This post was last updated by Camille Steens on February 10, 2021.
In the public imagination, Amsterdam is still a hedonist utopia – a city where beatniks flounce between coffeeshops and brothels, and nothing is forbidden. A picturesque village-town of clogs and cobblestones, with a famously lax drugs policy… what’s not to like?
In reality however, a lot of the city is a little more humdrum and conservative. It takes some work to uncover that spirit of liberal opportunity – but if you know where to look, there is an alternative Amsterdam out there that won’t disappoint!
From alternative cinemas to squatted political social centres, from hipster havens to a museum about microbes, there are lots of alternatives to the Rijksmuseum to put on your Amsterdam must-see list. This guide to alternative Amsterdam proposes some authentic cinemas and restaurants before sharing a list of the best alternative Amsterdam museums. You’ll uncover some of the city’s best kept secrets.
Alternative Amsterdam by Hop-on Hop-off Bus
The suggestion of a common tourist activity – the Hop-on-Hop off Tour Bus – may seem to clash with the idea of the authentic Amsterdam experience, but guess again. We’ve sneakily compiled an ‘Alternative Amsterdam guide’ that is reachable via the Hop-on Hop-off Tour Bus. Get ready for tourism with an ‘authentic’ twist – turns out you can have your cake and eat it.
Kriterion: Alternative Amsterdam for art-house movie fans
Your bus starts its circuit in the East, so escape its scarlet embrace as quickly as possible, and make a beeline for this offbeat cinema. Kriterion is managed and staffed entirely by students, which means two things: it retains a reliably counter-culture vibe, and the beer is cheap.
Whether you’re catching the latest art-house movie, or nursing a coffee over a battered copy of Nausea, it’s a primo hipster-hangout you can’t afford to miss on your search for alternative Amsterdam.
Joe’s Garage: An autonomous squatted political social center
Finish that last drag of your Gauloises and jump on the next bus. One stop later, and you’ll be within walking distance of Joe’s Garage, a one-stop-shop for all things alternative. Hosted in a garage owned by a man named Joe (see what they did there?), JG is run like a community centre, with regular cultural activities and classes – the proceeds of which are reinvested in this non-profit collective.
You might catch an impromptu movie night, rousing political speech, or even be offered a free vegan meal. Whatever your experience, you’ll walk out entertained and informed… and maybe a little more radicalised.
Butcher’s Tears: Beers in the abattoir
Your scarlett carriage awaits, and so do some of Amsterdam’s tastiest beers. Tucked just behind Vondelpark is this unorthodox microbrewery, styled as a retro abattoir. Despite the name and decor, vegetarians have nothing to worry about; the only thing these ‘butchers’ have to sell is delicious, and lethally-strong, beer.
The impressively-bearded staff will be only-too-glad to recommend you something you’ll enjoy, but go easy – the beers range from 6-14%ABV, and it’s very easy to get more than a bit tipsy before 5pm.
OT301: A formerly vacant building gets the Cinderella treatment and becomes… a social centre and vegan restaurant
Suitably refreshed, you can exit Vondelpark on its west side and stroll up the Overtoom, one of Amsterdam’s most famous streets. Your next stop is easy to find, as it’s named after its own address – number 301. Everything else about this venue is much less straightforward: it’s variously a concert hall, art gallery, cinema, studio space, restaurant (all-vegan, naturally) and nightclub.
There’s so much to do in this formerly vacant building that it’s worth a repeat visit. Since the start, it’s been run by a committee dedicated to supporting culture without corporate interests – looks like ethical consumption is possible.
NDSM: Alternative Amsterdam meets hipster haven
As your bus whisks you back into the comforting enclave of Centraal Station, the circle is almost complete. But the city doesn’t stop there! Before you call it quits, jump on the (free) ferry behind the station and enjoy the brisk ride over to Amsterdam Noord.
There you’ll find Amsterdam’s former shipping yard, now transformed into an urban paradise for creative types and entrepreneurs. The gargantuan disused warehouses serve as studio spaces for artists and designers, and the surrounding areas host festivals, exhibitions and more.
On the outside of one of those warehouses you’ll find a massive street art painting of Anne Frank. Head inside that one to find one of Amsterdam’s newest and most exciting museums, the STRAAT museum.
Prepare to be amazed not only by the size of the warehouse and the number of works on display, but also by the explosion of colours and visual experiences that greet you as you step inside. Most of the art works are as big as walls and they’re an eclectic mix of styles. Displaying more than 150 artworks by 130+ artists, this museum is bound to turn street-art sceptics into street-art appreciators. STRAAT museum showcases an alternative Amsterdam you won’t find on the Museumplein.
The museum route around alternative Amsterdam
Inspired by your visit to STRAAT to look for more alternative Amsterdam museums? While you could spend hours in Amsterdam’s more famous museums like the Van Gogh and the Rijksmuseum (and it’s most definitely worth doing so), there are plenty of alternative fish in the sea, too. Amsterdam has a rich history and culture and it’s very much worth treading off the beaten path to find it. These alternative museums offer some fresh perspectives on the city and beyond.
