Amsterdam. City of canals, wonky houses, Old Masters, stroopwafels and ‘coffee’ shops. The Dutch capital may be relatively small but it has so much to offer. With more bridges than Venice, more monuments than any other Dutch city, and more cultural attractions per capita than anywhere else in the world, Amsterdam is a place that I think should be high up on any traveller’s bucket list.
I may be a Dutchie myself, but a southerner from Maastricht I’ve only really gotten to know Amsterdam better over the last couple of months. And every time I’m in town I’m starting to love Amsterdam more and more. Here are ten things I believe you can’t miss when visiting this incredibly beautiful and enticing place:
- Hop on your bike and cycle along the canals
- An overdose of… art
- Wander through the little alleys of De Jordaan
- Snack o’clock Dutch style
- Outdoor and indoor markets
- Take the (free!) ferry to Noord
- Chill in the Vondelpark
- Try some delicious Indonesian food
- Dress up in orange and join the festivities on King’s Day
- Seasonal Instagram dreams: flower fields, beaches, windmills and castles a stone throw away
Hop on your bike and cycle along the canals
The most authentic way to experience the beauty of Amsterdam is to do as the locals do and hop on a (rented) bike to discover the city whilst cycling. The Dutch in general, and the people of Amsterdam in particular, LOVE cycling. In fact, it’s the most common method of transportation (regardless of the weather) – there are even more bikes than citizens in Amsterdam! Bike lanes are everywhere and cyclists often have right of way. And even if they don’t, they will make sure they have, as you will soon find out when in Amsterdam. If you really want to immersive yourself in Amsterdam cycling life, simply ring or shout at that annoying fellow tourist blocking the bicycle lane. Yay, you’re officially an Amsterdammer now!
An overdose of… art
When you say Amsterdam most people think of canals, the Red Light District and the infamous coffeeshops (which are usually filled with tourists wanting to try the local ‘coffee’). But did you know that Amsterdam is also home to some of the most renowned museums in the world? So, if you’re looking for another kind of trip, head to Museumplein (Museum Square) for an overdose of art. Three of the city’s most important museums are located here. The Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national museum, displays an incredible amount of historic Dutch art. Don’t miss its most famous painting: The Night Watch by Rembrandt! On the other side of Museumplein you’ll find the Van Gogh Museum, dedicated to the famous Dutch impressionistic painter. Tickets are only available online, so make sure you book in advance! Next door is the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam’s museum for modern and contemporary art and design. Its new modern extension, which has the shape of a, uhm, bath tub, is one of the new landmarks of Museumplein.
Another tourist favourite is the Anne Frank House, a 17th century canal house that was used by the Jewish girl Anne Frank and her family to hide from the Nazis during World War II. Her captivating story is told here. The queues in front of the museum may have disappeared as of lately, but only because tickets now have to be booked online in advance, so do plan ahead.
Are you visiting Amsterdam during a rainy weekend, or have you already been to the museums above? Not to worry – there are over 50 museums in this city, so enough to see! Some of my personal faves include photography museum FOAM, film museum EYE (in a fascinating futuristic waterside building), science museum NEMO (ideal for kids and adults alike) and the National Maritime Museum (Scheepvaartsmuseum).
Wander through the little alleys of De Jordaan
Seen the Royal Palace, Museum Square and the grand canals and keen to discover something more low-key? De Jordaan is the place to be! This former working class neighbourhood is full of narrow streets with beautiful small houses. Over the past few decades the area has gentrified rapidly and local stores and workshops have made way for art galleries and independent fashion boutiques. If you still want to get a taste of the old community spirit in De Jordaan, pay a visit to the Noordermarkt or Lindengrachtmarkt on a Saturday, two cozy food and flea markets in the neighbourhood.
Snack o’clock Dutch style
Food and the Netherlands – help! I admit, Dutch cuisine is not what you’d call exciting and diverse. But don’t worry, if there’s one thing the Dutch do really well it’s snacks! Whether you have a sweet tooth or fancy something savoury, you’re in the right place in Amsterdam. Of course, the Netherlands is famous for its cheese, but have you tried the other local delicacy: raw herring? I know it doesn’t immediately sound appealing and it might be an acquired taste, but personally I love raw herring, ideally on a bun with some onion and pickled gherkin. Raw herring is sold throughout the city by street vendors and you’ll likely bump into one when in Amsterdam. Go on then, give it a try!
If herring is not your thing (I won’t blame you), you might find kroket more appetising. This deep-fried snack made of beef ragout covered in bread crumbs is one of the most popular Dutch snacks. Some fast food chains (such as FEBO) even sell them out of a wall. Simply enter a coin, open the little door and the kroket is yours! Its smaller brothers are called bitterballen and you can order them with your drink at most bars in Amsterdam.
