Amsterdam’s historic heart is a magnet for tourists. More than 16 million descend annually to admire Europe’s largest and best-preserved 17th-century center—an enchanting, open-air museum secured within a 400-year-old canal belt that was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.
Many are drawn by the city’s world-class indoor museums—repositories of Golden Age masterpieces, iconic sunflowers and tormented starry nights. Yet without some pre-planning, visiting such popular sights as the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank House can put you amidst hundreds of others intent on ticking off attractions on their bucket list. It may also entail spending significant time waiting in line with them—hardly a way to experience local culture.
With all its charms, Amsterdam’s medieval center can be a victim of its own popularity. And you’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t go beyond it to discover cool neighborhoods with far fewer tourists and far more local flavor. Here are three of my favorites:
The Newly Wild Oud-West
Since the opening of De Hallen in 2014, Amsterdam’s Oud-West—a neighborhood wedged between Vondelpark, De Clercqstraat and Nassaukade—has undergone a renaissance of sorts. The turn-of-the-century tram depot-turned-cultural hotspot brings new life to a district that developed as Amsterdam rapidly expanded in the late 19th century. Today the Oud-West is also called the Hallenkwartier, presumably to highlight its new centerpiece.
Inside the once derelict tram depot, street food from around the world is served up at Foodhallen, an ever-popular indoor food court. You can catch an independent film at Filmhallen, a nine-screen arthouse cinema that includes the posh Art Deco Parisian Room. Browse for treasures in De Hallen’s funky shops, or just chill at Café Belcampo, adjacent to the cozy library.
A century before De Hallen opened, vendors were selling fresh produce, flowers and plants at the Ten Katemarkt. A local vibe still infuses this street market, where snacks like Dutch stroopwafels, Vietnamese loempia, and Indonesian soup reflect the Oud-West’s multicultural makeup.
Along shopping streets like Kinkerstraat, Bilderdijkstraat and De Clercqstraat, you’ll find an ever-evolving crop of ethnic restaurants, hip boutiques and concept stores. Savor Asian favorites at HappyHappyJoyJoy or feast on potatoes piled high with hearty fillings at Jaketz. On Overtoom, furniture shops and concept stores thrive alongside ethnic eateries like Stach Asian Foodcourt, a source for poké bowls and Asian salads, and Abysinnia, specializing in East African street food.
A bohemian vibe is alive and well at Lab 111, where quirky films and insightful documentaries are screened in a former pathology lab. You can rub shoulders with locals at OT301, a film academy-turned-artists’ squat that’s now a center for live shows and movies. Get a taste of Amsterdam’s creative community over an organic meal at De Peper, OT301’s not-for-profit vegan café.
Architecture aficionados won’t want to miss the Oud-West’s Zevenlandenhuizen (Houses of Seven Countries), a collection of homes bordering Vondelpark, each representing a different country. Designed by Dutch architect Tjeerd Kuipers, the architectural feast appealed to the 19th-century fascination with faraway places. The English cottage accepts guests as Quentin England, a two-star hotel.
At Hollandsche Manege in the Oud-West, the Netherlands’ national riding school is housed in a neoclassical structure inspired by Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. Even non-equestrians can admire the ornate architecture and watch the regal trotting from the elegant café.
Diverse De Pijp
Of all the working-class neighborhoods that developed as Amsterdam expanded beyond its historic canal belt, De Pijp is perhaps the most diverse. As the Jordaan overflowed with laborers in the 19th century, the district evolved to accommodate the surplus, becoming a multicultural melting pot.
Students, artists, yuppies and immigrants from some 150 nationalities discovered De Pijp in the 1960s, establishing the area as Amsterdam’s lively Latin Quarter. Along Albert Cuypstraat and Ferdinand Bolstraat, Syrian, Moroccan, Spanish, Indian and Surinamese eateries now coexist alongside Dutch pubs, Islamic butchers and Turkish delicatessens.
The neighborhood is renowned for its narrow townhouses, originally built to house low-income families. While no one really knows what De Pijp stands for, some surmise it owes its name to the district’s long narrow streets that resemble pipes, or to the “Pipe,” the gas company that once supplied energy to the area.
De Pijp’s demographics are abundantly clear at the Albert Cuypmart, centerpiece of the neighborhood, where you can buy just about anything you need for daily life, including many specialty items from foreign lands.
