The Top Brown Cafes of Amsterdam

The ‘Brown Cafe’ in the Netherlands is similar to the Dutch word Gezellig*:  both are described as being somewhat translatable, but certainly not with just a single word or two, and both will likely be experienced by pretty much every visitor to Amsterdam:*convivial, cozy, and fun.

The brown cafe is often said to be the Dutch equivalent of a pub in England.  However that might be both better and more narrowly refined to being more like a local pub in Ireland where the local beer and spirits (as well as coffee and tea) are poured, people congregate to chat or catch up on news during the day, to eat, and to drink (and sometimes sing) through the evenings…. and they stay open much later than any English pub I’ve visited.

The name may possibly be derived from their interiors – most often wood paneled bars and walls, with lower ceilings (that are still sometimes stained from the days when smoking cigarettes inside was ok), and the overall cozy, worn but warm and welcoming atmosphere.

Some are noted for their food, and others are decidedly not…. Menus will often heavily feature borrelhapjes, which translates literally as “drink snacks” (get the bitterballen!) and sometimes broodjes – or small sandwiches on rolls, as well as brown bread with Dutch cheeses, spreads and meats.

The Top Brown Cafes of Amsterdam: This is 100% manageable as a 'café crawl', or perhaps just visit them a couple at a time and use them as ‘places of refuge’ when out visiting the sights (and dodging the trams, bicycles, and tourists you'll encounter...). 

There is a downloadable map of all listed venues below.

Café ‘t Small Really quaint with a very traditional interior, and a great outdoor terrace perched on a canal for warmer weather visits (it hosts their illuminated Christmas trees in early winter).

Cafe t'Small

Cafe t'Small

Café de Wetering a fantastic option for a cold or wet day. It is filled with original (not staged) charm and is an excellent place of refuge from the crowds of the Rijksmuseum & museum quarter and a great authentic destination for those out to see the Heineken Experience. It also has a fireplace which makes it even more inviting on those days with a chill in the air.

Cafe de Wettering

Cafe de Wettering

Cafe Chris has a pool table (which is rare given the usual space concerns) and is apparently the oldest beer bar in Amsterdam (1624!) so therefore it has to be on this list.

Café de Eland On the busy corner of Prinsengracht and Elandsgracht this is a great example of a traditional brown café where originally drinks were served in front and the family who owned it lived upstairs in the back.  The outdoor seating offers prime people watching opportunity – and ask about the illuminated moth above the bar.

Cafe de Eland

Cafe de Eland

De Blaffande Vis  This is a great locals / neighborhood brown café not necessarily known for its location - but it will be busy on any day with even a glimmer of sun.  It is lighter than most (tall ceilings, off-white walls, and massive windows) and serves high quality Dutch meals, usually just 4 or 5 options on a chalk board menu, at good prices.

Proeflokkal Arendsnest   The Eagles Nest tasting room…  perhaps not a true brown café, but they serve only Dutch craft beer, and up to 50 of them available on draft at any time, and there is a great atmosphere – so it makes the list!

Arendsnest  -- "The Eagle's Nest"

Arendsnest  -- "The Eagle's Nest"

Café de Tuin - often hits lists of the best bitterballen in Amsterdam… it makes this list because it is off the beaten tourist path, is not on a canal (center of the Jordaan on a street with some great dining options), and is a great neighbourhood-y example.

Cafe de Tuin

Cafe de Tuin

Café de Sluyswacht  - a rare standalone building in Amsterdam and as a result it is one of the more crooked buildings too – apparently leaning more than the tower of Pisa…  instagrammers: get yourself here.

Café de Sluyswacht

Café de Sluyswacht

Café Heuvel  is one of the older brown cafes still operating today.  A good location between the Vondelpark and city center on a corner of a canal.  Fairly small inside but with good use of bar seats and perimeter tables you should be ok, the outdoor seating expands capacity on nicer days.

Outside Cafe Heuvel

Outside Cafe Heuvel

Café de Prins   is across from a canal, in a converted canal house, and near the Anne Frank house, and this is one of the brown cafes known for its food.   As a result it can get busy but they do take reservations.

Cafe Thijssen has a great location on the corner of Brouwersgracht, offers good borrelhapjes snacks, a rotating menu of soups, and just has a very good intangible vibe to it.

Cafe Thijssen

Cafe Thijssen

Notes:

*gezellig: defining the undefinable with wikipedia... 

  • The beer glass will not be filled to the brim. It will likely be hand washed in a small sink, filled, and have foam at the top that the bartender will flick away with a little spatula-esque implement. This is how it is done - don't question it.
  • Most take cards / contactless – but have some cash on hand just in case (or ask first)
  • The borrelhapje at the top of the Dutch bar snack pyramid is the bitterballen…  which is not bitter at all and is basically a deep fried ball of gravy or roux and while traditionally they have meat in them, there are now spinach, beet, and various other mixed veggie options available all over Amsterdam catering to the plant-based diet aficionados that still like a dirty snack form time to time…  The other core hapje offerings are the brown bread with assorted dips, the Dutch cheese platter – often augmented with ossenworst sausage, kroketten, and  frickandel

 

Amsterdam: Moving Beyond Coffee Shops and The Red Lights

Every time I tell someone that I am going to Amsterdam for the weekend I seem to receive a specific knowing look;  that look that says they suspect I'm off to meet up with all of my most troublesome friends to pursue activities that are maybe nefarious in some areas of the world and not so much in others.

