City Guide: Amsterdam – Things to Do other than Visit ‘Coffee’ Shops
Everyone knows Amsterdam, and it is infamous for being the city of sin. From it’s wide array of coffee shops to countless streets cloaked in red lights, if you tell a friend you’re going to visit they certainly don’t expect it to be innocent.
Regardless, you don’t have to be the seedy type to enjoy Amsterdam. If you don’t smoke, do drugs, or have sex with strangers, you can still have a lot of fun! The canals that weave their way through the city are gorgeous, and if you’re an art or history lover, there are tons of world-renowned museums to choose from. You just need to plan ahead!
Expect lots and lots of people. We should have seen it coming, but it was a little bit overwhelming, especially compared with all of the other cities we had visited that trip for our Benelux tour (Luxembourg, Brussels, Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp). We asked a local if it was normal to have so many people or if it was just because of the holiday weekend (we went for Spring Break), and she replied that it was always like that. So prepare yourself.
- Where is it located? Amsterdam is the capital city of the Netherlands, and is located in the center of the country. The Netherlands shares its’ borders with Germany and Belgium.
- What language do they speak? The official language of the country is Dutch, but a large percentage of the population also speak a high level of English, so you won’t have a difficult time getting around. However, locals always appreciate the effort if you learn some things in Dutch. For some helpful Dutch phrases, go here.
- What currency do they use? The Euro.
- Interesting Facts about Amsterdam:
- Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is 4 meters under sea level.
- Every year about 10k bikes are pulled out of the Amsterdam canals.
- There are 165 canals in Amsterdam, and when put together, it measures to over 100 kilometers.
- There are over 1500 bars and cafes in Amsterdam.
Depending on where you’re departing from, you have many options for arriving to this gem of a city. My friends and I were coming from Belgium, so we took the train. To compare your various options based on your location, I recommend using the website Rome2Rio. There is also an airport, so you have many options at your disposal.
Transportation from Airport
- Cheapest & Fastest: By Train
- There is a direct route from the airport to the Amsterdam Central Station. It runs about every 10 to 15 minutes during the day, and in the early morning hours it comes once an hour. You will need to purchase an OV-chipcard. For more information, visit the official Amsterdam website.
- By Bus
- Depending on the location of your accommodations, a bus could also be a good option (although it isn’t as fast as the train, and it can also get quite crowded). Check on Google Maps to see which option works best for you.
- By Shuttle
- A shuttle run by Connexxion departs every 10 minutes. For more information, go here.
- By Taxi
- If you have a lot of luggage, a taxi could be your best option. The airport is always super busy, and if you travel during peak times, the trains and buses might be packed. There are generally taxis waiting out front, but it can also be a good option to book a taxi in advance so you don’t have any problems. As like in any city, make sure you get into an official taxi and not just a random car!
- By Car
- If you plan to visit neighboring towns on your visit, a car could be a good option, although it is highly recommended to use public transportation within the city itself. Parking can be quite difficult, and it is easy to get around Amsterdam by foot or by bus/tram. All of the major rental car agencies can be found at the airport.
Getting Around the City
- The 3 Day Pass
- The public transportation pass is very confusing, even though they sell it to you as being very simple and all-inclusive. We bought a 3 day pass for 25€, and they assured us that it worked on all buses, trams, metros and trains in the city. But that’s the trick, right there… the airport and the hotel where we were staying (see below) are NOT technically in the city of Amsterdam. So when we tried to take the night bus back, we were told that our passes were useless and we’d have to pay 7€. We definitely weren’t happy campers. Luckily, the bus driver was kind enough to let us on anyways. But all of that stress was enough to really put a damper on our trip, especially since we had 2 more nights to figure out. Depending on where you choose to stay, and what your plans are, the bus/train pass may or may not be worth it.
- Another ridiculous thing about the pass – you have to check yourself in AND out. I had never seen this before. When you enter the bus or train, you scan your card. But you CAN NOT forget to scan it again upon exiting, or it’ll mess with your card. We ended up having to go back to the airport and reset our cards because they refused to scan (we think we missed a scan upon exit one time). If you have limited time in the city, this can cause quite a lot of problems.
- Even though the pass proved to be a royal pain, it was necessary. Without it, public transportation in Amsterdam is ridiculously expensive. We also found a night bus that was included with our pass (hooray!), but it only picked up in one part of Amsterdam, came only once an hour, and it took FOREVER to get to the hotel. We fell asleep on the bus every single time we took it. Plus, the bus stop is about a 10-15 minute walk from the hotel itself… in the freezing cold.
- The moral of this story? Don’t stay outside of the city center unless you absolutely have to! Find accommodations in the city center, even if it is more expensive. It’ll be worth it in the end.
- Free Ferry Route
- Yup, you heard me… free! These ferries, which depart from behind Amsterdam Central Station, take passengers (some on bikes and scooters) to Amsterdam Noord. To see the available ferry routes and an interactive map, visit the official site.