More De Pijp Highlights
From the hip Avocado Show, serving—you guessed it—pancakes to poke bowls, all made with avocados, to Taart Van Mijn Tante, a fantasy tearoom for sugar addicts, and Scandinavian Embassy, where concept fashion meets food and specialty coffee, there’s no dearth of places to dine and unwind in De Pijp.
You decide what your meal is worth at Trust, a De Pijp bistro with a pay-as-you-feel policy. Or you can pay it forward at Dignita Hoftuin, an organic café in a serene urban garden, where former prostitutes get a second chance.
The adjacent Hermitage is set in a grand 17th-century building overlooking the Amstel River, just as Russia’s Hermitage overlooks the Neva. Modeled after its namesake in St. Petersburg, this museum of Russian-Dutch history reflects Peter the Great’s fascination with Amsterdam and its enlightened culture. In the 17th century, the czar enlisted the Dutch to save his capital from sinking into water-logged Russian soil.
De Pijp also encompasses Sarphatipark, an English landscape-style park developed by Jewish philanthropist Samuel Sarphati. After a long battle over a railway station originally conceived for the site, the park opened in 1885, 19 years after Sarphati’s death.
Just north of Sarphatipark is what remains of the establishment that once permeated De Pijp with the fragrance of fermenting hops. Now an overpriced brewery-turned-museum, the Heineken Experience pays homage to a beer now produced by a multinational firm. Even Amsterdam Marketing suggests you get drunk before visiting.
De Plantage and The Old Jewish Quarter
Green and serene, De Plantage belies the horrors that occurred during World War II around nearby Waterlooplein, where many Jews fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, as well as German, Polish and Russian antisemitic regimes, settled. In contrast to the medieval cobblestones and canals of Amsterdam’s medieval canal belt, it’s lined with leafy boulevards and elegant squares that make it far greener and less touristy than Centrum.
De Plantage is home to Artis Royal Zoo, Hortus Botanical Gardens, and the Tropenmuseum, showcasing the former Dutch colonies and Dutch East India Company. For culture vultures, the Dutch National Opera & Ballet and Royal Theatre Carré offer world-class productions of everything from classical dance to pop music.
Amsterdam’s most recognizable bridge is in De Plantage. According to legend, kissing on the Magere Brug will insure everlasting love. Allegedly built by two sisters living on opposite sides of the Amstel, the Skinny Bridge was once so narrow two pedestrians could barely pass each other.
De Plantage also encompasses Amsterdam’s Old Jewish Quarter, where Rembrandt lived at the height of his fame. Today his house on Jodenbreestraat is a museum replete with 17th-century objects and etchings. The square that bears his name is home to such hip nightclubs as AIR and Escape. Rembrandtplein also is where you’ll find Rembrandt’s statue and the protagonists of The Night Watch.
At the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam’s Jewish Cultural Quarter, you can trace the history of the Jews in Holland. The quarter also includes the Portuguese Synagogue modeled after Jerusalem’s Temple of Solomon. It was one of Amsterdam’s largest structures when built in 1675. Stumble Stones in the rear—each imprinted with a victim’s name, birth and arrest dates, camp deported to and fate—are part of a worldwide Holocaust project.
When the Nazis invaded Holland, 60,000+ Jews lived in Amsterdam—about 10% of the population. During World War II, the Jewish Quarter became a ghetto as German troops rationed food and arrested Jews in the streets. Most were taken to the Hollandsche Schouwburg, Amsterdam’s municipal theater building, which became an assembly point for mass deportation.
There’s more Holocaust lore, as well as exhibits about the Netherlands’ role in World War II, at the Dutch Resistance Museum. Despite massive efforts of the Dutch Resistance Movement, most of Amsterdam’s 20th-century Jewish population was slaughtered in Nazi concentration camps. Waterlooplein, once the central market for the Jewish community, is now better known for its flea market—a source for new and second-hand clothes, antiques, ’50s vinyls, and other curiosities, in 300+ stalls open daily except Sunday.
Read about more cool neighborhoods in Amsterdam, and where to stay in them, in Where to Stay in Amsterdam: A Guide to the Best Neighborhoods. What’s your favorite one?