Forward-thinking and multicultural, Amsterdam is represented by a flagship club in its own image: Ajax. This successful school of footballing excellence is as global a brand as the three crosses of the city emblem.
The famous thick red stripe running down the white shirt of Ajax is a symbol of intelligent football played by young players nurtured or moulded at the club.
Three waves of star teams have made their mark in Europe and won silverware: the Ajax of Johan Cruyff of the 1970s; the Ajax of Marco van Basten (with Cruyff as coach) of the 1980s; and Louis van Gaal’s young Ajax of the 1990s. The latter heralded a new era, with the opening of the futuristic Amsterdam ArenA in 1996, a host of Euro 2000 and many Dutch international matches since.
It’s a world away from the neighbourhood feel of the club’s former home of De Meer, where Ajax icon Johan Cruyff was raised. As a boy, Cruyff lived nearby and his mother took in the club’s laundry. A young Johan would hop over the road to turn out for the boys’ team. In those amateur days, the city could boast a handful of top-flight clubs in the then modest Dutch league. RAP Amsterdam won the first title in 1898 and the first double a year later.
Three cross-town rivals – Blauw Wit, De Volewijckers and DWS – merged to form FC Amsterdam in 1972, beating Internazionale in the UEFA Cup. After disbanding ten years later, they now play at the Sportpark Strandvliet in the cosmopolitan local league – leaving Ajax as the city’s sole top-level national representative.
In 2014-15, the city’s top amateur team JOS Watergraafsmeer made it through to the second round of the Dutch Cup, where they were drawn to play Ajax. Fittingly, the first Amsterdam derby in more than 20 years was played at the revamped Olympic Stadium, where Ajax had played so many memorable European games in the Cruyff era – though perhaps none so easy as the 9-0 win over JOS.
When Ajax triumph in major games, the whole city turns out for celebrations on the Leidseplein. This square will also be the scene of serious fan carousing in 2020 when Amsterdam co-hosts the Euros.
The city’s second club, and its oldest, is Amsterdamsche FC. Founded in 1895, AFC run Saturday and Sunday teams, plus several at youth level. Later Dutch international Daley Blind was one of several successful players who started here. The club moved to its current home, Sportpark Goed Genoeg on De Boelelaan, near Amsterdam Zuid station, in 1962. In September 2018, it witnessed a rout when AFC took second-tier Telstar to the cleaners 5-0 in the Dutch Cup. Equally impressively, AFC are currently challenging for promotion from the semi-pro Tweede Divisie to reach this same second tier in 2019-20. At the Goed Genoeg, the wonderful clubhouse bar overlooks the pitch and the one main stand lined with AFC-issue red-and-black seating.
The Olympic Stadium, meanwhile, where Ajax played major matches for nearly 70 years after the 1928 Games held here, is still frequently used. Due for demolition in 1987, taking with it memories of the 1962 European Cup Final and 1981 UEFA Cup Final second leg between AZ Alkmaar and Ipswich, this heritage landmark has been continually renovated and improved since the late 1990s. Host of the 2016 European Athletics Championships, it witnesses the start and finish of the Amsterdam Marathon every autumn.
Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is 9km (6 miles) south-west of the city centre, connected by regular train (€4.30) to Centraal station and Amsterdam Bijlmer ArenA (€3.90), both about 15mins away. There are shared or private taxis bookable on the airport website, prices starting around €30. TCA Taxi (+31 20 777 7777) can also be booked online.
City transport consists of buses, trams, four light rail/metro lines and ferries, accessed by OV-chipkaart (€7.50) available at station machines, tobacconists and convenience stores. A single journey without the OV-chipkaart is €3. There are also cards for 24-hour (€7.50), 48-hour (€12.50) travel, and so on.
Convenient for the ArenA, right on the Bijlmer ArenA station concourse, the Hampton by Hilton Amsterdam is business-friendly, with a gym and a bar open to all pre- and post-match. A short walk from Overamstel station, on the No.50 metro line to the stadium, the towering Mercure Hotel Amsterdam City has a gym and sauna. Also near Overamstel is the equally mid-range Bastion Hotel Amsterdam/Amstel.
Hotels cluster around Centraal Station. These include, at the gateway to the Red Light district, the Prins Hendrik, best known for its unfortunate footnote in music history – it was here that jazzster Chet Baker jumped to his death out of the window. A plaque marks his memory – a bar beside the lobby is open to the public. Nearby, the Hotel Internationaal features a 90-year-old bar at street level and affordable rooms above.
