Ultimate Guide to Amsterdam
Updated: Jul 6, 2020
An Run-down on the Netherlands and Amsterdam
Situated between the North Sea, Belgium, and Germany, the Netherlands is a small European country famous for its picturesque tulip fields and windmills. Often referred to as Holland, the Netherlands is the birthplace of Van Gogh and Rembrandt and known for its distinct cheese and pottery (think white and blue clay clogs). While the nation's main language is Dutch, many people speak English, especially in Amsterdam.
Fun fact: At the height of its colonial power, Holland controlled most of modern-day Indonesia and parts of what are now South Africa, Brazil, India, and the United States, among others. In fact, New York City was originally a Dutch colony dubbed New Amsterdam, which is why the famous borough of Harlem shares its name with a city in North Holland.
Amsterdam is the largest city in the Netherlands and by far the most well-know. Built around canals Amsterdam is renowned for these beautiful waterways, which function as both a way to get around and a way break the city up into its different neighborhoods. This historic city center and downtown in De Wallen are broken up by three main canals, the outermost being the Singelgratcht Canal. Amsterdam recently entered a period of rapid growth with newer neighborhoods popping up outside of this ring.
When to visit
You can visit Amsterdam year round, but each season will have its own attractions.
Spring: There's two big perks to visiting Amsterdam in the spring. First, spring is tulip season, and nowhere does tulips like Holland. From March to May, the Netherlands is full of these bright, beautiful flowers. The most famous spot (aka the spot you've seen on Instagram) to tulip-peep is Keukenhof, a garden right outside of Amsterdam. However, if get the chance to drive through the countryside, you'll see field after field of tulips in their natural habitat.
The second reason to visit Amsterdam in the spring is King's Day. Held on April 27th (or 26th depending on the year) this city-wide party celebrates the birth of the king of the Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander. Attendees line the streets and crowd the canals with party boats wearing as much orange as possible and, for the day, the city embraces the its partying stereotype. Spring must do's: stop at the floating flower market, Bloemenmarkt, wear an orange shirt, and drink a Heineken.
Summer: Summer has a lot of tourists, but it also has some of the best weather. Picture sitting under blue sky while on a canal tour, munching on Dutch cheese in Vondelpark, and wondering the city during those late daylight hours (sunset's around 10 in June and July). It's very tempting and the reason rates are more expensive. If you're traveling on a budget, summer is not the best time for you, but if you're looking to be outdoors or out late, it is. Summer must do's: a canal cruise, Vodelpark, and any/all outdoor seating.
Fall: Amsterdam is less crowded in the fall, which will help limit the number of tourists accidentally photobombing your pictures and make a couple lines shorter. The weather is cooler and rainier than summer, but it can vary so be sure to check before you pack. This is the best season for art buffs and fans of museums. Fall must do's: pack a sweater and buy an Iamsterdam card to get museum discounts.
Winter: Winter in Amsterdam is a bit too chilly for canal tours or bike riding with temperatures hovering between 45°F/7°C and freezing. Instead, tourists focus on winter markets and light festivals. Christmas markets are held throughout December, the largest being in Museum Square, and are a great way to get in the holiday spirit (and taste some delicious Dutch treats). Winter must do's: eat warm stroopwafels and go ice-skating on the canals (if its cold enough).
What to do when you visit
Amsterdam has a little bit for everyone, whether you're there for art and history or the night-life. Keep in mind, you can't travel all the way to Holland for just one thing! Take advantage of your limited time and see or do something a little out of your comfort zone.
If you are only in Amsterdam for a few hours, you should spend that time on a canal tour. Tons of companies offer tours so look into prices, routes, and lengths. Personally, I love an informative tour for cheap, so my favorite was the Lover's Canal Cruise. It's covered by the Iamsterdam pass (more on that later) and went into detail on all the landmarks we passed. Canal cruises are an easy way to get a feel for the city, cross a few sights off your list, and get an idea of what areas you'd like to go back to. I'd recommend going during the day because while night tours are romantic, you don't get to see as much since it's dark, and near the start of your trip. Seats are first come, first serve so get there early.
While cruises can be caught all over the city, most of them are right around Amsterdam Centraal, Amsterdam's main station. The building is a sight to see, and with local and international trains inside and trams and ferries right outside, it's one of the busiest spot in Amsterdam. After the cruise, consider people-watching while snacking on a saused herring.
Saused herring in a traditional Dutch food. Made by pickling whole herrings, it can be eaten alone as an appetizer or in a sandwich as a meal. If you're new to pickled fish, I'd recommend trying it as a sandwich. The hot dog bun, pickles, and onions give it a little crunch and play down the fish taste.
You probably passed by the Anne Frank House on your cruise, and it is definitely someone to go back to. If you weren't listening closely, you might've miss it. Situated next to Westerkerk (the fifteenth century church with an ornate bell tower pictured below), the Anne Frank house looks like every other house on the canals with a newer building next to it, which is the museum.
Set-up to bring Anne's story to life, the museum has you walk through the home while listening to clips from Anne's diary and reading more about the Frank family. As you move through the house, you move through their history. From before the Nazi regime when the Frank family had a great business to the first weeks in hiding when it seemed like a temporary fix to months later when it seem like they would never get out. Anne dreamed of being a writer and hoped her diary would be her first book. Walking through the rooms, you can feel her hope and hearing every noise on the street, you can feel her fear of being discovered.
