Lekker! An Amsterdam Food Tour by Foot and Boat
You might have heard it said that Dutch food is…umm…boring. Well, I joined Eating Europe for their Amsterdam food tour of the Jordaan neighborhood, including a private boat trip through the historic canals of this so-beautiful city. And I’m here to tell you…you heard wrong. This tour will fill your mouth with rich flavors, your tummy with delicious food, and your mind and heart with history and wonderful memories.
This post contains affiliate links. If you click on a link for an item or service I recommend and make a booking or purchase, I may get a small commission on that sale. It won’t affect the price you pay. Also I was offered a discount on this tour to be able to write about it for you. But that has not affected my opinion. My enthusiasm for this experience is genuine.
One of my favorite Dutch words is “lekker.” It means delicious, tasty, good to eat. I love the way it rolls off the tongue, like you’re savoring the taste of it: “lllekkkkkerrr.”
Another thing about the word lekker. It can encompass many things besides food. A sweet girl is a lekker meisje. To tell someone to sleep well, you can say “Slaap lekker.” After spending an afternoon tasting typical Amsterdam Dutch food in the city’s atmospheric old neighborhood and on the city’s wonderful canals, I can say without equivocation that Eating Europe’s Amsterdam food tour makes for a lekker ervaring: a delicious experience all around.
You can learn a lot about a culture by eating their food. Even more when you have a great local guide leading you to some of the best of it while regaling you with stories about the neighborhood, its history and legends and tales of the locals. That is what Eating Europe does so well. In Amsterdam, they offer several different tours. I joined the four-hour Jordaan and Canals Food Tour, and I easily decided that for visitors, it was one of the best things to do in Amsterdam.
Where and What is the Jordaan?
Back in the early 17th-century, Amsterdam was booming and bursting at the seams. As wealth poured into the city from its world trade, new houses, streets, and neighborhoods were being built. And all that growth meant carpenters, stonemasons, bricklayers, and other manual workers also poured in. The Jordaan was built to be the working-class neighborhood for that influx, with tall, skinny houses on narrow streets. Over the centuries, it became more and more crowded and less and less desirable. In fact, it was a slum, so bad that after World War II, the city began making plans to tear the whole thing down and rebuild from scratch.
Fortunately, wiser heads and preservation activists prevailed, and the Jordaan was not only saved but eventually became one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city. Today it is both hip and cozy, a destination and a community. And eating your way across this diverse and fascinating ‘hood is one of the best ways to experience it.
Cafe Papeneiland: Life is Short. Eat Dessert First
The initial meeting point for the tour was at what might just be the prettiest and most photographed corner in Amsterdam, where the Prinsengracht meets the Brouwersgraacht. And our first food stop on that corner was Café Papeneiland. And a worthy beginning it was. One of the oldest eating establishments in the whole city, this café is over 400 years old. It is what the Dutch call a “brown café” of bruine kroegje. They’re named for their brown wooden walls, stained from centuries of tobacco smoke and good conversation. (Not to worry; smoking is no longer allowed in restaurants in Amsterdam). The bar taps are vintage porcelain whimsies, the windows glazed with leaded glass. An antique stove heats the room in winter.
These neighborhood kroegjes are an extension of local people’s living rooms, where they meet to chat, drink, argue, laugh, talk sports or politics, and find out what the neighbors are doing.
They also come to Café Papeneiland for the apple pie, and that is exactly why we were there, beginning our walking “meal” with dessert. And why not? Many people claim this is the best apple pie in town. President Bill Clinton certainly thought so when he stopped in one day for a piece and went home with a whole pie to have in his hotel room.
Dutch apple pie is not what we think it is in the U.S. Nor is it the same as good old American apple pie. The crust is more crumbly and cake-like than its American cousin, and the fruit more lightly cooked. Thin slices of apple piled high, very high, are laced with raisins, cinnamon, less sugar than you’d expect, and a bit of lemon juice. The result is a dreamy, not-too-sweet confection that calls out for a dollop of whipped cream and gets it.
Meeting Hungry New Friends
As we chowed down on our pie and coffee, we had a chance to get to know each other a bit. We were a group of nine from four countries and a range of ages. It was a friendly group of people who all loved to eat. That was enough.
We also had the chance to learn about our guide. Eating Europe has a high reputation for the quality, knowledge, and sheer fun of their guides. Some are professional chefs. Or historians. Or people who have lived here forever.
