By The Non Fiction Author
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Introduction: Why You Will Fall in Love with Amsterdam!
Chapter 1: Tips to Make the Most Out of This Guide
Chapter 2: Amsterdam at a Glance (North, South, East, West)
Chapter 3: The Top 10 Things You Must Absolutely Do In Amsterdam
Chapter 4: Crash Guide to Amsterdam’s Best Cuisine
Chapter 5: Where to Sleep (Options According to Each Budget)
Chapter 6: What’s The Best Time to Go to Amsterdam?
Chapter 7: Quick Guide to Amsterdam’s Museums
Chapter 8: Amsterdam’s Nightlife – This Is What You Cannot Miss
Chapter 9: Living In Amsterdam As a Local
Chapter 10: The Dutch Mentality, Day Trips & Getting Around
Chapter 11: Preparing Your Budget In Advance
Chapter 12: Southern Canal Ring (Grachtengordel)
Chapter 13: Jordaan & the west
Chapter 14: Old South
Chapter 15: De Pijp
Chapter 16: The Plantage, Eastern Docklands and the IJ
Chapter 17: South Amsterdam
Conclusion: Aren’t Your Excited? Your Trip Is About to Begin!
Chances are, you’ve heard one or two things about Amsterdam already: seventeenth century buildings and readily available hash, the Van Gogh gallery and erotic museums, a laid back atmosphere and a liberal tolerance, eccentrics and slick business types; Amsterdam blends history and urban flair unlike any other city in Europe. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been around the world twice, you’re a first-time traveler, or you’re somewhere in-between, Amsterdam offers something new at every gabled corner, and to suit all tastes.
The capital of the Netherlands is a lively juxtaposition of cobbled streets and pretty canals, with an easily accessible underbelly of fascinating quirks. Whether you’re here for a weekend break or as part of a longer Europe trip, there are many superlatives to describe Amsterdam, and boring is never one of them. Explore concentric horseshoes of canals by bike – navigating the compact warren of heritage buildings studded with offbeat shops and bars. Stop cycling to traverse the city’s waterways, flanked by boats and barges, the perfect way to spend a lazy afternoon and to understand Amsterdam’s seamless diversity. Museum-hop by foot; echoing the Dutch Eco-spirit whilst choosing a handful from hundreds of cultural centers and galleries to expand your knowledge.
Amsterdam, of course, has a striking reputation. Many people feel intimidated by the idea of visiting, and shouldn’t feel bad about that – however, this is a city filled with alternatives, both for those uninspired by the tolerant attitudes, and for those not sufficiently challenged by Rembrandt and the Rijksmuseum. Everything you’ve heard about Amsterdam is true, and it isn’t true; some justified, some blown up. There are layers of understanding to this city which you can peel back and give you new insight visit after visit. Over the past couple of decades or so, Amsterdam has softened its edge. Though you can still find groups of blokes on the prowl in the Red Light District, along with backpackers and sixties throwback crowds here solely to get stoned, the small-city segmentation by its canals means you can just as easily find your way to cosmopolitan shopping districts, boutique bars, and peaceful parks within a city utterly brimming with culture.
For new travelers, Amsterdam is one of Western Europe’s great gateway cities. This is a place which gives those in their late teens and early twenties, or those unsure or inexperienced in wandering the world, a taste of life beyond their own borders. Not only an early port of call for Europeans, Amsterdam is often the first long haul destination for many Americans and Australians, seeking a heady mixture of rich culture, eclectic beauty and vibrant parties after sundown. This city might be on the other side of the world, with a startlingly laissez-faire attitude, but it’s also a home from home. Not only is it easy to find your way around, but Amsterdammers would describe their city as gezellig, their well-worn buzz word meaning a combination of ‘cosy’, ‘warmly convivial’, and ‘lived-in’.
For the well-travelled, Amsterdam is ever-evolving and making constant headway in terms of counterculture and development – leading the list of consistently visit-able European cities. Though many travelers return to Amsterdam to find new clubs, more up-market establishments and exciting regeneration projects, most return time and time again for what remains sacred to the city – the cheery intimacy of Dutch cafes, the human and physical warmth at its open-air summer events, the swath of art moving through the city and the proximity of atmospheres to suit every mood: oases of calm found right next to bustling markets.
Are you ready to start the journey?
