Amsterdam is a city best known for vices. Drugs, alcohol, and the Red Light District are the most iconic images most have of the Dutch city, but there is actually a surprising amount to do that’s more family friendly. With lovely architecture, a delightful beer scene, museums and attractions, and excellent restaurants, there’s a ton to see and do. I just like getting off of the streets before night falls and it gets weird. Somehow even weirder than it is during the day.
Amsterdam isn’t my favorite European city; it feels a bit too much like it’s trying to be edgy and unconventional, without feeling authentic to me. Berlin feels more authentic and real with as much architecture and food. Budapest has incredible bars, a slightly edgy feel, but still feels welcoming. Amsterdam feels more like it wants to pretend it doesn’t want you, but oh does it want the tourism. While the Red Light District, Heineken, and the bake shops get the majority of attention, for those willing to look deeper, Amsterdam has children’s museums, craft breweries, and great Indonesian restaurants. Don’t get drawn into the tourist traps.
Pretty much every Amsterdam adventure begins at the Central Train Station. No matter how you arrive in town, all roads seem to lead through here. The station itself is a major landmark of the town and worth exploring. To get the most of the city in a short time, start exploring the canals from here by heading south. Along the way you’ll pass several historic churches and warehouses, highlighting the duality of Amsterdam’s commercial and religious past.
Not far away is an excellent microbrewery, Brewery De Prael, tucked in an alley off of an alley that can be a little tricky to find. Inside is an expansive space with a back patio and a kitschy antique decor with vinyl records and big cozy couches. On tap are 6-8 of their own brews ranging from traditional Belgian blondes to experimental hop-bomb IPAs. Stay long enough, and a fellow patron may strike up a conversation about which beers you like, only to discover he is the brewmaster as happened to us. The brewery largely employs those rehabilitating and they are super friendly and helpful about the beer.
After sampling the local brews that don’t taste like skunk water – Heineken is the only beer in the world I think they purposefully use green glass for, glass which doesn’t filter UV radiation which is what causes beer to “skunk”, to give it a “distinctive” taste – it’s time to explore more of the town. Our self-led walking tour took us around the canals past Anne Frank’s house, a 15th century part of the city gate and walls, more churches, the Theater, and numerous big and tiny bridges over the canal waters. Sure, we also head through the Red Light District, but only to get to the huge flower market. Amsterdam might be the only city in the world where a market can stretch an entire block and only sell a single type of flower, tulips. Sure the bulbs sold here might give you some lovely flowers for a spring or two, but save your time for incredible Indonesian food nearby.
Rijsttafel, or literally “rice table”, is Amsterdam’s take on Indonesian food, essentially a huge tray of samples of Indonesian curries, veggies, and other assorted dishes. At Sampurna, prime examples of the dish can be found. There are several choices of the type of selection to try, but I always go for the meat-based curry version. The dishes can even be washed down with another great local craft beer from their tap list. Though our boys decided to throw a tantrum right when we got there, the place was so quiet and empty on our visit between lunch and dinner that no one even noticed. It gets packed later in the night though and people stay a while, so put in a reservation.
The dish includes a bevy of spicy veggie and meat dishes, none of which serve to cool down the spice level after accidentally eating a whole pepper, so get plenty of beer and watch out for peppers. The satay skewers are probably the most mild, and the spice level can be adjusted on the whole tray to suite. Don’t be a hero and ask for authentic spicy like us unless you really mean it. The curries may be fire-starting hot, but the meat is super succulent and flavorful as well thanks to long, slow cooking. The staff here knows their stuff. Amsterdam doesn’t have much of a culinary identity besides brownies, but Indonesian really stands out as the top cuisine in the city.
On a walk back to the center along the Western Canals, the newer part of Amsterdam can be found. Here, the new church and the mercantile exchange, built in the 1800s – here new is relative – dominate the streets. Along the way are a few more great beer options. Cafe Gollum, a homey, somewhat divey locale offers a massive selection of craft brews and bottles from the Low Countries of Europe. For a more American vibe, Beer Temple specializes in brews from the States. Moving to Belgium, Cafe Belgique focusses on doubels and tripels. Bierproeflokaal has over 250 tap and bottle beers and is housed in an old distillery. Skip the Heineken and Amstel tours and immerse yourself in the craft beer culture instead.
For some actual culture, the Rijksmuseum is the destination of choice. Finally reopened after several years of renovation, the massive museum contains collections of tons of art, with probably the best collection of Dutch Masters’s art in the world. For kids, the Nemo museum, right on the water near the train station can be an entire day’s activity. Inside are interactive exhibits on science, technology, history, and culture with plenty to keep kids interested and even expend their energy. If you’re stuck inside on a rainy day, this museum is the best place to let kids run around without going stir crazy. And they’ll sleep like rocks.
Though they might be a little harder to find than the obvious tourist attractions, Amsterdam does have culture and sightseeing that don’t involve red light rooms behind curtains. There’s food beyond the pot cafes and while it isn’t exactly historical food tied to culture, the Dutch take on Indonesian food is an incredible example of delicious cross-polination of culture and cuisine that has to be experienced. The beer scene goes far beyond the massive export beers and are far more delicious. There’s plenty to do in Amsterdam for families and those who are looking for more beyond the tourist traps of the city. It’s time to explore beyond the normal sights of the city and really find the hidden gems Amsterdam seems so happy to hide. Maybe, they just don’t want to share these good parts with non-locals.