Non-Touristy Things to Do in Amsterdam

badge_AmsterdamInterNations Many people come to Amsterdam with a bucket list—a compilation of tips gleaned from guidebooks, friends, family, curiosity and a little classroom history. Topping many lists is the Anne Frank House, one of the city’s most famous museums. Long deserted by its last residents, it’s where Amsterdam’s most famous teen writer vented daily frustrations in her world-renowned diary while hiding from the Nazis during World War II.

Do you really want to wait in a line like this to visit the Anne Frank House?
Do you really want to spend your valuable vacation time like this?

Although the Secret Annex, where Anne Frank and her sister, parents and four other fearful Jews lived from 1942–1944, is both a testament to human courage and a reminder of wartime horrors, hordes of camera-toting tourists have replaced the ghosts of times past. Arrive after 8:30—a bit early if you’ve enjoyed Amsterdam’s nightlife the previous night—and you’ll wait in line for hours. Fortunately, you can save time by purchasing an e-ticket. For non-planners, there’s free WiFi for using your smartphone or tab while queuing up.

Photo Credit: European Tourist Guide.
Amsterdam’s Dutch Resistance Museum tells the story of Holland under Hitler’s reign. Photo Credit: European Tourist Guide.

If you lose patience, get your fill of Holocaust lore at Amsterdam’s Dutch Resistance Museumopposite the Artis Royal Zoo. Here you’ll find a thoughtful perspective of Holland during Hitler’s tyrannical reign without standing in line. Beyond the story of Dutch resistance and daily life under German occupation, the museum has a section about the Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia during World War II. 

Find more tips in my AFAR Guide to Amsterdam.

Next on many agendas is the recently reopened Rijksmuseum, followed closely by the Van Gogh Museum—repositories of Golden Age art, iconic sunflowers and tormented starry nights. While our destination museums are rife with artistic treasures, they’re also chock full of tourists, especially in high season (May–September), when millions descend on the Dutch capital. Avoid the queues with an e-ticket or Museumkaart, or make use of free WiFi while waiting in line. Once in, don’t count on marveling at Dutch masterpieces in solitary reverence at either of these popular tourist attractions if you visit in summer or during school vacation time. You’ll face far fewer crowds if you come in spring, fall or winter after the year-end holidays.

Admission to the Rijksmuseum gardens is free!
There’s no charge to view the Rijksmuseum gardens.

To get away from tourists, consider venturing off-the-beaten path, to spots ignored by many guidebooks—where the real soul of Amsterdam might reveal itself to you. Here are a few of my favorites:

Non-Touristy Museums

Sure, everyone thinks about the aforementioned when coming to Amsterdam. Fewer know about our smaller museums—all 60+ of them—showcasing everything from contemporary art (Stedelijk) and photography (Foam) to ancient torture (Torture Museum), sex through the ages (Sex Museum), houseboats (Houseboat Museum), tulips (Amsterdam Tulip Museum) soft drugs (Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum), small bags and purses (Tassenmuseum), and cats in art (Katten Kabinet). Many are set in restored Golden Age canal-side mansions, adding architectural and historical interest beyond their treasures.

The eye-popping EYE is always worth a visit
The eye-popping EYE is a must-see for film aficionados.

My visit to EYE Film Institute Netherlands (generously sponsored by iAmsterdam) revealed an homage to international cinema replete with interactive displays, perched like an ivory spaceship ready for launch on the northern bank of the Ij River. The striking facility, accessible via free ferry from Central Station, houses four movie screening rooms, a museum shop and exhibit space.

Don't leave Holland without sampling bitterballen.
Don’t leave Holland without sampling bitterballen.

At the top of the contemporary structure is the eye-popping EYE bar restaurant, where you can wash down a plate of bitterballen with beer on tap while musing about cinematography against a backdrop of the watery Ij. On sunny days, a spacious terrace beckons for lunch or just contemplating the world of the moving image. The new location in Overhoeks, Amsterdam’s new urban district across the water from Central Station, replaces the Film Institute’s previous headquarters in Vondelpark.

Watch the boats bob by while you grab a beer at Hanneke's Boom near Central Station.
Watch the boats while you grab a beer (or two) at Hanneke’s Boom.

