Words by: Simon Difford
Holland’s largest city was founded on and continues to thrive from its waterways and proximity to the North Sea. A staggering 165 canals, more even than Venice, criss-cross the city and we recommend a canal tour if you are visiting for the first time.
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 bars.
Amsterdam is flat and compact, so easy to explore on foot - but do as the locals do and cycle. There are said to be almost as many cycles as people and the streets are lined with 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. Three not to be missed sights are the Anne Frank Huis, the Van Gogh Museum, the Houseboat Museum and the Rijksmuseum with its superb collection of Rembrandt paintings.
When you need a break there's everything on offer here, from traditional, bare-floored brown cafes to designer bars and grand cafes. And with most Dutch people speaking near perfect English this is a very easy place to be a tourist.
Like so many other big cities around the world, Amsterdam's bar and cocktail culture is exploding with 'must visit' new bars seemingly opening on a monthly basis. With the increased competition so standards are also rising and the city's cocktail scene is now amongst the best in the world.
The Nolet Distillery, home of Ketel One vodka, lies some 70 kilometres to the southwest of Amsterdam and while we have visited all the bars we recommend below we are indebted to the folks at Ketel One for their local knowledge and helping us ensure the information here is up to date. Seeing as it's produced so nearby, a Ketel One based cocktail would seem to be the obvious choice when visiting these bars.
A Bar and Amstel Hotel Bar
Built in 1867, InterContinental's Amstel Hotel sits like an old palace on the Amstel River and over the years we've enjoyed its starchy yet relaxed old-school bar hidden below the grand entrance lobby. However, in 2013, a second 'A Bar' was added at lobby level with a contemporary interior, superb cocktails and a Bowers & Wilkins sound system to shake the hotel's marble and crystal chandeliers.
InterContinental Hotel Amstel, Professor Tulpplein 1, Amsterdam, 1018
Bo Cinq might lie in the heart of Amsterdam's nightlife and tourist district but weekdays it has more of a neighbourhood bar feel - quickly filling with an after work crowd who stand in the bar area while a more glam set head for the Bo's more secluded lounge space.
494 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, 1017
Bridges Cocktail Bar
One of two bars in the aptly named 'Grand Hotel', this is a suitably designer upmarket affair offering champagne and wine flights, fresh oysters from a 'Raw Bar' and well-made cocktails.
Grand Sofitel Hotel, 197 Oudezijds Voorburgwal, Amsterdam, 1012
Lying smack in the middle of Holland's most famous market street, De Albert Cuyp, to the casual, non-informed observer The Butcher is a modern high-end burger joint open till late. However, while a great place to have a burger it's also the front for Amsterdam's most hidden bar. Like Manhattan's PDT I here you cry. Well, let's say inspired by.
129 Albert Cuypstraat, Amsterdam, 1072CS
Door 74 is quite simply Amsterdam's, indeed Holland's most revered bar. Hidden away behind an unmarked door on the same busy street that runs from Rembrandt Square as Feijoa.
74 Reguliersdwarsstraat, Rembrandtplein, Amsterdam, 1017
Feijoa is also where many bartenders from neighbouring bars hang out before and after their shifts - always a good sign - and while the short cocktail menu may cater for those that who like their cocktails sweet, fruity, creamy, or all three, the bartenders here know their onions and are happiest working off piste, particularly making classics.
39 Vijzelstraat (corner Reguliersdwarsstraat), Rembrandtplein, Amsterdam, 1017
Franklin Bar & Kitchen
Inspired by New York, this compact neighbourhood bar and restaurant is worthy of a trek to Amsterdam's suburbs (between Oud-Zuid and opposite the Vondelpark) due to the quality of its cocktails - hardly surprising given it is owned by two bartenders, Leonardo Belloni and Daan Bonsen.
Amstelveenseweg 156, Amsterdam, 1075
Named in honour of Alfred Heineken of the beer fame and 'Freddie' to his friends, who he apparently entertained here. This is a classic luxurious hotel bar and boasts an extensive cocktail list which includes just about every classic cocktail, London influenced modern day classics plus esoteric house creations.
Hotel De l'Europe, 2-14 Nieuwe Doelenstraat, Amsterdam, 1012
Henry's Bar (& Bar Bukowski)
Henry's Bar and its adjoining sister Bar Bukowski are named after Henry Charles Bukowski (1920-1994), a German-born American poet and novelist. Quotes from his works appropriately decorate Bar Bukowski. Of the two, Henry's is the cocktail bar with more of a lounge vibe.
