Jo, who shares our spot in the Sign Graphic Design studio in London, is off to Amsterdam late next week and asked me for tips on places I like. We’re about to take over most of the third floor of our building in Amsterdam, which was until this summer the office of Time Out before it shut down. So in the Time Out spirit, here are some of my own tips and recommendations on Amsterdam. It’s a work in progress this.
Cyclists rule the road
In Britain we pretend that the pedestrian is the most important person on the road, when actually the car always has priority. However, in Holland the most important thing you need to know is that cyclists take priority over everybody else – pedestrian or car. Get this simple rule and walking or riding by bike around Amsterdam becomes easy. Do try to cycle – it’s absolutely the way to experience the place. Every single junction has been thought through and you can generally cycle in either direction down most small streets. Ideally use knackered old bikes (I use the Akvo bike which fits in really well) rather than those spoony yellow tourist ones, which are totally uncool.
One of Peter van der Linde’s recommendations this. The journey to Noorderlicht is part of the adventure. Across the water from the main city it’s a post-apocalyptic glassy waterside cafe that looks back towards town – it’s where Mad Max would take his girlfriend for a drink, if he was Dutch. Really, you need to go by bike. You get one of the free ferries for cyclists and foot passengers (from the back side of Centraal Station) across to the surreal sounding NDSM. Then you weave your way off through old warehouse areas until this little oasis appears. I’ve never been at night – I must go sometime at night.
This is the place I tend to stay when I visit town. Slightly out of the central action, it’s in the Ij docks to the East of the centre – a (very efficient) 10 minute number 26 tram ride away. Quirky and Dutch, it dubs itself a “cultural embassy” and is a pretty interesting and stylish place to stay. A conversion of the old Lloyd shipping company immigrant hotel (it was an artist’s commune in the ’80s) the rooms are all different in terms of size, shape and “star rating”. I use the three star rooms, which if you’re picky turn out great and we have a good Akvo deal so they’re good value. The design details are really imaginative – one man’s foldaway bathroom is another’s foldout dancefloor. There’s curious furniture, flexible lighting, infinitely adjustable window shutters and a lovely and gigantically bright cafe with a great Irish breakfast manageress who is always nice to me. “Charmer, how can I forget a name like that?”
This big square is a great place to go and drink – much nicer than the tourist areas closer to Central Station or around Dam Square. This site seems to have a nice summary of good bars. Last Wednesday night we went to Café Stevens, which is great. Nice tables inside and outside, a friendly bar to prop at and a sort of back area that feels like it could get very amusing later in the evening. One tip for Brits and Americans – you don’t generally pay for your drinks in Dutch bars until you’re ready to leave, whether you’re ordering at the bar or at the table itself.
The site of numerous Akvo drinks over the years this cafe is well away to the south east of all the tourist spots, on the East side of the wide Amstel canal. It has nice outdoor seating that gets loads of sun late into the afternoon or evening. And it has a fairly large and interesting interior with a mix of sizes of tables (a common thread in Amsterdam – and very useful). The food’s good too. Hesp has hosted such key moments as being where I first met Vincent Wijers (who designed the Akvo movie posters), the place we all got drunk after the rollercoaster that was Live Earth Amsterdam, and the venue in August for “Meet the Charmers”, when the guys all got to meet my mum and dad.
Cafe Hesp, Weesperzijde 130-131, 1091 ER Amsterdam – www.cafehesp.nl
Double decker trains
By anyone else’s standards NS, the Dutch railway network, is very efficient. And though the Dutch tend to complain a lot about it (the delays can be weird sometimes) it has something us Brits don’t – double decker trains. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time crossing Holland by train to meetings, and I always try to sit upstairs, where you get a great view over the Dutch landscape.
This tiny Japanese restaurant is on Zeedijk, right in the middle of the Red Light district. It’s family run – and it opens into a tiny back room that has a lovely view of the canal behind. We had amazing raw beef that you cook at table. It was just brilliant.
Morita-Ya, Zeedijk 18, Amsterdam
This tiny, nicely decorated, Italian cafe is on Peter’s street out near Westerpark and was recommended to me by Sjoerd, his brother. Amongst other things, it serves an amazing pea and ham soup called Snert and has just a few tiny tables and a deli counter. Westerpark itself is quite interesting, too. It’s nice for strolling about and contains some good bars, cafes and art spaces, all done as part of a regeneration of the area.
Holy Ravioli, Spaarndammerstraat 35 – http://www.holyravioli.nl
This is a bit of a stalwart meeting place for us. Easy to find (turn right out of Central Station and it’s at the head of the first nice canal – the Singel) this is a good place night or day to find various sizes and shapes of tables in or outside to talk, drink beer and eat. The staff seem to run to their own time zone, but the food’s nice and it even has its own cat, who sits on the stairs down to the toilet.
Cafe Cobalt, Singel 2A – http://www.cafekobalt.nl
Heaven for lovers of signage or aircraft design, Schiphol is dominated by its fantastic orange signage designed by Paul Mijksenaar, and the fact that it’s the last place on earth where you’ll see a Tri-Jet from every window. It always feels like somewhere that was designed from the beginning to be really big, something of a novelty for us Brits to experience, especially in an airport. It’s the details at Schiphol that I like. You can buy a can of Heineken from a shop and just sit anywhere, there are great views from so many places, they have this curious scanners-at-the-gate approach to security which is surely in its last days because it must cost a fortune. And they have that fabulous surly robotic Dutch woman regularly threatening to offload people’s luggage if they don’t get their skates on. But most of all, KLM is the last airline in the world to run a fleet of passenger MD-11s, so it’s basically the last place in the world that you get to see lots of DC-10s cruising past the windows. My bet is they’ll only be around for another year or two, before they get sold off as freighters or scrapped. Downsides? Pray you’re not scheduled to land or take off from that runway they’ve built that’s half way to Haarlem. It takes longer to taxi to than the time it takes in the air to fly to London.
If you fancy a crazy trip out into Amsterdam’s old Northern docks there’s no more amazing place to go than Neef Louis, a vast industrial vintage warehouse / treasure trove. You simply don’t find this kind of furniture anywhere in other parts of the world. It’s run by cool guys and is breaktakingly done. It’s the last place I ever went with Gino (we said farewell in the rain immediately afterwards and that was the last time I saw him), and it’s where I bought our meeting room chairs. There are some other interesting furniture warehouses in the neighbouring units too.
You can take a bus and walk the rest of the way, or take a bike which is much easier. Check opening times before you make the trek.
Neef Louis – Papaverweg 46-48, 1032 KJ Amsterdam – www.neeflouis.nl
I’ll probably add more to this over time. For now, Jo, I hope this gives you a few ideas (that Japanese place is a must for you).