On a spring weekend in the streets of Amsterdam, English is the lingua franca. You pick it up around the boutiques of the Nine Streets and the apple-pie cafes of the Jordaan. It buzzes above the crowds crawling through De Wallen, the red-light district, and the foodie stalls of the new De Hallen gourmet market, west of the canal belt.
Tourism, we’ve all heard, is out of hand in UNESCO-prized, Brooklynized Old Amsterdam, where the Bloemenmarkt appears to be in the full flush of Tulipomania and the air is nine-10ths THC. The city of 850,000 recently stopped issuing licenses for souvenir stalls and waffle stands pandering to the 17 million annual visitors (up from 12 million in 2012). And it began imposing limits on short-term, AirBNB-style house rentals, with four-figure fines for those who breach them.
But cycling eastward on the Magere drawbridge across the Amstel, there seems to be no need. Past the botanical gardens and the zoo, I spy no giant yellow clogs to pose in. Around the woods and ponds of Oosterpark, there are no kiosks selling overpriced flower bulbs, no coffee shops in which to sample the city’s prized kush. Not even idlers on park benches smoke weed in this part of Amsterdam.
Here in the east, it’s just gabled townhouses glowing on the inside from modern light fixtures, parkettes where children climb on public sculpture, woody craft breweries serving gourmet bitterballen to impossibly tall couples. And room on the sidewalk to take it all in.
The Amstel, for many decades a social backwater, has lately emerged as the city’s cultural gateway. One recent morning, I wheeled down its eastern flank under aging elms as mist rose from its surface, obscuring the houseboats tethered to the bank. The terrace at Café De Ysbreeker began to fill with orders of avocado toast. At the bistro Côte Wispe, diners pored over de Volkskrant, the newspaper once published in a building a few feet to the east, now a boutique hotel with a 24/7 house party.
I turned toward it, past a converted school where last year I dined on Belgian rotisserie chicken that transformed my perception of Belgium, and chicken. Volkshotel rises from the dead centre of Wibautstraat, dubbed Amsterdam’s ugliest street in the 20th century. But there’s much to love now: brunch spots spooning out homemade granola, student residences reinvented as a design hotel. A concrete office building is now the home of Restaurant C, for “Celsius,” whose chef shows off masterful cooking at varied temperatures, from -20 to 200 degrees.
The canal-bound grids that make up Amsterdam East, or Oost, are the saving grace of the city’s self-caricature: a fusion of youth, multiculturalism and postindustrial potential. Why here? Why is the east the upholder of cool in any city these days? For centuries, Amsterdam’s east was home to dirty industry, debris from the westerly winds and historically maligned immigrants from Turkey, Morocco and newly independent Suriname, deposited by ships coming into the docklands.
But railways and ship-builders aren’t the polluters they once were, and Dutch Amsterdammers, or Mokummers, cram into Dappermarkt to shop for Moroccan dried fruit, Caribbean yams, doner kebabs and Surinamese baguette sandwiches, now embraced rather than avoided. The air smells of Indonesian rendang, and yet you can still buy a gouda wheel the size of a vinyl record. The Dutch daily Het Parool calls Dappermarkt the “true people’s market.” English-speakers might drop that catchword “authentic.”
Pedestrianized Dapperstraat sits closer to the centre than western-skewed maps suggest. After renting a bike at Centraal Station, I rolled 15 minutes along the harbour to Czaar Peterstraat, an unsung shopping street with a branch of the legendary Fromagerie Kef and a design concept shop called CP113. The street ends by DeGooyer, the city’s last surviving windmill. Next door is the IJ microbrewery, its picnic tables littered with distinctive ostrich-branded bottles.
Dappermarkt picks up just across the canal, at the new organic-wine bar Alex + Pinard, decorated in marble and naked wood. A few blocks west is the hulking Dutch Gothic Tropenmuseum, showcasing “all the swag our armies stole off the colonies,” as my Dutch friend described it to me.
We were two of the only visitors that day, among the Balinese totems, African nose-rings and Surinamese banjos of the permanent galleries. Then, not long ago, designers renovated the dreary Café de Tropen in, again, marble and naked wood. An Asian-fusion chef moved in his knives and suddenly the museum’s rotund indigenous sculptures were hot in a good way.
For borrel, the widely observed Dutch happy hour, de Tropen has a rival on the other side of Dappermarket. Bar Botanique takes the tropical theme a step further, with seafoam-green walls and and giant potted palms. I rounded the long terrace to a front room drenched with sun from double height windows and ordered from a menu of eight gin and tonic variations – gin, or genever, being the spirit of Holland. When my pick arrived, in a veritable goldfish bowl sweetened with orange and cloves, I balanced my buzz with crisp sausage-stuffed bitterballen.
Botanique occupies a schoolhouse-red corner lot by a busy rail line. Beyond it? Indische Buurt, first neighbourhood of call for the city’s immigrant populations since the earliest passenger ships from the Dutch East Indies. A decade ago, it would have been considered, quite literally, the wrong side of the tracks. But today, blocks of public housing flank a friendly boulevard with foodie cred, from the seasonal tasting menus of Wilde Zwijnen to the ramen and waffles of Bar Basquiat – and, appropriately for a road called Javastraat, a coffee house called Bedford-Stuyvesant, after the Dutch-founded Brooklyn neighbourhood.
At Walter’s, named for an explorer in the Java jungle, friends and I shared wooden platters of shish kebab and Turkish flatbread pizza under crystal chandeliers and, per the prevailing theme, more palms. Then we dove into glasses of Oedipus beer and watched hipsters filter past the teak panelling after other bars had closed.
It might all reek of exploitation of the Tropenmuseum kind if the entire neighbourhood weren’t thriving, from the halal butcher to the Surinamese diner serving spicy “bang bang” fish with rice. Amsterdam, by and large, is here for it. The tourists, for the most part, are not.
It’s a shame, because the nights here would be as memorable as the days, if you could remember them. If you’re not soaking in the hot tub on the Volkshotel roof between DJ sets at Canvas, you’re sampling the tart Go Y/East ale straight from the copper tanks at Poesiat & Kater, a cavernous brewery in a former brickworks. Or you’re sharing free plates of herring at Ruk en Pluk, a chummy oost-end institution that never takes down its holiday decorations.
There’s a Generator Hostel within stumbling distance and, back up in Oosterpark, the Gothic pile of Hotel Arena. In the morning, the tall glass doors to its shimmery brass-accented restaurant swing open to a terrace that spills into the green. Lounging here, fresh orange juice in hand, you contemplate hopping the tram to Dam Square. Briefly.