Dutch bikes

I lived in Amsterdam for four years and I still sometimes get asked for recommendations for things to do in the city. So, rather than type out the same suggestions again and again, I thought I’d write up a post that I can link to. I lived in Amsterdam from 2013-2018 so it’s likely that some of this information will become outdated!

Food

Note: I’m a vegetarian (and was vegan for the last year I was in Amsterdam) so don’t expect much in the way of meaty recommendations!

I wouldn’t describe Amsterdam as a foodie city. The local cuisine, as proud as the Dutch are of it, leaves a lot to be desired. The main national dish is stamppot (essentially mashed potato with some additional vegetables thrown in*) with sausage and kale. The restaurant Moeders serves stamppot, as well as other Dutch dishes (the name is Dutch for ‘mothers’ and the walls of the restaurant are covered in photos of mothers, contributed by guests). I took a visiting friend there and though she really liked the lobster soup starter, she was less impressed with the main course!

Fries, pancakes, and apple pie

My husband and I eating frites from Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx for the first time. Looks like we’re having them with ketchup… noobs!

There are, however, a couple of culinary areas in which the Dutch excel. Don’t expect fine dining, but if you like fries, pancakes, and apple pie, you’re in for a treat. For the best fries you absolutely have to visit Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx (just don’t ask me to pronounce that last word!). It’s tucked out of the way but well worth seeking out. They serve the best fries – they always seem to be fresh out of the frier – and have an impressive array of toppings to choose from.

The traditional option is mayonnaise or frite sauce (which is a slightly sweeter version of mayonnaise). I came to the Netherlands a sworn mayo-hater and left, well, not exactly a lover, but since any time you order fries at a cafe or restaurant (and you can order them even if they’re not listed on the menu) they serve them with mayo, I grew accustomed to it. However, my topping of choice was always the sambal. Sambal is a chili paste (or sauce, depending on how watery it is) that is a common accompaniment to Indonesian dishes**. If you don’t like spicy, you could try my husband’s go-to: patat oorlog, or war fries. Patat oorlog is fries served with three toppings: mayonnaise, peanut sauce, and chopped raw onion (though the onion is somewhat optional and you’ll probably get asked if you want them, met uitjes?).

For pancakes I always went to Pancake Corner***. Dutch Pancakes are like crepes and they’re usually served with either a sweet or savoury topping (unlike crepes I’ve had in France, they’re not folded over but served on a large plate with the toppings on top or cooked into the pancake batter). I tended to go with the sweet toppings, usually something with fruit, nuts, and ice cream. The one time I tried a savoury pancake it was with cheese and vegetables, it was okay, but not tasty enough to tempt me again!

The best apple pie in Amsterdam is undoubtedly found at Winkel 43 – just don’t expect to be able to find a seat, especially at weekends! If they ask you for slagroom don’t be too alarmed, that’s Dutch for cream, and of course you want cream. If you have a high tolerance for sugar then I can also recommend ordering their hot chocolate (with slagroom!). The slices are pretty generous so you can probably share a slice, but my husband and I would always pig out with a slice each.

Hat-tip: it was my friend RA (she’s originally from Toronto but lived in Amsterdam for a few years as a child and now lives in my hometown of Manchester, so our lives have mirrored each other) who introduced me to Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx and Pancake Corner.

Indonesia, Suriname, Indian, and Thai

If you’re getting bored of greasy fried food and you want something with a bit more flavor then Amsterdam is a great place to try out Indonesia food. As a former Dutch colony, Indonesia has exported its cuisine to the Netherlands, hence the sambal on frites. Our favourite Indonesian restaurant (in fact, the only Indonesian restaurant we ever ate at in Amsterdam because it was that damn good!) was Sampurna. My favourite dish is the Tahu Bambu Bali, a tofu dish served with a spicy sauce (I like spicy, if you can’t tell). The rice table is also a good option as it comes with lots of small dishes to sample – kind of like Indonesian tapas – so you can get an idea of a range of different dishes.

Suriname is also a former Dutch colony and there are a lot of options for Surinamese food in Amsterdam, especially if you want something to grab on the go. However, if you want a sit down meal and you’re in Oost (more on that later) then I suggest a visit to Lalla Rookh. As a vegetarian I only ever ate two things from their menu: the vegetarian roti and the bara (stuffed with potatoes)****, but I have it from friends and family that the meat and fish roti dishes are also excellent. One large roti dish is probably enough for two people, but again my husband and I usually had a roti each and stuffed ourselves. They’re particularly good on a hot summer’s day with a couple of biertjes (beers).

