I lived in Amsterdam for over three years. These are my tried and tested tips for visiting Amsterdam based on advice for my friends and family visiting me. I’ve structured in the form of 25 tips including some Do’s/Don’ts.
Although I have plenty to write about living in Amsterdam, I’m most often asked for tips about visiting Amsterdam by friends and strangers. I hope that these tips help you plan your Amsterdam trip!
DO NOT STAND OR WALK IN THE BIKE LANE / DO WALK ON THE SIDEWALK
You can figure out what is the bike lane–and what is not the bike lane by looking for a bike icon. In many places, the bike lane has a red color–and you will see bicyclists on it. The sidewalk is typically the bit next to it that is white. If you’re jaywalking, it’s likely that you’ll be passing the bike lane.
To be fair, bikes are supposed to stop when you are in a crossing bit, but it’s good to be careful. The worst thing that you can do is to stand in the bike lane taking pictures without looking behind you and/or backing up. Bicyclists don’t want to hit you–and it’s dangerous!
Expect to be dinged a lot by passing bikes if you enter the bike path and be sure to keep children close to you. Bikes in other parts of the Netherlands tend to be less aggressive, however many of my friends visiting Amsterdam for the first time are often surprised by this!
YOU MUST CARRY IDENTIFICATION ON YOU
This is actually a law. If you’re non-EU, be sure to carry your passport on you as you can get fined for not carrying identification. Similarly, if you’re EU, you still need your identification. Generally, you won’t need to pull out your identification for much, however you might need to show if you intend to enter a coffeeshop (discussed below!). Most bars do not ID patrons unless they look younger than 18, which is the drinking age in the Netherlands for spirits.
WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES
Amsterdam is surprisingly small, enough that you can easily walk or bike across it. I’ve created a few walking itineraries for Amsterdam that cover a lot of the historic centre, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes. You might encounter cobblestones in some places, so I don’t recommend heels unless they’re quite thick. Booties are a favorite of Dutchies as they’re comfy and fashionable!
BE AWARE THAT CUSTOMER SERVICE IS DIFFERENT IN THE NETHERLANDS
This is particularly true when it comes to restaurants and cafes. Waiters at cafes often leave people alone for long periods of time without really checking on them at cheaper/mid-range cafes. (You might have a very different experience at a nicer restaurant.) It’s a common complaint of friends that they were frustrated with the customer service. Generally if you want something at a cafe, you’ll need to flag down the waiter or go up to the front (if they’re not coming). The customer is not always right here…
FOR UNIQUE SOUVENIRS, AVOID THE TOURISTIC AREAS!
One of my favorite parts of Amsterdam for unique and interesting souvenirs is the 9 Straatjes. This adorable neighborhood of Amsterdam along the canals is full of cute boutique shops where you can look for unique souvenirs, including cheese, and find something different. This is not in the 9 Streets, but I always love to head to Barts for a nice hat or scarf as a souvenir from Amsterdam.
BOOK YOUR HOTEL OR HOSTEL EARLY, ESPECIALLY FOR PEAK SEASON (SPRING/SUMMER)
Peak season for the Netherlands begins in April. You can read my advice for cool events in Amsterdam in April here, however hotel rates will go up. Book your hotel as early as possible to get a good rate. If you don’t need to travel over a weekend, you’ll save a lot by enjoying mid-week rates as Saturdays are typically high. Sundays are surprisingly affordable. Even if you’re not a hotel person, expect quite a bit for hostels as they’re not particularly cheap either.
Some people choose to stay outside of Amsterdam to save up to 40% (like my dad did), however you’ll need to factor in the cost of traveling to/from Amsterdam daily per person. Haarlem is a lovely city about 20 minutes from Amsterdam.
DON’T BIKE ON THE SIDEWALK OR DO A BIKE TOUR.
Bike tours in Amsterdam really annoy the residence as many people don’t know how to ride and it’s often hard to get around a large group of 20 that isn’t paying attention.
There is a reason why there are bike lanes: to prevent people from biking on the sidewalk. It’s very easy to hit people and if you do, you’re liable for injuries as you’re in the wrong here. I realize that many people start biking on the sidewalk after they are intimidated by the bike lane, but just park your bike and somewhere–and walk instead.
