I love to travel, but I hate looking like a tourist. Even though globe-trotting has never been cooler—our social-media feeds are full of #wanderlust, recent grads put their adventures on their resumés and there’s nary a dating profile that does not proclaim a love of it— there’s just something inherently embarrassing to me about standing out in a foreign locale. So I dress impractically in sundresses and my fave Alexander Wang booties, avoid checking my map too often, skip the photo ops and try to seek out non-tourist-trap places to eat, drink and sightsee. The downside of this stubborn approach is getting lost; the upside, however, is stumbling upon gems one might otherwise miss en route to, say, the Van Gogh Museum. Amsterdam, with its picturesque canals, gabled houses and incredible exhibitions, is a great place to wander without a destination. Here are a few lucky finds from a recent trip….
Museum of Bags and Purses
If ever you needed proof that trends are cyclical, a stroll through this little celebration of the handbag is more than adequate. The collection documents the evolution of the purse, from the 1500s to present day, and I saw 18th-century clutches similar to silky embellished ones that I currently have in my closet. One of the rooms has on display some of the modern era’s most notable bags, like Grace Kelly’s Hermès “Kelly” bag and the Versace bag Madonna sported to the London premiere of Evita in 1996.
Must-try: The museum’s home is an old canal house, and on the second floor is a beautiful baroque café that seems transported from a bygone era—perfect for afternoon tea with a view.
Rembrandt House Museum
One of my favourite things to do when travelling is visit the homes of long-gone writers, musicians and artists. (Wordsworth’s twee Dove Cottage in the Lake District, U.K., and the sprawling Paris apartment where Victor Hugo started writing Les Misérables are favourites.) Seventeenth-century painter Rembrandt (the artist responsible for what might be the city’s most prized piece of art, The Night Watch) lived and worked in Amsterdam’s centre. His house has been restored to how it would have looked in his era and is filled with authentic period furnishings as well as original sketches. You can look out his studio window at the same view that must have inspired the artist almost 400 years ago.
Must-try: Sightseeing is thirsty work. Head across the street afterwards for a beer at Café de Sluyswacht, a former lock-keeper’s cottage that has, over the centuries, come to tilt over the canal.
The A’dam tower is hard to miss: It’s 100 metres tall and looms over the IJ, the river between Amsterdam-Noord and Centrum. (Formerly a Shell tower, it’s now home to offices, a hip hotel, restaurants and bars.) I wasn’t exactly lost when I happened upon it, but I was tired and fed up after walking around for an hour in search of what promised to be a rustic-y-cool, off-the-beaten-path café. (I never found it. Tourist fail.) So before getting on the (free!) ferry back to the centre, I headed up to the lookout point on the A’dam’s roof—via a fun high-speed glass elevator with a dizzying light show all the way up. Here, I took a ride on the new mechanical swing, which actually extends out over the edge of the building for a heart-stopping way to take in a bird’s-eye view of the city.
Insider tip: Right next door, in a building resembling a spaceship, is the EYE Film Institute. Pop in to brush up on your film history, have a bite in the buzzing café (with lovely views from the giant floor-to-ceiling windows) or peruse exhibits of cool classic-film memorabilia.
Cafe 'T Smalle
On a dark night, this little pub stands out like a beacon—warm light glows through its leaded-glass windows, inviting you to come in, get cozy and drink beer. Which is exactly what I did—a Belgian blond called La Chouffe, to be exact. Café ’t Smalle is in the trendy Jordaan neighbourhood (which is on the western edge of the centre), and inside is all dark wood, vintage posters, candles and the hum of relaxed conversation. One of the city’s many “brown cafés”—traditional and often centuries-old pubs—it dates back to 1780, when it started life as a gin distillery.
Insider tip: La Chouffe is a whopping 8 percent alcohol, so pair it with one of the pub’s random snacks, like “Doritos with sauce” or “poffertjes” (pancakes with butter and sugar)—best to have your wits about you when you venture out into the night amid all those cyclists.
Where To Stay: The Dylan Hotel, Amsterdam
Getting lost can be exhausting. (See my earlier hangry break- down.) So if you need a break from wandering, the Dylan Amsterdam makes it easy to lay low without feeling like you’re wasting precious touring time. The boutique hotel has that elusive combination of both a relaxed atmosphere and high luxury, from its 40 rooms and suites to the pretty courtyard and let’s-just-drink-by- the-fire-all-night bar. It’s housed in a 17th-century canal house within “the Nine Streets,” the ridiculously charming concentric network of streets in Amsterdam’s historic centre. If you want to “stay in” for dinner, you’ve got options: Food at OCCO is excellent, and the Dylan’s other resto, Vinkeles, has a Michelin star. Further temptation to never leave comes in the form of “High Wine”: a selection of fine wines and savoury bites served in the late afternoon.
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's bi-weekly newsletter