This is an independent city guide written to help you plan the best Amsterdam trip for you. Rather than feeding you sponsored advertisements for establishments cloaked in convincing travel rhetoric, everything you find here has been included by normal travelers, with the help of friendly locals, simply because they really like Amsterdam and want to share their experiences with you. Any recommendations for restaurants, bars or hotels have been made from personal experience gratuitously, rather than through commercial endorsement.
Part one of this guide is designed to help you plan and prepare you for your trip to Amsterdam, equipping you with the knowledge you’ll need before you go; including where to stay, how to get there, how to budget, suggested itineraries, and some cultural insight.
Part two gets down into the finer detail, painting a picture of areas within Amsterdam and what you can expect, where to go and what to do along with closely felt accounts of the kinds of experiences the city offers.
Read on to discover the best of Amsterdam’s nightlife and tips to make the most of your stay after sundown. These days, as a conscious testament to its ever-sleeker image, it’s not hard to find an alternative to what is sometimes referred to as ‘Amster-damage’. Whether you choose a traditional brown café or a stylish club; you’re opting for top-notch jazz venues, gay bars or prestigious orchestras, your planned evening is just a skim-read away.
We’ve collected the best for globe-trotting foodies where you can find an up-and-coming Indonesian restaurant or a Dutch culinary experience. You can enjoy dining in Amsterdam whether you’re counting Michelin stars or you’re counting your euros.
We will also help you to decide which museums and galleries to visit depending on your interests and how much time you have – in the knowledge that you could easily spend days if not weeks hopping from one to the other, and seeing nothing else.
Want to understand a bit about Dutch culture before you embark on your trip? This guide offers a brief, albeit discursive snapshot of traditional outlooks, shifting attitudes and counterculture in Amsterdam and the Netherlands at large, to help you begin to paint a picture of this city – both before you travel, and to help understand it whilst you’re there.
This guide has been approached with a dose of Dutch tolerance. Here, we will show you every side to this incredible city, its culture and history, and provide an honest insight into the many sights and activities which are worth your time in Amsterdam – along with sifting out those over hyped tourist traps which are best avoided. We’re an open e-book.
The most populous city in the Netherlands, Amsterdam is the nation’s capital despite the fact that the Dutch government sit at The Hague. The city’s region has a population of around 2.4 million, with approximately 824,000 living in Amsterdam itself. Located in North Holland, this province is unexpectedly to the west of the country jutting out into the North Sea, which gives Amsterdam its name as a dam of the river Amstel, and its origin as a small 12th century fishing village. Today, the city is defined by its interlacing canals, which form its skeleton, looping outwards from its historical and tightly packed centre, which only takes around 40 minutes to cover by foot from one end to the other. The Damrak and the Rokin are the city’s main streets, a continuation of one another and bisecting the Old Centre, the city’s commercial heart which spreads south of Centraal Station, and bumping into the Dam on the way, Amsterdam’s main square. East of the Damrak lies the Red Light District, which also happens to be home to some of the city’s most beautiful architecture – namely the Oude Kerk and the Koninklijk Paleis. The ‘Girdle of Canals’ or Grachtengordel begin around the old centre with the Singel canal, followed by the concentric horseshoe shapes of Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht which form a web carving up Amsterdam.
In this way, Amsterdam still looks very much like it did in the 17th century, when the Dutch Golden Age alleviated its status to the world’s richest city and an international sea-trading port. Captured in the cradle of capitalism, these iconic waterways bear the original evidence of a major urban extension built by wealthy, democratic burghers – middle class citizens; a wonderland of canals to explore fringed with trees and fancy townhouses. This image might be well-worn, but it’s still completely authentic, and as memorable as it is unmoving. The Old Centre was once also the home of Ann Frank Huis, a young Jewish diarist who went into hiding during the German occupation of World War II; the house in which she stayed still serving as a poignant reminder of the Holocaust, and forming one of Amsterdam’s most precious attractions.
Immediately to the west lies the Jordaan, once an industrial slum – and then home to working class Amsterdam. It is now almost completely gentrified, but still filled with personality and bags of fun to explore, with hidden eateries, an overwhelming amount of cafes and a genuine sense of local conviviality. Hugging Jordaan is the Western Docklands, a group of artificial islands used for the shipping industry until quite recently. A highlight is the district of De Pijp, an island joined to the city by 16 bridges with an accurately proclaimed ‘village feel’.