Non-Touristy Bars

Its history is a little murky, but legend has it that Hanneke’s Tree has been rooted on the Ij, sheltering Amsterdam from intruders, since 1662. Its latest incarnation is Hanneke’s Boom, an uber-relaxed gastrobar/beer garden/live music + dance venue with stunning views of NEMO, the interactive children’s museum that resembles a green whale, and Amsterdam’s skyline. Pull up a bar stool or plunk yourself down on the dock, where you can dangle your toes in the river while watching small boats bob past. Order drinks, snacks, lunch or dinner from a seasonal menu featuring organic ingredients in classics like nachos, sandwiches, burgers and fries.

You won't find many tourists at Café Soundgarden, a popular dive in the Jordaan.
You won’t find many tourists at Sound Garden, where the beer is cheap and the view is priceless.

Tucked on Marnixgracht on the western edge of the Jordaan, Café Sound Garden is another unpretentious pub with a spectacular view and an alternative vibe. The laid-back joint boasts a pool table, pinball machines and table soccer, in addition to a full bar. Come as you are to share a beer and a joint with locals, expats and possibly a few tattooed tourists who’ve stumbled upon the gezellig canal-side terrace overlooking the Singlegracht.

Non-Touristy Fun

Why take a canal cruise when you can captain your own paddleboat?
Why take a canal cruise when you can captain your own peddleboat?

Numerous Amsterdam guidebooks encourage you to rent a bike. “See the city like a local,” they enthuse. I say, “Nay!” Walk, paddle or use the city’s excellent, affordable public transport (€13.50 for a one-day GVB card entitling you to unlimited 24/7 travel by bus, tram and metro throughout Amsterdam and environs/€2.90 for a one-hour ticket) if you want to avoid getting caught in tram tracks or run over by confused tourists and/or Dutchies who’ve been riding since they’ve been in utero, when Mama pedaled alongside Papa to the hospital to give birth.

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Bike riding Dutchie-style: romantic or dangerous?

Instead, venture off bike paths fraught with danger and rent a peddleboat from a company like Canal at piers in four city locations. Not only will you peddle along Amsterdam’s UNESCO-honored, 400-year-old canals viewing Golden Age houses on a self-paced cruise, you’ll also avoid colliding with dazed tourists, swiftly moving Dutchies and drivers on motorscooters, all vying for passage on Amsterdam’s overcrowded bike paths.

No telling what will hit you on an Amsterdam bike path.
No telling what will hit you on an Amsterdam bike path.

Beyond visiting these non-touristy attractions, here’s my best tip for getting off the beaten path in Amsterdam: Let the city lead you. If your bucket list is set in stone, you’ll leave no room for the serendipitous adventures this magical global village may have in store for you!

56 comments

  1. Thanks for this! My boyfriend and I are planning to spend a few days in Amsterdam this summer, and your cycling tips are super helpful! I really want to rent bikes, but my boyfriend is a pretty cautious cyclist (I bike in Montreal, so I might be a bit crazy), so your tips for Canal riding sound like a great compromise for us.

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    • Renting a bike is a MUST in Amsterdam, it was one of the best things to do there, I mean it’s so convenient to get around on bike like along the canals like the dutchie and ringin on pedestrians for no reason)) And seeing the city from boat is definitely a good idead too! Check out Amsterdam events on couchsurfing, some locals are doing small boat tours. Least but not last, great article Melissa, I’m lookin forward to goin there again and catching up on all the things I missed, your blog will be definitely the no. 1 resource.

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  2. Great tips…would love to do the canal riding. Huge fan of mixing touristy and not so touristy activities when I spend time in a place. Being a tourist all the time can be tiring, and you really don’t get a real feel for the place. I could see myself spending some time at that gastropub, watching the world unfold. Nice.

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  3. I would suggest to visit the sculpture route on the appollolaan, it’s a anual outdoor exhibition. http://www.artzuid.nl/ Its a 2,5 km long route and could be a nice stroll on a summer day, it’s located walking distance from the vondelpark.
    I would like to comment that renting a waterbike is very touristy, i don’t think that any local ever uses them, maybe it’s an idea to rent a (whisper)boat, these are electronic powered and quiet, and you won’t have to tread water, wich can be a real workout.
    Also keep in mind that there are huge boats giving roundtrips in the canals, since these are proffesionals you always have to yield for them.
    Thats’s one of the laws on the water , recreational boats have to give way to the proffesional, but with all these canals and over 1500 bridges an accident is just around the corner. For those who feel bald enough here’s a link to rent a whisperboat. http://www.boaty.nl/
    Enjoy the summer.

