Famed for its liberal policies and thriving red light district, Amsterdam has long been the favored destination of over-eager European students hoping to embrace their newfound freedom from the depths of a smoky café. Amsterdam’s reputation for rebellion is overrated though – it’s the city’s effortless creativity and laidback charm that really makes the Netherlands’ capital so captivating, from the clusters of quirky art galleries and cozy cafes, to the vibrant summer festivals and infamous party scene.
What to see and do
Navigating Amsterdam’s maze of narrow streets and winding canals is a task best done on foot, with most of the key sights within ambling distance of each other. The city’s main squares make good starting points for exploring the sights – wander through the tourist hubs of Rembrandtplein and Leidseplein to the historic centre of Dam Square, home to the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace) and the Amsterdam Historical Museum. The self-explanatory Museumplein (Museum Square) is home to Amsterdam’s best cultural attractions with the Concertgebouw (Concert Hall), Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum jostling for the spotlight against a pretty garden backdrop.
Penny-pinchers can wander the Renaissence and Baroque gardens of the Rijksmuseum without paying the entrance fee – a worthwhile option if you’ve had your fill of museums. The ever-popular Anne Frank House museum is also nearby, a haunting homage to the legendary diarist set inside the seventeenth-century house where the family spent 25 months hiding from Nazi troops – as one of the city’s most fascinating attractions the queues here can be phenomenally long, so opt to either be the first in or the last out. If all this leaves you gagging for something a bit more light-hearted, head to the unique Klompenmakerij De Zaanse Schans, a fascinating clog-making museum just outside of the city, where Dutch clichés abound but there’s plenty of fun to be had.
The Amsterdam canal network – a mighty 165 canal routes punctuated with over 1000 bridges – was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 2010, and it’s impossible to visit Amsterdam without marveling at the delightfully pretty waterways. Pedalos are available for hire from outside the Rijksmuseum or else a boat tour can be a great way to experience Amsterdam. Those strapped for cash can get a taster on the free Buikersloterwegveer ferry rides, leaving every 15 minutes from the IJ port – it’s a short and sweet 5 minute journey but you can still grab some snapshots along the canal.
Crisscrossed with small canals, the Jordaan area is one of the best places to view picture book Amsterdam, a buzzing arts area oozing with charisma and home to around 40 specialist art and photography galleries. Check out classic and contemporary favorites at The Rockarchive, Galerie Diana Stigter and the Gallery Vassie, or watch artists at work at the Open Ateliers Jordaan studio.
On the subject of the arts, be sure to check out one of the city’s renowned music concerts – if you can’t afford the steep ticket prices, Wednesday rehearsal concerts at the famous Concertgebouw are free or head to Amsterdam Stadhuis/Muziektheater complex on Tuesday lunchtimes for free concerts by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra or the Netherlands Ballet Orchestra.
Once you’ve finished with the sights, it’s time to hit the shops and Amsterdam is a trove of surprising variety when it comes to shopping. Poke around the boutiques and quirky crafts stores of the ‘nine little streets area’ or head to De Bijenkorf (The Beehive), the Harrods of Amsterdam and an iconic landmark in itself.
If you prefer a more authentic experience, the city is littered with local flea markets and farmer’s markets, from the enormous Albert Cuypmarkt general market, to local favorite Lindenmarkt in Jordaan, where a weekly antiques fair is also held or the thriving Waterlooplein bazaar. Flower lovers can marvel over the medley of color at the daily floating flower market, brightening up the Singel Canal with blooms and blossoms from all over Amsterdam. If you fancy taking some of the region’s famous tulips home as a souvenir, bulbs are available for export too.
Finally, it would be unthinkable to visit Amsterdam and not visit the notorious Red Light District, if only to have a glimpse into one of the world’s most notorious crusades for sexual liberation. Unashamedly erotic displays light up the windows of the innumerable sex shops; women dolled up in glorified lingerie beckon from their doorways and the red lighting casts an omnipresent glow over the whole area. Most importantly, though, the heavy police presence and prevalence of security cameras, mean the area is safe for a nighttime stroll, and whatever your views on Amsterdam’s liberalism, you’re sure to gawp and giggle at the oddities along the way.
Eating and drinking
Few people visit Amsterdam without paying a visit to one of the city’s infamous coffee shops, renowned for their liberal policies on cannabis consumption and making them one of the few places in the world where you can purchase cannabis-based products to inhale or eat alongside your coffee. It’s not quite as boundless as it sounds though – there’s a complete ban on the use or sale of hard drugs on the premises, an under-18 age restriction and a strictly imposed limit per individual customer, so the situation is a lot more controlled than it may first appear.