The Old Jewish Quarter, to the east of the Old Centre, was home to a thriving Jewish community until the German Occupation’s arrival, but some highlights have survived its heavy handed history, including pretty synagogues and interesting Jewish museums. The adjacent Plantage area makes for an excellent stroll through 19th century buildings and is named after the plantations the Dutch tended in their colonies. Eastern Docklands and the islands are a refreshing breather and a contrast to city life.
The city’s finest finger of green is probably Vondelpark – a long, thin stretch you’re able to explore in an afternoon and surrounded by amazing ethnic eateries, just a stone’s throw away from the Museum Quarter, home of the famous Rijkmuseum and the Van Gogh museum. The outer fronds of the web are where the residential suburbs spread, and although there aren’t many specific sightseeing wonders, areas like Oosterpark & South Amsterdam are a worthwhile visit because of their cultural diversity, and the fact that they haven’t been picked up on the trendsetters’ radar yet. Spiraling out further you takes you to green pastures and the rural fringes of the city – Amsterdam extends well beyond here, and offers a handful of exciting day trips out of the city, too.
1. Day at the museums
Amsterdam itself is basically one big museum, so scouting out which ones you want to visit requires some planning. There are the main heavyweights which are a must for first-time visitors – the refurbished Van Gogh museum containing a chronological story through over 200 paintings; the Ann Frank Huis, offering the powerful echoes of a Jewish family fleeing Nazi persecution in 1942; and the Rijkmuseum, designed for art gluttons who will certainly get their fill – and the 40 Rembrandts are just the beginning. Then there are the rest, and there’s something for everyone. We’ll take you through the greatest and the most bizarre.
2. Stop, smell the flowers and experience iconic Amsterdam
Amsterdam is a city full of crafts and symbolic images: think cheese, tulips, clogs and windmills. Beyond the clichés, though, lie unique traditions and rare sights. The best place to see tulips is largely considered to be Bloemenmarkt, a resplendent collage of colour, with plants and flowers displayed in barges along the southern side of the Singel. We also love The Cocono gardens, and the Elsmir Flower Auction, a hard sell but well worth the train ride out of the city. Follow your nose to the Reypenaer Tasting Rooms to sample some top notch warehouse ripened cheese. Sip a beer at the award-winning artisan brewery, Brouwerij’t IJ whilst marveling at De Gooyer, the most famous of Amsterdam’s eight remaining windmills.
3. Find your favourite way from A to B: lose yourself on the canal belt by boat, by bike and by foot
The banks of the canals are pretty public pathways, ripe for exploration by foot or by bike. Cars are unwelcome in this city, but cycling is authentic, cheap and reflects the Dutch appetite for eco-friendliness. A good place to start is Prinsengracht, a canal fringed with trees and docked with decorated, bohemian houseboats. If you want to ride like a real Amsterdammer, crisscross your way over bridge and around bike lanes with steely nerves and sharp eyes – these guys move fast, and take their cycling seriously. If you’re a pedestrian, be aware of the fast-moving two-wheeled traffic.
4. Weeding out the best cafes
Meet some locals and hang out in a cafe, or bar. Amsterdam’s famous brown cafes are known as such owing to stains from years of smoking within their walls, but you don’t need to partake to enjoy the eclectic bar culture here. During the day, these cafes are cosy homes-from-home, and by night they are a bustling hive of activity, usually not closing until 3am at weekends. Start in the Jordaan district; although it’s now largely gentrified, with many locals lamenting its loss of character, Café Thijssen is still a firm favourite, and you’ll never go thirsty down these streets with bars like Twee Zwaantjes and Wynand Fockink to keep you entertained, and with endless fun at popular gay bar Prik.
5. Catch live music, from jazz in the eastern Docklands to raucous rock gigs at a former church
Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ is a relatively new music theatre in the blustery eastern Docklands, catering for all musical tastes, from classical pieces, to contemporary music ensembles, to bizarre multi-media shows. Paradiso is a cornerstone of the Amsterdam music scene, offering cosy shows in the intimate setting of a converted church; it might be grand and ornate, but it’s surprisingly relaxed here, and the smaller hall upstairs is a great place to catch up and coming talent.
