It might be easier to find an après–ski bar on sun-soaked Antigua than it is to narrow down Amsterdam’s best spots to let your hair down. After all, the city is known just as much for its photogenic canals as it is for its high-octane clubbing landscape. And, due to the city’s diminutive size, there’s no space for niches, so clubs boast a mixed crowd and an all-inclusive atmosphere.
From legalized squats with more graffiti than you can shake a spray can at to gritty basement bars where night owls cut loose, here’s my pick of the best places to see a live performance, fly your freak flag, and dance until daylight.
PARADISO: Legendary ‘Pop Temple’
Following the eviction of squatting hippies, a 19th century church was turned into the Cosmic Relaxation Center Paradiso, a sacred space that hosted experimental musicians, artists, and other tie-dyed creatives in the 60’s. And although Cosmic Relaxation Center’s clouds of incense have long evaporated, it’s as if that hippy spirit still lingers today. PARADISO boasts an easy, anything-goes vibe that puts Amsterdam’s other big-name venues in the shade.
The main hall has a capacity of 1500 and has seen the likes of the Stones, Prince, Nirvana, U2, David Bowie and many more iconic artists. Paradiso’s small hall holds 250 fans and hosts up-and-coming bands, like the garage/punk trio Radkey.
Whether you’ve come to soak up Andrew Comb’s soulful songs or J.C. Satàn’s noise-rock, there’s something about the stained glass windows and galleries on cast-iron columns that truly enhances the experience. An added bonus is being able to go for a pee or a round of beers and still only be a stone’s throw from the action.
OCCII: Legalized Squat House with Independence in its DNA
Although Amsterdam’s creative squatting scene is all but gone, OCCII, a legalized squat with an uncanny resemblance to a gingerbread house, has kept its counter-cultural vibe very much alive. It’s friendly, volunteer-run, and one of those rare places where you can imagine being able to chat with the band after the show.
OCCII is known for its eclectic lineup, which includes up-and-coming indie bands, DJs, and experimental noise artists. Those that don’t dance on an empty stomach will be glad to know that MKZ, the attached restaurant, serves tasty (and ridiculously cheap) vegan food.
If you’re put off by the idea of pierced punks or blue-haired bohemians, don’t worry, these guys are easy-going egalitarians who welcome everyone.
DOKA: A Dark and Devilish Club in a Downtown Basement
DOKA, another squat success story, is housed in a former newspaper building. After its squatting days ended, it served as a work place for the city’s artistic community. Today, it’s mostly occupied by a chic-industrial hotel, but still retains its artsy heritage by means of rooftop club CANVAS and basement club DOKA, a dark and moody underground club that hosts anything from DJ sets to thrash parties and leftfield performances.
DOKA hosts a variety of music styles ranging from the experimental sounds of krautrock to post-punk and psychedelic. Their regularly hosted ‘Amsterjam’ nights unite local heroes with the city’s hidden talent through lively jam sessions. You can bring your instrument and join in, or feel free to opt to watch the action from your blue water pump table. Weekend-fun kicks off at midnight and sees DJs such as Psycho-Jones and Phil Ross deliver their electronic swagger. Jones is loved for his addictive rock-n-roll, disco, indie, soul mix, and for the fact that he brings mad decorations and bingo, yes bingo, to the turntable while Ross’ deep house never fails to sweep the crowd off its feet.
DOKA is also celebrated for its reasonably priced and well-crafted cocktails. What’s not to like about that?
OT301: Eclectic, Soulful, Psychedelic
What the council almost turned into a bicycle path is now the spot where independent sub-cultures get to do whatever they feel like, whether it’s taking part in a jam session, listening to live music, or even playing ping-pong. It’s all thanks to the squatters who prevented the building from being torn down in the late 90’s by — get this — buying it outright.
Artfully run down and slathered with street art, OT301 has got soul and creativity to spare. Its main room hosts an eclectic roster of everything from Italian hip-hop and psychedelic to dubstep and visual arts performers. If you’re not in the mood for music, try the restaurant, which serves cheap, organic meals in a dive-bar atmosphere. On Tuesdays, you can find eclectic events ranging from movie nights to illustrious weekly ping-pong tournaments that take place to the soundtrack of fat beats to boot.
SHELTER: Descend Down a Hatch to a Killer Sound System in the Dark
Just a 5 minute ferry ride across the IJ from Central Station is ever cooler Amsterdam Noord. Shelter, in the basement of the former Shell tower, is a true testament to the fact that the district’s raw atmosphere still persists amid its gentrification.
Shelter’s entrance is unmistakable: on club nights a secret hatch opens, and you descend to get inside. Down in the bellows of the basement, you’ll stumble upon a spacious, concrete room with a sound system that’ll blow your socks off. It’s also very dark — you can just make out the person next to you, which means there’s absolutely nothing to stop you from going all out on the dance floor.
Shelter’s programmers focus on quality house and techno, although disco and more progressive kinds of unconventional electronica get to shine too. During regular club nights, Shelter opens at 11pm, and, with its 24-hour permit, nights can easily slip into late late mornings.