The following episode took place in July, 2014
‘You know,’ he says. His English perfect, just like all Dutch people. ‘I’ve been coming here ever since it opened. Almost thirty years now. This is where I would come with my friends after work. We would have a beer, chat about life and then go home. Back then this place was a quiet local pub. Now….’ He looks around and points at the crowd.
The place is packed with tourists drinking beer. Noisy, drunk, animated. We are sitting on a bench a little bit away from the crowd, my friend and I, with the married couple we just met. They are in their early sixties, well dressed, sipping each their beer.
‘What happened was,’ he takes a sip of beer before he continues. ‘What happened was Lonely Planet. This place got mentioned there and suddenly every tourist in Amsterdam show up.’
I nod in agreement. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I’ve been thinking about that. How a place gets a mention in a guide book, and suddenly it is no longer the place it was.’ I take a sip of my beer, it is a very warm day in Amsterdam. ‘That is why I never use guidebooks for finding restaurants or bars. Instead I read them to get an idea of an area, then either pick by chance or get tips from locals to find good places.’
The old man nods. ‘And make sure not to tell Lonely Planet if you find a place,’ he says with a smile, partly joking I guess. ‘You don’t wanna ruin it like this place.’
Brouwerij ‘t IJ opened in October 1985. A craft-brewery and pub in the middle of Amsterdam. At the time, several small breweries opened in the Netherlands as consumers were getting fed up with beer from the major brands and wanted local-brewed quality beer. When it gained a mention in a Lonely Planet guide, it quickly became a stop on the tourist trail and today mostly tourists visit the place.
We end up chatting with the couple over a few more beers, we even get recommendations for two other places to visit from him. A really nice park with a nice café as well as a cool beach bar. I promise him not to tell though, and will try to keep the places secret throughout this tale.
Getting recommendations from locals must be the best way to travel. Web-sites and apps like Yelp and Tripadvisor, or guidebooks like Lonely Planet, might be helpful in finding good restaurants, cafés and sights, but for the true local experience nothing beats asking locals for recommendations. I also feel this is the best way to learn more about a city. People who live and work in a city might look at things differently from a tourist. And it is free as well, all you have to do is ask. You might even gain a friend.
Two days later we set out to find the places recommended by the old couple. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining, it was warm. Our rented bicycled were locked to a tree outside our hotel. We unlocked them, started riding. First stop was breakfast.
We stop at Bagels and Beans, a franchise bagel shop found all over Amsterdam. The bagels they serve are really good, and if you ever are in Amsterdam you should try breakfast or lunch at one.
With breakfast over, we started biking towards our next destination. A beautiful park with a café with the most amazing view, according to our friend from the brewery.
Biking there took about twenty minutes, we got further and further away from the city center. Amsterdam is an amazing city to bike in. First of all, the city is dead flat. The only hills you will ever encounter are riding up bridges. Some of these hills can be quite steep though, especially when riding Amsterdam’s three-gear bicycles. Second, the streets of Amsterdam are constructed for bikes. There is always a designated bike lane, bikers have their own traffic lights, and sometimes the bike path even take huge short-cuts through parks, paths not availiable for cars. Third, bikers are respected in Amsterdam. Cars yield, pedestrians get out of the way. When on a bike, you are the king of the road.
It was a hot day, and it was nice to reach the park and sit down at the cafe for a beer. The cafe lay in an old distillery, in the middle of the park, next to an idyllic pond. The view from where we were sitting was just stunning. This would be the perfect spot to bring a girl for a date. Once again the locals delivered. The place was almost full, but I quickly noticed there was not a tourist in sight.
The best meals I have ever had when traveling have come after local recommendations. A sushi restaurant in Berlin, a pie shop in Amsterdam, a burek-place in Sarajevo. Places where there still is an atmosphere, where the food is real and made with love, where the patron next to you could soon be your friend. Places not over-run by tourists.
I always try to arrive at a place without too many plans, just waiting to get tips from people I meet on my travels. If everything is planned in advance, there is no room for impromptu decisions, usually leading to the best experiences.
The bike ride from the park to the beach bar was long but worth it. After biking for what felt like forever we arrived. We found a beach in Amsterdam, and next to it a bar. A local band was playing on the stage, cover songs was their thing.
We found a table, sat down. Ordered each our beer and some bitterballen, Amsterdam’s local food speciality. Deep-fried balls of meat, butter, parsley, salt and pepper, they are served with mustard. The waitress seemed surprised to hear us speak English, apparently no tourists ever came here. I loved it.
We got our beer, it tasted so good after cycling for that long. Not long after we got our food, it was delicious. Another great meal after talking to a local.
It was still early, most of the patrons were still Amsterdam families, parents and children, spending the day at the beach. As time passed, most families left and the place filled up with a younger crowd. We had some more beers, the band kept playing. Not a tourist in sight. It was great. Amsterdam is filled with loud, drunk and stoned tourists. To find a cool bar, with great live music and no tourists was awesome. Our friend from the brewery had really delivered.
It was a great day in Amsterdam, all because of a conversation at the brewery. When traveling, be open, talk to people, be interested. You never know what wil come of a chance encounter with a local.
Feel free to share any experiences you have had on your travels due to advice from locals.
Here is a quite different experience of Amsterdam I had.