Oosterpark 11, Oost, Amsterdam, 1092
Hiding in Plain Sight
With the proliferation of speak-easy-style bars pooping up in cities around the world, HPS - short for 'We Are Hiding in Plain Sight', has a moniker that might suggest such a venue. While HPS is not hidden, its interior (with bare wooden floors, high tables downstairs and slouchy leather sofa seating upstairs) and cocktails are more in line with what you'd expect from a speak-easy bar.
18 Rapenburg (corner Peperstraat, Amsterdam, 1011
Hugo's Bar & Kitchen
Owned by two former bartenders, Leonardo Belloni and Daan Bonsen, like their sister venue, Franklin's, this is a cocktail-led neighbourhood bar and restaurant.
Hugo de Grootplein 10, Amsterdam, 1052 KW
Head down the stairs from the ground floor restaurant to a beautifully lit and ever so slightly decadent space with low head room cleverly neutralised by a mirrored ceiling. The impressive, beautifully lit, bar runs practically the length of the room with an impressive back bar selection and well-made cocktails.
30a Utrechtestraat, Centrum, Amsterdam, 1017 VN
Geldersekade 17, Centrum, Amsterdam, 1011
Regular & Jack
Reguliersdwarsstraat 37, Centrum, Amsterdam, 1017
This modern lofty 10th floor bar sits atop the WestCord Fashion Hotel. Neighbouring the grandly titled World Fashion Centre, on the Amsterdam's A10 ring road this is a schlep from the centre of town (10 minutes by tram) but handily Schiphol is only ten minutes away, so perhaps a watering hole to remember on the way back to the airport. Classic cocktails lead the offering with the likes of the Mai Tai, Russian Spring Punch, Old Fashioned and the Ritz.
WestCord Fashion Hotel, 1 Hendrikje Stoffelsstraat, Amsterdam, 1058 GC
Reguliersdwarsstraat 21, Amsterdam, 1017
Tales & Spirits Cocktail Bar & Restaurant
Set at the end of Oude Nieuwstraat, the main street in the Singelgebied Red Light District, T&S is a very different type of boudoir to its neighbours, although with similar levels of passion. Step inside through the black drapes and you are greeted by an intimate space with impressive chandeliers, antique cabinets, high tables and a chilled vibe. T&S is one of the establishments currently setting the standards of food, drink and service which others in Amsterdam aspire to.
5-7 Lijnbaanssteeg (Alley btwn Singel (at No.85) & Spui (at No.60)), Amsterdam, 1012 TE
A very chic, goth black and uber modern bar in a grand old building which now houses a very slick hotel of which this bar is part. Such a fabulous building screams for 5-star service and such standards combined with stark design and splendid location have established Tunes Bar as a popular haunt for fashionistas and business types alike.
Conservatorium Hotel Amsterdam, 27 Van Baerlestraat, Amsterdam, 1071 AN
Located in the residential Jordaan area, between the Haarlemmerdijk shopping district and Brouwersgracht, this corner neighbourhood bar has established itself as a drink's industry must visit due to its drinks and relaxed locals atmosphere.
57 Vinkenstraat, Jordaan, Amsterdam, Jordaan
The Dutch answer to the local pub is the 'brown café (bruin café). The name refers to their warm traditional interiors with dark wooden panelling and furnishings, and nicotine-stained walls and ceilings. The best of these places are pretty much pre-electricity, let alone pre-smoking ban. The oldest, and indeed my favourite of Amsterdam's brown cafés were (one still is) tasting houses 'proeflokaalen', attached to distilleries. In the 17th century and 18th centuries, during the Dutch Golden Age, Holland was the centre of the European liquor industry, producing liqueurs and jenever (or genever), a juniper-flavoured spirit that was the forerunner to the now more familiar 'London dry gin'. Amsterdam's tasting houses operated as retail outlets, dispensing products from barrels and flasks for consumption on the premises and to take home. Think brewery tap pubs in the UK but smaller, cuter and retaining more of their traditional character.
In Amsterdam's brown cafés it is traditional to sip tulip-shaped glasses of neat jenever and liqueurs alongside beer. The jenever is served neat and consumed as a chaser, what the Dutch call 'Kopstoot' (pronounced 'Cop-Stout'), which translates as 'a blow for your head'.
