If you’re looking for the darker side of life, you’ll find all you need in Amsterdam without much preparation. But this town is also dense with higher pursuits. While packing the cultural punch of a metropolis, Amsterdam is a remarkably convenient place to visit.
Most things are within half an hour’s walk and the trams provide back-up for those low on energy. You can also slipstream the locals and saddle up on a bike (though you should beware of trams and cycle thieves). In the centre are Amsterdam’s old port, its medieval buildings, the grand 17th-century merchants’ houses, the spires of ancient religious institutions, the earliest and prettiest canals, and many of its most famous sights.
However, when strolling through Museumplein and its three major art museums very few visitors go beyond the grachtengordel, the calming belt of Golden Age canals – likened in Albert Camus’ 'The Fall' to the circles of hell – which ring the fascinating and historic Old Centre. Don’t make the same mistake. While primarily residential, the Jordaan and the Pijp are hugely attractive places. Further out, there’s much to enjoy, on the Waterfront to the north and north-east, or south around the idyllic Amsterdamse Bos.
Amsterdam by area
Amsterdam’s ground zero of consumerism, entertainment and history, the Old Centre is bounded by Prins Hendrikkade to the north, Oudeschans and Zwanenburgwal to the east, the Amstel to the south and Singel to the west. Within these borders, the Old Centre is split into the New Side (west of Damrak and Rokin) and the Old Side (east of Damrak and Rokin). The area around Waterlooplein was settled by Jews two centuries ago and took its name – Jodenbuurt – from them.
The grachtengordel (girdle of canals) that guards the Old Centre is idyllic, pleasant and quintessentially Amsterdam. A great way to explore them is by jumping aboard one of the many boat tours, which roam the waterways for an hour at a time. Singel was the medieval city moat; other canals such as Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht, which follow its line outwards, were part of a Golden Age renewal scheme for the rich. The connecting canals and streets, originally home to workers and artisans, have a number of cafés and shops. Smaller canals worth seeking out include Leliegracht, Bloemgracht, Egelantiersgracht, Spiegelgracht and Brouwersgracht.
Plantage and Oost (East)
The Plantage, which lies east and south-east of Waterlooplein, holds many delights, among them the Hortus Botanicus and Artis. Further east – or Oost – lies the Tropenmuseum, before the city opens up and stretches outwards and onwards.
Bordered by Brouwersgracht, Prinsengracht, Leidsegracht and Lijnbaansgracht, the Jordaan is arguably Amsterdam’s most charming neighbourhood and the location of many excellent galleries (including the likes of Vassie and Torch). Working-class stalwarts rub shoulders with affluent newcomers in an area that, while lacking the grandiose architecture of the canals, wants for nothing in character. The Jordaan has no major sights; it’s a place in which you stumble across things. The area north of the shopping-dense Rozengracht, the Jordaan’s approximate mid-point, is picturesque, whereas the area to the south is more commercial.
Museum Quarter, Vondelpark & South
With its world-class museums (Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, Van Gogh Museum) and stupendously posh fashion emporia, Amsterdam’s Museum Quarter is a mix of culture and couture. South of Singelgracht, with approximate borders at Overtoom (west) and Hobbemakade (east), it’s also home to many pleasant hotels and, at its northernmost tip, is within a stone’s throw of both Leidseplein and Vondelpark.
The Pijp is the best known of the working-class quarters built in the late 19th century. Harsh economic times necessitated a plan of long, narrow streets, leading to its apt nickname, ‘the Pipe’. High rents forced tenants to sublet rooms to students and artists, lending the area its bohemian character. Today, the Pijp is home to a mix of halal butchers, Surinamese, Spanish and Turkish delicatessens, and restaurants offering authentic Syrian, Moroccan, Thai, Pakistani, Chinese and Indian cuisine. This makes the Pijp one of the best spots in town to buy quality snacking treats, the many ingredients for which are almost always bought fresh from the single largest daily market anywhere in the Netherlands: Albert Cuypmarkt. Against all the gentrification odds, the Pijp has managed to remain a wonderful melting pot of many cultures and nationalities, which is keenly reflected in its shops and restaurants including the aptly-named Bazar.
Waterfront & Noord
Once the gateway to the city’s prosperity, Amsterdam’s waterfront is now the setting for one of Europe’s most exciting new architectural developments and an increasing number of nightlife options, including Café Pakhuis Wilhelmina and Panama.
On the other side of the IJ waterway, accessible via the free ferries that leave regularly from behind Centraal Station, the hip hood of Noord ('North') is fast becoming the focus of artistic and commercial expansion for those who appreciate appeal of wide open spaces a stone's throw from Western Europe's most densely populated urban centres.