Eat + Drink

Travel Back in Time at Amsterdam’s Cozy “Brown” Cafés

One of the most progressive cities in Europe, Amsterdam is home to some of the most legendary nightlife on the continent. But sometimes all you want is a cozy neighborhood bar where you can arrive in comfy clothes, order a strong coffee or a pint, and settle in for live music and banter with the locals.

And Amsterdam’s many bruin cafés (brown cafés) — named for their wooden interiors and oft nicotine-stained walls — are just the spot.

Found throughout the city, but particularly prevalent in the Jordaan neighborhood, some of these historic Amsterdam cafés trace their roots back to the 1600s. Come as you are to the storied bastions below, where the walls may breathe tales of the past but a celebratory vibe is very much alive.

Cafe t’ Smalle

Amsterdam cafes
Settle in for a stretch at t’ Smalle. (Photo: Alamy)

Fronting the Prinsengracht canal in Amsterdam’s atmospheric Jordaan neighborhood, this favorite corner pub first opened in 1780 as a distillery. On warm days, patrons pack the canal-side terrace. But ornamental stained-glass windows and wooden barrels over the bar create much atmosphere inside, too.

The seven beers on draft pour forth from porcelain taps, and there’s a good selection of by-the-glass wines, too, all of which go down well with typical Dutch bar snacks such as broodjes (sandwiches) filled with ham, liverwurst or cheese and bitterballen (deep-fried veal croquettes).

Café de Prins

Amsterdam cafes
Snack on a poffertje. (Photo: Getty Images)

Another favorite brown café in the Jordaan, Café de Prins is a regular stop on organized foodie outings with Eating Europe Tours, but you can also swing by on your own.

Located inside a typical Amsterdam canal house, the bar, which opened in 1967, fronts the Prinsengracht canal and has views of the Westerkerk (West Church) and Anne Frank House across the way.

In cooler weather, patrons fill the café’s cozy, candlelit interior to enjoy a beer or perhaps a coffee and a plate of poffertjes, small, buttery Dutch pancakes dusted with powdered sugar that go down a treat.

Cafe de Twee Zwaantjes

“We sing about divorce, heartache, she took my money, those kinds of things,” says Jos Dans, co-owner of the “Two Swans Café,” referring to the bar’s impromptu singalongs that feature live accordion music and unabashed crooning.

Themed nights include Motown music on Tuesdays and karaoke nights on Thursdays. But Friday nights are the runaway favorite for the fun-loving crowds they draw and the good-natured singalong fun.

Cafe Papeneiland

Amsterdam cafes
This bar traces its roots to the 17th century. (Photo: Alamy)

It’s not every day you can raise a glass in a bar that traces its roots back to the mid-17th century. But this extra-atmospheric brown café located in one of the Jordaan’s prettiest corners — where the Prinsengracht and Brouwersgracht canals intersect — can trace its liquor sales to 1642.

Ask to see a hidden tunnel in the bar, said to have been used following the Protestant Reformation as an escape route for persecuted Catholics. And admire pretty blue ceramic tiles from the Dutch city of Delft decorating the cute interior.

Don’t leave without trying the café’s famous apple pie, perfectly flaky and topped with a whopping pile of whipped cream.

De Oranjerie

Fans of Belgian beer (Vedett, Maredsous and Lambinus, among many others) should make a beeline for this brown café secreted down a side street off the Haarlemmerdijk, a major shopping thoroughfare.

The crowd tends to be on the trendy side, with lots of students and hipsters but more than a few requisite salty locals in the mix, too.

A pile of board games (Scrabble, Rummikub and the like) at the ready add to the social atmosphere. And the usual Dutch pub food pours out of the tiny kitchen to keep the lively crowds sated till late.