Also, try not to gawk at the babies/kids on the bikes; that’s normal here. There’s a lot of things that are normal on bikes here, including texting, talking on the phone, and carrying large objects/people.
DO RENT A BIKE TO SEE AMSTERDAM LIKE A LOCAL AND BIKE LIKE A LOCAL.
- Be on the right side of the street. [Same side as car traffic AND where you see the blue bike sign in the direction you’re going if you’re unsure!]
- Stay on the right as possible to ensure that others can pass.
- Use your hands to signal which way you’re turning before you get to the turn.
- Follow the lights. Amsterdam has bike stop lights!
- Avoid having a friend ride on the back of your bike. You might see a lot of Dutchies doing this, however if you’re not used to biking, it’s much harder to stop with someone on the back of your bike as they also need to brace for the stop.
- If you see an upside-down triangle, you need to yield to traffic and pedestrians.
Be careful of scooters, mini cars, and other cyclists. Scooters are the biggest danger to you as they’ll often cut close to you–and it’s very easy to get knocked off your bike by mistake. Stay to the right and let them pass.
If someone is walking in the bike lane, ding once at them to let them know and go around them. You don’t need to ding more than once, unless they’re not paying attention.
Use BOTH bike locks and try to secure your bike to a metal object. The bike thieves are ruthless here.
THERE ARE PLENTY OF TOURIST TRAP RESTAURANTS, BUT THERE ARE DEFINITELY GREAT RECOMMENDATIONS TO BE HAD!
I recommend never going out to an Argentinean restaurant in Amsterdam in Centre. They’re tourist traps and you can often eat good authentic food from other places. One of my favorite budget meals to eat out in Amsterdam is roti or bara filled with delicious fillings (such as tofu). These dishes come from Suriname, a former Dutch colony, with an interesting blend of cultures.
A lot of tourists obsess about rijsttafel, but I’m obsessed with Indonesian food, period. You’ll often pass shops called tokos, which are take-out centers for Surinamese and Indonesian food. These are great places to buy some delicious items (you usually can’t go wrong if you ask what the house specialty is!) and enjoy them along the canals of Amsterdam.
I often recommend the Foodhallen, a huge food hall in Amsterdam with a bit of Dutch food and international food. If you’re vegetarian, you can check for my comprehensive guide to vegan food in Amsterdam. Similarly, I recommend checking a local blog called Your Little Black Book, which specializes in great eateries in Amsterdam, if you’re looking for something specific. Simply, don’t only check Google Maps. A little thoughtful wandering should help you find something worth writing home about. I
SKIP THE HEINEKEN EXPERIENCE / TRY CRAFT BEER
You can buy 8 Heinekens at a bar for the price of entry to the Heineken Experience. You could also buy 4 craft beers AND tour a microbrewery for the same price. I have nothing about Heineken, but I find it overpriced.
Amsterdam is full of amazing microbreweries with incredibly delicious beer and lovely old cafes dating back to the 1600s. Try delicious beers from Oedipus, Jopen, Gebrouwen door Vrouwen, Brouwerij ‘T Ij, Butcher’s Tears, and De Prael at cafes like the Arendsnest or the breweries themselves.
STEP INTO A BROWN BAR
One of the best places to experience Dutch culture is within a brown bar. These old Dutch cafes are filled with gorgeous brown wood, gorgeous lamps, and atmosphere. Some are a bit more international, but they’re a favorite of Dutchies of all ages. It’s a great place to stop off for a delicious fresh mint tea (a classic Dutch drink) or a beer. These cafes aren’t about rushing your way through, but rather enjoying.
IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN TRYING THE LOCAL LIQUORS, BE SURE TO TRY JENEVER
Jenever is sometimes called Genever in English. This Dutch drink is a traditional one made from juniper berries that predates gin. Unlike gin, you don’t often see it as a J&T, but rather something to sip on. There are a number of small distilleries around Amsterdam with tasting rooms. These are generally free to visit, so if you’re curious about jenever, be sure to stop at one of these jenever tasting rooms in Amsterdam!
