Amsterdam is without a doubt one of my favorite spots I’ve visited to date. While I found the getting around the city and enjoying myself there to be a relatively straightforward experience, there are a few things that you will want to know before you visit. Here are 13 things to know about Amsterdam.
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1. Bicycles, bicycles everywhere…
Undoubtedly, the first uniquely Amsterdam phenomenon you’ll encounter is all of the bikes (and their incessant bell ringing). There are bikes everywhere and not only that but people on them like to travel quickly sometimes. Everyday I witnessed at least three collisions between pedestrians and cyclists and by the time I left I wasn’t even paying attention to it anymore.
Now, there are bike lanes so if you stay out of those lanes you will be okay most of the time. However, sometimes it’s not clear which lane is for cars, bikes, etc. and sometimes there’s no where to go except for in the bike lane because the sidewalks are taken up. It can get a little crazy but just pay extra attention when crossing any road or walk area and you should be okay.
2. Tons and tons of great snack food options
I had a ton of great food while in Amsterdam… mostly snacks, but food nonetheless. You have to try some of the local foods like bitterballen, stroopwafels, Koffie verkeerd, and all of their other amazing pastries and foods. I also had some fantastic Chinese noodles and pizza while there. See my post of places to eat in Amsterdam for recommendations.
3. The city of Amsterdam is absolutely beautiful!
I’ve never felt the need to just be outside walking around like I did in Amsterdam. The closest city I can think of is Paris but even that doesn’t compare to the walking experience in Amsterdam. I think it also helps that we caught Amsterdam on a flawless fall day. Seeing the yellow leaves hanging over the canals, and passing by beautiful bridge after bridge never got old to me. And just when you’ve think you’ve seen all the canals have to offer, you stroll upon some swans sitting majestically in the water and it blows your mind even more. Add in the Dutch architecture and it’s easy to see why this city blew me away.
So plan some time for just walking around and taking photographs and maybe even consider booking a walking tour of the city.
I found walks around the central canal areas to be great and I also liked the central-western area of the city, known as the Jordaan. Many say that the Jordaan is the most scenic neighborhood in all of Amsterdam but I found just about every area of Amsterdam to be full of noteworthy architecture and sites. Below are some photos of the Damrak, a canal area that you’ll come across as soon as you step out of Central Station.
4. Consider a canal ride but I’d think twice about bike riding
Many recommend a canal ride or bike ride in Amsterdam. I think a canal boat trip would be great. We saw a lot of different places where you could jump on a cruise or rent paddle boats to take down the canals. There are also websites where you can reserve your canal cruise tickets. The usually last about 1 1/2 hours and start at about €12 but they also have dinner cruises or packages that include museum admission so consider those.
Bike riding through Central Amsterdam just didn’t look like it would be a ton of fun to me because there were just too many things going on. Sure it would be cool just to say you did it and you can get around the city quickly. However, if you want great photos I just recommend walking because it will be 10x easier to stop and appreciate all of the beautiful sites without having to worry about wrecking your bike and body in the process. Of course, we were there for the weekend so I’m sure that things would slow down a bit in the middle of the week.
Just be sure that you’re realistic with your bike riding abilities before venturing out in central Amsterdam on a bike. If you’re even a little uncertain, perhaps stick to the outskirts at first. Like I said, it looked a little tricky navigating the pathways around other cyclists, pedestrians, vehicles, and trams and I saw a number of tourists who looked like they had no idea what they were doing. I’m sure bike riding could be a lot of fun in this city, I just don’t necessarily think it’s for those visitors imagining a peaceful stroll along a river side.
5. The train system was a bit confusing but just ask questions — the Dutch are nice and speak great English!
I’d read online somewhere that the rail system was ultra-simple getting from AMS airport to Central Station, but I found it to be a little confusing. For example, it’s a straight shot on the the train from Central Station to AMS but we had to transfer going from AMS to Central. There was some construction happening so maybe it was just that the straight line from AMS was out of service. I put the confusion more on us not researching thoroughly but I still think the stations and trains could use a bit more route maps on display.
Luckily, they speak great English in The Netherlands and you’re bound to find at least one person who knows how to explain the train routes to you so if you get confused just ask. While a taxi would definitely be easier, Brad and I got from AMS to Central Station for only €10 total via train and there’s know way you’re coming close to that with a taxi ride.