Hoping to still your sugar craving? Look no further, because this is stroopwafel land. These popular syrup waffles have become a hit well beyond the Netherlands and you can find them in any supermarket or tourist shop. Less well-known are poffertjes, tiny pancakes that were traditionally prepared and sold at street and fun fairs, usually served with butter and icing sugar. Now you can get them with the most insane toppings at many of Amsterdam’s tourist attractions. Finally, the Dutch claim to have the best apple pie (appeltaart) in the world (I agree). The best of the best is served at Winkel 43 in De Jordaan, or so they say… (it IS really good, especially with some whipped cream on the side…)
Outdoor and indoor markets
Amsterdam’s largest daily street market is the Albert Cuyp market in De Pijp, a quaint and lively neighbourhood not far away from Museum Square. Every day, more than 300 vendors line up here to sell their goods, from fruit, veg and fish to jeans and underwear. Although more and more tourists are finding their way to the Albert Cuyp market – the growing number of stroopwafel and Dutch pancake stalls are a sign of this – the place hasn’t yet lost all of its charm and authenticity.
If you’re after an antique bargain, head to the Waterlooplein Market, the oldest flea market in the country. Situated just outside the modern City Hall & Opera building in the heart of Amsterdam, the atmosphere at this market is joyful and relaxed.
The Bloemenmarkt is Amsterdam’s flower market. The market stalls here are small greenhouses floating on the canal, making this the only floating flower market in the world. Its’s a tradition that goes back to 1862 when most flowers were literally shipped here from the countryside.
East Amsterdam, which is yet to be discovered by tourists, is home to the Dappermarkt, an authentic local market that brings together the best of this colourful multicultural neighbourhood.
A relatively new addition to the list of Amsterdam markets that are worth a visit is De Hallen. This former tram depot in the Kinkerbuurt neighbourhood has recently been converted into an indoor market and cultural centre. A special section, called de Foodhallen, is dedicated to international street food. Pizza, burgers, spring rolls or bao buns – you’ll find it here!
Take the (free!) ferry to Noord
North is the new East, or at least in Amsterdam. With numbers of visitors soaring and house prices rising, young people in Amsterdam are making their way up north. What was once an industrial area with docks, factories and warehouses has now become the playground of the city’s young creatives. This is Amsterdam’s answer to London’s East End.
Amsterdam-Noord, as the district is formally known, can easily be reached by taking the ferry from the backside of Central Station. It’s free, runs regularly and 24 hours a day AND you can take your bike on board, so there’s no reason not to go and explore this exciting part of town!
Ferry 901 takes you across the water in just 2 minutes. Take this ferry if you want to visit the EYE film museum, whose futuristic new home has become a new landmark in the city. Next door is the A’DAM tower, once a corporate headquarters, now a hotel, nightclub and observation desk with spectacular views of Amsterdam. The former office canteen has been transformed into an exhibition space with a bar and garden called Tolhuistuin.
However, if you’re keen to experience the more scruffy, creative and exciting bit of Noord, I suggest you take the slightly longer ferry 906 to the NDSM wharf. Upon arrival you might wonder what it is you could do and see here, but look a bit further and you’ll find some pretty cool places such as Pllek, a city beach with a bar and restaurant based inside old sea containers, and Noorderlicht, a greenhouse-turned-quirky-bar. You can even stay the night in style here at Hotel Faralda, which is located on top of a derelict construction crane. Speaking of a room with a view…
Walk or cycle eastwards and, after passing the former IJ-hallen wharf, which is now the site of ateliers and a monthly flea market, you’ll eventually get to Café de Ceuvel. You have to look pretty hard to find this community of entrepreneurs and artists that run a sustainable waterfront café as it’s hidden behind garages and warehouses, but it’s worth the small detour.
It should be obvious by now, but Noord is the place to be. Make sure you’re quick, though, because with the opening of a new north-south metro line in July 2018, this part of Amsterdam is bound to change!
Chill in the Vondelpark
Amsterdam can feel pretty miserable when it’s grey and windy and you’ve just cycled through another rainstorm for the 136th time… That’s why, as soon as the sun comes out, Amsterdammers make the most of it by heading en masse to the Vondelpark, the city’s beloved central park. This tranquil lush oasis feels miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city and it’s an ideal place to walk, cycle, roller skate, relax and soak up some sun. So, if you’re in Amsterdam on a sunny day and in need of some down time, join the locals and other visitors and hit the Vondelpark.
