Amsterdam: A Weekend Guide for the Curious Traveler - Atlas Obscura

Weekend Guides for the Curious Traveler
Amsterdam

Forge your own path in this tourist magnet, toward places that are less crowded but no less wondrous.

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Day 1
Eastbound and Down

Peel back multiple layers of history with every turn.

Church

1. Begijnhof Chapel

It’s always nice to start your day with some old-time religion. Plus, you’ll miss the crowds. One of the city’s oldest inner courtyards, the Begijnhof, is just off the Spui Book Square with its many cafes and bookstores. The Beguines were a lay Catholic religious order of women who sought to imitate Christ: living in poverty and devotion, and for the care of others. And hidden in the hidden courtyard where they lived was a hidden church. Upon exiting the chapel, don’t trip over the grave of a former resident Beguine hidden under a slab of red granite in the gutter. Clue: it’s often adorned with flowers. Today, the courtyard’s residents are no longer nuns, but do remain strictly female.

Begijnhof 29, 1012 WT Amsterdam, Netherlands

The entrance to the Beurspassage, home of the Amsterdam Oersoep mosaic. Kees Hummel/ Courtesy Rijnboutt
Public Art

2. Amsterdam Oersoep

Oersoep, which means “primordial soup,” is an almost 5,000 square foot mosaic of Italian glass that pays tribute to the city's famed canals. It also tells a visual story of how all of Earth’s lifeforms originated from water (after, perhaps, first arriving from outer space). Besides additional images associated with the Dutch city’s iconic waterways, the alleyway also features fish-eyed Art Deco mirrors and chandeliers made from recycled bicycle parts. The floors, which were made with traditional Italian Terrazzo, were designed with patterns that mimic those typically found at archaeological excavations. In short: trippy.

Beurspassage 1, 1012 LW Amsterdam, Netherlands

The concert hall at Beurs van Berlage. © Jorge Royan/ CC BY-SA 3.0
Architecture

3. Beurs van Berlage

Just across from Oersoep you'll find the stock exchange building, designed by the local architect H.P. Berlage and considered the city’s first modern building. Completed in 1903, the structure was stripped of all the “Neo” ornamentations of the 19th century and built up out of clean lines. As such, it formed the blueprint for the more swoopy lines of the Amsterdam School of architecture that soon followedToday, Beurs van Berlage is mainly a congress and exhibition center. While architectural tours can be arranged, you can also get a sense of Berlage’s work by setting down in one of the building’s two cafes. 

Damrak 243, 1012 ZJ Amsterdam, Netherlands

Books for sale at the Oudemanhuispoort. Dirk Renckhoff/ Alamy
Walkway

4. Oudemanhuispoort

If you enter Oudemanhuispoort through the Oudezijds Achterburgwal side, you will get one allusion to this passage’s past. Overhead, chiseled into a pediment, is a set of spectacles, referring to old age. Indeed, “Old Man’s House Passage” once acted as part of the country’s first senior citizens' home back in the 18th century. Now part of the University of Amsterdam, it has a 400-year-old history that has seen it home to a convent, a hospital for cholera victims, an arts academy, and a museum that formed the basis for the Rijksmuseum and its famous collection of Rembrandts and Vermeers. Since 1886, the stalls of this covered walkway has been selling secondhand prints, sheet music, and books. The stalls are currently run by an older generation of fellows—many with spectacles—who are only too willing to share their knowledge.

Oudemanhuispoort 1A, 1012 CN Amsterdam, Netherlands

The rooftop of De Waag. Edwin Remsberg/ Alamy
History

5. De Waag

Back in 1488, De Waag was built as one of city’s main city gates, which closed every night exactly at 9:30 p.m. to keep out the bandits, the poor, and the desperately diseased. By the 17th century, when the city expanded, the building became a weighing house for incoming products: tobacco, ropes, spices, artillery, slave chains, etc. Towers were built to accommodate various municipal militias and guilds, including one for the masons who did all the evocative decorations over the various entrances. Another tower housed the Surgeons' Guild and its Theatrum Anatomicum, which hosted public dissections and formed the setting for Rembrandt’s famed The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. So it’s squishingly fitting that this tower is now home to Fablab and its famed Bio-hacking Academy and Wetlab (open to the public on Thursdays between 4 and 8 p.m.).

