Last Updated :18/01/04
This Article is due to appear in Nottingham Drinker in 2004. I think this is now the final version! (Thanks to John White and Billy Whizz for pointing out some errors!)
I will be updating this page soon, maybe even re-visiting the city, so get ready!!
Amsterdam Ė sex and drugs and cracking beers!
Ah, Amsterdam. The very word conjours up images of canals, soft drugs, women posing in lurid red windows andÖ erm.,.. more soft drugs. Marijuana is everywhere in Amsterdam, from the ever present scuzzy whiff when someone walks past smoking a huge and poorly rolled reefer to the deep skunky odour creeping out of the many "smoking" cafes. Itís a city where if you want a coffee, you donít go to a coffee shop unless you want a cake that would scare any WI stand, disgusted, back to Tunbridge Wells via a meeting with some pink pachyderms. A city where the street vendors arenít selling Mickey mouse balloons, although what they do sell may get you up there with any balloon. A city of extremes Ė the extreme tackiness and exploitation of the red light district to the leafy suburbs of the Vondelpark, from the stoned young students of the Liedseplein to the more sedate way of the Jordaan. You donít leave Amsterdam without either loving it or hating it, although you may learn to change your opinion after a few visits, I certainly did.
Despite Amsterdamís deserved reputation amongst young people of being a city of drugs and sex, it has a more interesting side to those of us who like our addictive substances taken from a glass Ė itís beer cafes. Amsterdam has quite a few of the Benelux nationís top 10% beer cafes lurking in unexpected lanes and alongside canals in itís sprawling high gabled suburbs, and a few in the touristy centre too. There are several books and websites that have taught me all I know about Amsterdam and Iíd certainly recommend anyone visiting with the slightest interest in artisan Belgian or Dutch beers to acquire/visit all of them (see appendix for details).
About the City
One confusing matter in Holland is the name. The correct name for the country is the Netherlands, factually Holland is the name for the regions around Amsterdam, but as even the countryís tourist authority seem to use the wrong name Iíll persist with calling it Holland. Amsterdam is named after the river Amstel which flows into the Ij estuary through the amazing network of canals that permeate the city centre. The network of waterways and the tall gabled townhouses that string themselves along them are one of the delights of this city that offers far more than soft drugs and hard porn. Some of the canalside gables are quite beautiful and lean at alarming angles, and the small humped bridges over which the trams snake are just as attractive. The whole ambience of canals and high townhouses makes Amsterdam a visually rewarding city to explore.
Given there are miles of canals, or Gracht, and to find your way around a map is very important as a lot of the streets look very similar especially at night. A tram map is also an essential document, obtained free (or a more detailed one for Ä0.80) from the GVB (Amsterdam transport) office in situated in front of Centraal station to the north of the city against the IJ estuary. Day rover tickets (Dagkaart, Ä5.50 valid for 24 hours from the validation time) or Strippenkaarts are available here. The rover gives a dayís unlimited tram/bus/metro fun (you can get multiple day tickets too) and the strippenkaart is a 15-piece strip of card that you punch 2 (or more, depending on how many zones your journey traverses) sections of in the machines when boarding a tram or bus; it is then valid for 1 hour. Inspectors travel on most trams and are very keen to see all tickets, so be warned Ė itís a Ä29.40 penalty if you canít show a valid ticket.
A sizeable tram network is always a key component in the makeup of my gauge of a good city, therefore Amsterdam scores 8 on my arbitrary scale, Vienna and Prague score 9, and London scores 1 Ė about right really. Maybe Iím being generous to London, but there are no half marks! Amsterdamís trams fan out into the suburbs and provide a great way of seeing the city. Sit on the trams for an hour or two and use your senses and youíll pick up the vibe of the place more than sitting on top of a clapped out bus with some banal tour guide pointing out unheard of Z-list celebritiesí houses would ever give you. Once youíve done this in the morning (as drinking 8% beers all day isnít recommended) then use them to get to the cityís excellent bars in the afternoon and youíll see what Iím on about.
The unusual thing about most of Amsterdamís beer cafes is that itís quite difficult to find a decent range of Dutch artisan beer. Belgian beers, no problem, but very few cafes seem to bestow the same kudos upon their own beers. Having tasted a fair few, Iím inclined to agree with them on the most part, but some breweries such as Schelde and Schans are pretty good and hold their own with many Belgian beers. There are 2 exceptions to this "no Dutch beer" rule, one that only sells itís own beer and one fantastic place that only sells Dutch beer. All will be revealed.