If you want to eat Indian food in Amsterdam then there’s really only one place to go: Saravana Bavan. Now, as I mentioned, I’m a vegetarian, so I’m pretty biased towards Saravana because they serve only vegetarian food (they also did the catering for my wedding!). That’s because they’re originally from Chennai, in the south of India, where vegetarianism is predominant. In fact, when we visited Chennai my husband and I were amused to see the odd restaurant advertising it’s “non-vegetarian” menu.

Unlike the version of north Indian food that has been exported to the UK – meat or vegetables in a spiced gravy, served with rice and naan bread – south Indian food is largely based around the dosa, a lentil pancake served with various fillings, usually including masala potatoes. There are also various small dishes, such as idli (rice and fermented lentil cakes) and vadas (lentil doughnuts) served with the ubiquitous sambar – a lentil based gravy. Honestly, you can order anything off their menu and it’ll be delicious, but I recommend sticking to the south India options as they also serve some north Indian style curries and, weirdly, Chinese food.

And lastly, that brings me to Thai food. I’m not much of a Thai aficionado, but there happened to be two decent Thai places in my neighbourhood that were favourite destinations after a few drinks at the windmill (more on that in the next section). The first is Thai Tiger. For the vegetarians, it’s not explicitly stated on their menu, but for all their dishes the meat or fish can be swapped for tofu! I liked their food okay, but found it a little on the pricey side. However, I’m including it because a lot of my friends really loved the food there. Maybe they have good taste? Personally, my preferred option for Thai food was Boi Boi. Towards the end of my time in Amsterdam it got quite popular and it was frequently impossible to just drop in and get a table on a Friday evening. But the food was fresh, tasty, and spicy, and not over priced! (Note: eating out in Amsterdam is never exactly cheap, compared with other European cities).

Vegan Junk Food

Towards the end of my time in Amsterdam I switched from vegetarian to vegan (which lasted a year, until I became pregnant and morning sickness meant the only thing I could eat was sugary cereal with cow’s milk), so I was always on the lookout for good vegan options. As luck would have it Vegan Junk Food opened a location in my neighbourhood (Oost). Both my husband and I love nothing more than a veggie burger with fries and a cold beer, which is exactly what VJF serves up. We ended up eating there a lot! The veggie burgers are all excellent, but if you only try one dish there, I’d like to recommend the kapsalon.

Now, for the longest time I was quite confused by kapsalon, since it’s the Dutch word for hairdresser, yet I would often see it on takeaway menus. It was only when eating at a Dutch friend’s house – we ordered fries from a local takeaway – that I finally got to encounter kapsalon. It’s basically fries with shwarma meat, cheese, salad, and garlic sauce and sambal on top. The VJF version is delicious and since it’s vegan you can kid yourself into feeling healthy and virtuous.

Drink

I’m only going to cover beer here, because I don’t drink wine, and anyway, the Netherlands is not exactly wine country. While Belgium is famous around the world for it’s beer, the Netherlands also has a strong beer brewing tradition, plus many of the Belgium beers are also available in Amsterdam’s bars (it’s a small country after all – it’s only 3 hours by train from Amsterdam to Brugge, which is also worth a visit if you’re in that part of the world).

View of the Brouwerij t’IJ windmill from the terrace

Probably the most famous Amsterdam brewery is Brouwerij t’IJ, or the windmill, as my friends and I referred to it. The reason behind this nickname being that their tap room is located in just one of two remaining windmills that once circled the city. At one time the windmill was also a bathing house, used by local residents to bathe, since many of the small, old Amsterdam apartments didn’t have bathrooms. As it was, our flat (built in the 1910s) only had a small wet room with a sink and shower, which had been added on to one of the bedrooms at a later date.

Although you can now get Brouwerij beer in most Amsterdam bars, it’s still worth visiting the tap room. If you can stomach it, try to get there in the early afternoon, before the tourist crowds arrive. Grab a flight and enjoy the view of the windmill from their outside terrace. Be warned though, many of their beers are very high ABV, and you won’t necessarily notice just from the taste – but you will notice when you try to stand up!

Mural at Oedipus Brewey. Mama and Mannen Liefde are two of their beers.

Although the windmill holds a fond place in my heart (many a Friday night was spent their getting drunk with friends), when it comes to the actual beer, my favourite Amsterdam brewery is Oedipus. It’s a little harder to get to since you have to get a ferry across the IJ (the body of water separating north and south Amsterdam), but if you like beers that challenge your taste buds then this is the place to go! Also, if you’re getting sick of Belgian style beer, they do a very convincing West Coast style IPA (Dutch IPAs taste very Belgian and nothing like the American ones). Plus they have funky murals and decent food, and they often have live music playing too.

Other brewery options in Amsterdam include de Prael and Troost. Troost has a location in Westergas close to an arcade called TonTon Club, so the pair make for a fun evening out!

