Amsterdam’s Brown Cafés Wonderful, Traditional Old Beer Bars

Many go to Amsterdam for the red or the green, but the smart beer traveler should be going for the brown.

Amsterdam’s brown cafés are traditional old bars, often very small, and dark with wood and a lack of sunlight; they are as cozy as a room filled with wooden furniture can be, with quirky collections of knick-knacks all around and nicotinestained walls from decades of passive smoking. They’re homely, relaxed, honest, and good fun. They’ll serve bar snacks (such as bitterballen and cubes of cheese), jenever spirit, and a couple of local lagers like Grolsch or Heineken. You can sneer at those beers if you like, but when they’re super fresh, as they are in many brown cafés, they are excellent: snappy with a dry bitterness, clean, and refreshing, especially so as they’re served in small glasses. This is a uniquely Dutch beer experience.

Amsterdam’s Brown Cafés Wonderful, Traditional Old Beer Bars Photo Gallery

Café ’t Smalle (Egelantiersgracht 12, 1015 RL) is on the canal-side, which is a tempting place to sit, until you see how handsome it is inside: big chandelier, bar stools, brilliant back bar, candlelight, and a lot of charm.

Café De Doktor (Rozenboomsteeg 4, 1012 PR) is tiny (one of the smallest bars in Amsterdam); it’s dark, it’s packed with antiques and clocks and bottles and birdcages—and it’s wonderful. You feel you could hide in there drinking crisp, cold lager for days. It was opened in 1798 and still remains in the same family.

In’t Aepjen (Zeedijk 1, 1012 AN) has a ridiculous story and history. First, it’s one of only two wooden buildings in Amsterdam and it dates from the 1540s. But that’s not the ridiculous part: the name translates as “In the Monkey’s.” This refers to how sailors docking in Amsterdam from exotic places would get so drunk that they couldn’t pay their bill. So they would use monkeys as currency instead, leaving the place overrunning with animals. Today there’s still monkey memorabilia all around this small, handsome old bar on the edge of the redlight district.

Antwerp’s Brown Cafés

Want a similar brown café experience in Belgium? You’ll find these bars throughout the northern cities, but Antwerp has many small, dark, cozy bars with the same style as Amsterdam’s cafés. They’ll have simple food and a few good beers on tap, including the city’s iconic and much-loved De Koninck, which you can order just by saying the name of its glass: a bolleke (pronounced boll-ok-er). Look out for Boer van Tienen (Mechelseplein 6, 2000 Antwerp), Oud Arsenaal (Maria Pijpelincxstraat 4, 2000 Antwerp), and Café Den Engel (Grote Markt 3, 2000 Antwerp).

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