Row of narrow houses overlooking the Amstel River in Amsterdam, with houseboats in the foreground [Photo: Shutterstock]

My Secret City: Amsterdam

The Netherlands’ capital city offers a treasure trove of galleries, museums and modern drinking and dining scenes set against the picturesque backdrop of canals lined with gabled houses. We asked alumnus Michael Borowiec (MA 2014) to give us his insider’s guide to the city he now calls home.

Amsterdam is well-known for its beautiful 17th-century architecture and for good reason. I still get a kick out of an evening stroll along the Amstel river, which provides some of the most charming sights that the city has to offer. Not too far away, the narrow houses of Jordaan’s once working-class neighbourhood are filled with quaint drinkeries and boutique shops. Boathouses hug the banks of the canals, which in turn are filled with discarded bikes and lost smartphones.

Amsterdam is absolutely designed for bicycles. The experience is so seamless, it beats any other mode of transportation by far. And when it comes to bikes, you need look no further than the classic Omafiet or “Grandma Bike”. With a sturdy frame, wide handlebars and thick tyres, I find them the perfect choice for a smooth cruise around the city’s cobblestone-clad streets. Word to the wise, cycling in the city centre can get a bit hectic. I stick to the right of the bike lane to allow on-the-go Amsterdamers to whizz past, and I never forget to signal with my hand before turning.

"Amsterdam residents' life-loving nature is contagious – I immediately knew moving here was the right choice."

The Dutch are famously known for maintaining a healthy work-life balance. And when it comes to making sure the life part of the equation is satisfied, there are plenty of fun activities to engage in. If bars and live music are your thing, I recommend visiting the city’s vintage brown bars, like Cafe de Wetering with its resident cat, or Cafe Weling, an old-school haunt with regular live jazz performances.

When it comes to Amsterdam’s districts, I have a soft spot for the city’s north. It contains some of the city’s most modern-looking architecture and expansive hangout spots, taking advantage of new spaces created by its now-defunct industry. After having dinner at Skatecafe, located in a refurbished skatepark, I have a drink at FC Hyena’s outside terrace, which overlooks the city skyline from across the IJ river. Afterwards, I usually cycle north to NDSM Wharf, where a former shipyard the size of ten football pitches has been converted into a cultural hotspot of artist studios, bars and performance spaces.

"For theatre lovers, I recommend the Carre Theatre, the Dutch National Opera and Het Concertgebouw for classical music aficionados, while Melkweg and Paradiso host live shows by contemporary artists."

With so many galleries to choose from, I like to start at the two main cultural centres located around the Museumplein area. The Rijksmuseum showcases over 800 years of Dutch art history including Rembrandt's 'The Night Watch', Vermeer's 'Milkmaid', and Asselijn's 'The Threatened Swan'. In the nearby Stedelijk Museum, I especially enjoy an impressive collection of modern works by Willem De Kooning, Marlene Dumas and Anselm Kiefer. After I’ve had my fill of a millennium’s-worth of traditional art, I head out east to Micropia. This one-of-a-kind science museum wants to change our understanding of microbes, portraying them as a necessary element of human life and environmental sustainability.

When I’m in the area of Museumplein, I like to cycle down to Vondelpark in the south-west of the city. Aside from trying to spot some of the 4,000 green-feathered parrots that live in the park, I also take rest in the shadow of Picasso’s Figure découpée l'Oiseau ('Bird Cut Out') sculpture which the artist donated for the park’s centenary. The sculpture is known locally as 'The Fish'.

An amazing thing about the Netherlands is how small and interconnected the entire country is. Within a short cycle or train ride, I can escape the city bustle and experience some truly unique sites. I like to cycle to the local forest in Amsterdam Bos, or the quaint Dutch town of Haarlem. When I head further west by train, I even make it to a town called Zandvoort overlooking the North Sea. Just a one-hour train ride out of the capital will allow you to see authentic Dutch windmills at Zaanse Schans, or the seasonal tulip bloom at Keukenhof. Whichever way you direct your Omafiet in this wonderful city, you won’t be disappointed. Just don’t fall into a canal.