Before you turn your attention to the square and its eating possibilities (perhaps grabbing a bite at Indonesian Toko Joyce, or Café Bern, whose perfectly formulated cheese fondue was invented by an actual Swiss nuclear physicist), take a moment to recall the dark history of this place during WWII, when the square was barb-wired off to enclose Jews awaiting transport to concentration camps. 

Nieuwmarkt 4, 1012 CR Amsterdam, Netherlands

Neighborhood

6. Marineterrein

A short stroll away from the chaos of the Red Light District, a new public space is emerging that drips with both history and hipness. In the 17th century, this was where the Dutch East India Company built their enforcer ships. In 1870, Vincent van Gogh lived here for a few months—while failing to become a theology student—with his uncle who was the terrain’s director. Later still, with the navy still in control, this place became ground zero for Cold War intrigue, filled with safe houses, secret listening posts, and encryption centers. All very hush-hush, the whole area was in fact blurred out on Google Maps until just a few years ago.

Today, following the sale of this land by the Ministry of Defense to the city, it remains a still-to-be-discovered hotspot known only to start-ups and foodies. The area reaches its peak as a view-worthy spot at Pension Homeland, a quirky hotel, restaurant, and brewery that retains its 1960s officer lodging stylings.

Kattenburgerstraat 7, 1018 JA Amsterdam, Netherlands

Enjoying the scenery with a jenever at 't Nieuwe Diep Distillery, Amsterdam. Nick Gammon/ Alamy
Cocktail Bar

7. ‘t Nieuwe Diep

The history of jenever is a rich one. It began in 1650, when a doctor from Leiden first infused juniper berries into a spirit, and deemed it a wholesome family cure for an upset belly. Soon millions of gallons of the stuff were being shipped worldwide. Various herbs, spices, and flavors were added to create ever more spectacularly “medicinal” elixirs. Eventually the British got hold of the recipe and bastardized both the name and the product into “gin.” At Distillery ‘t Nieuwe Diep, or "The New Deep," jenever and various other elixirs are distilled in a former water mill in the middle of a lovely park—one that turns particularly magical in the sunshine (and, um, under the influence of jenever).

Flevopark 13a, 1095 KE Amsterdam, Netherlands


Day 2
West to Noord

From edgy to the edge of town.

The Kleine Sael with the Grail of Amsterdam, at Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica. Beatrice Augrandjean/ Embassy of the Free Mind
Library

1. Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica

There’s nothing like starting your day with a nice cup of coffee and pondering the nature of one’s own existence. Located in Amsterdam’s iconic Canal Ring, the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, also known as the Ritman Library after its founder Joost R. Ritman, is a goldmine of early manuscripts and books on ancient mysticism, religion, and philosophy. And in its new location inside the Embassy of the Free Mind, it now even has room for a café.

The collection’s primary focus is the Hermetic tradition, and more specifically, Christian-Hermeticism. But you will also find volumes on Rosicrucianism, alchemy, gnosis, esotericism and comparative religion, Sufism, Kabbalah, anthroposophy, Freemasonry, and others lurking amid the stacks.

Keizersgracht 123, 1015 CJ Amsterdam, Netherlands

Museum

2. Pianola Museum

In a city chock-a-block with museums, one of the smallest and most delightfully eccentric is home to about 50 mechanical player pianos and almost 20,000 punched rolls of music. Volunteers are on-hand to give you a personalized tour. 

The player piano was of course a very popular American invention of the late 1800s. The name Pianola was a trademark of the Aeolian Corporation of New York, but the name was broadly applied to all player pianos. So why is this museum located in the wonderfully scenic Jordaan neighborhood? At one time, there was a factory nearby that produced music rolls for player pianos. When the business went bankrupt, the factory was taken over by a certain Otto Frank, who moved in with his family to set up a business—that building is indeed now known as the Anne Frank House. 