6. Seek out street art and vintage finds at alternative markets
Amsterdam’s flea markets are the best way to sample a taste of the city’s rich multitude of ethnicity. For all kinds of bits and bobs on a budget, and the essence of Dutch daily life, head to the heart of Pijp for Albert Cuypmarkt. Then, each pocket of Amsterdam will have their own market offerings of all shapes and sizes: for authenticity, choose Dappermarkt in Oost, Noordermarkt in Jordaan for organic farmers fare on Saturdays and antique offerings on Mondays, and the big, bustling, comparatively touristy Waterlooplein bazaar and flea market at Jodenburt. For cutting edge creativity, hit the streets; it’s not hard to find al fresco art on almost every corner, with locally heralded guerilla poet Laser 3.14 scrawling one-liners all over the city, and Kamp Steerdorf, with his recognisable football inspired cutouts. There are even a host of pop-up urban galleries emerging, notably Go Gallery, on the grand Prinsengracht, selling work by the artists who decorate the structures around the surrounding area.
7. Devour street food and embrace Indonesian eateries
Amsterdam is undergoing a sort of foodie renaissance, but there are certain traditions that must be upheld: you must, for example, try raw herring – stop looking uncomfortable and get on with it. Flesh is at its sweetest between May and July, and at other times you may need some requisite onions or pickles to really set it off. Try Stubbe’s Haring near Centraal Station for a no frills local experience. Then move onto smoked eel. This is also the place to get some great Indonesian cuisine – Indonesia was formerly a Dutch colony and, after granting the country independence, the Netherlands welcomed many Indonesian immigrants. Thanks to them, you can try rijsttafel (or rice table) a mixture of little portions including rice, vegetables, fish and meat to add spice to any occasion.
8. Stop in secret gardens and big green breathing spaces
Around a nook or pokey corner, and at the end of labyrinthine waterways, you can find the most secluded spots of nature. Tucked behind a door on the Spui Square, the Begijnhof is a grassy courtyard and oasis of calm surrounded by 14th century cottages. Although popular with visitors, noise levels never rise above a whisper here, possibly because it was formerly a convent, housing the religious and liberated sisterhood of the Beguines. At the heart of the city, Vondelpark holds free concerts and is a popular hangout for the city’s young folks, who set up camp during the long summer days with picnics and bottles of wine.
9. Wander the Red Light District to see firsthand the famous sex trade and culture
Amsterdam’s Red Light District is famous the world over, and a part of the city which has to be seen. That first surreal moment when you round the corner of a gabled 17th century facade and see a street of (usually) women on window display is difficult to forget. To paint a picture in your mind’s eye, imagine a small and historical Vegas – a scene of oversized dildos and tacky blowup dolls set on a backdrop of rich historical structures and some of the city’s most beautiful buildings. Even more peculiar is the range of people wandering around here, an eclectic mix of prostitutes and pimps, police officers, businessmen, carpenters and junkies. Pay less than a euro to glance around the curtain of a live sex show, be fascinated – or shocked, and leave. Don’t take photos: you’ll quickly find out that this is not appreciated.
10. Stay for a summer of endless festivals, for free and for fun
Keep free festivals on your radar in Amsterdam – there are plenty of them: King’s Day, Gay Pride, the Uitmarkt, Amsterdam Heritage Days, National Windmill Day, National Museum Weekend, the Canal Festival and the Amsterdam Light Festival. Dutch dance music is some of the best, so be sure to bookmark these, too; Mystic Garden in June with its extra sprinkling of magic, booming house and deep disco at A Day at the Park in July, and the underground Welcome to the Future later in the month are all the order of the year in this city bursting with festivities.
You might not hear little noises of pleasure uttered when people describe Dutch cuisine, like say, French or Italian – and in this way, food from the Netherlands is still a well-kept secret. What’s more interesting for visitors, Dutch food isn’t something you would normally get from your local takeaway in your home country, and you’d probably be hard pushed to find restaurants selling local fare, but this, surely, is the most exciting part: delve into the unknown for an entire culinary discovery in Amsterdam. Indonesian rice tables, moreish Moroccan plates, snacks of pickles and fish and piping hot global eats will make your mouth water, and offer a sensual dining and street food experience. Amsterdam’s great food is a satisfying secret to keep.
Top things to try
• Stamppot: go Dutch with traditional mashed potato and vegetables – normally kale or endive – served with smoked sausage or strips of pork.