DON’T BE NAIVE WHEN IT COMES TO DRUGS AND CRIME / DO BE CAREFUL
Know that soft drugs are tolerated, but illegal. Hard drugs are completely ILLEGAL. No matter what, do not buy from street dealers. The police in Amsterdam are generally friendly/more interested in risk minimization. You should not hesitate to call if something goes wrong. 112 is the number to save.
There have been some high profile deaths where tourists purchased drugs on the street and died/had to be hospitalized as a result of ingredients that were harmful within the drugs.
Amsterdam is a pretty safe city (especially compared to US/UK), however you still need to be aware of yourself. Don’t leave your stuff out unsecured, especially your bike. Pickpocketing is an issue really only in the most crowded parts of Centre/the Red Light District. Be more concerned about scam artists–and obvious cons. It’s best to have a bag that zips.
I don’t recommend carrying valuables around that you don’t need although you will need to carry a passport as identification if you’re non-European. There are a number of storage places in and around Centraal Station, so don’t be afraid to check in your items for a small fee to avoid sightseeing with large bags/suitcases.
If you need emergency assistance, call 112, which is the emergency number for the Netherlands. Walking into the police station IS NOT a thing here for minor crimes [yes, that includes theft] and you will be told that you need to schedule an appointment or file a report online.
DON’T ONLY STAY INSIDE OF THE RING
For a long time, I’ve dismissed Centre as being overly touristic, but I’ve been recently visiting it with new eyes. There’s a lot of incredible history in the centre of Amsterdam and you should give it a shot. You’ll find gorgeous hidden courtyards, historic cafes, and lots of gorgeous canals.
EXPLORE OTHER AREAS OF AMSTERDAM
Most tourists see Prinsengracht as the invisible border of where they should stop walking. However, there are some incredible areas with fantastic food, shopping, and things to do that you would miss if you only stay in the tourist areas.
I think that Amsterdam West is a great neighborhood to explore with some really cool attractions, including a food hall. For a local guide to some areas that tourists don’t typically explore.
DON’T BE AN A**HOLE
Tourists have a terrible reputation among the locals as many of us have had bachelor parties waking us up early yelling on the sidewalk. It’s hard to sleep during summer as many of us don’t have air conditioning and need to leave the windows open, so try not to yell at night.
Similarly, don’t smoke w**d on a public sidewalk. There are special cafes catered to this interest, including some with friendly cats. Generally, nobody cares much if you smoke, but it’s more about being considerate of others.
Everyone speaks English, so don’t insult the Dutch in public as everyone can understand you. (I saw this happen once on a train.) It’s polite to at least learn how to say thank you in Dutch!
BE SURE TO ENTER A HOFJE (HIDDEN COURTYARD)
All around the city of Amsterdam, you’ll find historic hidden courtyards. There has been a legacy of wealthy Dutch aristocrafts to donate money to those in need by building housing for them. Some of these hidden courtyards are incredibly beautiful and a great respite from the crowds of Amsterdam Centre. The Begijnhof is the largest and most famous one in Amsterdam. Others are much harder to find, but I’ve already found them for you.
DO KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A COFFEESHOP AND A CAFÉ.
Coffee shop / Café = A shop that sells coffee. People don’t generally call these coffee shops, rather cafes. There are a lot of fantastic cafes in Amsterdam from new and modern to old and atmospheric.
Coffeeshop (no space!): A shop that sells marijuana. Some of these shops are really only counters where you can purchase marijuana for consumption later. (Some have a small room in the back for smoking purposes.) Some coffeeshops in Amsterdam are more like cafes for marijuana consumption with no tobacco.
You are not allowed to smoke cigarettes in coffeeshops or normal cafés (unless outside).
DON’T TAKE PHOTOS IN THE RED LIGHT DISTRICT
If you’re unsure whether you can take a photo, I recommend looking around you to first check if there’s a window near you. The women who work in the Red Light District are fairly vulnerable and they do not like to photographed.
Don’t ever take explicit photos of women in the windows while in the Red Light District. You’re not allowed to take photos in order to protect the identities of the sex workers and their security will take away/smash your camera if they see you doing so.
