Eurostar is set to launch its long-awaited London-Amsterdam service this winter, but if it’s been a while since your last visit, mind the gap between your expectations and reality when exiting the train. The Dutch capital, once considered Europe’s seediest city, has been quietly recasting itself as one of the continent’s most dynamic cities. Startups and tech companies are giving it an enterprising edge, while the government is keeping its promise to ‘clean up’ the streets. Some things, of course, haven’t changed: beat-up bicycles, hazy coffee shops and time-worn taverns remain woven into the cultural fabric of Amsterdam. Frankly, there’s still nowhere else quite like it.
Red Light District
When two prostitutes offered to show me a good time in Amsterdam, I nervously accepted — and Martine and Louise Fokkens certainly delivered. The identical twins — both 75 years old now — recently retired from the sex trade to pursue careers as tour guides, and I was lucky enough to be invited along on one of their first excursions.
Known locally as the Fokkens, the pair pull back the curtain on their seamy industry and offer tourists a unique insight into the Red Light District, where, between them, they worked for over 100 years, reportedly pleasuring around 350,000 men. A sobering stat, some might say, although when I ask them if they enjoyed it, Louise says: “Yes. It’s a sport. You feel young.”
That the Fokkens, famed across the Netherlands, are now working as tour guides is indicative of how their neighbourhood has changed. A government ‘clean-up’ has forced many brothels and cannabis-peddling coffeeshops to close. They’ve been replaced by restaurants, stores and artisan cafes; so it’s out with the smut and in with the speciality coffee. “Such a shame,” Louise laments.
Whatever her misgivings, the Red Light District now has a much more diverse tourist offering; there are interesting new attractions, like the Fokkens’ tour, more places to eat and drink, plus less chance of trouble. Some red lights remain — it’s hardly the Vatican — but the Fokkens don’t think much of what’s left. They reckon today’s prostitutes look “plastic” and leave little to the imagination. “When we were in the windows, we wore sexy clothes,” said Louise, sporting exactly the same red leather jacket and skinny jeans as her sister.
Martine and Louise work for Amsterdam Red Light District Tours, a new startup that’s also recruited retired vice cop Piet Middelkoop. His tours give the lowdown on life as a bobby in the ’80s. Armed with photos and anecdotes, Piet paints a vivid picture of the murders, the drug busts, the time his dog bit a fugitive’s testicles (“He didn’t lose them,” I’m reassured). Like the Fokkens, Piet seems to miss those heady days, which perhaps goes to show you can be nostalgic about anything.
Although it endures as one of Amsterdam’s most fascinating neighbourhoods, you probably wouldn’t want to stay the night in the Red Light District. But you might well want to stay in De Pijp, which lies in the south of the city, beyond the canal belt, and well away from the madness of downtown. Where the Red Light District feels a bit Disney-by-way-of-Playboy, De Pijp (‘The Pipe’) feels lived-in and real.
Split into two districts (De Oude Pijp and De Nieuwe Pijp), the neighbourhood was traditionally the preserve of working-class Amsterdammers. Many inhabitants grafted at the nearby Heineken brewery before it was mothballed and turned into a tourist attraction known as the Heineken Experience (the beer is now brewed on the city outskirts).
De Pijp also traditionally had a strong immigrant and student population, though lately the neighbourhood has been attracting more middle-class professionals. Gentrification is in full swing: it’s tempting to draw parallels with Brixton in London.
The multicultural makeup of De Pijp, particularly De Oude Pijp, conspires to produce a vibrant neighbourhood, where you can just as easily drink beer with old men in time-worn taverns as brunch on smoked salmon with beatniks.
Just like British food, Dutch cuisine can be uninspiring without the influence of other cultures. Mercifully, multicultural
De Pijp — also known as the Latin Quarter — serves up flavours from around the world. It may lack the aesthetic appeal of the canal belt, but it’s the place to be if you like to eat.