Our guide that day, Mirka, definitely added to that fine rep. She was born and raised in the Jordaan and knows every corner and alley of her childhood playground. Throughout the tour, she regaled us with Amsterdam history, family stories, childhood anecdotes, and the secrets behind some of the doors and shopfronts.
One Amsterdam secret she showed us was one of the hofjes dotted throughout the Jordaan. These are courtyard gardens surrounded by small houses, mostly built in the 17th-18th centuries as almshouses or housing for single elderly women. Mirka led us from the busy street through a nondescript door and down a corridor into the tranquil garden of the Suijkerhofje, built in 1670.
Colonial Tastes on an Amsterdam Foodie Tour
But on to more food. Our next noshing stop was designed to remind us that the Netherlands has a strong history as a colonial power. Its empire spread from Indonesia to the Caribbean. And those more exotic foods have had a strong influence on Dutch eating habits. We headed up the street to a toko, or takeaway counter, called Swieti Sranang, which specializes in food from Suriname and Indonesia.
The owner, Henk, and his Indonesian wife, Juliet, greeted us with huge smiles and began handing food around. Juliet was born in Indonesia and grew up in Suriname, and she does all the cooking herself. We tried two different foods here, standing at the counter or outside in the sunshine. The first was a sandwich called broodje pom, from Suriname, made with chicken, apple, and malanga, a South American root vegetable, topped with a complex sauce-of-many-spices that was punchy, tart, and delectable. We followed the sandwich with baka bana, a broiled sweet plantain covered with a spicy peanut sauce. I fell in love with satay/Indonesian peanut sauce right here in Amsterdam many decades ago and will eat anything covered in it. The plantain was a new one for me, but spectacular.
The Basis of Dutch Cuisine: Meat and Fish
Having had our dessert and more, it was time to back up to the two main pillars of Dutch food, meat and fish. These, along with greens and root vegetables, are what you’re going to find on steaming platters coming out of most Dutch grandma’s kitchens.
As we walked along the narrow streets, Mirka told us more stories about growing up in the neighborhood. She even showed us the house where she lived as a child, pointing up to her attic bedroom window, high up in the gable. The Jordaan was a wonderful place to grow up, she claimed.
One of her stories included shopping for meat and sausages at Butcher Louman, which she claimed to be the best butcher in Amsterdam. Now coming up on 130 years in business, it has customers not just from the neighborhood but from all over the city, who happily travel here for the quality of the meat. In fact, later in my visit, I ate in two restaurants that both stated proudly on their menus that their meat came from Butcher Louman.
We ate sausages here, one dry and deeply flavored. The second was an ossenworst, a raw sausage of which I was more than a bit skeptical. But it turned out I loved it. It was not actually raw but lightly smoked, with a smooth, fine texture similar to liverwurst. I’d eat it again.
And of course, there was fish. The Netherlands has been a seafaring nation for hundreds of years, after all. We walked a few blocks to the Urker Viswinkel. And since the first fish everyone must try here is herring, the owner, Dirk, brought out a big platter of the stuff. There are a couple of traditional ways to eat herring in Holland. You can eat it head first, holding it by the tail above your open mouth and chomping away as you lower your hand. We went the other direction, with the fish cut into chunks with perky little Dutch flag toothpicks stuck in them, surrounded by chopped raw onion and pickles. Stab, dip, and eat. I love Dutch herring, even though the first time I had it I was doubtful I would, knowing it was eaten raw. But actually, it is more like Japanese sashimi. It is partially “cooked” in brine, leaving it with a light, sea-fresh taste and a firm texture.
We followed the herring with kibbeling, which is white fish—most often cod—dipped in beer batter and deep fried. Think classic fish and chips style, but the best you’ve ever had. The fish was flaky and steaming, the batter crisp but not too much. It was served with a garlic sauce for dipping that I think I could have made of meal of all by itself.
Eating Afloat: We Head to the Water for More of our Eating Amsterdam Food Tour
It was now time for that promised canal ride, and I was ready to sit for a bit. We strolled over to the gorgeous Hotel Pulitzer, on the Prinsengracht, and boarded their private salon boat, called “Tourist.” A beautifully restored and maintained wooden salon boat built in 1908, it has an interesting history in itself. In 1946, when Winston Churchill visited Amsterdam to celebrate the end of the war, he and Queen Wilhelmina rode through the canals in this very boat. Stepping inside, it feels like Sir Winston himself might greet you. The carpet is original. The teak glows, the brass is polished to a high sheen. And Captain Ton, in his epauletted uniform, smiled us aboard.
