What does a travel writer do on his day off? He just putters around Amsterdam, without an agenda, enjoying travel in its purest form. (And then, surprise surprise, he writes a blog post about it.)
That’s just what I’m doing on the way home from my guidebook research trip. After two busy weeks in Spain, and three even busier weeks in Sicily, I’m ready for a break. So, I figured, why not take a two-night, one-day layover in Amsterdam on my way home? That gives me exactly 40 hours to reacquaint myself with a great city.
There’s something liberating about returning to a city where you’ve already seen all the big sights. This isn’t a post about how to squeeze the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, the Anne Frank House, and a canal cruise into a hectic day of sightseeing. Instead, this is a post about how you can have a wonderful visit to Amsterdam, simply exploring neighborhoods that are missed by most visitors — entirely avoiding the tourist core, and never stepping through a turnstile. When a travel writer finally gets to turn off his data-collection feature, he finds himself simply going on a photo safari, strolling, browsing, and grazing. (Side-note: When I tell certain people I’m spending a couple of nights in Amsterdam to unwind after a busy research trip, I get a lot of knowing winks and rib jabs. “Yeah, I’ll bet!” But, in all honesty, I have zero interest in the illicit activities that are uniquely legal here. I just love Amsterdam. My friends back home will back me up on this: I am a total square.)
Arriving at my lovely splurge of a canalside hotel, Hotel Ambassade, around 9 p.m., I’m ready for dinner. I want something close, and something different — a change of pace after my steady three-week diet of pasta, seafood, granite, and Sicilian spleen sandwiches. Fortunately, right around the corner is one of Amsterdam’s top upmarket Indonesian restaurants, serving flavorful cuisine from the former Dutch colony. Kantjil & De Tijger, along the busy Spui corridor, is a once-trendy restaurant that has settled into its status as a reliable standard. Sitting outside as the sky gradually darkens at 10 p.m., I dig into the nasi rames — a one-plate sampler of flavorful Indonesian dishes, including sambal goreng kentang (shrimp and potatoes with spicy sambal paste), rendang (beef simmered in a sauce of coconut and spices), and saté babi (pork kebab). After dinner, I go hunting for bridges strewn with twinkle lights, reflected in a glassy canal. And, sure enough, I find some.
While Amsterdam has a booming brunch scene, I stick with the excellent breakfast at my hotel — reasonably priced when prebooked as part of the room rate. There’s no better start to a drizzly day than relaxing over made-to-order eggs and crêpes while gazing out over the picturesque Herengracht canal.
Leaving my hotel, I dodge wayward bicycles through a gentle rain, going nowhere in particular. I wind up following the exclamatory steeple of the Westerkerk, where I duck inside to avoid a sudden squall. The tranquil interior is filled with simple pews and soaked, poncho-clad tourists rubbing raindrops off their eyeglasses. The austere space is the polar opposite of the dazzlingly ornate Baroque churches in Sicily and Spain, where I’ve spent the last several weeks. Of course, as this was one of the flagship churches of the Dutch Reformation, that was exactly the point. Even the fancy organ has “modesty covers” that can swing shut to conceal its naughty pipes. Hiding out from the rain in this church, whose bells Anne Frank heard from her hiding place in the building next door, I’m reminded again why Amsterdam is such a delight.
I head back outside and circle around the church, following the gaze of a sweet little statue of Anne Frank to the Wil Graanstra Friteshuis, a handy spot for Vlaamse frites — Flemish fries, double-fried and served with a variety of sauces. I’m tempted to order a greasy cone of fries, but the rain picks up again, so I dash across the street and duck into one of the city’s ubiquitous Albert Heijn mini-supermarkets. Browsing with no intention of buying, I come across a display of make-it-yourself meal kits for mexicaanse burritos, italiaanse lasagne, and indiase curry madras…a clever Dutch spin on America’s current obsession with Blue Apron-type mail-order meal kits. I love stumbling on little slices of local life, even when I’m just trying to stay dry.
From Westerkerk, I delve into my favorite part of Amsterdam: the Jordaan. While this might seem like shameless product placement, I really do enjoy touring the Jordaan using the excellent audio tour on the Rick Steves Audio Europe app — taking me through this sleepy, photogenic, formerly working-class neighborhood where Amsterdammers still outnumber tourists. Rick and my colleague (and favorite writer) Gene Openshaw wrote the tour years ago, and it still holds up — offering an intimate look at a corner of Amsterdam most tourists miss entirely.
The rain begins to let up, and I head back toward the core of the city. A sudden sun break reminds me it’s actually summer, and I’m in the mood for an al fresco lunch…raindrops be damned. I make my way to Café t’Smalle, a classic wood-paneled “brown café” — a characteristic old Dutch pub whose walls are stained by decades (or centuries) of tobacco smoke. While the seating inside is traditional and cozy, I’m lured to the tipsy tables on a barge in the canal out front. It’s an ideal spot to canal-watch and munch a simple sandwich of aged Dutch cheese, shielded from the occasional fat raindrop by a generous canopy of leaves.
