In Amsterdam, waterways represent the improbable triumph of Dutch perseverance over the North Sea’s relentless surge. The city’s iconic canals remain the world’s most successful urban land reclamation project. They also demarcate the city’s history. Cross over the Singelgracht — the canal that rings the medieval core of the city — and you leave what was until the 17th century the original border of Amsterdam. Dug as a 15th-century moat, the waterway lined with windmills and military fortifications formed the city’s outer line of defense.
On my first two trips to Amsterdam, I barely set foot outside the grachtengordel, or canal belt, that fairy-tale part of Amsterdam immortalized by postcards. I blew through the highlights in my guidebooks with the manic energy of a backpacker trying to soak up several European capitals — cities whose charms have taken a millennium or two to perfect — in a week.
When I returned a few years later with my sister Jen, we wondered what life was like beyond the elegant confines of the grachtengordel, so we crossed the Singelgracht and began exploring.
We staked out a new base in De Pijp (pronounced like pipe), intrigued by the rumor that this was Amsterdam’s version of Paris’ Latin Quarter. We didn’t know what to expect as we stumbled into a cozy warren of red brick apartment buildings lined with flower boxes. The proprietress of our B&B was out, so we procured our key from Joost (rhymes with “roast”), the owner of the corner cafe. After welcoming us to the neighborhood, he poured us glasses of white wine — drinks were on him — and taught us the tongue-twisting word for please, alstublieft.
Latin Quarter comparisons aside, this was not Paris. When was the last time a tourist had gotten anything for free in Paris, along with a French lesson? Speaking of tourists, we hadn’t yet spotted any.
As patrons leisurely wandered into the cafe and greeted each other by name, Jen and I bade our goodbyes, freed ourselves of luggage, and set off with no particular agenda — other than stern instructions from one of the cafe regulars to eat something called bitterballen.
In the dappled late-afternoon sun, refreshingly devoid of car traffic, the street was a still life with bicycles. In front of a natural foods store, a father gamely balanced a fresh loaf of bread, a bag of groceries and a toddler on a sturdy bike. A teenage couple sped by in the middle of a street; the girl on the back sat sidesaddle with a bunch of flowers under one arm. I suddenly understood why the cafe regulars had affectionately called this city “a big village.” As an island connected to the rest of the city by a series of bridges, De Pijp appeared to be a village within the village.
De Pijp’s deep history
We turned a corner and met the buzzing artery of Ferdinand Bolstraat. Late-night shawarma shops and chain fashion stores sat aside a tapas bar, minimalist bistros and an outpost of the ubiquitous fast-food chain FEBO, christened after 17th-century Dutch artist Ferdinand Bol. Expect an old-fashioned automat: Insert your coins and open the tiny glass doors to reveal golden meat croquettes, cheese soufflés and a host of improbable creations made sublime by a deep fryer.
De Pijp’s populist roots are humble: Slumlords ruled its 19th-century tenements, while resident artists, intellectuals, students, prostitutes and workers from the nearby Heineken factory ensured that its all-night cafe scene was legendary. In the second half of the 20th century, as newcomers from Suriname, Indonesia, Turkey and Morocco moved in, De Pijp served as a makeshift global laboratory for the Dutch principle of samenleving (society, or literally “living together”), which allows individual cultures to flourish while encouraging community spirit.
As an adventurer in a foreign city, there are neighborhoods that you love because of their strangeness or their grandeur. And then there are neighborhoods where the act of getting momentarily lost on unknown streets brings a sense of sudden recognition: With a jolt of equal parts longing and nostalgia, you feel at home for no inexplicable reason.
Under De Pijp’s spell, I became a tourist cliché: I’d fallen in love with the neighborhood, I confessed to Bibi, our charming hostess.
The Dutch, not prone to overstatement, tend to meet such dramatic pronouncements warily. In Dutch culture, things are taken on face value; people expect that what you say is what you mean. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when Bibi, like a fairy godmother, instantly arranged two essential items: a single-speed “grandma bike” that’s the ride of choice for most Netherlanders, and a sublet with an only-in-Amsterdam location, next door to a fragrant coffee shop and across the street from the neighborhood’s own red light district.
With a single stroke of Bibi’s magic wand, three days in De Pijp turned into three years.
De Pijp in a day
The next morning, Jen and I awoke to clip-clop of a horse. I peered out the window and spotted an enormous creature with a sable coat that was heading, I later learned, to the Heineken stables that were just around the corner.