Whether or not you choose to partake in the mind-bending activities, sipping a coffee and soaking up the unique atmosphere is a crucial part of understanding Amsterdam’s matchless free spirit and thanks to the smoking ban, indoor seats will be reserved for non-smoking patrons to observe the action. There are hundreds of coffee houses dotted through the city but the infamous Mellow Yellow, the first coffee shop to open up back in the 1970s, is a good starting point or else, visit local favorites Amnesia, Barney’s Lounge or the Dampkring.
New laws prohibit the coffee shops from serving alcohol, so if you want to sample the legendary Dutch beer you’ll need to head to one of the pubs, often called ‘Brown cafes’ or Eetcafes, where locals sip beer and munch on a selection of ‘hopjes’ (a Dutch twist on Spanish tapas). Beer aficionados can take a Heineken Experience brewery tour or sample one of the city’s many microbreweries like the unique Brouwerij’t IJ, housed in a windmill.
When it comes to food, the best way to sample some local produce is to hit the farmer’s markets. Noordermarkt on Saturday mornings or the roving De Pure Markt both offer an array of homegrown goods for great prices – homemade sausages, micro-brewed beers, gooey stroopwafel (syrup waffles) and some of the best cheeses in the country are all on offer and there are plenty of free samples, so bring an empty stomach and an open mind. If you’re still hungry afterwards, pick up a bag of French fries and mayonnaise on the walk home – the fast food of choice for Amsterdamers.
Thanks to the 17th Century Dutch occupation of Indonesia, an array of Southeast Asian spices and cooking styles have worked their way back to the low country and the abundance of world-class Indonesian cuisine is one of Amsterdam’s best claims to foodie fame. Head for one of the city’s gourmet Indonesian restaurants, like Tempoe Doloe or Sama Sebo and try the Indo-Dutch specialty Rijsttafel (rice table) where a feast of bite sized dishes and rice provide a spicy introduction to the Asian palette.
Lovers of international food will find a plethora of different cuisines around the Nieumarkt and Damstraat districts and those with a sweet tooth will find plenty to satisfy their urges too – try bakery chain De Bakkerswinkel for homemade cheesecakes and pastries, sample some of the best chocolaty treats in Europe at Puccini Bomboni or wander down Nieuwendijk kolk to grab some of the city’s best ice cream.
Best insider tips
Best money saving tip: There are a plethora of free attractions in the city and many of them easily walkable, but if you’re planning a thorough exploration of the city, pick up an I amsterdam card. This will not only give you free city-wide transport on trams, buses and underground, but offers free entrance to many of the city’s most popular attractions, a free canal cruise and 25% discount on many shops, restaurants and admission fees.
If you only have one day in the city: Hire a bike. There’s nothing more quintessentially Dutch than cruising the city streets on a trusty push bike – the city has one of the highest cyclist populations in the world, and if you’re short on time, hiring a bicycle will enable you to soak up the atmosphere, hop off at a few keys sights and prop it up outside the café of your choice when you need a break. As the sun sets, glide along the picturesque waterways and bike down to the Amstel River where the famous Skinny Bridge will be aglow with lights.
Browse bike tours in Amsterdam.
An often-overlooked place/attraction you love: Get well off the tourist trail and head out of the city centre for some outdoors activities at the Amsterdamse Bos (the Amsterdam Forest). Walk or cycle around the forest pathways; hire canoes, kayaks and pedalos on the lakes, or explore the scenery from horseback. There’s even an open-air theatre, which comes alive with free performances in the summer months.
The best thing to eat in the city: The brave will find little excuse to avoid tucking into the Dutch speciality of raw herring and the streets of the capital are peppered with stalls brandishing the fish, served draped in onions and pickles. Late spring and early summer offer the sweetest fresh catches. If raw fish isn’t your thing, you’ll be glad to tuck into Amsterdam’s other speciality – thick sweet or savory pancakes. The Pannenkoekenhuis at Grimburgwal 2 is one of the city’s most popular pancake restaurants, as is the aptly named Pancakes! Restaurant. If you prefer your pancakes sweet, look out for poffertjes: hot, squidgy balls of pancake batter dusted with sugar.
- Zoë Smith
Editor’s Note: Viator held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their Amsterdam adventures!