Museums, shops, and parks

As far as museums go, there’s no shortage of options in Amsterdam. I can’t claim to have visited them all, but of the ones I’ve visited, the Stedelijk Museum is probably my favourite. It’s the city’s modern art gallery and their permanent collection includes Dutch classics such as Piet Mondrian, while the rotating exhibits range from the wonderful to the the weird to the WTF (e.g. the man rolling around on the floor or the giant baby doll puppet being dragged around on chains).

The Stedelijk sits in Museumplein, which is worth a visit in and of itself for the beautiful architecture and stretches of grass to lounge on. As the name might suggest, this is where all the city’s major museums or art galleries are, as well as the Concertgebouw (if you can squeeze in a show here, do it, just to see the beautiful interior). You’ll find the Van Gogh Museum here (worth it if there’s no queue, but not worth the long wait in a queue) and the Rijksmuseum (you could easily spend an entire day in here and not see everything, but if you don’t visit, at least take a walk through the arched passageway from Museumplein to Stadshouderkade and enjoy the sound of music from street performers reverberating from the stone walls – it’s particularly dramatic at night, on a bicycle).

Probably at the top of most people’s list of things to see in Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House is a must, just for its sheer historic importance. Don’t be put off by the long queue snaking down the road and round the corner. If you book your ticket online ahead of time, you can actually skip the queue. I’d also recommend reading Anne Frank’s diary either just before or just after your visit. Her diary is moving enough as it is, but seeing the house where she hid with her family really adds to its impact.

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

Anne Frank

Two museums I never actually got round to visiting, but that came recommended are the Museum of Bags and Purses (apparently they have a very nice cafe) and Museum Vrolik, which houses a collection of medical specimens.

As far as shopping goes, head to the Nine Streets and/or the Jordaan and you’ll find lots of cute little stores, often specialising in one type of item (toothbrush shop anyone?). If it’s books you’re after, Amsterdam has quite a few English book stores. Perhaps the best and best-known is the American Book Center. Spread over several floors, there’s something for everyone here – whether you’re after art books, romance, sci-fi, history, or manga comics. They also have a small but decent selection of board games (for a wider selection of board games visit The Gamekeeper or Friends and Foes – the latter offers the option of sitting down and playing a few games for a small fee) and a little cafe that serves good coffee.

For used books, there’s The English Bookstore on Kloveniersburgwal (and if you happen to be there on the last Sunday of the month, pop over the road to De Engelbewaarder and say hi to the Amsterdam Non-Fiction Book Club!). And lastly, if the breweries whetted your appetite, the best place to buy beer in Amsterdam is De Bierkonig (Beer King). The beer is organised by country, so you can sample beers from around the world.

Amsterdam has many green spaces, the largest of which is the Amsterdamse Bos (Amsterdam Forest). Since we lived in the east, we didn’t visit it too often, but if you want to escape the city for a while it’s worth checking out. Especially if you happen to be there during cherry blossom season (sadly, despite intentions, we never made it over to see the cherry blossoms in bloom, but I hear it’s very beautiful). Right in the heart of the city you’ll find Vondelpark, which is very popular with tourists and, I would argue, not worth going out of your way to see – though if you happen to be in the area and you have a pancake to waddle off, by all means go for it. Just watch out for the cyclists: the tourists on bikes often don’t know how to ride and are a bit wobbly, and the locals will ring their bell angrily if you get in their way.

Vondelpark is also the starting point for the Friday Night Skate. I attended a few times and it’s definitely a cool way to see the city, especially in the summer when it stays light later. Be warned though, they keep a fast pace. When my friend was visiting, I persuaded her to bring her skates and join in with the FNS, but she couldn’t keep up! Instead we spent a lovely few hours gently skating round the park before grabbing a beer. If skating isn’t your thing, but you do like climbing, then catch the ferry over to Monk. It’s still easily my favourite bouldering gym I’ve climbed in so far and when you’re done climbing, you can enjoy a cheese toasty and a hot chocolate in their cafe (or a beer on the terrace if it’s sunny out). Monk is also close to Oedipus so you can combine a visit to both!

Nieuwe Diep, Flevopark

However, my favourite park in Amsterdam is Flevopark. I’m completely biased since it was my local park for four years and I spent a lot of time there, in all seasons. But there is a lot to recommend it. For starters, if you like nature, Flevopark is home to beautiful woodland walks, through remnant patches of old trees that are heady with the smell of wild garlic in spring. It’s also the only park in Amsterdam where you’re allowed to have a barbecue. So if you’re visiting in warmer weather, grab a disposable barbecue and some BBQ essentials from the local Albert Heijn or Lidl, throw down a blanket, and enjoy a delightful afternoon (and if you forget matches, there’s bound to be a few dozen other people around barbecuing so you can always ask a friendly stranger for help – that’s what we did as we always forgot the matches!).