A little more upscale, but also walking distance from Centraal, the nH Barbizon Palace provides 24-hour room service and boat tours – partner hotels the nH Doelen, renovated in 2015, and if you’re really splashing out, the five-star nH Collection Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky in a historic building are equally spiffy.
Still a stroll from the station, the DoubleTree by Hilton Amsterdam Centraal Station, while business-like, wows with its sky-lounge bar. Just over the water, the Grand Hotel Amrâth Amsterdam is pure five-star luxury, offering contemporary comforts (including a spa) in a beautiful old shipping house. Just along a few buildings, rooms at the warren-like but boutique Mansion can be found for a snip on booking sites.
Back near Centraal, the art’otel Amsterdam features a pool, gym and the art of Rotterdam’s Atelier Van Lieshout. Just over the canal, the ibis is a convenient three-star. For something more individual, the WestCord Art Hotel Amsterdam features original works by controversial artist/musician Herman Brood.
Further into town, close to the city’s main sights, the Swissôtel Amsterdam comprises 110 stylish rooms, a TechnoGym-equipped fitness centre and new restaurant. The Hotel Amsterdam offers old-school hospitality in a lodging and restaurant (De Roode Leeuw) dating back to 1911. A 2013 overhaul brought in flat-screen TVs and broadband WiFi.
Close to Waterlooplein and Rembrandtplein is a number of hotels, some attached to/adjoining bars. The location is great but noise may be a problem. For a bed after a few nearby beers, the Hotel Atlanta above the St James’s Gate pub is comfortable and affordable, though perhaps not for those looking for tranquillity of a weekend. Also nearby are the three-star NH Schiller and, close to the action but away from the bar terraces, the NH Carlton Amsterdam, built for the 1928 Olympics.
For the budget-conscious, Amsterdam has a number of hostel-like hotels and superior hostels. Hotel The Globe contains private rooms as well as dorms, plus one of the city’s biggest sports bars. St Christopher’s at the Winston is a superior hostel with an equally central location.
For central, affordable but with character, then the City Hotel, set in an 18th-century building, should suit perfectly.
Sports bars and football-focused pubs abound, particularly on Rembrandtplein and around. These include the Satellite Sports Café and St James’s Gate, along with pubs such as the Three Sisters, the Old Bell, Hoopman, and, in the same family, the Hole in the Wall.
‘Lousy Food & Warm Beer’ boasts Coco’s Outback, a popular Aussie sports pub nearby, with 30 screens and attractive drinks deals. Round the corner on Reguliersdwarsstraat, Shots & Sportsbar covers all bases in a more fundamental fashion. Also big on sport, Regular & Jack shows most games in a lively, up-for-it atmosphere. Note the line drawings of Cruyff, Maradona and more.
Slainte is probably the best option on a street near Beursplein with back-to-back sport-focused bars, including Players, Durty Nelly’s and King’s Cross, all filled with foreigners on the lash. A nicer vibe, and certainly nicer food, is provided by The Tara on nearby Rokin, with TV sport still in focus.
Further towards the Red Light district, the Old Sailor is an age-old corner spot dotted with TV screens for football gawping, with a lively, chatty clientele creating a constant buzz around the bar. Note the collection of match tickets near the toilets. This is a proper pub – ‘good music, great staff and every football game there is’. Tucked away nearby, the Bar Old Wembley also attracts many Brit visitors but probably only works if there’s a group of you – it’s pretty basic otherwise.
Another tourist haunt is the Heineken Experience, with its own brew pub, just behind which O’Donnell’s goes big on live sport and live music – it has a large terrace, too. Behind the Royal Palace, O’Reilly’s, in the same family as more prominent sister bars in Brussels and Frankfurt, usually does a roaring trade.
The Café-Restaurant Amsterdam, set in an old pumping house, is a decent place if out-of-the-way place to eat, whose industrial interior features the original lamps from the Olympisch Stadion. In summer, Strandzuid near RAI Amsterdam comes into its own, an upscale beach bar/restaurant with a big screen set up for tournaments.
More than just a purveyor of retro kits, the COPA Football Store near Centraal sells, natuurlijk, the COPA collection. In this tastefully appointed Aladdin’s cave of goodies, you’ll find everything from a moped plastered in Panini stickers to Tibetan national football shirts. Much originally came from people’s own attics, giving the stock a real personal touch. ‘My First Football Shirt’ is one particular line. Look out for arty touches too, such as T-shirts made from the atmospheric photography of the wonderful Roy Stuart Clarke. Angelo and Joël are usually happy to show you round.
Collectors should also head to Smit-Cruyff, an authentically retro football store on Elandsgracht.