A look at the brown café, charming and beloved Amsterdam institutions.
Just as London has its pubs, Amsterdam has its brown cafés—well-loved watering holes where you’ll find plenty of local character (and characters). Scattered across the city, they take their name from the generally dark, warm tints of their interiors, supplied by old wooden furniture, wood-paneled walls and soft, intimate lighting (candles rule in the brown café).
Don’t expect cocktails at one of these places; most are purveyors of beer and genever (the local tipple, a kind of gin), while food takes the form of bar snacks or homely, hearty fare. For the Dutch, the brown café is all about gezelligheid—a word that’s hard to translate, but incorporates ideas of coziness and friendliness. Here are some of our favorites, chosen for this warm atmosphere, of course.
A recent arrival to the brown café scene, Arendsnest proves that the city’s pub tradition is alive and well. Its interior combines the best of ancient and modern: classic wood paneling, old ship’s lanterns, and gleaming copper pipes meet urban industrial touches. This is a real beer-drinker’s destination, and the place to come to learn about Dutch beer (the only kind it serves). There are 150 bottled beers on offer, plus 30 on tap. Tasting sessions can also be arranged.
Established in 1670, Hoppe seems to have changed very little since then, going by the old wooden gin barrels lining the walls and the sawdust on the floor. It’s not the sleepy spot you might expect, however; located in the heart of town, it’s invariably buzzing at all hours and attracts a varied clientele. It’s perhaps at its best for breakfast or lunch, when you can sit on the terrace if the weather allows—but it’s worth a visit at any time.
Café De Dokter
Measuring a dinky 194 square feet, Café de Dokter is the smallest bar in Amsterdam. It also has the distinction of having been run by the same family, the Beemses, since it first opened in 1798. Tucked away down a narrow alleyway, it holds original 18th-century artifacts that are now covered in a thick layer of cobwebby dust, which adds to a unique, throwback atmosphere. Its name comes from the fact that it once regularly served the doctors from a nearby hospital. De Doktor does a good line in whisky, unusual for a brown café, even featuring a ‘whisky of the month.’ The soundtrack is invariably traditional jazz.
This is Amsterdam’s oldest bar, dating back to 1519 and occupying one of the two remaining wooden buildings in Amsterdam (the whole city was rebuilt in brick after a catastrophic fire in 1452). In its early days, In’t Aepjen was popular with sailors returning from the distant lands of the Dutch trading empire, often showing up with a monkey (aapje) in tow. These days, monkey memorabilia takes the place of the live animals, and the candlelight helps to enhance the back-in-time feel of the place.
Café ’t Smalle
Dating back to 1786, this former distillery tasting house is the perfect brown café: Its tiled floor, wood-paneled walls, antique porcelain beer pumps, and leaded windows tick all the boxes. Plus, you can sail your boat right up the lovely canalside terrace, a big factor in its appeal to Amsterdammers. Located in the Jordaan, the area sometimes referred to as ‘Amsterdam’s quartier Latin’, ’t Smalle serves good food at breakfast and lunch.
Jane Szita is on the Netherlands beat for Travel + Leisure. She lives in Amsterdam.