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  4. I for sure wish I had read this article before I went to Amsterdam a couple weeks ago. I rented a bicycle and although I do believe it was a great way to visit the city and get around easily, I did not always feel safe.

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  5. Hi Melissa!

    As you did, I’ve once written a post in my blog (http://mochilismo.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/amsterda-para-mochileiros/ – It’s in Portuguese though. Use Google Translator if you feel like seeing smth) trying to advice on off-beaten track attractions from Amsterdam.

    May I add a few more on your list?

    OT 301
    http://ot301.nl

    This is a global atmosphere cultural center that was created in tha squatted building. I remember of going there and having a nice meal for about 4 euros, plus some drinks with people who were actually playing pool and heard a lovely gig from a guy from NZ.

    Brownerij
    http://www.brouwerijhetij.nl

    This is one of the greatest breweries you can find in Amsterdam. It’s much cheaper than the Heineken experience and the staff are very genuine. If you feel like having a good pint of local beer, go for it.

    St. Nicholas Boat Trip

    There’s a NGO called St Nicholas in Amsterdam that offers free boat trips through the city’s canals. If I’m not wrong they run the boat twice a day during the summer. To find it, you have to go to Boom Chicago Bar, at 12, Leidseplein. I remember it was a nice hang-out as I was luck enough to be in Amsterdam during a sunny Saturday…

    Congratulations for your blog. It’s really worth!

    Best,

    Milton Leal

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    • Great tips…thanks. Fyi, Boom Chicago has moved to a location around the corner from me, on Rozengracht. They’re always funny, but I’ve never been on their boat. Sounds like fun1

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  6. Your blog is very useful for a tourist like me to know more about the other side of Amsterdam. I read that there are many small while remarkable museums in Amsterdam worth visiting. The Sex Museum really interests me. Only a open minded city like Amsterdam can accept such a avant-garde museum. Thanks for your sharing. I agree that let the city lead you. Amsterdam is a place that many extraordinary things are waiting us to explore.

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  7. Now it is my second time that i’m planning to visit Amsterdam and many of the places i’ve visited were tustistic complety. This post really helped me to plan a different way to see the city. But i thinks that the best advise is to let the city lead you.

    Thank you for interesting post.

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  8. I came to Amsterdam with no list, but now I have one! I’ll definitely go check the ones in the “non-touristy” category, especially the EYE Film Institute and Cafe Soundgarden.

    I also appreciated your insightful tips about transportation, I’m pretty sure they’ll come in handy.

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  9. I am completely new to Europe and Amsterdam in particular and I so enjoy this perspective on the non-touristy “to-do’s”. As someone who likes to travel for culture’s sake, I feel that now I will be able to access “the real” Amsterdam, rather than the Amsterdam the tourist agencies want me to see. Sex Museum? Torture Museum?! I’m no pervert (nothing against them per se) but I am so stoked to see alternative museums of this sort! Thanks for the perspective!

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  10. These tips are wonderful! It can be a bit difficult finding non-touristy destinations in a very touristy city. I will be in Amsterdam with a friend in November and hope to get a feel for the city in its entirety. I will definitely keep in mind your suggestions for museums, bars, and other fun attractions as we decide how to spend our time in Amsterdam.

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  11. Fabulous! Every city should come equiped with a guide like this! Alternative museums?! Some touristy things need to be seen at least once i.e. who goes to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower? But too many attractions like this in a day make you feel as if you’ve been to an amusement park not visited a new and exciting city! After reading this I realise 2 days is not enough! Going to have to come back for a second trip, and this time bring my home body husband….. fairly certain that a Sex Museum will entice him to travel!

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  12. The museum, Foam, sounds really interesting! My bf is a photography enthusiast and i think he will enjoy the museum very much! This will definitely be on the list of our ‘must-go’ when we arrive in Amsterdam! Thanks so much for the info!

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  13. Love the article, bursting with knowledge and well-done research. Especially since I love going off typical paths. Wish there was a page like this for every place I visited. Thanks!

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  14. Genial!! I was asking for all my friends what should I visit in Amsterdam and all of them recommended me the same touristic stuffs!
    Of course that I will visit the interesting touristic places…but, as you show in this articles, there are a looot of places non-touristic to see.
    These bars and museums sound very interersting!!!

