Lonely Planet Writer

Amsterdam: beyond the smoke and red lights

This is a guest post by Colm Hanratty, Editor of Hostelworld.com.

Relaxing in Vondelpark. (Getty Images)

Certain cities in the world make me happy simply to be there. Edinburgh is one, Dubrovnik is another, and a smile is permanently painted on my face when I’m in Sydney. In these destinations, I don’t feel an urge to visit as many attractions as possible like a lunatic, instead I take in all that surrounds me, watching the world go by.

Another of these cities is Amsterdam. I’ve been there every year for the last eight years and I love it more after each visit. The Dutch are cool people, getting around is a doddle thanks to the passion for two-wheeled vehicles, and it’s full of neighbourhoods that are great to explore and enjoy.

But each time I go to Amsterdam I always end up being frustrated that so many people, namely young men full of bravado, only see a small, slightly seedy, part of the city. When some visitors don't venture further south than Dam Square, further west than Centraal Station, or further east than the Red Light District, it's a great shame that they miss out on the rest of what this city has to offer.

Amsterdam’s Tourist Quarter

Don’t get me wrong – the tourist quarter that draws in so many people isn’t really that bad. It would be a crime to visit the Dutch capital and not have a pair of mascara-laden eyes follow you from under a red light. The city’s Red Light District tops many a ‘what not to miss in Amsterdam’ poll, and rightly so. It’s a fascinating part of Europe and a real eye-opener, particularly when wandering around its canals for the first time.

Parallel to this is Warmoesstraat, a pedestrianised street lined with coffee shop after coffee shop. Picture hazy cafés with names such as Hill Street Blues, Stones Corner and Greenhouse Effect. If you want to be in the thick of the action, St Christopher’s at the Winston is the hostel for you.

Jordaan's brown cafés are perfect for people-watching. Image by Colm Hanratty (with permission)

De Negen Straatjes and Jordaan

Exploring the Tourist Quarter of Europe's original Sin City is inevitable, but if I had to name one other unmissable area, it would be De Negen Straatjes, or ‘9 Streets’ in English. I was told once that it’s Amsterdam’s very own Soho, full of independent clothes shops decked with goods from local, and extremely talented designers.

If Dutch fare is on your agenda than you’ll find local brasseries here too, along with a string of cafés and bars. My personal picks are Restaurant het Zwaantje on Berenstraat (www.zwaantje.demon.nl), a cosy bistro with friendly staff, and Bar 22 on Wolvenstraat (bar22.nl), where the beautiful people come out to play.

Just nearby is Jordaan (pronounced ‘Yor-daan’), another area of the city where I can stroll endlessly, relaxing by the canals and dipping in and out of ‘brown cafés’ that date back to the 17th century. To check out Jordaan or De Negen Straatjes, stay in the Shelter Jordan.

Vondelpark and Museumplein

Amsterdam is a city for chilling out and you'll find plenty of the city's stress-free citizens in Vondelpark. The city’s best known park sees all walks of life park their bikes here to catch up with friends, enjoy summer sunshine or play frisbee. To set up camp nearby, look no further than the Flying Pig Uptown.

Around the corner you'll find the city’s celebrated Museumplein, a square decorated with two of Europe’s best-known museums – the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. They are equally as fascinating so try to visit both. Nearby you’ll find Hostel Van Gogh which gives you the perfect base for learning about the Dutch masters.

Museumplein boasts two of Europe's best-known museums. Image by Colm Hanratty (with permission)

De Pijp

De Pijp is another of my favourite parts of the city. While it’s not completely free of camera-toting tourists thanks to the daily Albert Cuypstraat Market, it definitely has a local feel. It might not be as attractive as some of its naturally beautiful siblings, but it's a great place to experience Amsterdam as the locals do. In De Pijp, I always return to Eerste Van Der Helst Straat – a small strip of cafés, butchers, vegetable shops and bars. Nearby is The Netherlands’ most popular hostel, according to our customers earlier this year – Cocomama.

There aren’t many cities in the world where doing nothing is so enjoyable, but Amsterdam's neighbourhoods are the perfect place to experience the joy of simply exploring.

This is a guest post by Colm Hanratty, Editor of Hostelworld.com. Colm has spent the last 10 years travelling all over the world to record videos, podcasts and write posts for their blog. You can keep up to date with all things Hostelworld by liking their Facebook page and following them on Twitter.