6. Central Amsterdam is definitely a party mecca
Central Amsterdam reminded me a lot of a mini Las Vegas, with tons of people collected along a couple of main streets with the primary intention of partying into the late hours of the night. One group of partiers right below our hotel repeatedly broke out in song with “Don’t you want me baby” until the wee hours of the night. And come Saturday morning, the central streets looked like the day after Mardi Gras with trash sweeping through the streets. To be fair, this was all cleaned up by street cleaning trucks pretty quickly in the early morning.
While there is definitely a lot more to Amsterdam than partying, if that’s the atmosphere you are looking forward to then I don’t think you will be disappointed if you visit on a weekend. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a quieter experience (at least at night) then I definitely recommend you staying away from the central streets.
7. You must check out at least one of their museums (but do everything early)
Amsterdam has some amazing museums. The top three for include: the Rijksmusuem, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank House. Either one of these three will be well worth your time. See my recent article on the Rijksmuseum if you don’t believe me. My only bit of advice is to book your tickets online, especially if you are planning on seeing the Anne Frank House. And second, do everything you can to arrive when these places open in the morning (usually 9am). That’s pretty much the only guaranteed way to beat the crowds and will cut down time wasted standing in line.
8. Dutch steps are crazy!
Dutch steps are basically stairs that are as steep as they possibly can be without being a ladder. Sometimes you’ll ask for the bathroom at a restaurant and the next thing you know you are climbing up four stories of steep spiraling stairs. I found it quite fun, but just be prepared for it, especially if you estimate that you’re not going to be in the “clearest of mindsets” during your stay in Amsterdam.
9. Keep Euros on you
A lot of the shops, cafes, and coffeeshops only take cash, so try to always keep some cash on you.
10. Souvenir shops
I always feel the need to comment on souvenir shops because I know a lot of people want to know about them and Amsterdam is definitely a place where you will find unique souvenirs. A lot of the souvenir shops are like 30% sex-shop (mostly innocent type stuff) and 70% actual souvenirs. They also sell Cannibas candy bars and other items of the marijuana-inspired nature. Overall, I felt like most of them had reasonably priced items and a great selection of tulips, delftware, clogs, and vast selections of little Dutch building magnets along with all of the typical stuff. I did hear some talk about vendors ripping off tourists so be aware that that could be going on, though I didn’t have that experience.
11. Amsterdam is very LGBT friendly
I saw a lot of openly gay couples in Amsterdam and it should come to no surprise that Amsterdam would be a very open and LGBT friendly place. There were a number of gay bars but we weren’t able to make it to any of them so perhaps next time.
Almost everyone wants to know about the coffeeshops, right? Well, I’ll just have to say that they are exactly what they are advertised to be. Places where visitors can go and buy and smoke Mary Jane along with consuming other food and drink items. And the coffee shops are pretty much everywhere. Some of these places were extremely packed on the weekend, so I suggest trying a lesser-known place or getting further from the central area if you’re interested in checking them out.
Most bars do not allow you to blow the “do-jo” in them but there were some that I saw that did. They were located behind the Damrak on “Warmoesstraat” street. It’s kind of funny because they only allow weed smoking and not cigarettes. And you will know when you’ve come across one of these places because it will be clearly marked that you can “drink and smoke here!”
One last thing, I would personally recommend keeping the weed-smoking in the coffee shops/bars, open parks (away from children), or in your hotel room (if that’s permitted). It seems that some frown on weed smoking in public and perhaps it annoys many of the locals. I always try to err on the side of not appearing to disrespect locals so that’s why I wouldn’t do so in the streets. But don’t get me wrong, I still saw plenty of people toking up along the streets. So if that’s what you want to do you likely wouldn’t encounter any trouble, especially if it was on a weekend night in the central areas.
13. One last thing: don’t acknowledge the shady people at night
I’ve heard mixed reviews of how safe Amsterdam is. Personally, I felt completely safe at all times near the central area. Of course, if I was a solo female traveler that could have been a little different at times. But even still, I think Amsterdam is a pretty safe city due to the amount of people out on the streets all the time. One tip, though, ignore the sketchy folks who will approach you at night. They’ll try to get your attention to sell you some kind of drugs. Apparently, even if you are interested in getting drugs you don’t want to get them from these people because their stuff is bogus. I have no idea whether that’s true or not but my advice remains the same: just stay away from these people.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.