Biking, Amsterdam's best abbey beers and smoke

click to flip through (3) PHOTO: TONY HARTLEY
  • Photo: Tony Hartley

Amsterdam is a city of canals, little bridges and bikes, stuffed full of fine art from centuries past, dotted with small parks and playgrounds, and crowded with fine places to — yes — get down and dirty. The historic Centrum is facing some change, however, with its legal, though still seedy underbelly, the Red Light district and all, seeing its slow demise through new legislation, thanks (or no thanks) to a Council seeking to "clean up" Amsterdam's image.

Indeed, one could now tour the decaying coffee shops as an antiquated remainder of the '60s and '70s... the Dutch who indulge rarely, if ever, do so in the psychedelic smoke shops that most visitors find themselves in, stoned to the gills, wondering where they are and how, on earth, they got there.... Today, the mouldy furniture and cliched Buddha-wall paintings are as much part of an act for others as they are signs of a past that has become all the more remote.

But what if one is seeking to eat well, hear unusual music, enjoy fine beers — including the Netherlands' own abbey doubles and triples — followed by some fine smoke? To dip into a bohemian reverie while avoiding the loutish behaviours of the EasyJetset? Most of my evenings spent in Amsterdam take on such a mission, seeking out the fine goods of art and threads, taking in a strange noise concert or experimental dance performance in some quasi-legalized squat, eating Surinamese and basking in tides of green.

To begin, march away from the inner Centrum. One need not head to the outskirts, but simply move out and beyond the small inner ring that is defined by the southern start of the Amstel Canal. The Amstel, by the way, is not only a large and lovely aquatic thoroughfare; it also flows underneath the beautiful Magere Brug ("Skinny Bridge"), one of the last wooden drawbridges left in the city. Easily recognizable with its brilliantly lit white lights at night, it is useful as a landmark when wandering back looped through streets that loop themselves.

When booking lodgings, may I recommend exploring the region around Fredericksplein. Located at a midway point between the Centrum, the Dam Square, and other highball attractions such as the Rijksmuseum, Fredericksplein is central, yet out of the way. Kind of like contemporary West 4th Avenue in Vancouver, this ex-hippie haven is now hopelessly bourgeois. A few nice hostels and inns cater to different tastes. The Hotel de Munck, while advertising itself as a "cheap budget hotel," is nonetheless homely and modern. The Hemp Hotel is not quite what you think—family run, it of course celebrates the "New Age" tradition of Amsterdam, including its Hemple Temple bar ,which stocks over a dozen hemp beers. The Radio Inn, tucked onto Utrechtsedwarsstraat, ups the ante if you're seeking eclectic counterculture, with no curfew, cabinets of playful curiousities, and an interior that looks like it was the inspiration for Roger Corman's The Trip (1967).

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