Aside from sighting one of the legendary Heineken horses, a perfect De Pijp morning begins by strolling the festive Albert Cuyp Market, going strong since 1905. Monday through Saturday, you’ll find more than 260 booths plying a mind-blowing array of tulips, produce, Amsterdam-themedsouvenirs, clothes and giggle-inducing “adult chocolates.” Cheesemongers happily take their time while leading you through tastings of Gouda cheeses, aged six months to five years.
Once I became a market regular, I capped off my visits with a stand-up feast at a traditional vishandel (fish stand). I like Albert Cuyp Vishandel and Volendammer Vishandel J.C.M. Koning, which serve up North Sea beauties such as spicy shrimp and deep-fried whitefish called lekkerbek and kibbeling. If you’re lucky enough to arrive during herring season, don’t miss the chance to try it served raw with onions: It’s a late-spring rite of passage.
Is raw fish before noon not your thing? While brunch is a meal that Amsterdam has traditionally overlooked, lately De Pijp has changed the breakfast game with sumptuous new offerings like Bakers and Roasters, Scandinavian Embassy, art-deco beauty Coffee and Coconuts, and La Boutique del Caffe Torrefazione, which is rumored to serve De Pijp’s best coffee.
When we first laid eyes on the lush Sarphatipark, an English- style garden with winding paths and a romantic footbridge overlooking fountains and ponds, I decided it was my favorite landlocked spot in Amsterdam. On the other side of the park, head to Eerste Sweelinckstraat to scout out pop-up boutiques and exotic local shops. Wander down Gerard Doustraat, Frans Hallstraat and Van Woustraat to discover more independent shops and galleries.
Making dinner plans can present a minor existential crisis in a neighborhood where within a five-minute stroll (or seconds on a bike), flavors from Indonesia, Morocco, the Mediterranean and Kurdistan, along with a rotating cast of super-hip new bistros, compete for your attention.
If you’re never eaten Surinamese food, make it a mission to try a steaming plate of Roti Kip (chicken with green beans, and potatoes swimming in addictive curry, served with flaky bread) at Warung Spang Makandra. By requesting an English menu, you’ll learn that “filet” style means it comes with breast meat. Wash it down with an icy ginger beer.
As the sun goes down, De Pijp turns into a roaming party of university students and professionals looking to kick back after work. Fashion your own impromptu bar crawl by picking one on buzzing Gerard Douplein and working your way down Eerste Van Der Helststraat, where bars run the gamut from relaxed to raucous.
When seeking a convivial chat and a beer, head to a bruin cafe (brown cafe, so named for their smoke-stained walls). Neighborhood folks congregate at spots like Café Sarphaat, De Groene Vlinder and Café Krull. Rather than ordering a pint, it’s customary to order a few biertjes, beers served in small glasses to keep them cold. It was at one of these that Jen and I finally had our bitterballen, tasty fried balls of meat and mashed potato.
If you’re seeking something more upscale, the lovely Irish owner at neighborhood fixture Zaza’s serves up elegant dinners with a sense of humor. Don’t miss the scallops with fennel tarte Tatin.
By day as well by night, Jen and I found that the best way to experience De Pijp’s village feel was explore its streets — fittingly named for Dutch poets and composers — with no particular agenda.
De Pijp is an excellent base for beating the crowds at nearby Museumplein, where even the most stalwart Rembrandt fan can get rattled while jostling for a view of “The Night Watch.” Jen and I enjoyed the convivial but crowd-free Friday night we spent at Van Gogh Museum, which throws weekly themed evenings with cocktails, live music, and free guided tours. Head to the world-class Concertgebouw on Wednesdays for the not-so-secret free lunchtime concerts. Arrive early (at least 45 minutes) to line up for a seat.
Across the Amstel River, on the eastern edge of De Pijp, Oost and the Plantage are neighborhoods worth exploring. Rent your own omafiets bicycle by the day or week at neighborhood favorite De Stadsfiets (translation: City Bikes), across from the Sarphatipark.
Our cultural bucket list was filled up with the city’s classical music and art offerings. But what I learned, once I settled in, is that Amsterdam is a serious movie town with some of Europe’s most beautiful cinemas. In De Pijp, arthouse favorite Rialto Cinema has been screening films since 1921. Films are shown in the original language, usually with Dutch, and sometimes English, subtitles. Decamp to the Rialto’s inviting bar to debate that surreal Spanish film over a glass of wine.
Joost’s cafe, a gathering spot for the neighborhood where the staff and the regulars patiently taught me countless Dutch words that first year, is sadly now closed. Now I meet up with old friends from De Pijp at Kingfisher, just around the corner. If you run into Bibi, buy her a glass of wine for me.
Sarah Chandler is a Minneapolis-based writer whose travel writing has appeared on Lonely Planet, BBC Travel, CNBC and the Eurail Blog.