Au revoir Amsterdam – and a few of my favourite things…

Bloemengracht Amsterdam 2011And so two years, one month and twenty-eight days after arriving to live and work in Amsterdam, tomorrow I leave. It’s not a final farewell yet, as I’ll be here on and off for the next couple of months to finish off some work commitments, but as of tomorrow I’ll be living in Geneva once again.

Before the memories start to go cold I thought it would be a good idea to commit to paper a few of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my time in this wonderful city. This post can be seen as part travel tips, part personal reminiscence….and all, of course, just the opinions of one person.

I should start by saying that I have LOVED living in this city and under different circumstances would love to remain here long term. The single biggest contributor to the wonderful quality of life here is the predominance of the bicycle as a mode of transport. Of course there are also the buildings, the people, the culture, etc… but it’s the bikes that make it special for me. But other than that there are many specific places that I want to mention and recommend.

In no particular order…

  • Brunch at Bazar – without doubt the best and best value Sunday brunch we found in Amsterdam was in the magnificently cool surroundings of Bazar on the Albertcuypstraat in de Pijp. I guess it was formerly a house of worship for one religion or another, but it’s now the perfect destination for worshipping at the altar of good food on a Sunday morning. The brunch special includes yogurt, fruit, pancake, eggs, cheeses (including a marinated feta), spiced meats, confitures, and tasty middle-eastern breads. It works out at about EUR 8 per person, including coffee and freshly squeezed OJ.
  • Beers in De Zotte – a few steps away from Leidseplein, the menu features hundreds of beers from all over the world but with a particular focus on Belgium, home of some of the strongest and tastiest brews. The staff are friendly and know their beers, the atmosphere is warm and inviting, and there are generally good tunes on the stereo. And it was in De Zotte that my wife told the lead singer of Yeasayer she thought his band had been boring in the Melkweg that evening!
  • Photos at Huis Marseille – this canal house on the Keizersgracht is a gallery of photography that’s less well-known but as much worth a visit as FOAM. Its exhibitions are usually on interesting themes (we saw one particularly good show focusing on oil) and it’s a real pleasure to wander slowly through the floors and down the garden path to the secluded conservatory.
  • A gig in the Oude Zaal – with the Paradiso and the Melkweg Amsterdam has two great live music venues, with top quality acts from across the spectrum of genres passing through on a regular basis. The prices are cheaper than in the UK or Ireland and the rooms are generally much smaller. While I love the main room in the Paradiso, my favourite has to be the Oude Zaal in the Melkweg. It’s big enough to feel like a proper gig, but small enough to feel really intimate. Everyone is close to the stage and it makes for some great performances. Highlights over the last two years for me have included Tunng, Nada Surf and The Tallest Man on Earth.
  • Buying veggies at the Noordermarkt – every Saturday rain, hail or snow, (or even sun!) the organic farmers and producers of the region set up shop in the Jordaan. You can stock up on veggies, dairy produce, fresh herbs and all manner of other bits and bobs. And, unlike markets elsewhere in the world, you can rock up in the middle of the afternoon to find it still going strong.
  • Pizza at Fuoco Vivo – the best proper pizza in town.
  • Vintage hits at Cafe Krom – on the corner of Kerkstraat and Utrechtstraat, Cafe Krom is basically just another brown cafe where it’s nice to chat over a coffee or a biertje. What makes this place special is the old jukebox that the owner loads with a new selection of vintage hits every month or so. Ask the barman for a few guilders and see if you can find some classics
  • Falafels from Maoz – I’m not a fan of the standard fast-food merchants: the Golden Arches are not a guilty pleasure of mine. Nor have I taken to the local delicacies served from a vending machine at branches of Febo. But Amsterdam does have one fast-food option that is very tasty and mostly very healthy. The falafels from Maoz are served in a fresh pitta pocket that you can load up with salads and sauces from the all-you-can-fit-on-top salad bar. Not too pricey either. (I believe they can be found elsewhere in Europe too, but I’ve only seen them in Amsterdam.)
  • Live music and good Guinness in Mulligans – as an Irishman overseas I do sometimes get a hankering for a pint of the black stuff. The best pint in town is to be found in Mulligans Irish Music Bar. It’s just around the corner from Rembrantplein but it feels like you’re stepping into an oasis away from the neon and the tourists. Live music three or four nights a week, trad sessions on a Sunday, bar staff who take pride in their job, and TVs that are only switched on when there’s a match featuring an Irish team. Many’s the pub in Ireland could learn a thing or two. (Honourable mention to Molly’s where Matthew and the gang have taken good care of me over the two years.)
  • Pool at Club 8 – with more than twenty tables, including a few snooker tables and a more welcoming atmosphere than a typical pool hall on the British Isles, Club 8 on Admiraal de Ruijterweg is a great place to while away an evening…or a night. With a nightclub upstairs the pool hall remains open until the wee hours of the morning, so it’s also an option for quenching that late night competitive urge! (Always an interesting selection of music playing in the background too.)
  • Tibetan food at Snow Lion – I never knew I liked Tibetan food until I ate at Snow Lion on Haarlemmerstraat. The cuisine reflects the geographical location, somewhere between Chinese and Indian. Really tasty dishes, with a good selection of veggie options too, and the friendly staff will make it as hot and spicy as you want.
  • A nightcap at De Engelbewaarder – aptly for a place that translates at The Guardian Angel, I’ve found myself heading to this place on a few occasions where I felt the night wasn’t quite over yet but I needed somewhere welcoming to have that final drink before bedtime. There’s generally some good indie-pop on the stereo and a young-ish friendly crowd. It’s just up the street from the equally friendly and lively Cafe de Doelen on Kloveniersburgwal.
  • Mexican food at Los Pilones – they have a few branches around town, including one just off Westerstraat in the Jordaan. I often find Mexican food stodgy and unsatisfying, but this place serves really tasty, well-made dishes. And the frozen margheritas aren’t half bad either.

