Amsterdam: The West of the Story

life-sized cutout sign of nearly naked pin-up posing next to a tattoo sign in Amsterdam, the Netherlands

XXX action, scantily clad women, mind-bending substances and tattoos. That pretty much sums up Amsterdam’s Red Light District.

Amsterdam is best known for its risqué Red Light District, where working girls pose in neon-lit windows and “coffee shops” sell substances substantially more mood altering than a Starbucks’ triple venti no foam latte.

Veer west off the tourist trail, however, and you’ll encounter a completely different city. Picture buzzing local restaurants and cafés, one-of-a-kind shops and hipster havens that have brought previously derelict areas back to life.

Shopping in De 9 Straatjes

De 9 Straatjes, a leafy, picturesque neighbourhood west of the old city center in the Canal Belt, was once a hotbed for the leather tanning industry. Today, it offers an eclectic selection of boutiques framed by 17th century facades.

Although the moniker translates as “the nine streets,” it’s actually a collection of three east-west roads that insist on changing names every time they cross a canal.

Horizontal image of Prinsengracht Canal in Amsterdam with boats on a sunny day

Picturesque Prinsengracht Canal borders De 9 Straatjes to the west.

You won’t walk far along Gasthuismolensteeg, the most northeasterly street, before the shop window at Mauve (No. 3) stops you in your tracks. With an assortment of Venetian masks, brocade frock coats and eye-popping patterns from the 70s, it’s like time travelling through a kaleidoscope of colour and style.

Hanna Van Wyngaarden, the owner of Mauve in Amsterdam, poses with her theatrical assortment of vintage dresses and accessories.

Hanna Van Wyngaarden, owner of Mauve

“I like to collect, and I like decoration,” explains the owner, a flame-haired maven named Hanna Van Wyngaarden, as she stitches up a hole in a pair of tie-dyed stockings (known as “panties” here, FYI). “Everyone can be beautiful, but when you have the wrong clothes, you feel poor. Don’t wait for a party,” she advises. “The street is your podium!”

Mauve is the most theatrical second hand shop in De 9 Straatjes, but it’s hardly alone. L’Etoile de Saint Honore sells vintage luxury handbags, Bijons runs the gamut from sequined party dresses to mid-century home accessories, and Brilmuseum offers spectacles from the past 100 years.

Mannequin head with cats-eye glasses in shop window at Brilmuseum in Amsterdam

Brilmuseum

Chain mail headpiece fashioned from soda can pop tops at Laura Dols shop in De 9 Straatjes, Amsterdam

Laura Dols: You’ve got (chain) mail

Laura Dols captures the essence of Hollywood’s golden era, with silk top hats, fur coats, 1950s nip-waisted dresses, and beaded bodices that Mae West would’ve rocked. There are more unusual items, as well, like chain mail fashioned from soda can pop tops for a crazy “knight” on the town.

There’s plenty of new gear to buy in De 9 Straatjes, too. Slip on hand-made leather shoes at Terra, and see how Denham, with two stores on Reestraat and one on Prinsengracht, has elevated jeans to a science. These people think more about water saving ozone washes and the shape of scissors than Stephen Hawking thinks about string theory. One of the shops even features a tailor offering on-site alterations.

At Mendo, thumb through fashion, art, and cook books. Then head next door to Stout, where you’ll blush as you browse racks of racy lingerie and the sort of “sex”essories you might find in Christian Grey’s bedside table. (This is Amsterdam, after all).

Collars in Stout, which sells sex-related accessories in Amsterdam

What’s up, pussycat? Tiger taming accessories from Stout.

Dining in and around De 9 Streetjes

crepe topped with ice cream and strawberries at Café de Raedt

Café de Raedt

Feeling peckish? Pancakes! Amsterdam on Berenstraat must be good, as at least a dozen people are perpetually lined up outside.

I opted for faster service and an ice cream-topped crepe at Café de Raedt on Raadhuisstraat, where I watched His Majesty, the café’s resident cat, wandering with feline insouciance between waiters’ wobbling legs.

For an inexpensive lunch, consider Café de Doffer, serving omelets, burgers, and sandwiches like “old cheese with truffle mayo.” (I think the description loses something in translation).

