Het Papeneiland, Amsterdam

Café Papeneiland in Amsterdam

Mathieu sitting under a painting of the same table in Café Papeneiland.

I was a little nervous walking into Het Papeneiland. It seemed very small and I could only see a few elderly locals sharing a big, round, wooden table. Would they stare? I hate being stared at in that way locals do. To my relief, they barely glanced up from their pilsjes as we grabbed the table by the window. After successfully mumbling our order in Dutch, I sat back and admired the deep brown walls from which these types of café s get their nickname. Het Papeneiland (Pope’s Island) is one of Amsterdam’s brown cafés and is known for a cozy atmosphere and fascinating history. The well-worn walls are covered in old paintings, some depicting the cafe through the years, antique collectibles and Delft-blue tiles. In the winter, an ornate cast-iron stove heats the room.

Any building that is more than 300 years old is bound to have a few secrets and Het Papeneiland is no exception. Built in 1642, the café gets its name from the role it played in helping Catholics during the Reformation. Worshippers would use a secret passageway from the café to reach Prinsengracht 7, a clandestine church on the other side of the canal.

These days you won’t find any clandestine Catholics in Het Papeneiland, but you will find a charming spot to rest your feet and enjoy a local beer or two. (Try the Columbus from Brouwerij ‘t Ij.) While I wouldn’t classify the brown cafés as way off the beaten tourist path, they are still a good place to start if you too are on a quest to discover the “real” Amsterdam.