Westerkerk from Bloemstraat - Amsterdam 2011I realise now that this list is getting to be longer than I intended. I think I’ll leave it there for now on the basis that I’ll surely have one reason or another to mention various other places when recounting other tales at other times. Others that could have been on the list include the fabulous Turkish mediterranean cuisine at Orontes West, drinking with the locals at cafe Int Aepjen on Zeedijk, renting a boat from Boaty.nl to enjoy a few hours pottering around on the canals, an intriguing few hours in the Amsterdam Historic Museum, a late lunch at Cafe Langendijk by the windmill at the Brouwerij ‘t IJ, a tasty three-course meal for EUR 5 at the MKZ squat, sawdust on the floor in one of Amsterdam’s oldest bars, the Hoppe on Spui, ….. Okay! I’ll stop now!

(By the way, for lots more tips like the above, i.e. from people living and working in Amsterdam, I recommend the Spotted by Locals blog, for which Amsterdam was the first city featured.)

And just in case I’m being too positive about this city, I can think of three things (but just three) that annoyed me on a regular basis and that I won’t miss at all:

  1. Noisy crowds at gigs – too many Amsterdammers go to the Paradiso and Melkweg just to be seen or to chat with friends. It’s very disrespectful to the artists on stage. They don’t know how lucky they are to have such a choice of acts to see live.
  2. Fast-food delivery scooters – you learn to live with the scooters in the bike lanes, but these guys have a death-wish for themselves and for everyone that dares to get within 5 metres of their path. Is it wrong that I regularly hope to see them fall off and injure themselves?
  3. Butt-chuckers – there are a lot of smokers in Amsterdam and most of them seem to think the street is their own personal ashtray. Even smokers sitting on terraces with an ashtray on the table in front of them regularly flick their cigarette butts into the street or the gutter. It’s not cool and it’s not helpful. It’s no wonder Amsterdam sometimes feels like quite a dirty city.