Amsterdam has well over 1000 bars, but about 95% only sell pils and maybe a couple of other beers. 4% will sell about 10 beers, usually nothing that interesting, and the last 1% sell the good stuff. This may sound disheartening, but remember 1% of 1000 is 10, and there are, by my reckoning, about 15 bars worth visiting in the city (along with the others Iíve not got round to yet) so you wonít go thirsty, I guarantee. Most bars serve beers in bottle and also on draught with the usual arrangement being several permanent draught beers and a varying number of Wisseltaps (literally, "changing" taps Ė guest beers to me and you). Get the books I list at the end and explore and youíll be rewarded with one of Europeís great drinking cities, one with a subversive edge that can change just one more bar crawl into something far more interesting and memorable Ė for many reasons.
To do the city justice, a couple of days are necessary. It can be done in a day, but I donít see much point as this will miss the whole Amsterdam experience. Give it a couple of days and take your time, and youíll have a far greater understanding of what makes this city tick and remember the bars far better. And, more importantly, probably not fall into a canal and/or get mugged. Iíve been there 4 times now and Iím not afraid to admit that I hated the place the first time and couldnít wait to get back on the train out of there. My opinions have now swung as much as a Home Counties by-election swingometer and Iím now in love with it. The architecture, the great bars, the trams, the food, all combine to make Amsterdam an essential stop for the serious beer tourist.
Try and visit in winter when most of the fair weather hippies have gone home to mummy to have their undies washed and, more importantly, there are hotel rooms available. Better still, visit during the Bokfest week in November although this pulls in a lot of English (and American, Belgian, German etc) beer tourists and you may prefer to see the city au naturel. In summer the hordes of tourists there for the cityís more famous attractions make getting a hotel room expensive and difficult and the whole experience a bit of a chore. If you like annoying students cackling in a attention seeking way and vomiting into canals then go in summer, the rest of us will go in winter. Enjoy.
Before you go
Amsterdam has well over 200 hotels, but in summer they can all be full - literally. A lot are very overpriced for what you get, which may not be a lot, but there are a few that are worth looking into. Invest in a rough guide and try to book as far in advance as you can. Try the Sint Nicolaas on Spui (www.hotelnicolaas.nl) which is 5 minutes from Centraal station, is clean, has a good breakfast and a superb cat, Rakker (although some reports I've read recently - 2006 - say it has gone downhill a bit).
To get to Amsterdam youíre spoilt for choice nowadays by the budget airlines. Easyjet fly direct to Schiphol airport from Liverpool, Bristol, East Midlands and Luton, 20 minutes by regular and fast train from Centraal station. BMIBaby fly from East Midlands. Jet2 fly from Leeds Bradford to Schiphol. Ryotscare (sorry, Ryanair) stick to their policy of only landing on rutted fields miles from anywhere by flying to Groningen in the far Frisian North or Eindhoven and Maastricht in the south, none very convenient but for £30 whoís complaining? Schipol airport is a huge, sprawling place which is fairly easy to get round and has all the usual "duty free" shops and the like you come to associate with big multinational owned airports.. Apparently, itís the only airport built on the site of a naval battle which is fascinating and sets the slightly surreal tone for Amsterdam perfectly. On the way back, youíll know exactly what I mean by this. You can also go by Eurostar changing at Brussels Zuid, but the whole journey takes about 5 hours, costs a lot more and is only recommended if you really dislike planes or love train travel.
Holland uses Euros, so no problem there. There are cashpoints at Schiphol airport but not that many in the city centre and as some undesirable types are prone to hang around them, get your money before you arrive. Thereís a cashpoint in the foyer at Centraal station if you get stuck. As for language, Holland is one of the prime examples of a nation with a gift for languages. Almost everyone will speak pretty well perfect English, and you can almost guarantee that everyone will speak at least the basics. However, learning a little bit of Nederlands is not only useful, it shows the locals that youíre not one of the typical arrogant English strolling into town and expecting the world to bend over backwards to communicate with you. Try it, itís good.
This bar crawl begins at Centraal station, so get yourself there by about 13:00. If you havenít already got one, find the GVB shop situated over the tramlines towards the left hand side of the station and get a Dagkaart. The shop resembles a small wooden cottage, and dispenses maps, tickets and information with multi-lingual ease with which the Dutch are masters. This ticket will prove very useful later unless you like walking miles between bars and, believe me, youíll cover some ground on this tour!