My food and drink hit list

Dutch cuisine
In charmingly kitsch restaurant Moeders, I often order the Stamppot, a heart-warming Dutch meal consisting of potatoes mashed with a variety of vegetables.

Late-night snack
The revered Bitterballen, or deep-fried crispy meatballs, which are traditionally served with mustard dip, are an ideal snack during a night out. To add to the tradition, I sometimes enjoy them with a tulip-shaped glass of Jeneer, a juniper-berry-based spirit, often served alongside high-percentage beer. The combo of two alcohols is commonly known as kopstootje, or a “headbutt”.

"On a rainy day, you should visit De Kas to taste modern Mediterranean cuisine under the cover of a vintage greenhouse."

Beer and wine
If you’re looking for a more modern take on the classic beer formula, Amsterdam is home to a variety of famous micro-breweries, like Brouwerij't IJ and Brouwerij De Prael. And if classic Dutch beers and craft IPAs are not to your taste, you can enjoy Amsterdam’s vibrant natural wine scene at Glou Glou or Cafe Binenvisser.

World foods
If I want to enjoy food from around the world, I head to Ram’s Roti for the best of Surinamese cuisine, or to the Indonesian restaurant Sampurna for sate padang, a delicious beef satay.

By the seaside
A trip to the seaside town of Zandvoort is an experience best paired with French fries and delicious fried codfish consumed on the pier, overlooking the North Sea.

This article was first published April 2021. All opinions expressed are the views of the author and are not endorsed by the University of Glasgow.

Pond and tulips in front of the Rijksmuseum (National state museum) [Photo: Shutterstock]

The Rijksmuseum boasts over 8,000 art and history objects, including masterpieces by Rembrandt, Frans Hals and Johannes Vermeer. It is the largest and one of the most-visited museum in the Netherlands, attracting over two million visitors every year.

Pond and tulips in Vondelpark, Amsterdam [Photo: Shutterstock]

Vondelpark was opened in 1865 as Nieuwe Park but was later renamed after the 17th-century playwright and poet Joost van den Vondel. Visitors to the park can enjoy an open-air theatre, playground and food facilities.

Vibrant flowers and bicycles on a bridge overlooking a canal in Amsterdam [Photo: Shutterstock]

Bikes can often be found chained to the many bridges over Amsterdam's network of canals. Cycling is a popular mode of transport for many residents of the city. 

Van Gogh museum building, Amsterdam [Photo: Shutterstock]

Dedicated to the life and work of the famous artist, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam contains the largest collection of Vincent van Gogh's paintings and drawings in the world. 

Dutch winter meal: stamppot of potatoes, cabbage and carrots, with sausages close-up on a plate [Photo: Shutterstock]

Stamppot is traditionally viewed as the winter comfort food of the Netherlands. It is made up of a combination of potatoes mashed with vegetables and is usually served with sausage, bacon or stewed meat.

Traditional old buildings and tulips in Amsterdam [Photo: Shutterstock]

Part of Holland is transformed into a vast sea of tulips from mid-April to early May. The best time to visit to see the flowers at their best is towards the end of April.

Narrow houses and boathouses reflecting in the water of a canal, Amsterdam [Photo: Shutterstock]

Amsterdam's 17th-century canal ring area was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010 and is home to many houseboats, which can be rented as a rather unique form of holiday accommodation.

Dutch Bitterballen next to a bowl of mustard [Photo: Shutterstock]

Bitterballen (Dutch meatballs) are a classic bar snack. The deep-fried, crispy, bite-size ball of meaty gravy is recommended to be eaten with mustard. Vegetarians can look out for a mushroom option.

Windmill and traditional houses in Haarlem, the Netherlands [Photo: Shutterstock]

With ancient buildings, winding canals and cobbled streets, Haarlem is considered one of the most photogenic locations in the Netherlands. A short 15-minute train journey from Amsterdam, it's an easy option for a day trip away from the larger city.