Café Restaurant t’Zwaantie also offers hearty, no-fuss food, served in a lived-in local haunt that’s evolved here over the past 40 years. Odd objects like kettles, cowbells, and bed warmers are suspended from the ceiling, and kitschy old paintings are set against a backdrop of faded paisley wallpaper. Even early on a weeknight, the place is packed with Dutch speakers dining on boiled or fried mussels, wienerschnitzel, and calves liver with bacon and onions.

close-up of red wine poured from a bottle into a glass at Proeverij 274 in Amsterdam

Proeverij 274

If you’re after a more upscale meal, the atmosphere is romantically Old World at Proeverij 274, with candlelight glinting on lacquered wood. Here, Chef Matthias Kail combines unexpected flavors (imagine a coconut tartlet with yoghurt, coriander and purple carrot), presented with artistic aplomb.

Alternatively, De Struisvogel (The Ostrich) occupies a cozy, cave-like lair perfectly suited to dishes like wild venison and truffle risotto.

For a contemporary twist on dishes from the former Dutch colony of Indonesia, seek out sleek Restaurant Max.

People dining in the sleek, contemporary Restaurant Max in Amsterdam

Restaurant Max

Hanging with the Hipsters

Within the past year, a new pocket of development has emerged about a mile further west of De 9 Straatjes. The renaissance in Amsterdam-West took off with the mid-2014 opening of De Hallen, which fronts Kinkestraat, a ten-minute walk north of the sprawling green expanse of Vondelpark.

A statue bears roses in Amsterdam's Vondelpark, a sprawling green expanse in the western party of the city

Vondelpark

De Hallen’s brick complex, with a soaring vaulted interior, was built in 1901 to house Amsterdam’s trams, but it stood derelict for 20 years before being reborn in its present incarnation. Today it houses a trendy, open-until-the-wee-hours food hall serving international fare like Vietnamese street food, caviar and quinoa sushi wraps, plus an art deco cinema, a few shops, a hotel, salon, craftsmen’s workshops, and a weekend local goods market.

Two people sit at a counter at the Gin & Tonic Bar in De Hallen, Amsterdam

De Hallen Gin & Tonic Bar

“A lot of people in the neighborhood didn’t want another place where people would go out to clubs,” says Bert Kraker, an antiques dealer who shares a shop in  De Hallen called Lokaal 15 with a portrait photographer and a Dutch felt clothing designer. “They came to an agreement that it must be something cultural that would support entrepreneurs and offer them a chance to make a living.”

If De Hallen is the heart of this hip new area, than Jan Pieter Heijestraat, which leads towards the Vondelpark, is the main artery channeling the pulse of its lifeblood. Here, you’ll find clothing boutiques like the feminine Gesponnen Suiker; relaxed hangouts like the Bar Bra, offering a selection of board games and vinyl that patrons are welcome to play on the turn table; and The Beer Tree, which sells 250 beers from 25 countries and features the first growler system (tap beer to go) in the Netherlands.

selection of beer at The Beer Tree in Amsterdam

Who says beer doesn’t grow on trees?

Mashed hawks everything from candles, clothes, locally-made jewelry, and recycled denim animals from the Netherlands. Vivian Dony, who mans the register, recently moved into a quiet residential street near De Hallen, which she credits for bringing traffic to Amsterdam West.

“Amsterdam is getting bigger, step by step,” Dony observes. “People don’t want to go to the same touristy spots. They are always looking for new places to discover.”

IF YOU GO

Where to stay: Hotel IX, located in De 9 Straatjes in the 17th century former home and workshop of Rembrandt’s frame maker, features five suites sleekly furnished suites. From 256 Euro (£183). Hartenstraat 8, http://www.hotelixamsterdam.com/en/

De 9 Straatjes, http://www.de9straatjes.nl/en/home

De Hallen, Hannie Dankbaar Passage 33, http://dehallen-amsterdam.nl/en/

TOURISM INFO

www.iamsterdam.com. “I amsterdam City Card” includes a public transport ticket, free entrance to more than 40 museums and attractions, plus additional discounts.

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