Here’s a guide to seeing Amsterdam’s biggest tourist sites: go to the Rijksmuseum and look at the Vermeers and Rembrandts; then stand in line for the Anne Frank House; then stroll along the canals. That’s it. Follow those three easy steps and you will have taken in the city that something like 13 million visitors a year see. It’s a compact and worthwhile experience.
But if you really want to see Amsterdam, I would skip the big attractions. Amsterdam is essentially a city of small spaces. It’s a place where you turn a corner, peer down an alley, and catch a sudden glimpse of the past skitting before you. It’s a place of clouds and gables. It’s Europe at its earthy best.
Go to the Binnenkant early in the morning for a wander. Tourists don’t come here, because there’s no name-brand attraction. But the canalside houses were built for 17th-century ships’ captains, and they quietly pose, ready for an impressionist rendering. You can walk along this stretch of water until you reach the harbour, where the warehouse of the West India Company (which hasn’t served that purpose for a couple of centuries) still sits, overlooking what in the city’s golden age grandeur was a ‘forest of masts’. If you were to go inside and up to the top floor, you’d catch a sweet whiff of the tobacco leaves stored here 300 years ago.
Next stop: the Nieuwmarkt. Best to arrive here before the locals and the pot tourists wake up. The Nieuwmarkt, the centre of the old medieval quarter, including the Red Light District, is Amsterdam at its seedy best. You could come in the evening, of course, when it’s throbbing with activity. But at this hour, when it’s still strewn with trash from the night before, you can savour the seediness. This is Old Amsterdam, the place sailors on leave used to roam. Prostitutes working the morning shift sit in nearby windows, yawning. What’s that? You want some history? Well, right in the centre of the Nieuwmarkt square sits the squat medieval building called the Waag, or Weigh House. It served that function once, but also, in the 17th century, its top floor was a theatre where public dissections were held. Rembrandt climbed up here to watch the famous Dr Nicolaes Tulp, the city’s chief medical officer, perform a dissection, and he immortalised it in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp — one of his most memorable masterpieces.
If you want to trick yourself into feeling you’re not in Amsterdam at all but instead in some little Dutch fishing village of a century ago, head to Prinseneiland. It’s just a few steps from the trendy bustle of the Haarlemmerstraat, but in those few steps you will (perhaps unwittingly) be crossing off the mainland and onto a man-made island. There are actually three little islands here in the harbour, all created in the 17th century, using earth that was dug up to make the canals. Prinseneiland, Bickers Island and Realen Island are packed, higgledy-piggledy, with little doll-like houses, rimmed with old fishing boats, and connected to each other by 19th-century wooden drawbridges. Here, the throb of the city vanishes; the silence is broken only by the splash of boats plying the water and the bucolic grunts from a children’s petting zoo.
Even the most travel-jaded tourists want a bit of quaint when they come to Amsterdam. But not too much: an excess of tulips and blue Delft tiles can have a deleterious effect. For one compact dose of quaint, I recommend the length of the Nieuw Spiegelgracht, from the Prinsengracht to the Singelgracht. It’s best taken by bike because the cycle lane runs right along this postcard-pretty stretch of canal. Both sides of the water are lined with canal houses, most of which date to the 17th century and show off the succession of gable styles that define that era. Their ground floors are packed with antique shops, many featuring Asian crafts. The little boats moored along here are smaller and prettier than in many other spots, their bright colours reflecting off the water. You can do the block in 20 seconds by bike, or spend hours if you take in every shop.
The antidote to quaint is, of course, beer. As much as Amsterdam is defined by art, by canals, by its famous permissiveness, it can equally be identified with the studied consumption of beer. There are many great cafes, ranging from grand to grungy, but if I were to highlight a single one it would be In ’t Aapjen, down near the harbour. It is the city’s oldest pub, dating to around 1600, and it has the ancient, lacquered-wood style to go with the pedigree. The name, which means ‘In the Ape’, comes from the fact sailors would come ashore and cruise in here for drinks, bearing whatever they’d brought from all parts of the globe. Many returned from East India with pet monkeys and apes; if you were lodging in one of its upstairs rooms back in the day, you’d just say, “I’m staying in the Ape.”
Elsewhere, the De Pijp neighbourhood gives a feel for the city’s anything-goes-ness. There are Surinamese and Indonesian restaurants, lots of coffee shops (marijuana shops), Irish pubs, and yoga studios. It’s rasta and hip-hop, kitsch and cool. You won’t find many tulips here. But this is the real Amsterdam, or as close to it as a tourist is likely to get.
Russell Shorto is an author, historian and journalist. His latest book, Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City was published in paperback in May. russellshorto.com
Published in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)