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). Also be sure to pay a visit to the excellent Brouwerij 't IJ brewery and bar housed next door to a windmill. While in Amsterdam be sure to visit the old Heineken brewery, now a very well presented visitor centre.
Not to be confused with brown cafes, but also unique to Amsterdam are 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'. You kind of have to visit one but be sure to visit as many of these brown cafés as possible:
Brouwerij 'T Ij
Brouwerij 't IJ means 'brewery at IJ' - the lake behind the windmill which houses this brewery. In Dutch the name sounds like 'egg', hence the brewery's logo of an emu standing over an egg. Dutch humour may not translate well but beer aficionados will love this small, speciality brewery and I have to profess a liking for it's well hopped, strong and flavoursome Columbus amber ale.
7 Funenkade, Amsterdam 1018
Cafe De Dokter
Café De Dokter was first opened in 1798 by a surgeon at the nearby Binnengasthuis hospital and understandably was patronised by doctors and medical students, hence 'The Doctor' name. This traditional old Dutch pub (Bruine café) has changed little since.
Rozenboomsteeg 4, Amsterdam, 1012
Established in 1670, the oldest, right-hand side of Café Hoppe at No.18 (the side we recommend you visit) is one of the oldest Bruine cafés in Amsterdam. Both the interior and exterior are listed and have remained unchanged for centuries.
Spuistraat 18, Amsterdam, 1012
Cafe in de Wildeman
This pub is housed in what was formally a jenever and liqueur distillery's tasting house. The premises used to be dedicated to the production and sale of spirits and liqueurs but today this wonderfully old-school and unpretentious pub is all about the appreciation and enjoyment of beer.
3 Kolksteeg, Amsterdam, 1012
Café Slijterij Oosterling
Café Slijterij Oosterling is a traditional bruine café which has changed little since 1820 when it first opened. It has been owned by the Oosterling family, originally distillers from Gouda, since 1879 and is now run by brothers Marcel and Oscar who represent the fourth generation.
140 Utrechtsestraat, Amsterdam, 1017
Affectionately known as 'De Engelse reet' (The English Ass), this battered old museum of a bar was established some 130 years ago and has been owned by the van Veen family for more than 76 of those years. It is a properly old-school drinker's bar where you pretty much drink beer (8 on draught and 15 bottled) or genever, and ideally both.
4 Begijnensteeg, Amsterdam, 1012
De Zotte Belgium Bierproeflokaal
De Zotte literally means crazy and late on weekend evenings that pretty accurately sums up the atmosphere. The 'Belgium Bierproeflokaal' part of the name translates as 'Belgium test room' and refers to the real reason to come here, Belgian beer, which along with Dutch brews dominate De Zotte's staggering list of well over 100 bottled and seven draught beers.
29 Raamstraat, Amsterdam, 1016
When the original 'Café Gollem' opened in 1974 it was the first bar in Amsterdam to offer a large range of specialist Belgian and other foreign beers - two changes of owner later and there are now two Gollem bars in Amsterdam, this one several times the size of the original.
address here please
Proeflokaal de Drie Fleschjes
The name of this old distillery tasting house means 'The Three Little Bottles'. It opened in 1650 and was attached to the Bootz distillery. Although the distillery building still stands next door, it is now the Tulip Inn.
160-162 Overtoon, Amsterdam, 1054
Proeflokaal de Ooievaar (The Stork)
The name of this tiny one-room tasting house is The Stork, so named after the De Ooievaar Distillery whose 'A.V.Wees' range of genevers and liqueurs are served here.
1 St. Olofspoort, Amsterdam, 1012
Proeflokaal in de Olofspoort
This homely 'brown café' stands on the site of one of the earliest of Amsterdam's stone city gates, the Sint Olofspoort which was constructed in 1341. In 1440 the Olof's Chapel was built close to the gate and both gate and chapel (which still stands) are named after Saint Olof, the Norwegian saint of a number of cities including Oslo.
13 Nieuwebrugsteeg, Amsterdam, 1012
Proeflokaal Wynand Fockink
The wonderfully named Wynand Fockink established his liqueur distillery in the Pijlsteeg around 1679. Sadly the distillery proper closed in 1955 but the Wynand Fockink tasting house remains almost unchanged from its seventeenth century heyday with a small distillery still operating a few doors away (now Lucas Bols) which makes all the spirits and liqueurs for sale by the glass in the bar and by the bottle next door.
31 Pijlsteeg, Amsterdam, 1012