Out of Town
by Andrew Collins
May 18, 2009
Few European locales have more to offer lesbian and gay travelers than the remarkably forward-thinking and tolerant city of Amsterdam. Even better, a combination of consistently reasonable airfares, direct flights from myriad North American cities and palatable prices for most goods and services makes this compact, scenic city of about 750,000 residents one of the great world capitals for GLBT visitors.
It’s extremely easy to explore Amsterdam on foot, as the majority of the city’s key attractions and most diverting neighborhoods lie in the city center, within relatively short walking distance of most hotels. You can also travel by public tram or grab a taxi – fares for the latter run about 9 to 12 Euros for most trips within the City Center.
A good strategy for taking in the city is to begin at the central Dam Square and work your way around the city center, passing through some of the other main squares, such as the Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein. Be sure to plan visits to the city’s most esteemed repositories of art, the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum. Although the enormous main section of the latter has been closed for some time for renovations, a significant chunk of the collection – including some of the most important works – are on exhibit in the museum’s Philips wing.
No visit to Amsterdam is complete without a tour of the poignant Anne Frank House, which is close to the Joordan district, a warren of narrow lanes lined with cozy cafes and engaging boutiques. Close by the Anne Frank House is the Homomonument, a memorial consisting of three pink granite triangles remembering the lives of lesbians and gays persecuted throughout history, and especially during World War II. It overlooks Keizersgracht Canal. A few feet away,the Pink Point kiosk is a small, but well-stocked GLBT gift and bookshop and also an excellent place to grab free brochures on nightlife and obtain advice on what to see and do.
On the east side of city center the Rembrandt House offers one of the more fascinating museum experiences in Amsterdam. Nearby, a branch of Russia’s famed Hermitage museum has just opened inside a late-17th-century building overlooking the Amstel River.
If you’re a fan of shopping, be sure to walk along Kalverstraat to find most of the leading department stores and hit Leidsestraat and P.C. Hooftstraat to find dozens of slick boutiques and fashion shops showing the styles of some of Europe’s leading designers. Other areas that have considerable sway among shoppers include the narrow lanes of the Joordan, bustling Utrechtsestraat and the blocks around Waterlooplein, near the Rembrandt House. For one-stop shopping, don’t miss the trendy De Bijenkorf department store, which carries a whole slew of top labels.
Amsterdam’s restaurant scene has improved markedly in recent years, with quite a few places serving healthier and lighter food than you’d have typically found in the Netherlands a decade ago. In the gay-popular Reguliersdwaarstraat district, Het Tuynhuis is one of the most refined restaurants in the city – the elegant spot serves first-rate modern Mediterranean-French food, such as rack of lamb with sausages, lentils and fresh spring vegetables.
The gay-trendy Getto, which is along the lovably seedy and leather-oriented Warmoesstraat, is an inviting spot that’s known as much among see-and-be-seen types for sipping cocktails as for tasty food, from camp-themed burgers (try the Priscilla, with mozzarella, tomato, basil and pesto-mayo) to more elaborate daily specials featuring seafood and wild game.) The restaurant is close to Waterlooplein and the cluster of gay bars along the opposite shore of the Amstel River. There’s an excellent list of Italian wines and here you can dine on superb rustic fare, including pastas and grills. If you’re with a friend, order the ginormous antipasti platter.
Just around the corner from Homomonument, the restaurant Werck is another stellar option, set in a charming coach house and serving globally inspired haute cuisine, such as tuna sashimi with ginger-soy glaze, and smoked duck salad with mango-raspberry vinaigrette. You’ll also find several excellent Indonesian, Thai, and other International restaurants throughout the city center. Indonesian food is a major specialty in the Netherlands, and one of the best – and most stylish – places to sample it is Selecta, a smartly furnished eatery just around the corner from the Reguliersdwaarstraat gay-nightlife strip.