IF YOU DID NOT GET YOUR ANNE FRANK TICKETS IN ADVANCE, YOU MIGHT HAVE TO WAIT A WHILE
Anne Frank Tickets are quite hard to get. The museum is open only part of the day (mornings) for those with tickets and only opened to the public without tickets in the afternoon. Tickets go on sale a few months ahead, so you can’t buy them far in advance. However, they go fast.
If you miss out on getting your Anne Frank tickets, I recommend going to the museum on a Saturday night as it’s open later on this evening. The line is quite a bit shorter. It’s also shorter on rainy days, so dress appropriately.
DON’T FORGET YOUR ALLERGY MEDS / PET ALL THE CATS!
If you’re not a cat person, tough luck as cats are everywhere. Most of the cats here that you will see on the streets (or in shops) belong to locals who let their cats roam during the day. Don’t worry too much if you see a roaming cat as it belongs to someone. Some are more friendly than others, so approach cats with caution. I love cats so much that I wrote a guide to the best places with cats in Amsterdam.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO VISIT AMSTERDAM ALONE!
Amsterdam is a great city to try out solo travel for the first time. It’s clean, easy to walk around, and relatively safe. People speak English well and I traveled to Amsterdam solo on my first trip. I recommend taking some tours or staying at a hostel if you’ll be traveling solo as this is a great way to meet people.
THE WATER IS FINE (AND DELICIOUS), BUT NOT READILY AVAILABLE
The tap water in Amsterdam is delicious and safe to drink. If you want to carry a water bottle, it’s a great idea for staying hydrated. That said, most restaurants will not give you unlimited water, even if they give you free water. You might get a very small glass if you ask. Some do not give you water and instead give you pathetically small bottles sold for 2.5-3 euros. I find that tea has better value and you can always get water at Albert Heijn if needed.
TRY INDONESIAN AND SURINAMESE FOOD!
Due to the Dutch colonial legacy, there’s a large number of Dutch people of Indonesian and Surinamese descent who are amazing cooks.
You can find Indonesian take out restaurants and “tokos,” which are take-out places where locals often pick up a quick dinner to go.
Just be aware that most local restaurants have kitchens that are closed by 10pm and many places really don’t serve much food past 8pm without reservations. Plan carefully, otherwise you’ll need to look elsewhere as supermarkets generally close by 9-10pm.
Snackbars in Center are basically 24/7, but if you plan well, you’ll pay about 8-9 euros for fantastic portions of food that you’ll remember long after your trip.
DON’T FORGET HOW DANGEROUS THE CANALS ARE
I have watched the garbage boat clean the canals and lost things due to dropping them in the canals. If it falls in the canal, it is gone forever.
If you are drunk, please be careful and don’t pee in the canal. For men, there are free urinals all over the city streets that you can use… I write this as people actually die this way. (People actually swim in the canals, but it’s pretty rare to see!) I’d definitely recommend going out on a canal cruise to enjoy the canals from a different perspective!
TAKE LOTS OF CANAL PHOTOS!
There are so many lovely canals in Amsterdam. Whether it’s the historic canals in Centre that I love to walk down or the more modern canals on the outskirts of the city, you can’t go wrong. One of my favorite lesser known canals is Bickersgracht, which is hidden up in the Western Islands.
DON’T FORGET TO LEAVE THE COFFEESHOP / TAKE IN CULTURE AND HISTORY AT THE MANY MUSEUMS!
I especially enjoy the Rijksmuseum for the Dutch masters. For modern art lovers, I really enjoy the Stedelijk museum. For architecture/history lovers, there’s Our Lady in the Attic, a fascinating hidden Catholic Church built within the attics of 3 different canal houses. Many of these museums are included with the iAmsterdam card.
Of course, there’s the Anne Frank museum, but you need to purchase tickets way ahead of time, or come late in the day (around 7-8pm). I love Vondelpark and Westerpark the most and they’re perfect for runs/picnics!
DON’T BOTHER CHECKING THE WEATHER BEYOND 1 HOUR AHEAD; WEAR YOUR RAINCOAT (IT WILL RAIN!)
The weather in Amsterdam is so quick to change that the most popular app is a weather map. You can see when the clouds will go above you within the next hour. I typically recommend having shoes that won’t get too wet and a jacket that repel water if you’re visiting in winter or spring. I typically don’t check the forecast too much as it’s so unpredictable!