1. Fashion for Good Museum: the world’s first museum of sustainable fashion innovation
The global fashion industry contributes massively to pollution, waste and human rights abuses. Around 60% of all clothing ends up in a landfill or is incinerated within one year after its production. Within. One. Year…
Fast fashion practices are inherently wasteful; clothes are not designed to last and consumers are encouraged to buy a new collection of clothes with each changing of seasons. Coupled with extremely low pay and unhealthy working conditions in textile factories, the fashion industry is one of the most harmful industries in the world.
Things could be different though, and the Fashion for Good Museum explores how. Interactive exhibitions take you through the history of fast fashion and explain how wasteful and unethical most fashion brands are. It then proposes a whole range of solutions and alternatives. With a personalized digital bracelet you can create your own action plan, choosing which actions you will take to become a more conscious consumer. We can all play a part in driving fashion to be more sustainable and ethical but it’s definitely not easy. The Fashion for Good Museum will help you make the right choices.
2. Our Lord in the Attic: Amsterdam’s forbidden past in the city’s oldest museum
In the 16th century, the Calvinist Dutch government officially banned Catholicism. However, as with all limitations on freedom, not everyone was willing to submit. Many followers of Catholicism continued to worship in secret hidden churches. The church of Our Lord in the Attic was built, as the name suggests, in the attic of a beautiful 17th-century canal house. Very well preserved, it offers a unique look into the past.
Spanning three attics in three canal houses, Our Lord in the Attic has been a museum since 1888. The lower floors let you explore the living quarters of an Amsterdam canal house from the 17th century. A free audio guide details the evolution of this house through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and paints a vivid picture of life in old Amsterdam. Your tour culminates in the attic, where you can walk around the old church and admire its organ built in 1794 as well as survey well-preserved period art and baroque furniture. Don’t forget to peek out of the windows as they offer gorgeous views over the rooftops of old Amsterdam.
3. Micropia: A groundbreaking museum of microbes
Not many of Amsterdam’s visitors know that the city is home to the world’s first microbe museum. The museum teaches its visitors about the billions of ways that microbes influence our lives – an idea that’s never been more fascinating now that many of us are stuck indoors due to a global pandemic.
However, microbes are much more than just those little things that make people sick. Microbiology can offer solutions to global problems, including water purification and cures to infectious diseases. Microbes can produce energy, food and bio-plastics. All of these topics are explored in fun and innovative exhibitions at Micropia. Try out the Kiss-o-meter for example, which counts the number of microbes transferred during a kiss. A great way to steal a kiss from your date?
A museum about microbes might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re thinking about the city of clogs, cobblestones, bikes and brothels, but this fantastic museum really should be on your alternative Amsterdam must-see list.
4. City Archives: A treasure trove of Amsterdam stories
For some really fascinating Amsterdam stories, head to the City Archives. With free entry, the permanent exhibition allows visitors to delve into Amsterdam’s history through millions of maps, drawings, photos and audio and film recordings. See Johan Cruijff’s school registration card from 1947, the report of the theft of Anne Frank’s bicycle in 1942, and a letter from Charles Darwin to the Artis Royal Zoo in 1868.
Set in the monumental De Bazel building, this is a gorgeous and unique city archive that is a must-visit for anyone interested in getting a different perspective of Amsterdam.
5. Cobra Museum: Colourful and fantasy-filled art
One of the most important art movements of the 20th century, Cobra was born out of the conviction that art must bring about real social change. The Cobra artists rebelled against the dominant art world culture that they found too theoretical. Instead they found inspiration in the creative expressions of children and experimented with different materials. This led to colourful and fantasy-filled works that weren’t always popular with art critics.
The first group exhibition by the Cobra artists took place in 1949 at the Stedelijk Museum and was met with disdain. The Dutch press called the art ‘scribble, claptrap and splotches’. The artists however kept experimentation and expression at the heart of their work, and the Cobra museum carries on this work today. Its large, bright rooms are packed with colourful works including paintings, ceramics, textiles and sculptures. Prepare to be wowed by the amount of wacky animal imagery on display.
6. Het Schip: The story of social housing in the early 20th century
Museum het Schip is dedicated to the “Amsterdam School”, a movement in architecture and decorative arts that came about in the 1910s. Striving to provide an alternative to the more traditional architecture popular in the Netherlands at the time, the Amsterdam school was expressionist and imaginative.
Imbued with socialist ideals, the Amsterdam School style was often applied to working-class housing estates, local institutions and schools. Museum het Schip is an example of this. The museum is located in a former social housing complex built in the style of the Amsterdam School. The permanent exhibition “Amsterdam School: Constructed ideals” shows the rise of social housing corporations in the 20th century while showcasing the architecture and decorative art of the movement.
Parts of the former social housing complex have been maintained, complete with original interior. The former post office and the replica of a 1920s home offer a peek into the past. History and architecture fans shouldn’t miss this fascinating Alternative Amsterdam museum.
7. FOAM: Blending tradition and experimentation in photography
Located on the famous UNESCO-listed Amsterdam canals, this photography museum in Amsterdam is set in a stately canal house. It blends its traditional interior with a modern exterior of chrome and glass. This fits well with the work on display. From contemporary to historical work and from fine art to applied photography, the FOAM showcases a wide range of photography styles to show off to show off the versatility of the art of photography.
World famous photographers are exhibited alongside young, emerging artists and there are almost always several exhibitions on view simultaneously. This means you’re likely to not only be able to admire some of your photography heroes, but to encounter new photographers as well. This museum is an absolute must in Amsterdam for photography fans.