Westerstraat 106, 1015 MN Amsterdam, Netherlands

Het Schip. Frans Lemmens/ Alamy
Museum

3. Het Schip

You may have already had your dose of museums, but Het Schip also has a freely accessible café and courtyard where you can sit, recover, and admire not only street furniture—including the iconic green “curl” urinal—but also the almost hallucinatory swoops of this iconic building.

During the early 20th century, Amsterdam was obsessed with building palaces— houses, institutions, and schools–for the working classes. These were often rounded and intricate brick constructions that suggested the imaginative work of the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí. The museum is located in one of the most famous and fanciful examples. Completed in 1919, it takes up a full block and includes 102 homes and a school. 

Oostzaanstraat 45, 1013 WG Amsterdam, Netherlands

Garden

4. Toon Yland Plantsoen

Every spring, the community-supported public garden Toon Yland Plantsoen—named after a still-living gardener who transformed this once barren bit of land over the last 30 years—explodes with thousands of bulb plants. It’s a kinder, gentler version of the world-famous Keukenhof, whose colored fields can be seen from outer space.

Here it’s more about inner space: a place to relax. In fact, the whole surrounding neighborhood of Western Islands is made up of kinder, gentler versions of Amsterdam’s famous sights. Golden Age warehouses, with evocative names such as Mars, Pants in Waterland, Shellfish, or simply embellished by a laughing face, echo those of the more famous Brouwersgracht. A row of gabled houses along Zandhoek could be plucked from the Canal Ring. Various drawbridges echo the iconic Skinny Bridge over the Amstel river. The area even has the perfect local café:  ’t Blaauwhooft. If it all gets too cheery, head to Galgenweg (“Gallows’ road”), which used to offer an unrestricted view over the river IJ to the gallows fields of Amsterdam Noord—now home to A’DAM Lookout.

Vierwindenstraat, 1013CW Amsterdam, Netherlands

The terrace of Noorderlicht Cafe. Koen Smilde/ I Amsterdam
Arts Venue

5. NDSM

You know when you’ve arrived: the free ferry (from Westerdoksdijk, or behind Central Station) passes a dark and foreboding Soviet submarine. This is NDSM, a sprawling former shipping yard, which evolved from being a squat to being where brands and festivals set up camp in the hopes that the hipness rubs off on them.

As you disembark you will see shiny neon extolling Sexyland, a conceptual nightclub that has a different organizer every night of the year. You’ll have already noticed the ship crane: it’s now a two-suite hotel complete with whirlpool. Head to the biggest warehouse you see, Art City, where inside creatives have each built their own unique studio space. The warehouse next door with the huge image of Anne Frank is set to become the world’s biggest street art museum. Yes, it’s all a bit much, so head to urban beach Pllek or the yet funkier Noorderlicht Café to unwind.

NDSM-Plein, 1033WB Amsterdam, Netherlands

Restaurant

6. Grand Café 1e Klas

If you ever find yourself having to kill time at Amsterdam’s Central Station, do it in style. Once the waiting room for First Class passengers, this brasserie has an original Art Nouveau interior and is perfect for lingering over a beer, a fine wine, or exploring the world of Dutch snacking options, such as deep-fried bitterballen (“bitter balls”!).

Elvis is on hand to amplify the already sumptuous décor of deep woods and polished marbles. Elvis is a cockatoo and lives on the bar. He’s definitely the King. And while not much of a talker, he can caw your ear off—and is always willing to pose for a photo.

Stationsplein 15, 1012 AB Amsterdam, Netherlands


Where to Stay
Sweets Hotel

A few years ago, the workings of all the city’s drawbridges were centralized, and the cute little bridge houses became obsolete. Now 28 of them have become individually styled hotel suites, and as a group reflect the roller-coaster history of 20th-century architecture. Highly recommended.

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