Wild garlic in Flevopark

Where to go and what to avoid

In terms of where to avoid, there isn’t really anywhere on the beaten track that is particularly unsafe. There are supposedly some less safe areas on the outskirts of the city, but stick to lively neighbourhoods and you should be fine. I would, however, recommend avoiding Dam Square and Damrak at all costs. It’s very crowded, packed with tourists (and pick pockets), and there’s just not much to recommend it. There is the Royal Palace, but it’s not a particularly noteworthy building and not worth paying to visit the interior.

In terms of where to go, Amsterdam is split up into a number of different neighbourhoods (this article from Expatica gives an overview of the different neighbourhoods). I lived in Indische Buurt, Oost for the four years that I was in Amsterdam and I really loved it. It gentrified a lot in the time that I was there, but that seems to be happening across Amsterdam. Wander down Javastraat and you’ll see trendy bars and cafes nestled between Turkish supermarkets piled high with fresh fruit, vegetables, and spices. My favourite places to eat and drink Indische Buurt are De Jonge Admiraal (for sandwiches and coffee), Studio/K (for biertjes and tasty food on their terrace) and Joost (for free boiled eggs, the best selection of Amsterdam beer in town, and a generally laid back atmosphere).

Getting around

If you’re physically able, the best way to get around Amsterdam is by foot. On foot you can take in the beautiful canals and canal houses, as well as exploring the many small side streets. However, it’s also relatively easy, depending on your navigation skills, to get around by tram or bus and everywhere in the city is served by both. To get across the water to the north there are free ferries (or pay for a canal tour, it’s a great way to see the city from the water), and the rest of the country is well connected by fast, reliable (mostly), utilitarian, and inexpensive trains (oh how I miss them!).

Me, on the ferry to north Amsterdam

If you are thinking of visiting other cities in the Netherlands, I can recommend Utrecht (for a smaller city that still has pretty, tree-lined canals, as well as an impressive number of board game shops), Rotterdam (for a big city feeling with a European twist, as well as lots of cool modern architecture and a garlic restaurant – even the deserts have garlic in them!), Den Haag/The Hague (it’s quaint and historic yet manages to feel more spacious than Amsterdam – if I’d decided to settle in the Netherlands I would seriously have looked at moving to Den Haag), and Delft (for more Dutch gezelligheid on a smaller scale than the other cities).

Unless you’re confident in your bike skills, I wouldn’t recommend cycling in the city centre – I’ve seen so many wobbly tourists almost cause accidents! What’s more, to be honest, cycling in the centre of Amsterdam is a bit of a nightmare since you have so many other cyclists, tourists, cars, and trams to contend with. However, there are lots of bike hire shops in Amsterdam and guides who can take you on a tour of the city. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you can head out of the city and use the knooppunt system to navigate.

***

*When I lived in the Netherlands I usually bought home-cooked food into work for my lunch. Oftentimes this was leftovers from the previous nights dinner and included an array of tasty smelling meals: stir fries, curries, pizza etc. However, the one time my Dutch colleagues commented on my food was when I warmed up some leftover stamppot in the microwave. Mmm, smells like stamppot, was the repeated phrase from Dutch colleagues a they trickled into the kitchen to get lunch.

**I actually got my first taste of Dutch pancakes as a kid. My dad was a weekend dad and usually took my brother and I on trips to the Odeon cinema in Manchester. The cinema was built in the 1930s but sadly lost many of its original features over the years and was eventually demolished in 2017, to be replaced with a boring concrete office block. While taking an open-top bus tour of Manchester the tour guide informed us that Odeon stands for “Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation”, Oscar Deutsch being the man who established the Odeon chain. I’m not sure why I was doing a bus tour around Manchester, but according to Wikipedia the story about the acronym was actually made up by the company’s PR department. The term odeon comes from Greek and refers to a theatre used for musical performances. Anyhow, not far from the Odeon cinema was the Dutch Pancake House. According to this article (which is so Mancunian it almost reads like a spoof – also those old red buses!), the DPH opened in the 1970s and the interior wasn’t updated much, if at all, over the decades. My memories are vague, but I’m fairly sure I once ordered a cheese pancake there that came with chicken on it. Still, I have fond memories of the place!

***The organisation I worked for in the Netherlands is the head office of a global charity, which also has an office in Indonesia. At the heads of office annual meeting I met one of my colleagues from Indonesia – at every meal that week he would, without fail, pull out a jar of hot sauce to douse his food in.

****Many Indians were sent to Suriname as indentured workers by the British during the 19th century, so there is a lot of cultural and linguistic cross-over. You will find the terms roti and bara used in Indian cuisine, and my husband’s Indian colleague was able to converse with the workers at Surinamese restaurants and takeaways while both speaking their respective native tongues.

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