn at ADE or Valtifest.
Don’t miss diverse pockets like the Indische Buurt in Oost. Shop for spices in Chinatown before joining locals for Indonesian specialties at Tokong & Rumah Makan Salero. Walk off calories wandering the Dappermarkt or admiring Asia-inspired architecture around Flevopark.

Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - Waterways Worth Wandering

Amsterdam owes its very existence to water. The Amstel river nourished early settlers, while the city’s iconic canals shaped its growth into a global maritime powerhouse. Strolling or gliding along these historic waterways provides an enlightening glimpse into the essence of Amsterdam.
The UNESCO-protected Canal Ring comprises over 100 kilometers of interconnected canals constructed during the Dutch Golden Age. While arguably touristy, no visit is complete without experiencing this engineering marvel firsthand. Watching boats glide under quaint bridges while gabled merchant houses reflect in the rippled water remains magical no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

Going eye-level with locals offers insights you’ll never garner on an open-top tour boat. Sit canal-side at a rustic brown café and notice how houseboats become extensions of residents’ lives, adorned with flower boxes and tiny gardens. Pop into niche shops like Fort van Sjakoo radical bookshop occupying a 17th century blacksmith’s workshop overlooking the water.

Venturing to the canal neighborhoods beyond the ring provides a peaceful perspective. Brouwerij ‘t Ij’s windmill tasting room gazes out at the bucolic northern end where boats enter the city. In the Eastern Docklands, futuristic housing complexes mingle with old warehouses and drawbridges.

For the quintessential canal experience, hop aboard one of the free ferries behind Centraal Station. These electric boats shuttle passengers across the IJ river to Amsterdam-Noord every few minutes. Feel the breeze tousle your hair while watching seagulls trail the boat. Locals use the quick 5-minute connection to commute or ride bikes across.
You can also pedal along the canals on a bike tour or rent your own set of wheels. Cycling the atmospheric Prinsengracht on a sunny day practically makes you feel like a local. Or take to the water yourself on a rental boat – no license required! Puttering through little-used outer canals almost transports you back centuries. Just try not to hit the walls!

Finally, don’t forget Amsterdam’s original canal: the Amstel river. Strolling or cycling the Amsteldijk south of the center lets you appreciate how the river nurtured Amsterdam into existence. Pass the historic Amstelsluizen canals locks before picnicking waterside at the Martin Luther King park.

Beyond the Canals: Why Amsterdam Deserves Another Look - Festivals and Events Year-Round

Amsterdammers love a good festival, with celebrations happening year-round. The progressive, open spirit of the city fuels creative events spanning art, music, food, and more. Visitors timing trips around the vibrant festival calendar gain immersive cultural experiences alongside locals.

King's Day on April 27th draws the biggest crowds for a city-wide street party celebrating the monarch's birthday. Locals flood the streets dressed head-to-toe in orange, the national color. Lively markets packed with arts, crafts, food and drink pop up in most neighborhoods. Free daytime concerts happen across town, while nightclubs extend the revelry into the wee hours. Soaking up the infectious, relaxed vibe makes you feel like an honorary Amsterdammer for the day.
Summer unlocks a bounty of outdoor festivals. June's Holland Festival showcases boundary-pushing international theater, music, dance, and art performances for two weeks. Picnic on the grass at Vondelpark's Open Air Theatre taking in world-class jazz, dance and opera. Foodies flock to August's Rollende Keukens (Rolling Kitchens) street food fest in Westerpark to graze global bites from esteemed chefs. September's giant Amsterdam Dance Event sees 2,000 international DJs spinning at over 100 venues citywide.
As temperatures drop, Amsterdam Gets Cozy with Winter Welvaart. Magical light installations illuminate the inner city's bridges, canals, and parks throughout December. Museumplein transforms into a lively winter wonderland market with an open-air ice skating rink at its heart. Sample hearty seasonal fare like erwtensoep (split pea soup) and hot chocolate, then warm up with gluhwein as you browse handmade gifts.

Amsterdam Light Festival brightens dark winter nights with over 50 dazzling light artworks citywide. Watch imaginative projections dance across canal house facades, or wander through ethereal illuminated tunnel and forest installations. Many installations specifically highlight Amsterdam's intimate relationship with water.
Smaller neighborhood festivals also tap into local culture. Westerpark Weekend hosts an indie-spirited lineup of emerging music acts alongside craft foods, local makers and family fun. Brouwersgracht Canal Festival celebrates the Herengracht area with open artist studios and weekly concerts from canal boats. Pekmarkt, the city’s largest Surinamese street fest in the Bijlmer, boasts tantalizing bites alongside dancing, drumming, storytelling and crafts that spotlight the African diaspora culture.

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