Try some delicious Indonesian food
The Brits have their Indian-inspired curry, the Dutch have the Indonesian rijsttafel. After Indonesia gained independence from the Netherlands in 1945, many Indonesians with Dutch ties decided to move to Holland. Although most made The Hague their home, Amsterdam also has a large Indonesian community. And this is reflected in the food scene. These days, Indonesian and Indonesian-inspired dishes are enormously popular in all of the Netherlands and add some spice and flavour to the otherwise rather *ahum* dull national cuisine.
Across Amsterdam there are many, many Indonesian restaurants and visiting the Dutch capital is a great opportunity to try some of the great variety of dishes that they have to offer. The most popular dish is chicken saté, chicken skewers dipped in peanut sauce, but other national favourites include nasi goreng (stir-fried rice) and bami goreng (stir-fried noodles). If you can’t decide, go for the rijsttafel (rice table) option, which includes small sharing platters of all of the above and much more. Dive in!
Dress up in orange and join the festivities on King’s Day
Question: what is the relation between the Netherlands and the colour orange? Nope, it’s got nothing to do with flowers, nor with strangely-tanned national leaders. The clue is in the name of the Dutch royal family. The Netherlands is a Kingdom ruled by the House of Orange-Nassau, which emerged after the local branch of the European House of Nassau incorporated the French House of Orange (named after the town of Orange in southern France) in the 16th century.
Nowadays, whenever there’s something to celebrate, whether it’s a national holiday or an important international sports event, Dutch people dress up in orange. And the biggest orange party of them all is the birthday of the current King, on the 27th of April. King’s Day, as it’s known, is the most important national holiday in the Netherlands and across the country festivals and events are organised to celebrate. And Amsterdam is THE best place to join the festivities. Not only because its canals turn into one big parade of orange-decorated boats, but also because its streets are the scene of the biggest street party of the year. Because for one day only, anyone in the country is allowed to set up shop outdoors and sell whatever they like, whether it’s home-made food, second-hand clothes or a musical performance. This is Amsterdam at its best. So, take out your orange costume and join the party!
Seasonal Instagram dreams: flower fields, beaches, windmills and castles a stone throw away
Amsterdam can get busy, especially these days, so much so that at times you just want to get out of town. Although the Dutch capital is relatively small, it is situated in an extremely densely populated urbanised area that includes nearby cities such as Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. BUT if you really want to escape the traffic and crowds, there are plenty of more tranquil places to go to as well. Each season has its own special get-away spot. And the best thing is that often you can get there within no time, by public transportation or even by bike!
Visiting Amsterdam in spring? Within an hour by train and bus you can reach the colourful flower fields of Lisse, which is located between Amsterdam and The Hague and also home to the world-class Keukenhof flower gardens (open end March to end-May).
In summer, if you’re lucky and the sun is out, get on a direct train to the seaside. Admittedly, the North Sea might not have the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean, but the sandy beaches and dunes of the Dutch coast make for a wonderful summer day escape. The nearest seaside town is Zandvoort aan Zee, which is only a 30 minute train ride away from Amsterdam Centraal Station. Just north of it lies its posher cousin Bloemendaal aan Zee.
Come autumn, do as the locals do and jump on your bike to Oudekerk aan de Amstel. Only 9 kilometres south of Amsterdam, this quaint little village with canals and windmills is the perfect destination for a day trip by bike. If you want to see the real Dutch windmill deal, head north to the town of Zaandam and Zaanse Schans. Windmills, wooden houses and green fields – it doesn’t get more Instagrammable than this!
Winter could be the perfect time (though frankly any time of the year will do, but I had to come full circle for the purpose of this section…) to head out of the city and visit the magical Muiderslot, a stunning medieval castle surrounded by a moat and gardens. At only 16 kilometres away from the city, it’s now strategically dubbed ‘Amsterdam Castle’, so you won’t be alone here, but visiting this little jewel is a brilliant way to end your tour of this part of the Netherlands.
Amsterdam’s best… (IMHO):
- Coffee: I haven’t been to an awful lot of coffee places in Amsterdam, but Caffè Il Momento, Bocca (both in the city centre), De Wasserette (De Pijp) serve brilliant lattes
- Dutch apple pie: Winkel 43
- Museum: difficult to pick one, but the Rijksmuseum is probably a good start for an introduction into Dutch art and history
- Market: the lively Albert Cuyp market in De Pijp neighbourhood
- Alternative vibes: Pllek, Noorderlicht and Café de Ceuvel in Amsterdam-Noord
- Afternoon snack: a bun with raw herring or kroket from a street vendor
- Drinks away-from-the-crowds: wine bar Glou Glou, arthouse cinema and bar Tolbar or wine bar De Paskamer (all in De Pijp/Diamantbuurt)
- Indonesian food: Tujuh Maret (Centre) Café Tabac (De Jordaan)
- Italian food (in case you want to play safe): Toscanini (De Jordaan), Bussia (Centre)