There are plenty of places throughout the city to grab a light lunch, among them Spanjer & van Twist, near the Homomonument and Downtown, a quite gay-popular spot along bustling Reguliersdwaarstraat. On Utrechtsestraat, fans of java should duck into the Koffee Salon, a comfy place with hardwood floors and plenty of seating (plus free WiFi). You can relax here with friends while sipping some of the best coffee in the city, plus outstanding chocolates and snacks.
Amsterdam’s trendiest gay bars and clubs are set along Reguliersdwarsstraat. These include such hip hangouts bars as April, Soho and ARC (which is also a restaurant serving very good contemporary Continental food), and the pulsing disco, Exit. In the heart of Spuistraat’s gay red-light district, Prik is a fashionable and festive spot that draws a mixed-gender bunch – in good weather you’ll see the crowd spill out onto the street, especially during the early evening hours.
Fans of leather bars should stroll along Warmoesstraat, just north of Dam Square and check out the Argos and the super-cruisy late-night favorite, the Cockring. Among favorite locals hangouts, try Amstel Taveerne and Le Montmartre. Both of these places draw a friendly all-ages, mixed-gender crowd and have a convivial, almost campy vibe. Another laid-back but somewhat more cruisy option is De Spijker, which is conveniently close to the city’s famous gay bathhouse, Thermos.
Alas, the lesbian nightlife scene in Amsterdam leaves something to be desired, although women are quite welcome – if in the minority – at virtually all of the bars mentioned above, except for the leather haunts along Warmoesstraat. Two mixed gay/lesbian bars of note are the long-running Saarein, in the Jordaan and the art deco-style Vive-La-Vie, near the camp bars by the Amstel River.
Amsterdam’s lodging landscape has plenty of variety, including simple and cheap gay-oriented guest houses, luxe grande dames, and a growing crop of trendy boutique hotels with avant-garde design themes. Among gay-owned places, the Hotel Freeland is an economical, well-situated property (close to the Joordan and the main gay-nightlife areas) with 15 clean and comfortable rooms. Hosts Pascale and Rick speak a few languages between them and are quite knowledgeable about the city. The hotel welcomes a mix of gays, lesbians and open-minded heteros. Amsterdam is a popular destination for leather aficionados who should consider staying at the Black Tulip, a luxury inn catering to guys who seek rooms with both cushy amenities (VCRs and minibars) and kinky accoutrements (whipping benches, bondage slings).
One of the more cosmopolitan hostelries in the city, the Dylan Amsterdam occupies a stunning 17th-century building on the prestigious Keizergracht, one of the most picturesque of the city’s 165 canals. The 41 rooms and suites, however, feel distinctly modern, with bold color schemes and sleek furnishings. The hotel’s Dylan Restaurant serves top-notch East-meets-West cuisine. If you’re seeking a sumptuous old-world experience, check into the vaunted Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, a stately Belle Epoque property overlooking the central Dam Square.
A 10-minute tram ride outside the city center, the hip Lloyd Hotel opened in 2005 catering to an artsy crowd and offering quirky, stylish rooms for every budget, from simple shared-bath units for 90 euros to lavish loft suites with hot tubs for upwards of 450 euros. This former immigrant-processing center (circa 1920) is in the supercool Oostelijk Havengebied (Eastern Harbor) neighborhood, which is fast becoming famous for its striking contemporary architecture and swish design shops, such as Pol’s Potten.
For sheer luxury, it’s hard to beat the Hotel Okura, run by an upscale Japanese chain that’s known for outstanding service. The hotel, which occupies one of the tallest buildings in the city, recently completed a quite grand refurbishment of its rooms and bathrooms – the tubs and showers now have spectacular views through tall windows (ask for a room on a high floor facing the city center). The hotel, which is 15-minute walk from the Reguliersdwaarstraat bar area, is famed for its dining – it’s home to the only Michelin two-star restaurant in the country, Ciel Bleu, as well as the renowned traditional Japanese restaurant, Yamazato, which has a single Michelin star.
Andrew Collins covers gay travel for the New York Times-owned website About.com and is the author of Fodor’s Gay Guide to the USA. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutofTown@qsyndicate.com.