DON’T PLAN ON USING YOUR DEBIT/CREDIT CARD (EXCEPT IN TOURISTIC PLACES), SO GO TO AN ATM
If you see PIN graag (like at the popular grocery store Albert Heijn), it usually means that they may only accept cash or a Dutch debit card. If you don’t have cash, you will need to go to an ATM, which should accept other cards.
The situation IS improving and more places are allowing credit cards (mainly Visa/Mastercard/Maestro), however many smaller shops don’t accept non-Dutch cards.
You’ll find shops in the airport, Amsterdam Centraal station, and those close to touristic places (including museums/restaurants in the Centre) will accept credit cards. Some shops have even gone as far as “card only” to minimize the cash on hand, but always carry a little cash on you.
Look for ABN AMRO or ING cash machines. These are two of the major Dutch banks. They don’t typically charge a fee for using the ATM, so you can take out cash fairly easily if you look for one.
DON’T INVALIDATE YOUR TRAIN, BUS, OR TRAM TICKET / REMEMBER TO CHECK IN AND TAP YOUR CARD ON THE WAY OUT!
Before you board the Metro or any train, you’ll see a a little raised reader that people are tapping their cards against. If you have an IAmsterdam card or OVChipcard, tap your card against the little raised reader and you’ll see it turn green/beep. Ask if you’re not sure.
Be sure to do the same on the way out. For buses or trams, you’ll tap your card against the reader in the front and tap your card on the way out towards the back of the bus/tram. You’ll exit in the back.
You cannot pay for the bus in change anymore. You’ll need to buy a ticket (which comes with the iAmsterdam card) or OV chipcard at Centraal Station. The 24/48/72 hour daypass is worth it if you’re in Amsterdam for three days without a bike.
DON’T STAY IN AMSTERDAM THE WHOLE TIME / SEE MORE OF THE NETHERLANDS!
Amsterdam is not representative of the rest of the Netherlands. There are so many Dutch cities that have a fraction of the tourists are more beautiful, more charming, and have lots to do. There’s even castles that are easy day trips from Amsterdam!
Do take the fantastic trains to somewhere besides the airport or Zaans Schans [always a favorite for the windmills]. Leiden, Hoorn, Delft, and the Hague are only thirty minutes from Amsterdam by train! Shown above is Amersfoort.
Definitely lookup when there are “markts” or local markets on the day you’ll be there. You’ll be charmed by the plazas where the locals sit outside, drink beer, and eat bitterballen, something that is harder to find in Amsterdam.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK LOCALS
Dutchies are fairly friendly, so if you aren’t sure about something, most people speak decent English and they’ll do their best to help. I find that it’s often easy to make conversation while in line and most people will do their best if they’re not in a rush! They might not know the exact place of your hotel, but it’s good to know the metro stop or neighborhood nearby.
Amsterdam is such a lovely city with super friendly people. You’re most likely to meet locals at smaller neighborhood cafes/eetcafes/bars/coffee shops once you leave Centre.
People are happy to give advice or help you. For the record, almost everyone speaks English fluently, however it’s always polite to say Dankjewel [Thank you in Dutch].)
BOOKS TO READ BEFORE YOU VISIT AMSTERDAM
These are the books that I have found the most insightful as a tourist and as a resident that I’ve actually read. Amsterdam’s history is absolutely fascinating and I strongly recommend reading about its rich history as it will make you appreciate this city more.
I have used the Lonely Planet Guide for the Netherlands since I arrived here and it’s full of useful advice for food/accommodations/attractions advice. Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City is nonfiction about Amsterdam’s history.
Anne Frank’s Diary is a must read if you intend on visiting the Anne Frank House.For Fiction, I recommend The Miniaturist, a historical fiction novel takes place in the Golden Age of Amsterdam. The Dinner is by famous Dutch author Herman Kochs. (It is sharp, biting, typical of Dutch humor, and dark!).
PEOPLE WHO HAVE VISITED AMSTERDAM, ANYTHING YOU WISH ANYONE HAD TOLD YOU? FELLOW RESIDENTS, ANYTHING I MISSED?
Source by wanderlustingk.com