Time for a tipple
Amsterdam is a beguiling little city. An appealing mix of the hip and the parochial, it is among the most popular haunts for Europeans looking for a weekend playground and certainly the most laid-back. Many flock here to admire the art galleries and the pretty lie of the land criss-crossed by canals. But art, architecture and water aside, a large proportion of visitors to Amsterdam have come for one thing: the drugs. Amsterdam is just about the only city in the world where you can stand in a public place and announce in a loud, clear voice that you intend to buy and smoke a large, well-packed joint and then do just that in front of the watching policemen.
But you don’t have to indulge to enjoy the buzz. The ultimate city for hedonists, cool clubs, bars and cafes are in abundance. Rembrandtplein is the main social hub, although there are pockets of fun throughout the city, and wherever you go, the scene is casual, the mood relaxed and the party open to all.These charms are supplemented by a string of first-rate attractions, most notably the Anne Frankhuis, where the young Jewish diarist hid away during the German occupation of World War II, the Rijksmuseum, with its wonderful collection of Dutch paintings, including several of Rembrandt’s finest works, and the peerless Vincent Van Gogh Museum, with the world’s largest collection of the artist’s work.
There are two types of bars in Amsterdam – the traditional brown cafes (bruin café), cosy haunts so called because of the dingy colour of their walls, stained by years of tobacco smoke – and an abundance of new slick, modern designer bars. Both are fun to explore, both stay open until around 1 am during the week and 2 am at weekends and beer is the drink of choice. Given Amsterdam’s proximity to Belgium and Germany, Europe’s major beer producers, the choice of brews is unsurprisingly staggering. What is a shock for first-timers is the size of the glass it’s served in. Not only is the thimble before you the standard glass (250ml) for a pilsje, but it comes with a sizeable head of froth. In fact, when beer here is served correctly, it comes topped with exactly two-fingers worth of beer-scented foam. Panic not: these shots of amber nectar are of top quality and at a price easily swallowed. And to soak up the over-indulgence, many bars – often designated eetcafes – also offer food menus and most at least provide a sandwich at the bar.
Among the best brown cafes is Het Doktertje (Roozenboomsteeg 4), a tiny retreat with stained glass to keep you from the outside world. One of the hippest designer bars is Luxembourg (Spui 22), the prime watering hole of Amsterdam’s media brigade with an elegant bar and super-cool ambience. As is the case in all major capitals, keeping track of where the in-crowd go can be a full-time job. To avoid disappointment, check out www.amsterdamhotspots.nl for the hottest party venues and trendiest bars.
In the spirit
When you tire of beer, it’s time to sample the wide choice of Jenever, another much-loved Dutch tipple. Jenever is Dutch gin, not unlike English gin, but a bit weaker and oilier. Made from molasses and flavoured with juniper berries, it is served in small glasses, is traditionally drunk neat and often knocked back in one gulp with much hearty back-slapping. For a glass of beer with a Jenever chaser, ask for a kopstoot.
A coffee and a smoke…
If coffee, chocolate chip cookies, mellow jazz and an extensive dope menu is your idea of bliss, then lost hours spent in Kadinsky (Rosmarijnsteeg 9) will seem like heaven. Of Amsterdam’s many infamous coffee shops, Kadinsky, situated in the old city centrecentre, is one of the coolest places to hang out.
The first thing you should know about Amsterdam’s coffee shops is that it is perfectly okay to buy and smoke cannabis on the premises, (the menus are kept discreetly behind the bar); the second thing is that the locals use them too, and the third is that the only ones the locals use are outside the Red Light District. Practically all the coffee shops you'll run into in the centre are worth avoiding, either for their décor, their deals or their clientele. If in doubt, ask a local.
Up all night
The club scene is restrained by the standard of other main cities, although the city’s many gay bars and clubs partly justify Amsterdam’s claim to the “Gay Capital of Europe”. However, clubbing here is not the exclusive, style-conscious business it is in many other European capitals. There is no single really extravagant nightspot, and most clubs – even the hip ones – aren’t very expensive or difficult to get into.
There’s no point turning up anywhere before midnight and the party goes on until 5 am on Friday and Saturday nights, 4 am on other nights.
As for the music itself, hip-hop has its devotees, as do modern and retro funk, jazz and underground trance and lounge.
But unless you’re looking for something special, a random dip into a club will probably turn up mellow, undemanding house beats. Even better, there are no style police at the door. Dress codes are invariably non-existent and the ambience is friendly.
Finally, here’s a hot tip. A singular feature of Amsterdam clubbing is that you tip the bouncer at the door: if you want to jump the queue on your next visit, a fistful of Euro will do very nicely.
When to go
Amsterdam is an ideal year-round destination. That said, in high summer (late June to August) the city is overwhelmed by tourists, so be forewarned. There will be crowds.
Amsterdam’s international airport, Schiphol, is located about 18 km southwest of the city centre. A fast train service operating every 15 minutes runs to Centraal Station or take the Airport Hotel Shuttle bus (also every 15 minutes) if your required destination is one of the 50 hotels on its route list.
Trams snake across the city, operate frequent services of 15 routes and are the mainstay of the transport system. But if you want to get around town like a local, a bike is the mode of choice. Cycling is in fact one of the most enjoyable ways to explore pancake-flat Amsterdam and there is an excellent network of designated bicycle lanes and bike rentals are cheap.
Get a room
Accommodation in Amsterdam can be extremely difficult to find, and is often a major expense. Even hostels are pricey for what you get and the hotels are among the most expensive in Europe. Do book well in advance. For full listings of all types of accommodation, see The Rough Guide to Amsterdam or visit www.roughguides.com
Backdoor Amstelstraat 32; www.backdoor.nl
Relaxed club that’s orientated towards soul, funk and lounge. Saturday night is a mixed gay/straight extravaganza night.
Escape Rembrandtplein 11; www.escape.nl
What once used to be a tacky disco is now home to Amsterdam’s hottest Saturday night – ‘Chemistry’, every so often featuring Amsterdam’s top DJ, Dimitri. A vast place, with room for 2,000 people (although so popular that you may still have to queue).
Mazzo Rozengracht 114; www.mazzo.nl
One of the city’s hippest and most laid-back clubs, with a choice of music to appeal to all tastes. Perhaps the easiest-going bouncers in town.
The Ministry Reguliersdwarsstraat 12;
A new club trying to catch a wide band of party people and featuring quality DJs. Speed garage, house and R&B.