Locate the stop for tram 9 or 14 and take an eye-opening trip down the famous Damrak, past the sex museum, round in an arc over the Amstel river and past the Artis (Zoo). When the tram crosses a large canal (the Singelgracht) and turns left, alight at the Mauritskade stop and catch tram 10 in the same direction for 2 stops to Zeeburgerdijk. A far shorter journey can be done on bus 22 from Centraal station but the tram is far more fun (or so I imagine Ė Iíve never done the bus!). Cross the bridge over the canal, walking north from the tramstop, and after a few minutes youíll come to an unusual looking set of buildings on Cruquiusweg.
The buildings are in fact 2 bars, the Boulevard and the Station. They are the waiting room and station buildings respectively of the old Ost (east) station that was closed 70 years ago, and the old rail bridge can be seen just behind the Boulevard, the present mainline running north-south just over the road. However, as there are no loud diesels on NS, the beer will have to do and Boulevard is well up to the job. The bar has a modern, airy feel to it and the service is friendly and relaxed. There are some bottled beers available, but the beers on draught are the main reason for coming here with 4 or 5 being "guest" beers. The food is exceptional, and many locals come here for it but despite this, it is still mainly a beer cafť. From the excellent Broodtjes (sandwich rolls) to the sublime steaks, be sure to eat as well as drink here as the next stop serves no food except for a pretty good Portiekaas (portion of cheese).
To get to the Ij Brewery, you can either walk back to the tramstop and take tram 7 one stop westwards to Pontanusstraat or simply walk under the railway bridge opposite Boulevard. Either way, head for the big windmill that is visible to the west. The Ij brewery is situated in an old bath house under the (unused) windmill which is a local landmark. The bar is a simple affair with hundreds of bottles from all over the world lined up on shelves all round the room. The best bit, however, is that you can see not much has been done to convert the place into a bar Ė the walls still have white tiles from itís former use and even soap holders are still in evidence!
The beers available are restricted to the Ij breweryís full range, with 4 on draught (usually Plzen, Zatte, Columbus and one more) and the rest in bottle. Ij beers tend to divide opinion, with some people loving them and some thinking they are absolute rubbish. To be fair, they do seem to have consistency problems and I reckon the beers are better in bottle than on draught. At their best they share a spicy, malty dryness but can also be floury, thin and frankly unpleasant. If you catch them right, they are good, well-brewed artisan beers but you may think otherwise!. Iíve been twice and had 2 totally different experiences, last time being pretty good Ė try the Vlo, if itís on.
To get back to the centre, you have various options Ė either bus 22 to Centraal station, or, for more fun, take tram 7 all the way round the Singelgracht and alight at Leidseplein to see just how tacky Amsterdam can be with itís smoking cafes and multinational junk food shops before catching tram 1 2 or 5 to Centraal station via the superbly narrow Leidsestraat and over numerous humpback bridges. They really should fit "crusty catchers" to the front of those tramsÖ..
Alternately, for some cheap and interesting food, stay on tram 7 past Leidseplein. It crosses Singelgracht, then turns right then left. Alight here, on Jan Evertsenstraat, and visit the Turkish bakers and cake shops located here. Be sure to sample a Turkish Pizza, basically a thin topped pizza with salad, served rolled up. At only Ä1.50 each, these must be one of Amsterdamís bargains.
Back to the beer. A good introduction to the Amsterdam Brown cafť (so called as the walls Ė and everything else - are stained brown through years of collective nicotine abuse) is the Gollem. This place has been a specialist beer cafť for the last 20 or so years and has similarities with the Beer House in Manchester in that it has good periods and bad periods. Now is a pretty good period, so to get there, take trams 1, 2 or 5 from outside Centraal station south for 3 stops to Spui, pronounced something like "Spoy", or retrace your tracks from the Turkish baker to Leidseplein and take the tram 1 2 or 5 north 4 stops to Spui. Before we visit the Gollem, however, follow the tramlines south for 100 yards from Spui tramstop and you will see a long, thin cafť, the Beiaard, on your right. This is one of a chain of cafes, the name meaning a carillon of bells as heard in the Low Countries. This cafť caters for the tourists unashamedly, but itís draught beer selection of well over 10 beers can hold some surprises and itís almost worth a visit to see the waiting staff taking orders via handheld computers and, on their return to the bar, the order is on a tray ready to go out. Technology can be a wonderful thing with the right application!