People think coffee shops, tourists, and maybe even a stop off at the Red Light District… and while those things may or may not be high on your agenda or things that everyone ‘must do’ as part of a trip, Amsterdam has so much more to offer if you just peek behind the curtain.

Amsterdam has been called the Venice of the North for obvious reasons – it’s charm and beauty rivals many of the so-called ‘great cities’ of Europe.  Furthermore, it can be accessed and enjoyed with significantly less hassle than its brothers and sisters.  (Have you ever tried to get across London at rush hour while trying to make a dinner reservation?  Ever risked life and limb on a Vélib’ in Paris to visit a museum? If you have tried either, then you know.  If not… don’t.)

Getting around is easy

Amsterdam is blessed by its size and location and benefits from a well thought out and well connected transport system.  Schiphol is one of the most well connected and most pleasant airports in the world.  Get there and either jump in a taxi or Uber or take one of the regular trains to Amsterdam Centraal Station – then start exploring. 

Once in the city, you can get from one end to another by foot or by one of the cycle hire options (of which there are many), so need not worry if you wander off a bit and then have to get back to the other side of town.  It turns out that nothing is all that far away.

See the main attractions, then explore beyond

Museums:  Van Gogh, Rijksmuseum. Anne Frank.  Do them.  Be prepared to stand in a line / queue and use resources like Google to see when what times are the least busy. If your focus is on museums (and there are many of them) – also consider the Musuemkaart.

The Canals: Free, and the best way to get to know the city. Pick a canal and walk along it until you see something interesting. Stop, look, experience… and then find another.  In the water you will observe hundreds of unique houseboats and entertaining canal traffic (you may even garner a wave from a local cruising by!), and peppered along the edge of the canal you'll observe unparalleled architecture, interesting boutiques, and a myriad of fun and affordable restaurants.  Our only warning: watch out for bikes when crossing the street, as you'll soon be run over by one if you aren't careful (there are more bikes per capita than any other country!)

The culinary scene has really developed over the past five years and AMS is now a food destination, however do not let this keep you from grabbing a paper cone of frites & fritessaus or a Febo snack. 

Stay like a local: pick the best then trust your host

There are tons of hotels in AMS… for every budget, and every intent (from the aforementioned nefarious to the top end luxe experiences).  Our preference?  Always pick the most authentic or ‘true’ experience, with a focus on the people.

On a recent adventure we were fortunate to come across The Weavery. From their website:  “Gezelligheid is an untranslatable Dutch word you will hear a lot in the Netherlands. Roughly translated it means cozy and pleasant.”

I do not know if we could sum it up any better actually. 

Bettina was a wonderful hostess and it was fantastic to meet her, her partner Driss, and their two little charming girls over the course of our stay. These hosts embody everything you could ever hope a B&B host would, and know how to create a level of comfort that makes you want to stay and explore..

The set up at the Weavery is for a boutique B&B experience, but without the full B&B obligation (ie you can be as ‘engaged’ as you would like to be).  Breakfast is served in their very well appointed and fun two rooms (and not in a communal setting with Bill from Virginia) and after a quick instruction on logistics you are free to come and go as you like.

Their location is also excellent - the highlights:

·         easy access from Centraal by the 16 tram and tucked in a fun canal ringed neighborhood

·         5 minute walk to the Museumplein

·         5 minute walk to the Heineken experience

·         a short walk to the fun shops and restaruants of De Pijp

·         a short walk to central AMS

·         near Prinsengracht and Keizersgraght – two of the canals to wander along

Bettina left us a snack, a map with some of her well-vetted favorites (local restaurants, shopping, and museums) and suggested we meet the next morning to catch up. We set off and followed her recommendations – grabbing a fun meal at Buffet van Odette  (which was so good that we went back again later in the weekend), checking out the AMS Light festival and popping into unexpected pizza shops and pubs along the way.

The Weavery itself is an original Amsterdam house – built in the 17th century to provide attractive housing to those in the textile industry. Bettina and Driss have restored it faithfully but also have further created a warm and inviting space with fully preserved traditional details coupled with a few elegant and modern touches. We felt like we were at home.

Our favorite modern touch had its roots in very traditional methods (of the Berbers).  The carpets throughout the Weavery are sourced from middle Atlas Morocco and support local village communities there – and help to preserve an art and traditional methods. This region of the world has special personal meaning to both Bettina and Driss, which makes the weaving of their own personal meaning/passion with the local AMS experience all the more meaningful. True to form, the rugs that are sold in their online store are available in not just patterns of their own choosing, but are also available to customize so you can purchase but weave in your own personal touch.

Our final pick: base your authentic Amsterdam experience at the Weavery – ask for their suggestions -  and tell Bettina and Driss that we sent you!