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  15. Thanks for your super helpful tips. They are really helpful! I was planning to rent a bike to travel to the outskirts of Amsterdam, though. Do you think it is worth trying it? Another question: is it worth buying the e-tick to Rijksjmuseum? I wouldn’t like to be wasting long hours in line….

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    • Hi Deborah,
      While I never recommend renting a bike to ride around A’dam, cycling in the nearby countryside is another story. Highly recommended and perfect in summer, when it’s light until 23:00 + you can take a picnic. As far as the e-ticket goes, I’ve heard it can save you time in line, but it might cost you some spontaneity. I don’t think the lines at the Rijks are that long if you get there early, before they open. Your choice….See you soon!

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  16. Hello! My name is Tyler Dobies, and I believe my housemate Emily has contacted you about hosting Haley, Emily, and I in a few weeks. Thank you for considering us! Looking through this blog, I am excited to have the opportunity to get to know Amsterdam with someone who knows it as well as you do. I particularly like this post because I find that getting to know a city takes looking past the glitz and glam of tourist spots to the less known, sometimes more authentic spots. Visiting the Sex Museum or the Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum sounds like a fabulous time. Additionally, I would love to rent a waterbike, which sounds like an incredible way to spend an afternoon riding along the canals. I especially agree with your “best tip:” let the city lead you. When Emily and I were in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, we never had an agenda, but simply took the city in, looked at the map, and walked. It was fantastic. When we wanted to find a beach, we, again, simply walked; after all, we figured, “This is an island. We are bound to hit water sometime.” I just think traveling should be about experiencing rather than sticking to an agenda.

    Thank you so much! I hope to meet you soon. 🙂

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  17. Oh no, I thought that cycling was only for “brave” tourists! ;D I was worried about not knowing how to defend myself amongst the locals, but maybe you’re right about sticking to walking…. Definitely going to write down some of these non-touristy ideas, thanks!

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  18. Hello Melissa,
    me and two of my friends are planning a trip to Amsterdam next week and we’re already really excited! Especially after reading through this article. We actually do not have a bucket list or anything like that so you’re tips are very helpful right now. Especially about renting a bike since several friends have already suggested that. I also really liked the tip about that restaurant/bar Hannekes Boom. Sounds intriguing!
    Funny enough one friend had the same suggestion that you had: Let the city lead you. This just makes so much sense to me and is the most relaxing way of experiencing a city.
    Thanks again for all these great tips and I hope to meet you soon 🙂

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  19. Melissa, these are great tips to discover Amsterdam at a pace which is more likeable and more earthy. Though my friend and I who are visiting in Nov want to be able to see some of the famous places, but we are mostly constrained by budget and time. We hope to be able to meet you soon and learn a bit more! 🙂

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  20. I’ve been to Amsterdam before but I’ve never knew that I can rend the bike,which is not expensive. I thought it costs more. I definitely should try it to see Amsterdam expensively. Can’t wait my next visit there in Feb!

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  21. This is AMAZING!! I am visiting Amsterdam this month, and these tips are beyond helpful. Some of these sound even better than the tourist attractions. – After reading this I will definitely be making time to rent a water bike and spend a day trying to visit all of the museums. This has made me that much more excited to see the city. Thank you so much for this!

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  22. This is such an amazing article! I’ve already started to make my “bucket list” as you call it for my trip in Amsterdam and it’s really great to have a local perspective. After reading this and the “what not to do” post I feel like I am much more prepared for my trip to Amsterdam. Hopefully you have more helpful tips if/when we meet in person!

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  23. I agree completely that it is always necessary to do non-touristy things in a new city, I feel that it is the only way to feel as if you really made a connection to the place. I do want to visit Anne Frank’s house, so it was very helpful to learn that it is possible to do this without waiting in extremely long lines. My favourite part of the article was the canal ride idea! Thanks for all of the tips!

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  24. I’m really looking forward to visit Amsterdam starting this weekend, gor botg touristic and non-touristic reasons, a friend of mine recomended me:
    Try a hertog jan beer (available in Albert Heijn, Deen, dirk van der broek etc)
    Drink a beer in Brouwerij ‘t IJ/Visit dappermarkt and try a Turkse Pizza there!
    Take a free ferry to the EYE museum, etc. hehe, food is actually one of the most important reasons for my trip, but I do want to get to know the city as much as I can, so thanks for all the advice!

