How Amsterdam's multicultural east end is having a renaissance

In Amsterdam’s east end, immigrants from former Dutch colonies are reshaping the city’s cultural life, with bars that double as community hubs, arthouse cinemas showing international films and restaurants celebrating Asian flavours.

The bar at Louie Louie in Amsterdam Oost, a great spot for evening drinks.

Photograph by Wesley Verhoeve
By Ellen Himelfarb
Published 17 Dec 2022, 12:00 GMT

Patrons on the riverbank terrace outside Café Hesp are bathing in the kind of sunset that’s making their glasses of rosé look like liquid gold. A teak cruiser swishes up the Amstel River, its wake unsettling houseboats moored to the bank. As they bob, a cargo bike pulls up and a gaggle of children clamber out to splash about in the water.

Twenty years ago, when the east side of the Amstel was considered the wrong side of the river, the swimmers might have been seen as especially hardy. Such thoughts are barely conceivable now on this poplar-lined bank, overlooked by elegant gables and burnished stained glass, with laid-back electropop drifting in from the next bar. The Amstel divided upmarket Amsterdam from low for a chunk of the last century. If the west bank represented the Golden Age, then the Oost — Dutch for ‘east’ — embodied the modern, less distinguished one, where colonial history came home to roost in the motherland.

Over time, the city has spun that perceived liability into multiple assets. In the streets behind Café Hesp, brutalist office blocks have been boldly transformed for a diverse young crowd, which moves from brunch spot to cocktail lounge like hands on a clock. Cafes and wine bars have brought new zing to Pretoriusstraat, a South African district with a soaring Mandela mosaic. On leafy Spinozastraat, I struggle to get a table at Mama Makan — the slow-burn success story tucked inside a 19th-century children’s hospital turned Hyatt Regency hotel — where traditional Indonesian ‘rice tables’ serve up a feast of 13 different dishes from across the archipelago, accompanied by rice.

When my Oost-end friends first brought me to the Amstel years back, we watched the annual Sinterklaas boat parade sail by this exact spot. Onlookers cheered at the Dutch Santa — accompanied, as is tradition, by his ‘slave’, Zwarte Piet, a white Dutchman in blackface, wearing an afro wig. Soon after, disaffection with this tired, offensive performance bubbled up. Two Dutch-Caribbean artists from this side of the Amstel mobilised thousands of youths and led a successful campaign to ‘Kick Out Zwarte Piet’. The slave disappeared from the Sinterklaas parade in 2014.

Cycling across the Amstel River via Sarphatistraat.

Cycling across the Amstel River via Sarphatistraat.

Photograph by Wesley Verhoeve

I’ve returned to Amsterdam since, and have come to understand ‘Oost’ as a byword for creativity and red-brick regeneration — a remedy for 20th-century homogeneity and decline. In an era of huge attitude change, it’s become a sort of urban Camelot; not despite of its great diversity but because of it.

By nightfall a cool breeze is wafting through Café Hesp, so I retreat inland, toward the gates of Oosterpark. Buzzing with circles of friends drinking by the duck pond and cyclists wheeling through to the Generator hostel, the forested green space isn’t the sort of park you need to avoid in the dark. Eventually, though, everyone ends up at Café Kuijper, or Louie Louie, or any of the laid-back, amber-lit bars around the park’s perimeter.

Friends are waiting for me at Bar Bukowski, a watering hole where typewriters as decor are a nod to its namesake. It’s heaving with revellers silly on gin cocktails and, at my table, Gladjanus beer from the brewpub around the corner. At the bar is owner Riad Farhat, frontman of the so-called Three Wise Men of the East, a trio of entrepreneurs who’ve steadily launched one social lodestone after another. Nightlife in Oost inevitably involves an aperitif or nightcap at one of Riad’s joints. A design obsessive, he’s modelled them as the anti ‘brown cafe’, those murky pubs that used to count for entertainment around here. “I didn’t want my place to be brown,” he tells me.

A son of Berber immigrants, Riad noticed a tonal change when his neighbours started being replaced by young professionals with fashionable tastes and money to spend. “My friends said, ‘Don’t do it,’” he roars over the din, referring to the time in 2007 when he quit bartending to take a chance setting up his first brasserie. “But places like this were desperately needed.” Oost had a surplus of disused heritage properties, untapped gastro talent and a diverse crowd. Success was, perhaps, inevitable.

Left: Top:

Late-afternoon sunshine at Café Hesp.

Right: Bottom:

Tacos and a carafe of sangria at Louie Louie.

photographs by Wesley Verhoeve

Indie cred

The following morning, I leave my hotel near Oosterpark for the Indische Buurt neighbourhood, a yardstick for grassroots cool in Oost, named after the former Dutch East Indies colony. I’ve come to meet local guide Lex van Buuren, who suggests starting our tour at Studio/K, an arthouse cinema near his flat that shows films in Arabic, Turkish and Hindi. It’s become a nerve centre for arty livestreams — and Bowie tributes, too.

“But it’s not just a theatre,” Lex tells me. Clearly not. At 11am, crowds are already amassing at the on-site restaurant. Displayed in the window is tonight’s programme: a jazz show, a human rights lecture and a belly dancing workshop. We see lots of such multitasking venues as we wander around Sumatrastraat and Borneostraat, where breakfast joints are heaving all through the night, reflective of a community that’s up and about at all hours.