After walking through the house, you walk through a modern museum that chronicles the lives of the Frank family once they are captured and sent to concentration camps. Videos and photos go on to tell the story of the Holocaust, of the hundreds of other stories that weren't written down or shared, protecting them from being forgotten. The experience was very moving and forces you to draw parallels between the rise of the Nazis and the West's current political climate.
After visiting the Anne Frank House, you'll need a breather, something light and pretty. I'd suggest visiting Vondel Park and sitting in the grass for a bit to think. Vondel Park is the largest park in the city. Where you'll find cute gazebos, beautiful flower beds, and blue herons posing for pictures. On King's Day, Vondel Park becomes a giant yard sale with tons of children selling their old toys as part of a long-standing tradition.
If you're not in Amsterdam for King's Day, you can still get your market fix! There's Bloemenmarkt, the floating flower market (about half way between Vondel Park and Amsterdam Centraal). Since the 1800's this market has been selling flowers; originally the to the people of Amsterdam, though nowadays, it caters to tourists looking for tulip bulbs and porcelain clogs.
Another market, the Albert Cuyp Market, is large, outdoors, and has a wide variety of vendors. Here you can buy everything from toiletries to food to rugs. It's a great place to find unique souvenirs, like scarves, or buy something you realized you left at home, like a hair brush or phone charger. Another great buy here are stroopwafels. This Dutch treat is a toffee-filled cookie that goes great with coffee or dipped in chocolate (you absolutely should get it dipped in chocolate).
If you're in Amsterdam for longer than a weekend, look into the Iamsterdam card. Purchased at the tourist center across from Amsterdam Centraal, this pass gets you into most museums and attractions and covers trams and buses. You'll need to take the tram to a couple of attractions a day to make it worth your while, so be sure to plan out what you want to visit and when.
Two places covered by the pass are the Van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum museum. While they're located within spitting distance of each other, these museums could not be more different. Van Gogh's is in a modern building and focuses on the life story of the artist. The paintings are split up by time period, and the exhibits chronicle his experiences and inspirations during that era. To visit, you need to book tickets online, even with the pass.
The Rijksmuseum museum, on the other hand, is a massive museum that looks more like a castle. It dives deep into renaissance paintings with a special exhibit dedicated to Holland's own Rembrandt and contains pieces from around the world in exhibits that discuss the Netherland's colonial past, contacts with Japan, and pottery connection to China.
Also covered by the pass, is the zoo. Located more on the outskirts of the city, the zoo is great for kids (and kids at heart). I was blown away by how many animals were kept in enclosures without fences. From camels to monkeys to lions, animals were behind a moat and a waist high wall, and yet none of them escaped!
Along the same lines, the Nemo science museum is also covered by the Iamsterdam pass and great for families. The waterfront museum has a cafe on the roof with an amazing view of the city, making it a great place to sit and watch the sunset, even if you aren't going inside.
Holland is known for their beer and their cheese, so don't miss out on either when you visit. Go on a Heineken brewery tour. You can book tickets online (for a discount if you have the Iamsterdam pass) and the tour includes 2 beers at the end. I've gone on a few brewery tours, and what go me about this one was how high tech the tour was. You went on a virtual rollercoaster down the beer bottling line and poured virtual pints. Plus, the tasting room was more like an underground club than a typical beer hall. Very unique!
If you're looking for traditional Dutch meals, look no farther than bitterballen, which are like croquettes. Bitterballen are are crunchy on the outside, mushy on the inside, and such a staple food even vegan places sell them. Vegan restaurants are growing in popularity in Amsterdam, with places like the the Vegan Junkfood Bar making it easier to cut animal products without saying goodbye to food like burgers. Another food trend in Amsterdam is Indonesian food. While it is mostly served in take out restaurants, Indonesian food is not to be missed.
Amsterdam is world-famous for their pancakes, though these pancakes aren't exactly what an American would when they think "pancake breakfast." An average order includes around 15 light brown, coin-sized pancakes covered in powdered sugar. They're not to be confused with crepes, however, their topping are similar. For example, you won't find any maple syrup, but you can add strawberries, chocolate, or nutella (or all three) if you're looking for a little sweetness in the morning.
After a day of Dutch dinning, keep your adventure going by checking out Amsterdam's night life. If you're looking for a calm night, consider taking a walking tour of the Red Light District to learn more about the infamous neighborhood and the modern politics involved in the oldest profession. Another relaxed option would be visiting a local brewery. Like a lot of cities these days, Amsterdam had joined the micro-brewing trend, and a quick search online can find the closest taproom to you.
If you're looking for a little more action, the clubs in Amsterdam open around 1 AM, and you've got plenty to chose from. Remember to plan how you're getting back from the club before you leave since the trams don't run all night and the buses will switch to a late hour schedule. If that sounds too risky, you can always visit one of the city's many coffee shop instead. Keep in mind that while cafe and coffee shop are used interchangeably in most places, they have two very different meaning in Amsterdam. A cafe is a place that serves coffee, but a coffee shop is somewhere that sells marijuana (and often alcohol). If you're looking to smoke, you can do that inside the coffee shop, but smoking pot outside is not allowed and most hotels and hostels have very strict smoking policies.
Whatever you're hoping to see in Amsterdam, try to get a little outside of your comfort zone and a little closer to the Dutch culture. If you wanted to enjoy the night life, think about adding food and a cruise to your bucket list. If the goal was to see as many museums as possible, stoping by the Heineken Brewery and sitting on top of the Nemo science museum. The city has so much to see, it would be a shame to miss something just because it's not on your typical itinerary.