From Beiaard, follow the pedestrianised Spui north until you come to a small alley called Raamsteenweg on your left. Down here, on the right, is the Gollem. The contrast between this bar and Beiaard is glaring, with Gollem being dark, brooding and minus the bustle. The sounds of drinking and conversation rule here, and the list of about 200 is pretty good although they major on Belgian beers. The beers available are chalked up round the walls in a strange font that makes it difficult to read but this is all part of the experience. Choose a beer, climb the steps to the small back section, and soak up the atmosphere and wonder why thereís nowhere in the UK anything like it. Unfortunately.
The next call is a cafť in a similar vein, but one thatís probably the smallest viable cafť Iíve been to. Retrace your steps to Spui tram stop and take trams 1, 2 or 5 one stop north to Dam square. This is one of the most famous places in Amsterdam, not least because the legendary Damrak ends here. It also houses the royal palace and the Nieuwe Kerk (New church) and is a surprisingly picturesque place. In a small alley just to the north of the square (Gravenstraat 2) is Cafť Belgique. This tiny place must only be able to admit about 25 people, one reason being the huge ornate bar running the whole width of the room. The place seems to ooze welcome and hospitality and they offer the products of the local Ij brewery as well as the Trappiste brewery of La Trappe near Tilburg. The stairs to the right lead not to more seats, but to the toilets. I was really impressed with this cafť and if the beer list were more adventurous Iím sure it would reach my top 10 of European bars. It has a sort of unforced charm that is difficult to manufacture and the locals were friendly, although it does attract quite a few tourists by virtue of itís location. These were, on our visit at least, not the zombified types who, thankfully, stick to the safe bland bars of the red light area and Leidseplein.
The best beer shop in town is very close to here, on Paleisstraat. The Bier Koninck (Beer king) is a fantastic place, certainly one of the best Iíve ever been in and one that puts all British off-licenses to shame by the number, variety and price of beers stocked never mind the glasses, t-shirts and other beer related wares. The beer is also amazingly cheap for the central location, with most being only Ä1-2 a bottle. Dutch micro beers are in the raised area at the back to the right, and the Lambic section is down the well-hidden stairs. They apologised profusely for charging us Ä6 for a bottle of Cantillon St Lamvinus - which is probably the rarest beer Cantillon do and worth at least double this; Iíve heard of it fetching $60 a bottle in America!. We bought 12 bottles for about Ä20 which is a pretty good deal by all accounts. This place is probably the third essential visit when in Amsterdam and very central too.
The next visit is probably the best bar in town. tí Arendsnest serves only Dutch beers and owner Mr Arend (Arend means Eagle, hence the "Eagleís nest") is very enthusiastic about his bar and the beers he serves. To find this beacon of Dutch brewing, head west down Raadhuisstraat from Dam square until you reach Herengracht. Follow the road north on the far side of the canal and after a short while you will find this superb bar with an apparently excellent Belgian restaurant next door. This may be useful as tíArendsnest serve no food except a pretty good Portiekaas and the Kaasplanktje ("little cheese board") is La Trappe cheese and well worth a try. The bar has a superb selection of beers on draught, about half being guests. The delight for any beer ticker, however, must be that the cafť tries to get at least 1 beer from every brewery in the country Ė if possible (some donít bottle their beers). The bottled beer list is simply outstanding and we whiled away 3 evenings without making much of a dent in the list. The staff are knowledgeable and friendly, the atmosphere is quiet and the appreciation of beer is the name of the game. Whatever else you do in Amsterdam, get to this cafť and support it. They deserve to succeed.
Walk back towards Spui and find Kolksteeg, a small lane heading off Kolkplein towards Damrak. A short way along here on the right is one of the most famous specialist beer cafes in town, In de Wildeman. The bar is a converted spirits house taproom and has something almost unheard of in Amsterdam Ė a no smoking room! This oasis of pure air is on the right as you walk in and, perhaps tellingly, is usually as quiet as a morgue compared to the boisterousness of the bar on the left. The beer list here is superb Ė 16 on draught, 8 being wisseltaps, and about 200 beers in bottle with a good number of Dutch ones amongst the Belgian and German examples. The service is informed and sharp and itís easy to spend far longer than you intended here. Itís proximity to tíArendsnest makes for a situation where you can make the 2 bars the only ones you need to visit all night. This would miss out on the anarchism that is tíIj, the sophistication of Boulevard and the calm of Gollem but if you have limited time here these are the 2 bars not to miss in town.