It also offers a great night out. Elsewhere in Amsterdam, canals prevent pubs from spilling out onto the streets, but not so in De Pijp, where the nightlife has more than a whiff of the Mediterranean about it (except, of course, for the weather). It’s not uncommon to see young men straddling stationary scooters, beer in one hand, cigarette in the other, watching girls go by. On occasions like this, the Latin Quarter feels like an apt moniker.
De Pijp is also home to the Albert Cuyp Market, Amsterdam’s most famous bazaar, where hawkers tout everything from fruit and vegetables to old bicycles. And then there’s Sarphatipark, one of the prettiest parks in Amsterdam, which is ripe for games of ping pong, picnics and people watching.
While De Pijp is rattling along the road to gentrification, De Jordaan has already arrived. Once a squalid neighbourhood, this leafy suburb has become one of the city’s most exclusive areas. You don’t have to look hard for a skinny latte — gritty boozers, however, are harder to come by.
De Jordaan is beautiful, particularly along Prinsengracht, where it’s impossible not to fantasise about living in a crooked, step-gabled house overlooking the canal. It’s easy to see why Rembrandt chose to see out his twilight years in this corner of the capital, which nowadays attracts youngish families.
In any other city, De Jordaan’s pavements would be gridlocked with prams, but this being Amsterdam — a practical and pragmatic place — kids are simply piled onto bicycles with the dog and the shopping. It all feels very wholesome.
Speaking of shops, De Jordaan abounds with bijou boutiques, small galleries and independent stores, where you can blow wads of cash on anything from exclusive garments to one-off items of furniture, before retiring to a neighbourhood cafe or restaurant. It’s wonderful if you’ve got the money, aspirational if you haven’t.
Happily, more modest budgets are catered for at Noordermarkt, every Saturday, where it’s possible to pick up anything from antiques to old vinyl and secondhand bikes.
Although De Jordaan lacks the youthful energy of De Pijp, it still likes to cut loose now and then — it was young once, you know. Cafe Sound Garden, a canalside pub, winds back the clock with bands and DJ sets. Further south is Leidseplein, where defunct factories have been reborn as music venues — like Melkweg and Sugarfactory — that sit cheek by jowl with some of the city’s best theatres.
This entertainment district is, strictly speaking, just beyond the southern boundaries of De Jordaan; just out of reach, physically and metaphorically, too. But in many ways, that’s part of De Jordaan’s appeal. Yes, it’s within striking distance of pulsating music venues and world-class museums (including the sobering Anne Frank House), but it’s a place where you can step back from the bustle of the city and feel alright about going out for a quiet meal and having an early night.
When in Amsterdam
Originally from Indonesia, this colonial fare is to the Netherlands what chicken tikka masala is to us Brits. A real feast, rijsttafel features tapas-style plates of chicken satay, shrimp crackers, soy pork belly and myriad other delights. Sampurna, near Bloemenmarkt flower market, is particularly good.
Experience a Coffeeshop
Katsu Coffeeshop in De Pijp is a friendly, neighbourhood place with an upbeat, jovial vibe and friendly, helpful staff. If you don’t want to inhale, hash cakes are available.
Get on your bike
Cycling is the best way to see the city; you don’t feel part of Amsterdam until you’re straddling a bike. Naturally, there are plenty of places to hire them.
Cruise the waterways
One of the great pleasures of visiting the city is hopping aboard one of the many vessels plying the UNESCO-listed canals and seeing the Dutch capital from a different perspective.
Discover unusual museums
A recent study found Amsterdam has the most cultural attractions per capita in the world, thanks largely to its small size. The Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House and Rijksmuseum are highlights, but don’t forget more eccentric institutions such as the Torture Museum, Sex Museum and Funeral Museum.
Eurostar will begin service from London to Amsterdam this December (prices to be confirmed). Meanwhile, B&B Colours in De Pijp offers three uniquely decorated apartments and two studios from €115 (£105) a night, excluding breakfast.
Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)