Inside, red upholstered banquettes line both sides of the boat with a table down the center already set with plates of cheeses and Dutch cider and champagne ready to be poured.
As we left the dock in front of the hotel, Capt. Ton steered us carefully up the Prinsengracht and through the system of canals. Since “Tourist” is so much smaller than the big canal boats you see plowing through the water all day, it can easily clear the lowest bridges and nose up into many of the smaller canals, leaving its younger but bigger brothers behind. Seen from the water, Amsterdam is even lovelier, if that is possible, and “Tourist” can get you up close and personal with her. As we floated by the elegant gabled canal houses, nibbling on a creamy young cheese and a three-year-old strong gouda that was divine, our gallant captain described what we were seeing out the windows.
One of those very narrow canals took us past the back of the Holtkamp Bakery. Capt. Ton steered us right up to the edge where a young woman waited with a bag. As he thrust out a hooked pole, she handed off the bag and he hauled it in. I was excited, because I’d heard that Holtkamp made some of the best bitterballen in Amsterdam, and yes! That’s what was in the bag.
What are bitterballen? They’re delectable little balls of deep-fried gravy, usually made with beef or veal. The gravy is chilled so it can be formed into balls, then rolled in a crumb coating and fried. Served up with mustard for dipping, they are probably the most common, most popular bar snack in the Netherlands and much better than the name would make you think. There is nothing bitter about these yummy treats. The name refers to the fact that they are often eaten with a local drink called bitters. Instead, we had ours with beer from Brouwerie ‘t IJ, the famous windmill brewery in Amsterdam (and whose beer is so much better than Heineken). The bitterballen were still hot, right from the fryer, and so so good.
After about an hour on the water, you’d think we were done with this afternoon’s adventure. But there was one more stop to make. After climbing back on land at the Pulitzer, we strolled a little way up the canal to another brown café, De Prins, for our final treat of the day and one of my very favorite things to eat in Amsterdam.
Poffertjes are heavenly little pillows of buckwheat pancake dough, cooked in a special pan and served up hot, slathered with melting butter and dusted with powdered sugar. I could eat them daily (and have been known to do so when I am in Amsterdam).
Finally we were done. Mirka waved us all goodbye and left. But our group had bonded over the last four hours together. We ended up sitting on a while at De Prins, chatting, exchanging contact info and suggestions we’d gleaning about what else to do in Amsterdam. There also might have been the fact that we were so full of excellent typical Amsterdam food that we couldn’t walk and needed to let it settle a bit.
I can’t recommend enough this experience of tasting the city with an Eating Amsterdam food tour with Eating Europe. Everything about it was professional, friendly, efficient, and top notch.
Eating Europe now offers a range of food tours and cooking classes in several European cities, with more being added every season. Going to Portugal? Try a tour of Lisbon’s eats and street art in the Baixa and Mouraria neighborhoods. Or dive into a Porto Food & Wine Tour. In Prague, you can dine in the cafe where Albert Einstein ate. Or check out their other tours, night crawls, and cooking classes in London, Rome, Florence, and Naples and Paris and Strasbourg, in France. Eating Europe Food Tours covers them all. And I can’t tell you how anxious I am to taste test them all.
Need to Know: Eating Europe’s Amsterdam Food Tour–Jordaan and Canal Tour
- Your tour might not be a duplicate of mine. Depending on season and day of the week and the vicissitudes of small, family-run businesses, some providers might be different from the ones described here. But they will all be well chosen and equal in substance to what I experienced.
- COME HUNGRY! You will be enjoying something like a dozen different tastings, plus coffee/tea, wine, cider, and beer. You want to start on empty.
- They can make adjustments for vegetarian travelers if you let them know in advance.
- Except for one hour on the canal boat, this is a walking tour. It’s a flat city walk at an easy pace, but you should wear comfortable shoes.
- The tour runs rain or shine. If it looks gray or damp, take an umbrella and/or a raincoat with you.
- This trip involves stairs and stepping into and out of the boat and is not suitable for people with serious mobility problems.
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While you’re here, take a look at some of the other wonderful experiences you can enjoy in and around Amsterdam and the Netherlands.