My first time to Amsterdam was in the mid 90s. I was about 21 years old and can’t even recall how long, or how short, my stay there was. Yeah, it was the typical young male 20-something Amsterdam visit, inspired by the fact that I had a flight going through Schiphol Airport and wanted to experience getting high in the open – a real novelty when you’re 21.
It was a great trip, and I certainly don’t berate anyone for wanting to visit Amsterdam to experience tolerant drug culture (although you can even get that in Colorado now). But Amsterdam is a lot more and on a recent visit, this time with kids and for a few weeks, I was blown away at this whole other personality the city has away from the red light district.
Here’s 10 tips for anyone planning a visit and wanting to see this other side of Amsterdam:
1. Go to The Amsterdam Museum – open 10am to 5pm at Kalverstraat 92, Amsterdam
In my opinion, the perfect way to start your stay. There’s a DNA Amsterdam interactive exhibit that takes you through the centuries, explaining the creation and development of the city and putting into perspective its growth and decline – first as a hugely successful merchant town, whose residents built nice homes in the 17th century to show off their wealth (spawning the entire Dutch Golden Age of Painting), and how this evolved into the land-of-liberty that Amsterdam is infamous for today. The museum is full of insights into the current attitude of the people – a small city that is worldly and can boast an ability to relate, communicate and tolerate other cultures. Then, as you walk around the city and admire the architecture of canal houses and the ability of the Dutch to speak English so well, you’ll understand the historic legacy that these (and many other aspects of the city) come from.
2. Stay in the Jordaan
This is the area West of the central station about a 20 minute walk away, bordered by the Lijnbaansgracht canal to the West, the Prinsengracht street on the East (where the Anne Frank House is), and the Brouwersgracht and Leidsegracht on the North and South.
The area is filled with great restaurants, cafes, vintage clothing shops, and doesn’t feel as touristy as the area around the Dam.
This is a neighborhood you can easily feel at home in. There’s a great organic market every Saturday from 9am to 6pm at the Noordermarkt. Come in the morning and get a piece of delicious apple pie from Winkel at Noordermarkt, 43. They also make a great cappuccino. For a cute little hotel, check out the Hotel Acacia (clearly I’m biased by the name) on Lijnbaansgracht. Not in the same neighborhood, but recommended is Cocomama colleagues of ours in the Luxury Hostels of Europe project.
3. Buy tickets to the Anne Frank house in advance.
This picture says it all. Opening hours vary depending on the season, but in the summer, even open until 9pm, you can expect a line like this all day long. Buy your tickets online in advance and enjoy the feeling of bypassing the long queue and instead walking right up to the ticket holders door to buzz and get let in like a VIP.
4. Eat Cheese
I’m a sucker for cheese, and a food snob. Amsterdam didn’t disappoint. There’s more than Gouda and Edam – in fact, we had cheese with truffles, cheese with nettles, and varying degrees of texture and pungency. There’s the touristy Cheese Museum on the Prinsengracht, across the canal from the Anne Frank house which does have great cheeses:
5. Watch out for bicycles!
Takes a bit of getting used to, but you can’t just step down off a sidewalk without risking a major collision. Since they’re quiet, it’s especially dangerous if you don’t stay aware. Make sure to keep off the bicycle lanes which this town is chock full of.
6. Rent a boat and cruise the canals.
Here’s the best way to do this: make friends with a local who either has a boat or can borrow one. You bring the wine and cheese (see nr. 4) and enjoy seeing Amsterdam from a whole other vantage point. This, to me, is the city at its best! For those of you less outgoing, and/or more confident in your boating skills, you can rent your own through Boats4Rent for about €80 for 3 hours (you need to reserve it in advance), or you can do a canal cruise, tourist style, in many places along the city (there’s even a hop-on, hop-off version).
7. Visit the Nemo Science Museum
This ship-like science museum is one of the best I’ve been to. Perfect for kids and the young at heart. Each floor is dedicated to a different age group. There’s plenty to entertain and teach little kids as well as teens (and adults as well). The entire slanted rooftop is a terrace/garden cafe – a great place to hang out on a clear day.
8. Take advantage of speaking English without apology
I know – traveling in a foreign country can be tough when you can’t communicate. If you speak English, communicating won’t be a problem here. This great video from the Dutch Tourist Board makes it clear – there’s only one guy left who doesn’t speak English! You will not be practicing your Dutch in Amsterdam.
9. Spend some time at the Rijksmuseum
Recently reopened after a 10 year restoration and it was well worth the wait. Another of Europe’s enormous art museums that you can’t visit in a day, the Rijksmuseum is probably the only one with a bike path running through it! Although filled with works from many eras, the highlights are the Dutch masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer and the Asian Pavillion. Book your tickets online and get there early to beat the crowds.
My experience with museums is usually to leave feeling drained and in need of a nap, and being tossed into the sea of humanity. At the Rijksmusuem, you can stumble out exhausted, but then take a break outside in the beautiful expanse of lawn, benches, a cafe, and fountain you’ll see kids playing in to cool off in the summer. If you hold onto your ticket, you can also take a museum break out on their lawns and then go back in.
Museums are expensive in Amsterdam and it can add up. If you plan on visiting several museums, it would be a good idea to invest in the Museumkaart which you can purchase at select museums and allows you entry into any of Amsterdam’s 34 museums including the Amsterdam Museum, Anne Frank House and NEMO mentioned above and is valid for one year. Check out the other pass options also such as Amsterdam Holland Pass or I amsterdam card which include free entries, discounts and public transit.
10. Get a piercing or tattoo!
Definitely not a typical entry for a top 10 list, but Amsterdam is a good place for it! We recommend Dare 2 Wear just off Haarlemmerdijk on Buiten Oranjestraat 15 for piercings or their Classic Ink & Mods at Spaarpotsteeg 2 for tattoos. Friendly, hygienic, professional, good English – everything you want in a piercing or tattoo parlor in a foreign city. Makes a great birthday present for a 13 year old too!
Bonus tip: Pig out on the vlaamse frites (belgian fries)
No trip to Amsterdam would be complete without queuing up at the hole in the wall Vlaams Friteshuis, sausmeesters since 1887. Located on Voetboogstraat 33, and always busy, this is clearly why potatoes exist.