Heading south after lunch, I follow the Prinsengracht canal to dessert at IJscuypje, a local chain of ice cream shops. Flavors include the usual suspects, plus Dutch variations like stroopwafels (syrup waffles), boerenjongens (brandy-soaked raisins), and speculaas (gingerbread cookies). Biting into my speculaas cone, I remember one of the most mind-blowing discoveries in my many years of travels: that morning at my Amsterdam B&B breakfast table when I learned that they smash ginger cookies into an insanely decadent and delicious paste…and that I can buy it anytime I want, back home, where Trader Joe’s sells it under the name “Cookie Butter.” Soon after I got home, I learned a hard lesson: If you ever really want to put on some weight — and fast! — develop a taste for Cookie Butter. In this city notorious for its addictive vices, the one that really did me in involves gingerbread cookies.
From the Prinsengracht, I go on a little aimless safari through another of the city’s most characteristically Amsterdam areas, the “Nine Little Streets” — a checkerboard of shop-lined, perfectly Dutch lanes connecting the Prinsengracht, Keizsergracht, and Herrengracht canals just west of downtown. While it’s billed as a “shopping area,” I’ve never spent a dime here — but there’s no place in Amsterdam I’d rather wander to reacquaint myself with the city’s unique cocktail of tranquil canals, skinny townhouses with fancy gables, manicured flower boxes, perfectly inviting cafés, and constant, fluid swirl of bicyclists rattling over cobbles with no helmets. Even the garbage bags lining the streets — awaiting collection — are arranged just so.
Heading east, I cut through the busy transit hubs of Spui and Rokin, traversing the touristy core of Amsterdam for the first (and only) time on my trip — providing a jarring contrast to the rest of my day. I realize that the Amsterdam I’m so enjoying gets entirely missed by many visitors.
But just a few steps from the tourist blight, I find myself in the sleepy zone around the University of Amsterdam. I detour a few steps through a fancy archway next to Oudezijds Achterburgwal 229, down the corridor housing the Oudemanhuispoort book market. The rustic tables lining the passage are piled high with secondhand books and art prints. Halfway along the corridor, I duck into a sunny courtyard where university students linger and chat — as if, like me, they’re regrouping from the stag-party chaos a couple of blocks away.
From here, I head east along Staalstraat, a lovely, narrow lane of classic Amsterdam townhouses and some of the city’s best window-shopping (including, at #7b, a wonderful design store confusingly named Droog, and at #17, the top-end local praline shop, Puccini Bomboni). In three short blocks, Staalsraat manages to cross over two entirely different — but equally distinctive — Amsterdam drawbridges.
Popping out at the far end of Staalstraat on Waterlooplein — facing the starkly modern opera house — I realize I’m starving…and I’m just a couple of blocks from one of my favorite scenic Amsterdam cafés: De Sluyswacht, “The Lock-Keeper’s House.” True to its name, it fills a standalone black-brick house from 1659 overlooking a busy intersection of canals in the heart of Amsterdam. I pull up a bench at a shared table and look out over the hubbub of boats big and small plying the brown waters, crisscrossing their way through the city.
For a snack, it’s a plate of the classic Amsterdam bar food, bitterballen — croquettes that have been double-fried to create a crunchy, almost prickly outer skin. The sun has finally decided to come out for good, and the whole city is out, enjoying the early inklings of summer. Dipping my butterballen into spicy Dijon mustard and watching boats scurry to and fro, I wonder why so many people think they need marijuana to enjoy Amsterdam. Sure, come for the marijuana…but stay for the bitterballen and canal views.
Feeling those bitterballen weighing heavy in my stomach, I head back to the hotel for a brief rest. Why am I so tired? I realize it’s because simply walking down the street in Amsterdam is exhausting. You have to keep your head on a swivel, as cars and silent bikes whiz past you constantly, forcing you to jump at a moment’s notice onto the little brick median teetering between the road and the canal. In my 40 hours in Amsterdam, I’ll see at least three or four near-miss accidents — mostly involving tourists (on foot or on bike) who didn’t realize that they don’t always have the right of way, simply by virtue of being from out of town. Dutch cyclists are kind but firm, and will set you straight quickly if you wander in front of their oncoming bike. (You should hear the friendly jingle-jangle of a handlebar bell as if it were a foghorn.) Just as I’m pondering this, I see a Dutch cyclist pull to a stop and — again, kindly yet firmly — point out to a jetlagged tourist family that their toddler is toddling straight toward a canal.