    Aldo Cervantes

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  25. Thank you for the insider tips, some of which I would otherwise never discover. The FOAM and EYE film museum have gained my interest!

    It is cool to see that you – as an American living in Amsterdam – have the capability to see the city through the glasses of both the citizen and the visitor. And yes (!), overcrowded environments can be missed on the occasion of exploring the city.

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  26. Loved these tips. I’ve visited Amsterdam earlier this year, but I can already predict, that my next visit will be a totally different experience;

    As a rule of thumb, personal blogs like these let you peek into the more authentic part of the city and it’s day-to-day life.

    Also make sure to read the comments above, most of them also give valuable tips.

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  27. Thanks so much for so many tips!!! It is indeed necessary to do some non-touristy things to somewhat truly experience a new city. Plus I’ve experienced Amsterdam in a touristy way and I already loved it! I’m sure I’ll even love it better this time!!! It already sounds amazing by simply reading it! 😀 Now I’m afraid I don’t have time to fully experience everything you recommend!

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  28. So glad to have found your blog through CS! Amazing tips that I’ll definitely be using for my upcoming stay in Amsterdam – I’ve already preordered tickets to the Anne Frank House to skip the lines and I’m definitely going to take your cycling advice. Thanks!

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  29. Many thanks (again) for offering great ideas on how to experience Amsterdam in a unique way. To me there’s nothing more annoying than being part of a big horde of tourists and you offer a bit of a workaround for that: So instead of being pushed off my bike I’ll peddle on the canal and instead of the usual museums I’ll have a look at the houseboat museum – it’s always been my dream to have my own someday! 🙂

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  30. I was grateful to see that you put biking as an activity to avoid, as I dread it and was almost considering giving it a go in Amsterdam since it is one of those things you “should” do. While I do plan to see some of the classics, I am excited to venture off the path. It seems to me that bucket lists are sometimes based more of what we can tell other people we did and sound impressive or even better what will look better on social media! Very refreshing to hear a new take and I will definitely be keeping it in mind next week when I visit.

    -Catherine Bradshaw

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  31. I’ll be soon visiting Amsterdam for the first time. I don’t usually make a “bucket list” whenever I go on a trip, since I like to see and feel the places on my own for the first day at least; then ask locals -or even go to tourists’ office- for the basics according to what I feel like visiting/doing/experiencing.
    After reading your article about non-touristy things, I have just started my “alternative bucket list”… and I’m already starting to feel a little bit stressed.
    Just wanted to thank you for the nice tips I’ve found here, that will definitely help me out with my purpose of not becoming any other tourist in Amsterdam.

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  32. This is pure gold. Touristy attractions always tend to be overcrowded and overpriced and they seem to detract from the real soul of the place you’re visiting. Thank you for these lovely suggestions in the hope that the real Amsterdam can be discovered 🙂

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  33. Thanks for the insider tips ! I am planning to visit Amsterdam in July. My confusion is around how to experience the famous water canals? I mean I am on a low budget. So is it advisable to take the free ferry(is it good enough?) or should I hire a peddling boat/ water boat (does that gives better views/experience)? If I hire a boat, how long I should hire it for? and is there a particular canal side which I should prefer over others?

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  34. Exactly what I was looking for! Can’t wait to check out the great bars you recommended, but more importantly the Houseboat Museum! I’ve been infatuated with houseboats for years and had no idea there was an entire institution dedicated to it! Can’t wait to discover Amsterdam.

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  35. I’m feeling so excited about this trip, At the beggining my principal thing to look it was Anna Frank’s Museum, and doing that I was thinking that I’ll feel complete but now that I’ve been reading your blog I can see that there are more things to consider to do it. I’m so happy that there are more options about transport and not thinking that the only option have to be cycling, because I don’t feel very confident in this, but well we have to try everthing. I feel that walking you can have more time to see all kind of details in buildings or in the streets and even if you are lucky, you can hear some historic facts from locals or others tourists.

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  36. I found these points extremelly helpful! At first, we were planning to take some bicycles and go around the city but not I am not sure if this was a good idea. Instead of riding a bike, we would rather explore the city by foot and also I really liked your advice that we need to let the city lead us. We will take it into account and let ourselves get lost in these charming streets and canals. Thank you for nice advices from local perspective!

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