Our first visit to Leidseplein was in the middle of a violent rainstorm and the place was empty except for all of the people huddled under the awnings of the buildings surrounding the square. We grabbed a quick bite to eat and walked off to Museumplein a few blocks away wondering how long some of these people are going to wait. Six hours later the rain stopped and we returned to encounter hundreds of people scurrying about and pausing to listen to music as they criss-crossed the square. I guess a lot of people waited! And now we understood why Leidseplein is often called the nightlife capital of Amsterdam.
We had just re-united with our Irish cousins from County Down who had flown over to stay with us in Amsterdam for three days. Four years ago they flew to Venice to spend a weekend with us while we were on our three-week tour of Italy. We met them in 2002 on our first tour of Ireland and they have visited us in San Francisco a couple of times since then. They arrived from the airport just when the rain stopped and we were all ready to explore Amsterdam. First stop on the agenda: around the corner to Leidseplein and a first-hand look at Amsterdam’s nightlife.
Most “pleins” are square shaped like the plazas of Spain and the piazzas of Italy and the places of France and Belgium but Leidseplein is more like two squares plus a sprawling oval that stretches across tram tracks to the Singelgracht canal. You take the bridge across the canal to enter Vondelpark. If you walk past this entrance you will then find yourself at the Marriott Hotel and if you continue along the canal for about six blocks you will reach the Rijksmuseum and Museumplein. But if you elect to not cross the bridge and instead explore the buildings behind the Apple Store and along the canal shore that adjoins Leidseplein you will find a large circular casino, a couple of large music halls (Paridiso once was a church; Melkweg once was a dairy) that stay open most of the night plus a few more Irish pubs and even a Hard Rock Cafe. This area is technically called MaxEuweplein but since it adjoins Leidseplein I consider it just one big square where all establishments contribute to the glory (and perhaps notoriety) of being Amsterdam’s nightlife capital.
When we asked our hotel proprietress for a recommendation on where to eat she suggested that we walk along the Prinzengracht away from Leidseplein. I’m not sure whether she thought all of the restaurants were of poor quality or not or whether she thought we were just too old for the place! During the day you see people of all ages on the square. But when the sun goes down (well, it actually never really came up that day!) most of the crowd we noticed were in their 20s or 30s. And a lot of them were getting pretty drunk.
Leidseplein gets its name from the fact that the road to Leiden started here hundreds of years ago. Hence the names Leidsegracht, Leidsekade, Leidsestraat and probably a few more. The most prominent building on the square is the Stadsschouwburg — Amsterdam’s municipal theater. The city’s ballet and opera companies performed here until the Stopera was built in the 1980s. Now it’s mostly plays, sometimes in English. There’s also a large building (Hirschgebouw) that used to be a department store but now houses Amsterdam’s Apple Store plus the BMW Mini store. Then there’s the Eden Amsterdam American hotel with its cafe-restaurant that is famous for its art deco style. Another very prominent building across this portion of the square that street musicians prefer was the local police station at one time but now houses The Bulldog, a branch of the original cannabis coffeeshop that originated in the Red Light District in the 1970s. In the summer months tables and chairs from nearby restaurants and bars cover the next section of the square but during winter the place is transformed into a large ice skating rink. We visited in the Spring of 2012, however, and so saw neither of these.
There are also hundreds of bars, coffeeshops, cafes and restaurants around the square. One popular place is an American comedy club called Boom Chicago. We noticed a couple of narrow streets leading off from the square that were crammed with bars and coffeeshops and restaurants for just about every type of food you can imagine. The prices we observed from the many chalkboards under the many neon signs were rather low but we thought the quality of the food was probably just as low and our worries were more about hygiene than the taste of the food. And so we just walked past these places. I need to point out, though, that not all food establishments in Leidseplein are lacking in quality. As a matter of fact, one of Amsterdam’s finest Indonesian restaurants is in the Leidseplein area. We are pretty finicky, though, when it comes to food and we usually end up dining in places with familiar American food. The best restaurant meal by far on our entire vacation was on our last night in Amsterdam when we decided to splurge and visit the Marriott’s Midtown Grill just across the canal from Leidseplein. The steaks were fantastic and our cousins ordered a round of Irish coffees to fittingly celebrate our last night in the Netherlands.