After resting up, I head out in the early evening for a 20-minute walk west — beyond the Jordaan — to one of Amsterdam’s newest foodie hotspots: Foodhallen, Amsterdam’s foray into the European trend of jamming a world of eclectic eateries under one roof. Filling a red-brick former tram depot with shared tables, Foodhallen is ringed by two dozen different food stands, representing a rainbow of cuisines: Basque pintxos, dim sum, Hawaiian poke, tacos, sushi, bitterballen, Mediterranean mezes, Indian wraps, wood-fired pizza, steaming ramen, gourmet burgers, high-end hot dogs, and much, much more. After doing a couple of laps to survey my options, I settle on a plate of chicken-and-corn gyoza and a steaming shumai dumpling with pork and mushrooms. Squeezing into a free seat at one of the hall’s countless shared tables — all of them jammed full on a busy Friday night — I realize that I could have a dozen different meals here, and probably enjoy each one equally.
After dinner, I walk back toward the center, detouring along bustling Rozengracht to catch the 8:30 comedy show at Boom Chicago, Amsterdam’s answer to Second City. Since 1993, comics including Jordan Peele, Seth Meyers, and Jason Sudeikis have cut their teeth on Boom Chicago’s stage, in English-language sketch and improv shows skewering current events on both sides of the Atlantic. For this show’s audience, savvy, worldly Amsterdam natives seem to slightly outnumber American tourists — all of them laughing in unison at the easy pickings generously provided by the Trump Administration.
Stepping out of the theater to find it’s still light out, I go looking for a canalside nightcap. Drawn once again — like a mosquito to a zapper — to the Westerkerk spire, I find myself back in the Jordaan. At another characteristic brown café, Café de Prins, I nurse a drink at an outdoor table, with a view of the Westerkerk and of a steady parade of well-dressed Amsterdammers rolling by on their bikes as they text on their phones and smoke cigarettes.
Determined to make the most of my fleeting few hours in Europe, I follow canals about 30 minutes south to the neighborhood delightfully named De Pijp (“deh peep”), where I stroll the thriving Albert Cuyp Market — several blocks of open-air vendors selling foods, flowers, clothing, housewares, antiques, and more.
The Albert Cuyp Market an easy and enjoyable place to assemble a progressive breakfast. There are pickled herring stands, if that’s your poison — choose between “Amsterdam-style” (chopped up on a bun, with raw onions) or the more adventurous “Rotterdam-style” (pick up the intact filet, dredge it in onions, and lower it delicately into your open mouth).
In the mood for something a little less…aggressively flavorful…I follow my nose to a stand selling poffertjes — tiny, puffy Dutch pancakes cooked on a special griddle. Each one is about the size of a semi-deflated squash ball, sprinkled with powdered sugar. Delicious.
As I wander, I check out many other tempting foods: roasted chicken sandwiches, a hummus bar, an array of Dutch cheeses, roasted nuts, and more. But the one thing I can’t resist is a hot stroopwafel. Neighboring Belgium is famous for its big, fluffy waffles, but here in the Netherlands, they prefer a thin, crispy wafer…or, actually, two of them, sandwiching a layer of caramel syrup. You can buy stacks of stroopwafels in any shop, but they’re best when warmed up — hot and gooey. I don’t really feel like I’ve been to Amsterdam until I’ve had a stroopwafel. I’m getting this one in just under the wire.
Back at my hotel, I pack my bag in a hurry — determined to squeeze in one last culinary adventure before my flight. Around the corner from my hotel, I’ve spotted a hole-in-the-wall shop called The Lebanese Sajeria, specializing in the Middle Eastern wrap sandwich called a manoushe. I line up and place my order, then wait patiently on the sidewalk as the busy chef delicately lays each flatbread on the dome-shaped griddle in the window until it’s cooked just right. Finally, my name is called, and I find a canalside bench to bite into my wrap. The flatbread is warm and crispy, wrapped around a generous layer of the spice and sesame seed mix called za’atar, along with a layer of spiced ground beef. It’s hot, delicious, explosively flavorful, and the perfect end to my mini-break in Amsterdam.
Hopping into my Uber, I know that I’ll be back to Amsterdam soon. This city exerts a strange magnetism on any traveler who simply enjoys exploring. Best of all, in two nights and one full day in one of Europe’s most touristy cities, I’ve managed to almost entirely avoid the tacky parallel world that most tourists never leave. If you’re going to Amsterdam just once in your life, of course you should check out the Rijksmuseum, the Anne Frank Museum, and the Van Gogh Museum. But also carve out a little time to putter around the city’s concentric canals. find a cozy café in the Jordaan, snap a twilight photo of a canal at 11 p.m., and munch a manoushe or a poffertje.
Most of the places I visited are my favorite discoveries from past trips — and are included in our Rick Steves Amsterdam & The Netherlands guidebook… although, because this was such a short trip, I brought along the more compact Rick Steves Pocket Amsterdam. (Other new finds — like the Foodhallen — will turn up in our upcoming third edition.)
Amsterdam is particularly well-suited for audio tours. Through our Rick Steves Audio Europe app, you can download Rick and Gene’s tours of three different neighborhoods: the Jordaan, the city center, and the Red Light District…all entirely free.