If you enjoy a side of history and tradition with your beer, be sure to visit to one of Amsterdam’s atmospheric brown cafés during your stay. Dotted along the cobbled streets and picturesque canals of the Dutch capital, these rustic watering holes are an intrinsic part of the city’s culture, and a charming place to get an authentic feel for local life. Whether you’re keen on sampling regional beers, or simply want to relax and watch the world go by in a comfortable snug with a bit of an old-world feel, these time-honored establishments are certainly worth seeking out.
Read on to find out more about Amsterdam’s famous brown cafés, then check out our pick of the best establishments to discover for yourself.
What is a brown café?
A bruine kroeg in Amsterdam is not a café in the usual sense of a coffee shop, but rather a comfortable tavern where you can enjoy beer, genever (a juniper-flavored Dutch spirit that’s the ancestor of gin) and other beverages. Usually small and intimate in scale, these laid-back, friendly establishments serve a similar function to the local pub in British culture. Viewed by Amsterdam residents almost as an extension of their home, they’re a place to unwind, read the newspaper, or chat with friends and neighbors over your favorite tipple.
Why is it called a brown café?
The term brown café (also known as a brown bar) comes from the predominant color scheme of their interiors: think dark wooden panelling, well-worn furniture, antique fittings and yellowish walls tinged by centuries of tobacco smoke. This is not a façade put on for tourists, either – many of the brown cafés have been in operation since the 1600s, demonstrating how deeply entrenched and valued they are amongst the local population. If you love old buildings with plenty of period ambiance, you’re sure to be enchanted by these vintage taverns.
What can I expect?
Brown cafés are the epitome of gezillig, which is the Dutch equivalent of the much-discussed Danish concept of hygge – a word that very loosely translates as a feeling of coziness and companionable contentment. They’re the perfect place to hide away on a chilly winter’s evening, savoring a peaceful drink with good companions, or to chill out on a lazy summer afternoon while watching the world go by.
Here you’ll find an easy-going mix of regulars, students, and visitors who love to venture off the beaten track and drink where the locals drink – making it the perfect place to get a sense of Amsterdam society. Many of the cafés don’t even play music, to ensure the atmosphere is just right for conversation.
Most of the brown cafés specialize in Dutch and Belgian beers and ales, and occasionally you may even get to sample a product brewed on site. The bartenders are knowledgeable and can help guide you through the different selections, and many of the cafés also serve simple, hearty bar food, such as cheese sandwiches, soup or bitterballen (crispy, deep-fried meatballs), to help line your stomach as you while away the time.
If all this sounds appealing, check out our brown café recommendations below on your next trip to Amsterdam – the concierge team at the Radisson Blu Hotel will be happy to provide directions and help you choose.
Amsterdam’s best brown cafés
This lively brown café is easy to spot, with a prime corner location in the busy Spui area. Dating from 1670, it’s one of Amsterdam’s most historic bars, with the oldest section of the pub now recognized as an official national monument. Decorated with vintage barrels and other authentic touches, the main bar space is often standing-room only – but there is also a quieter, sitting area in the room next door.
Spui 18-20, 1012 XA
Located on the very edge of the Red Light District, near Central Station, the building housing this quirky bar dates from the 15th century and is one of only two wooden buildings remaining in the city. Its name literally translates as “in the monkeys” – a reference to the 17th-century sailors who would sometimes hand over their pet monkeys as payment for drinks. Today, the warm, candlelit interior features numerous carvings and images of apes, and the establishment oozes historic charm.
Zeedijk 1, 1012 AN
With a beautiful waterside setting on the famous Prinsengracht and Brouwersgracht canals, this picture-perfect brown café is the ideal place for a quiet drink before heading out on one of the boat tours that moor out front. Dating from 1642, the listed building has changed little over the years, and still boasts interesting features including a hidden tunnel once used by Catholics to access their secret church nearby. Be sure to try their famous Dutch apple pie – apparently even Bill Clinton is a fan!
Prinsengracht 2, 1015 DV
This venerable brown café near Central Station bills itself as the oldest pub in Amsterdam, and it’s certainly a plausible contender. The building itself dates from 1557, and there’s been a tavern on the site since 1606, when it catered to sailors from the Dutch East India Company (VOC). It’s easy to feel like you’ve stepped back in time here, with the simple wood interior, antique prints and paintings and sand-covered floors.
Martelaarsgracht 2, 1012 TP Amsterdam
Café De Pieper
With low ceilings, blue Delft tiles, original stained glass and sawdust on the floor, this small, friendly brown café is as authentic as they come. Just a short walk from Leidseplein, the pub has been serving up Dutch beer since 1665 (the taps themselves date from the 19th century). Sit outside and admire the view of the Prinsengracht if the weather allows, or curl up by the fire indoors on cooler days.
Prinsengracht 424, 1016 JC
Café De Druif
Translated as “The Grape”, this handsome brown café has been serving alcohol since at least 1631, putting it amongst the oldest taverns in the city. Formerly a distillery, as well as an embarkation point where sailors could sign up as crew on the VOC merchant ships, the building still evokes a bygone age with its gas chandeliers, vintage spirit barrels and traditional carpet-covered tables. On a sunny day, enjoy the spacious terrace outside.
Rapenburgerplein 83, 1011 VJ