The last specialist beer cafť in the centre is a short walk from Centraal station. From outside the tram stops, walk to the busy road bridge at the start of Damrak and turn left. Follow this road for a short distance and carry on down Zeedijk. A short distance along here is Het Elfde Gebod, a plush, quiet and very civilised place. This is a classic cafť with a fair beer list featuring mainly Belgian beers with a few interesting ones amongst them. There is carpet on the tables for some reason unknown to me and the place just billows calm and genteelness, a bit of an anachronism compared to the streets outside. This bar is recommended for a beer or two but beware, some of the beers are a bit pricey.
So ends this tour of Amsterdam.. There are dozens of other bars worth a visit in this city of extremes, and you could spend weeks drifting round trying out likely looking bars. Iíve only listed the ones that Iíve visited myself and liked, although there are many more Iíve got on my list of "future visits required". For example, there used to be a great brewpub in the centre called Maximillians but this closed in 2002. It has recently been bought by the Beiaard chain, and is rumoured to be restarting brewing again by early 2004. The bar is already open again albeit under a different name. Read the recommended publications in the glossary and do some exploring is probably the best advice I can give!
To conclude, Amsterdam is a fantastic city for the beer tourist Ė as long as you visit when everyone else has left, i.e.; autumn or winter. There are many bars that offer quality artisanal beer (not enough offering Dutch beer though) and the superb public transport system makes it easy to get around. Architecturally the city is a delight with itís tall gabled townhouses and myriad of canals and is certainly one of Europeís prettier capitals. There arenít the dozen brewpubs of Vienna or the cheapness of Prague but Amsterdam spins a potent spell over itís visitors. After my first visit I hated the place, and now Iíve come full circle and love it. Just avoid the obvious tackiness and you will lose the crowds in minutes. It has some of the finest bars anywhere (Ij is anachistically superb, tíArendsnest is quietly excellent and In de Wildeman is boisterous and yet relaxed) and a few days spent here will expand your mind Ė without needing to resort to a "coffee shop" or "space cakes"!
Boulevard, Cruquiusweg. Tram 10. Excellent food and interesting Wisseltaps.
Ij Proeflokaal, Funenkade 7.. Tram 10 / Bus 22. Open 15:00-20:00. Only sells Ij brewery beers, these can be very good Ė or not. An essential experience.
Beiaard, Oude Markt 24. Tram 1,2,5. Good selection of draught beers, a bit busy.
Gollem, Raamsteenweg 4. Tram 1,2,5. 200+ Belgian beers, atmospheric and quiet.
Cafť Belgique, Gravenstraat 2 . Any tram to Dam Square. 40 mainly Belgian beers.
tíArendsnest, Herengracht 90. Any tram to Dam square. Tries to get at least 1 beer from every Dutch brewery. Run with enthusiasm and skill, range is ever-expanding and is set to open (late 2009) a new bar nearby specialising in American and Danish beers!
In de Wildeman, Kolksteeg 3. Over 200 beers. Trams 1 2 5 6 13 or 17. Superb bustling bar with 8 wisseltaps and lots of Dutch artisan beers in bottle. An essential visit.
Het Elfde Gebod, Zeedijk 5. Good selection of beer in a relaxed atmosphere.
De Bierkoning, Paleisstraat 125. Any tram to Dam Square. Simply superb beer shop with outstanding range of beer, glasses and other stuff at very reasonable prices.
Old Nickel, Nieuwe Brugsteg 11. 60+ bottles including Boon's Marriage Parfait.
The Serious Drinkerís guide to Amsterdam by Hugh Shipman. A superb little book, a little out of date now (TíArendsnest is still listed under itís old Beiaard name) but lists loads of other bars and gives good general advice on bar etiquette and language.
The Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland by Tim Webb (CAMRA). The best beer guide CAMRA have ever produced, now in itís 4th edition. Written with wit and an impressive depth of knowledge by the main man of Benelux beers in the UK.
Ronís Amsterdam pubguide by Ron Pattinson.http://www.xs4all.nl/~patto1ro/pubs.htm Ron is from Newark, but now lives in Amsterdam and has written this guide to lots of bars that most beer lovers would never get to, along with the usual ones. Written with enthusiasm and good humour, he also has guides for a vast spread of cities throughout Europe. Highly recommended.
John White's beer travel pages.
www.whitebeertravels.com John has a wide breadth of knowledge about all styles of beer from as many countries as you could shake a stick at. His excellent website is well worth delving into, providing you have a few hours to spend! If you're going anywhere you don't know, have a look here - there are lots of very good (payable) downloadable guides available online.