Centuries ago, when Amsterdam’s decrepit docklands were rebuilt nearby, Belgian and German dockworkers made up the majority of Indische Buurt’s residents. But, Lex tells me, the neighbourhood’s name was inspired by the ships controlled by the Dutch East India Company that sailed to Indonesia. After Indonesian independence in the 1940s, Southeast Asian immigrants began to arrive in Indische Buurt. Surinamese followed, after their independence from the Dutch in 1975. Migration from Africa and the Middle East has added to the mix.

Neighbourhoods like Indische Buurt were long designated for immigrants. When Oost fell on hard times in the 1960s, the city created social housing where ‘guest workers’ and other low-income immigrants were moved. Some 15 years ago, the introduction of rent-to-own and right-to-buy schemes made gradual changes, while a rather symbolic cycle path opened the flow of people around Oosterpark.

Late afternoon in Oosterpark.

Photograph by Wesley Verhoeve

Today, the ‘immigration’ people talk about is mostly from residents of Amsterdam’s wealthier west to Indische Buurt’s tidy terraces. Lit by glossy iron gas lamps, streets seem right out of a Dutch master’s painting, sweetened by the aroma of curry from Indonesian cafes. I see women with headscarves, or no scarves, push buggies past a cottage marked ‘atelier’, where an artist crafts jewellery from discarded plastic. Kids play football at a school painted with colourful stripes.

Lex leads his Emerging Neighbourhood Tour around here not to gawk at the ethnic mix, but because he’s grateful for how it’s changed his social life, his eating habits and his life in general. I ask if his neighbours grumble about gentrification as a blight, like some do in East London or Brooklyn. 

“They don’t talk about it at all,” he says. “Although there is a waiting list for social housing in this area.” He gestures to the tall, grand homes on Balistraat, renovated en masse a few years back and indistinguishable from the privately owned homes further on. “When they talk about gentrification, they’re talking about Javastraat,” says Lex.

I can see what he means as we weave through a square of busy bistro tables to reach Javastraat’s thronging heart. We’re heading to Riad’s latest location, The French Café, passing the barber offering an €8 (£7) haircut, men huddled over shisha pipes and an art gallery called Ashes to Snow, where the spartan display is all black. Traffic across the herringbone-brick road consists not of cars but of waiters darting out to the heated terraces. There’s a queue outside Tigris & Eufraat, the Iraqi mini-market where Lex buys fresh-off-the-boat olives. “In some places Indische Buurt looks like Kolkata,” says Lex, noting the frenetic mix of cultures. “But this is Amsterdam now.”

Lex finds us a table at Nour, a Syrian kebab house, and a basket of quilt-like tandoor-seared flatbread arrives with bowls of dip. I’ve never tasted bread so deliciously complex; the glistening salty coating melding with the sweet, crumbly filling. “Don’t fill up on bread,” Lex warns me. He knows the lamb skewers will produce a similar reaction, but it’s too late. 

After seeing Lex off, I try to leave Indische Buurt. I’ve planned to see the blockbuster Slavery exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, a re-evaluation of its colonial-era paintings. But I seem to be stuck in the post-colonial present. I make it as far as the manic open-air Dappermarkt when I reckon it’s an acceptable time for a drink, so I change tack. 

Outside seating at Studio/K.

Photograph by Wesley Verhoeve

I’m one of the first through the door at Badhuis Oedipus when it opens at 4pm. The art deco bathhouse is now a restaurant/club/radio station. I nab a window seat; within 30 minutes, there are no more available. Borrel, Dutch happy hour, is serious business here, celebrated with País Tropical pale ale from Oedipus’s brewery and finger food including arancini, bao, curries and croquettes.

A chatty server brings me two Japanese skewers and a bottle of signature Mannenliefde Saison beer, brewed with notes of lemongrass and Szechuan pepper. It’s Friday, one of three nights that the bar broadcasts live across Radio Oedipus, and DJ Marcelle starts spinning drum and bass laced with Gregorian chants and Bengali strings. 

Despite the buzz, I have one of those niggling thoughts about what I might be missing in central Amsterdam: the flower market, the world-class museums. Where’s my classic canal bridge photo? 

Then I think about what Lex said earlier. “This is Amsterdam now.”  

Top tip: Canal-side road Valentijnkade borders Oost’s most densely populated area, but follow it east to Flevopark and you’ll find one of Amsterdam’s most tranquil wooded parks, home to an 18th-century Jewish cemetery, swimming spots and cafes.

Swimming in the Schinkel River.

Photograph by Wesley Verhoeve

Getting there & around

Eurostar runs between London St Pancras International  and Amsterdam Centraal several times a day.      
Average journey time: 5h20m.
Numerous airlines fly nonstop between the UK and Amsterdam Schiphol Airport including British Airways, EasyJet, Flybe and KLM.
Average flight time: 1h15min.
It’s easy to navigate Amsterdam Oost on foot. To explore further afield, hire a bicycle at Black Bikes, from €11.99 (£10.50) for three hours. 

When to go 

Amsterdam’s climate is similar to that of London’s. It can get wet any time of year, but June to October is the most settled. Hot spells, well into 30C, are easier to bear in Amsterdam than many cities, as you can glide around on a bicycle or swim in the Amstel River. 

Where to stay

The Manor, Amsterdam Oost. Doubles from £105, room only.
Pillows Grand Boutique Hotel, Maurits at the Park, Oosterpark. Doubles from £359, room only. 

More info offers a round-trip on Eurostar and three nights at the Manor Hotel in Amsterdam Oost from £300 per person, room only.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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