Amsterdam’s battle to reclaim its cultural crown

You’ll find a postcard-perfect Amsterdam in the city centre, but in its north and east districts – once run-down but recently revived – you’ll find its creative and cultural heartbeat

When in Amsterdam, you’ll probably want to check out the Van Gogh Museum, Rembrandt’s House and the Red Light District. But to understand modern Amsterdam, head away from the city centre.

And you don’t have to go far. A 15-minute ferry ride north will take you to NDSM Wharf. As the boat cruises in, you will first notice the giant, abandoned shipping containers and looming walls of graffiti. You’ll also spot a submarine, the floating Botel boat-hotel, a lightship, a refurbished tram and old factories bursting with creativity. So not your average shipyard, then.

Once on shore, you’ll find food at the glass-fronted IJ-Kantine or Noorderlicht Cafe, with their impressive views of the water. Restaurant Pllek is a five-minute walk from the dock and has a menu focusing on the little-known Dutch classics. It also offers all-night parties on summer weekends, when the action stretches down to the water on a makeshift beach complete with DJs and, reflecting the famously healthy Dutch lifestyle, yoga at dawn.

Amsterdam Noord and Oost
Andres & Joyce De Lange

It’s not Amsterdam as you might know it. The city is famous for its tulips, winding canals and Renaissance architecture, but explore the North and East districts and you’ll find post-industrial areas like NDSM Wharf transforming into creative hubs packed with innovative restaurants, cutting-edge galleries and boutiques that push the sartorial boat out.

‘The city centre is full of tourists; you won’t find a lot of locals there anymore,’ says Hartelijke Groet, owner of Restaurant Pllek. ‘The NDSM Wharf is still untouched and raw. It is representative of the history of Amsterdam – the raw, untouched Amsterdam of the past. There are a lot of artists working here, and the restaurants are very laid-back and alternative. The NDSM Wharf gives you the feeling you can still discover things.’

And sure, these areas are not as pretty to look at. But a day of browsing the shops of Amsterdam Oost or an evening drinking beer in Amsterdam Noord will show you a side of the Dutch capital that a whistle-stop tour of the city’s usual hotspots probably won’t.

Amsterdam Noord and Oost
Andres & Joyce De Lange

Originally home to a thriving shipyard and belching factories, Amsterdam Noord slowly fell into disrepair as manufacturers moved to the cheaper pastures of Asia from the mid-1980s onwards. And by the turn of the century, its bleak landscape and brutalist architecture felt closer to a dystopian film than the outskirts of a thriving urban capital.

But that was about to change. Locals started to find their inner-city streets clogged with tourists and increasingly homogenised, and young tastemakers keen to launch restaurants, bars and art galleries found themselves at an impasse due to rising rents. The solution lay in the once desolate suburbs where abandoned shipyards and empty factories were itching to be developed.

The creative energy coming out of the North and East has shifted the centre of gravity away from the Herengracht Canal and Dam Square towards the suburbs, and on weekend evenings the free ferries are packed with skinny jeans-clad passengers heading away from Amsterdam Centraal rather than towards it.

Two pieces of modern architecture dominate the wharf in the North: the EYE Film Museum, which is named after the river IJ (pronounced ‘eye’), and the A’DAM Lookout tower.

Amsterdam Noord and Oost
Andres & Joyce De Lange
Amsterdam Noord and Oost
Andres & Joyce De Lange

The Eye Film Museum is a work of art in itself: from the outside it is a mix between the Sydney Opera House and a Star Wars spaceship. The interior, meanwhile, is a homage to cinema, with four screens showing a mix of new releases and films from an archive of 37,000 titles. Looming competitively over the Eye Film Museum, A’DAM Lookout is a 22-storey waterfront tower that allows visitors to shoot up one of the highest lifts in Europe to admire the Dutch capital from above. It is also home to panorama bar Madam, a revolving restaurant on the 19th floor, a 360-degree observation deck and offices. Oh, and a giant swing hanging from the top-floor deck that you can use to float over the city – an admittedly terrifying option for anyone who has spent the day in one of the city’s notorious coffee shops.

But while Amsterdam Noord might boast all the mod-cons, Amsterdam Oost, the eastern district, offers a different sort of charm. Amsterdam Oost has long been home to Holland’s biggest immigrant population. Naturally competitive with their northern neighbours, local residents claim their district’s multicultural past adds another dimension that the rest of the city lacks. Where the North has abandoned warehouses, the east offers squat housing blocks, bustling squares and wide boulevards.

‘Amsterdam Oost is a very realistic portrayal of what modern Europe now is,’ says Marta Brandt, the director of De Jonge Admiraal, an intimate cafe packed with second-hand books and eclectic furniture and specialising in Ethiopian coffee. ‘In this part of the city, we celebrate all different cultures and are keenly aware that people from all over the world have contributed to the Dutch capital and to our culture as a whole. I love that in this part of town no two streets are ever the same.’

Amsterdam Noord and Oost
Andres & Joyce De Lange

Today, the area has rapidly gentrified and edgy boutiques sit next to Ethiopian restaurants, cocktail bars are found alongside Indonesian food stalls, and co-working spaces share storefronts with Turkish sweet shops. Javastraat,Middenweg and Czaar Peterstraat are the three main arteries running through Amsterdam Oost and they host art spaces, independent theatres and concept restaurants, but also Southeast Asian markets, crowded community restaurants, mosques and African bazaars.

Cycling slowly back into the city centre, the roads become wider, emptier and leafier, Ethiopian coffee houses are replaced with sleek wine bars, warehouse restaurants give way to perfectly pretty waterfront houses, allowing Vermeer and Rembrandt’s version of Holland to return. Because while the 17th-century canals offer us a glance into Amsterdam’s illustrious past, it is the eccentric creativity and artistic spirit of the outer districts that give us the most optimistic glimpse into the city’s future.


The Pulitzer‭

A quick bike ride to Amsterdam Noord and Oost, this canal-front hotel bubbles with creativity. Several suites have specific themes like art, music, books and antiques, and the bar (pictured above) stands out for both its decor and its cocktails.

The Dylan‭ ‬

The Dylan emanates chic with its colour palette of dark green, cream and black. The bedrooms (pictured above left) are set under the 17th-century eaves and overlooking the Keizersgracht canal. It also houses the Michelin-starred Restaurant Vinkeles and high-end Brasserie Occo.


Wilde Zwijnen 

With exposed brick walls, an open kitchen filled with bearded chefs, rustic wooden tables, ethically sourced coffee and a menu listing wild boar and octopus, the Netherlands doesn’t get more hipster than this trendy, high-end restaurant in Amsterdam Oost.


Tropical-industrial is a combination that shouldn’t work but somehow does in this Amsterdam Noord spot (pictured above right). This warehouse restaurant has floor-to ceiling windows that look out over the river, palm trees lining the walls and the best steak tartare in Amsterdam.

Cathay Pacific flies to Amsterdam from Hong Kong seven times a week.

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