Amsterdam city guide image 1

Amsterdam city guide

Words by Simon Difford

Amsterdam is a tolerant city, especially where vices are concerned, and thanks to this broad-minded attitude many tourists arrive in search of 'a smoke' and some extra-marital sex. But there is so much more to Amsterdam than hash bars and a red-light district.

Since the 17th century, it has been one of Europe's most important trading cities and it has a rich history and culture. For such a small city with a population well short of a million, it also boasts a surprising number of great cocktail bars so making it difficult to decide on our pick of the top 10 Amsterdam cocktail bars (updated May 2019).

Every major city in the world now has good cocktail bars but Amsterdam also boasts proeflokaalen & bruin cafés, a type of bar unique to Amsterdam, not to be confused with its 'hash bars'. Be sure to experience a few while in the city.

The Dutch along with their immediate neighbours, the Belgians, brew some great beers besides the familiar Heineken, Grolsch, Oranjeboom and Amstel. The Netherlands is home to the only Trappist brewery outside of Belgium, De Schaapskooi, at Tilburg in Brabant. Also, look out for beers brewed by Alfa Brewery (noted for its Pils) and Gulpener. Amsterdam boasts a number of excellent bars that specialise in micro-brewed Dutch and Belgian beers (see De Zotte). Perhaps visit Brouwerij 't IJ , a brewery and bar housed next door to a windmill; the old Heineken brewery, now a very well-done visitor centre; and the Bols Cocktail & Genever Experience.

Of course, Amsterdam is famous for its smoking coffee shops, or 'hash bars' where cannabis is openly sold and smoked. Perversely, while it's perfectly legal for such establishments to sell cannabis, it remains illegal for them to buy it. To quote Vincent Vega, "Yeah, it's legal, but it ain't a hundred percent legal. I mean you can't walk into a restaurant, roll a joint, and start puffin' away. You're only supposed to smoke in your home or certain designated places." You'll find these coffee shops all over town, identifiable due to their names that normally include words like 'space', 'high' and 'happy'.

Amsterdam is flat and compact, so easy to explore on foot - but do as the locals do and cycle. There are said to be more cycles than people and the streets are lined bicycles and bike lanes, making pedalling a pleasure. Hire a bike for the duration of your stay and use it day and evening. Amsterdamers don't take cabs, although taxis and Uber are plentiful.

Finally, I’d like to recommend a shop I like to visit in Amsterdam. Gastronomie Nostalgie is an Aladdin’s Cave of “everything you always wanted for a beautiful, classically set table.” Vintage silverware, glassware and china crammed into a small shop that’s open daily 11am-6pm. You sure to find something interesting, even if it is only a set of cocktail sticks.

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