• Erwtensoep: a thick pea soup with a deep flavour of smokiness through added sausage and bacon
• Pannenkoeken: Dutch pancakes – huge and comparatively elastic to the North American variety. Can be eaten topped with sweet or savoury ingredients
• Haring: the famous, traditional Dutch snack of pickled herring, onion and gherkin, usually served on a bread bun
• Kroketten: yummy dough ball snacks coated in bread crumbs and deep fried. Bitterballen are the meat-filled variety, usually served with mustard
• Vlaamse frites: a subtle (unidentifiable) variation on the classic French fries, with a myriad of gooey, delicious sauces lathered all over them – mainly mayonnaise
• Rijsttafel: a veritable banquet of little Indonesian dishes, including the likes of beef, ribs and pork satay served with white rice. For noodles, ask for Bami rames in place of rice. For the spice shy, restauranteurs will usually tone down the heat for westerners. If you’re a chili champion, brace yourself and ask for pedis (hot), but be prepared for a full on inferno for your taste-buds
• Surinamese: this Carribean-style cuisine is a must-try; heavy lamb or beef curries, and roti, bread, wrapped like a burrito around seasoned meat or vegetables
Top tips for dining in Amsterdam
• Service won’t necessarily come with a smile – it’s generally pretty impersonal and can be slower than some people expect, but it’s not directed at you
• Most restaurants serve lunch from 11.00 – 2.30pm, and dinner from around 6pm – 10pm
• Tips are given by diners, but maybe more modestly than you're used to. A 10% tip is considered generous here; 5% will do. If you're paying by credit card, state the full amount you want to pay, including tip. Some restaurants add a 5% surcharge for using credit card, and many restaurants don't allow card payments at all.
We bring you a tried and tested guide of the best places to eat around Amsterdam, from high end intimacy to top notch street food.
Eating on a budget
• A typical Dutch breakfast is a ‘uitsmijter’; double eggs on bread with cheese and/ or ham. It will fill you up and won’t cost much if you have it at a typical local Dutch cafe.
• For breakfast, you can also hit a bakery: drop into Hartog’s Volkoren Bakkerij on Wibautstraat for freshly baked bread just the way it should be
• Head to MKZ for a €5 three-course Vegan meal cooked by a bunch of cool people in a neighbourhood house
• Dutch snackbars, Turkish pizza snackbars or Febo (snackfood) have always been a cheap, if not very healthy option for a quick low budget filler. Try patat met mayonaise. No translation necessary
• Make the most of Eetcafes, small local diners serving simple meals for modest prices, with the atmosphere of a restaurant. De Blaffende Vis will give you great quality for your euros, on Westerstraat in the northern part of the Jordaan quarter
• If you’re really on a budget, head to a squat restaurant. Volunteers run these very cheap eateries – e.g. MKZ above. Call ahead to make a reservation so they can make enough food, turn up, eat whatever has been prepared (generally vegetarian) and enjoy a bill for under €10: Moya on Frederik Hendrikstraat serves food free every Thursday, and you’ll find the Einde van de wereld serving eco treats on the boat Quo Vadis every Wednesday and Friday.
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Chances are, you've heard one or two things about Amsterdam already: seventeenth century buildings and readily available hash, the Van Gogh gallery and erotic museums, a laid back atmosphere and a liberal tolerance, eccentrics and slick business types; Amsterdam blends history and urban flair unlike any other city in Europe. It doesn't matter if you've been around the world twice, you're a first-time traveler, or you're somewhere in-between, Amsterdam offers something new at every gabled corner, and to suit all tastes. The capital of the Netherlands is a lively juxtaposition of cobbled streets and pretty canals, with an easily accessible underbelly of fascinating quirks. Whether you're here for a weekend break or as part of a longer Europe trip, there are many superlatives to describe Amsterdam, and boring is never one of them. Explore concentric horseshoes of canals by bike – navigating the compact warren of heritage buildings studded with offbeat shops and bars. Stop cycling to traverse the city's waterways, flanked by boats and barges, the perfect way to spend a lazy afternoon and to understand Amsterdam's seamless diversity. Museum-hop by foot; echoing the Dutch Eco-spirit whilst choosing a handful from hundreds of cultural centers and galleries to expand your knowledge.