"Your bag is on my kiwis," the fruit merchant said in a dry tone more suited to one who might have hopped onto his grave and danced a little jig. "Sorry," I said, relocating my purse back to my shoulder. As he handed over my change for the banana I'd bought at the Albert Cuyp outdoor market, he raised his eyebrow ever so slightly. A few stalls over, a fellow peddling leopard-print lingerie - showcased on a row of hanging plastic mannequins, turned buttocks out - texted frenetically on his cellphone, and a sullen-looking flower vendor sat stoic behind his bright, uplifting wares. Meanwhile, under a grey, humid sky, life rolled by. Bicycles transporting students in pea coats, weary mothers pushing baby strollers and blurred faces young and old from cultures as far off as Japan, Lebanon, Africa and Egypt.
Welcome to De Pijp. Its name means "the pipe," and this accidentally hip, working-class neighbourhood is Amsterdam's most multicultural. Official count claims 144 nationalities call it home. The resulting assortment of characters makes it easy for anyone to blend in. It also makes for an incredible variety of delicious restaurants, kooky shops and cool cafés.
Separated into two sections, Nieuwe Pijp and Oude Pijp (new and old), architecturally the district reflects its roots as a blue-collar immigrant ghetto. Long, narrow row houses built as early as the 19th century sit on tree-lined side streets, some beautifully restored. Though a young generation of students and artists has appropriated the 'hood and rents are rising, De Pijp isn't all that gentrified. It still feels real - a bustling, unpredictable combination of old and new.
Saenredamstraat 26 hs; 31 (010) 020-737-0870.
The eggplants, zucchini and Roma tomatoes are imported from Italy, as are the vintage 1960s chandelier and jolly owner Davide, a friendly Milanese who opened this tiny Italian eatery a year ago and greets regulars like long-lost family. He cooks up a bounty of succulent dishes, such as meatballs, mashed potatoes, fried mushrooms and fresh pastas - all on display; caters and organizes private dinners. "The Pijp is fantastic," he raves. "It's like a little village. Well, Amsterdam is a village, so this is the village in the village."
1e van der Helststraat 62a; 31 (010) 020-675-7672; www.chocolate-bar.nl
This bohemian chic café by day, restaurant-bar by night near Albert Cuyp market attracts a cool crowd of students, locals and artist types. At Chocolate Bar, spend the afternoon on its busy outdoor terrace and come by at night to hear DJs and socialize. They serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and you'll also find flyers for local events.
Frans Halsstraat 35; 31 (010) 020-77-18649
This retro-themed dress shop sells a combination of vintage and new costumes, explains owner Renée Deymann, who moonlights as a stylist for Dutch showbiz productions. "I'm very inspired by Mad Men," she says, gesturing to displays of feminine silhouettes, hats, shoes, clothes and accessories. Pickings are slim for good vintage clothing in the Netherlands, making Mad Mix somewhat of a destination boutique for Amsterdam style hunters.
Diamonds are Forever
Royal Asscher Diamond Company
Tolstraat 127; www.asscher.com; www.royalasscher.com Built in 1907, the brick building that once housed the diamond-cutting factory remains the office headquarters of world-renowned Royal Asscher Diamond Company. The structure resonates with history; in the early 20th century, 30 per cent of Amsterdam's Jews worked in the diamond industry. During the Second World War, Nazis invaded the factory, confiscated the diamonds and sent the Asscher family and their workers to concentration camps. Few survived, but after the war the remaining family members came back to rebuild their company.
Let them Eat Cake
Bakken met Passie
Albert Cuypstraat 51-31; 31 (010) 010-670-1376
Bakken met Passie has five bakeries around town, but this one is also a café. The Amsterdam institution specializes in dozens of varieties of bread, including garlic, olive and fig. "My sample had an entire fig in it," my friend cried. Other claims to fame include mouth-watering desserts, including blueberry and chocolate merengues whipped to sugary perfection. The bestseller is a flourless chocolate cake made from 87 per cent cocoa. Check out the pastry chefs toiling away in the kitchen, separated from the café by a glass wall.
Let there be light
1e van der Helststraat 41; 31 (010) 020-662-2371; www.interbasics.nl
From the outside, it looks like another junk-filled antique store, but walking into lighting, furnishing and antique shop Interbasics is like crossing the rainbow into a sparkly wonderland. From Syrian crystal chandeliers to teak furnishings and Indonesian Buddhas to a stunning red-light sculpture direct from the Philippines, owner Peter Beek has kept the worldly lights shining for 15 years of business. Cozy Reading
Inkt & Olie
151/153; 31 (010) 020-664-1145; www.inktenolie.nl
Fresh brownies, personally baked by the bookshop's young owner, Anouk Hazenberg, sit beside the cash register at Inkt & Olie. They smell tremendous. Upstairs, an espresso machine and vintage blender prepare treats for thirsty readers, who often hang out and read their purchases. Hazenberg, who lives around the corner, sells books written in Dutch and English, including children's books and a great selection of travel guides.
Special to The Globe and Mail