- Take a Canal Boat
- There are many private companies that offer canal rides around the city, and also hop-on hop-off services. I never personally took one (but I’m looking to go back and try!), but if you search on Google, there are many options available to you.
- Cycle like a Local
- There are many bike tours and bike rental services available throughout Amsterdam. Everyone goes by bike there, and you’ll see bikes locked up all around the city. If you’re not super confident on a bike, or don’t understand the general rules of the road, perhaps it’s better to go by public transport – the Dutch are professionals on their bikes, and won’t slow down for you. But if you’re a decent cyclist, give it a try! It isn’t too expensive for day rentals.
- Beat the Crowds & Take a GPS-Guided Walking Tour at Your Own Pace
- Amsterdam Red Light District Tours came up with a great app that uses the GPS on your phone to guide you around the city at your own pace! In their own words: “The app is an innovative solution to reduce the numbers of guided tourist groups and it improves the flow through of people in Amsterdam. Additionally, the audio is played through a headset, so no noise pollution in the neighborhood. The audio tour can be paused and restarted at any time. With this unique, educational and fun app, the user can decide when he or she wants to tour around. For a few euros you can explore Amsterdam’s Red Light District with 22 experts that fits your pocket.” Available for both Apple and Android users!
Since we went during a holiday weekend, most hostels and hotels were already booked up or at extremely insane prices (for instance, one hostel was charging nearly 80€ for a simple hostel bed in a room of 30 more – insane!). We ended up deciding on the ibis Amsterdam Airport Hotel, which is about a 30 minute train ride away from the center of the city. Not ideal, but necessary. They provided a free shuttle to the airport, but it was the worst experience ever for us. The shuttle only came once every 30 minutes or so, and if you’re there on a busy weekend, it can be nearly impossible to get on. Everyone is shoved in like sardines, and many people who have already been waiting for over 30 minutes had to wait yet another 30 minutes for the next bus, with no guarantee of space. When you’re on vacation or trying to get to the airport, that’s the last thing you need.
There are, of course, tons of hostel, hotel and Airbnb options. In order to get a good deal and have a place more in the city center (definitely recommended), book way in advance! For advice on what type of accommodation to choose, read my article on How to NOT Spend Your Life Savings on Travel Accommodations.
Things to See & Do
- Heineken Experience – Options of self-guided and VIP tours, where you can learn about the family, brewing process, and have a tasting of beer and cheese. Book online and get a slight discount, and learn more about all of the different options available.
- Albert Cuypmarkt – Large street market that sells everything you can imagine (and more), including many local specialties. It can get quite crowded, but if you’re going for food, check the places with lines of locals (some of the places can be tourist traps). Open 9am-5pm Monday through Saturday, but check the website for the most current information.
- Red Light District (De Wallen) – No comment necessary, but worth a stroll. I recommend going by day, in a group. We never felt unsafe, but better to be safe than sorry.
- Keukenhoff Gardens – Tulips galore! It only opens 2 months a year, so check the website. It is located outside of the city of Amsterdam, but you can pick up a bus at the airport. Known to get very crowded. To learn more about my experience there, read below.
- Bloemenmarkt – A lovely and unique floating flower market from the mid 1800’s.
- Vondelpark – A large, beautiful park where locals like to picnic on warm, sunny days.
Museums (Plan Ahead!)
Two weeks before leaving, I tried to book tickets for the Anne Frank House. Everything was fully booked for months into the future. I had heard that lines outside of the Anne Frank House could last for many hours, so my friends and I decided not to make that commitment. If you’re planning a trip, buy everything ahead! Even for the Van Gogh tickets you had to wait a few hours in line. We got lucky and only had to wait about 45 minutes to buy the tickets, and we bought them for an entrance time of 3 hours in advance so that we could walk around and enjoy the day first.
- Van Gogh Museum – A must-visit! Opened by Van Gogh’s brother, contains a large collection of drawings, paintings, and letters.
- Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam – Contemporary and modern art museum. Unless you’re really into either one of those categories, perhaps skip it (mixed reviews for non art lovers).
- Rijksmuseum – Also a must-see and highly-rated museum, housing Rembrandt, Vermeer, and other masterpieces. So much to see that you could spend a whole day there.
- Anne Frank House – Probably the best known visit in Amsterdam, but be sure to buy your tickets way in advance online! People describe it as very well-maintained and moving.
- Amsterdams Verzetsmuseum – History of the Resistance during WWII.
- Royal Palace Amsterdam – Lovely palace that is still currently used by the royal family. You can do an audio guide, which will take you about 1.5 hours. Check the website to make sure that it is open during the days you are there (last I checked, it was closed due to royal events).
- Sex Museum – (<– website is NSFW! Needs flash) Worth a visit if you have an open mind! Interesting exhibits, cheap entrance fee, but definitely graphic. But hey, it’s Amsterdam! Minimum age requirement is 16.
- Oude Kerk – Amsterdam’s oldest building, it is a church in the middle of the Red Light District. You have to pay to go in, and it is no longer used as a church, but rather an art hall.
- Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder – A small hidden church with fascinating history from the 17th century. We didn’t make it here, but people rave about it.
- Begijnhof – Former convent, a calm escape from the busyness of the city. Lots of interesting history.
- Museum Van Loon – Canal house museum with lovely decorations and a beautiful courtyard.
Local Food Specialties – Must Try!
- Patatje Oorlog – A delicious sauce to put on fries: mayo (mayo is on everything!), sate sauce and onions. The literal translation is war chips. Mannekin Pis is the best place to try it (but expect a long line)!
- Stamppot – mashed potatoes with vegetables and sausage.
- Stroopwafels – waffle caramel sandwiches
- Bitterballen – deep-fried gravy bites
- Appelgeback – apple tart
- Poffetjes – little pancakes with sugar
- Oliebollen – fried dough balls, only available in December at street stands
Top Rated Restaurants
Food is very important to me. Like, REALLY important. I generally research the best places online before I go somewhere, and back home in California I ALWAYS yelp places. I had read on one blog that they were very disappointed in the food they tried while in Amsterdam, and that it was necessary to research good places before going. Don’t have to tell me twice! Here’s the list of places all over Amsterdam I found in my research:
- Burgerlijk – huge, delicious burgers at decent prices.
- SkyLounge – located in the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Amsterdam Centraal Station- try bitterballen here! Amazing view of the city. Can be a bit pricey, but worth it.
- Café Het Paleis – Good for lunch or coffee. Try the appelgebak!
- 5&33 – Great atmosphere, and good place to share food with friends and enjoy a cocktail.
- Nam Kee – Cheap and delicious Chinese food.
- Hap Hmm – Delicious local food, cash only.
- Latei – Cozy place to have a coffee or dessert.
- Broodjeszaak ‘t Kuyltje – Great locals place with typical Dutch sandwiches.
- Getto – Near the Red Light District, it is a very fun place with great burgers and cocktails. Everything is drag queen themed, and they also put on shows! Worth a visit!
- Peperwortel – Great fusion of food with local ingredients.
- Skek – Chill bar and restaurant, very cozy. They also have WiFi and board games.
- Brouwerij ‘t IJ – A brewery inside of a windmill! It was super cool, but unfortunately closes relatively early. Great beer! Worth a visit, even though it is on the far side of the city. Use the tram!
- In De Wildeman – One of the best drinking establishments I have been to. Huge selection of ales with a great barman. Relaxing atmosphere and somewhere you just keep revisiting. Search it out – you will not be disappointed
An interactive map, with all of my recommended locations that you can use for your trip!
When you arrive to Amsterdam, you will find all kinds of food shops with waffles, fries, burgers… you name it! We ate so many fries on this trip, it was ridiculous. We preferred the waffles in Brussels, though. Of course, you also find a lot of coffee and sex shops. It IS Amsterdam, after all. Weed and fatty foods go together like peanut butter and jelly.
On our first day, we decided to take it easy and just wander around. We ended up near the Red Light District, and it was super interesting to see just how many canals there are that wind through the city. Sure, you know that Amsterdam is known for its beautiful canals… but until you’re there, it really doesn’t hit you. Also, Amsterdam’s layout on a map looks super cool (and illustrates my point about just how many canals there are):
The Red Light District and The Oude Church (or Oude Kerk)
In the middle of the famous Red Light District, you will find The Oude Church, Amsterdam’s oldest building. A strange place for a church, eh? You have to pay to go inside, so we decided to pass… considering just how many churches you come across when in Europe.
The Red Light District is like no other place in the world. Women are literally on display at all hours of the day, scantily clad in lingerie of all types. You find all varieties of women, from blonde to dark haired, skinny to obese, etc. It wasn’t nearly as sketchy feeling as I had thought, and my friends and I didn’t feel uncomfortable walking down these streets, even at night. I wouldn’t go alone, though. We were truly surprised by just how many customers these ladies got, at all hours! The rooms are super small (basically a closet), and oftentimes you just see the girls looking bored and playing on their phones. I was surprised by just how little effort they put in, but I suppose the customers come anyways.
In between all of the women on display, you find sex shops and shows galore. There are dildos, vibrators, and toys of all types out on display like candy. Guys hang outside of theatres and try to convince you to go in, at insane prices. We asked, just for fun, how much a certain show cost and he said €60 for a half hour… insane! There are shows here for everyone’s tastes, but expect to shell out a lot of cash… if that’s what you’re into. They also have peep shows, where you pay 2€ to see a couple going at it for 2 minutes. It’s a strange city for sure!
Another thing – there’s a strict no camera policy, hence a lack of photos besides the pretty canals. I was super tempted to take pictures, but you won’t find anyone else with one and I hear that the ladies put the curtains down and get pretty upset if you try.
Doesn’t look sketchy at all, am I right?
The ‘Coffee’ Shops
I have a question… what if you legitimately want a coffee? What then? I didn’t see many legit coffee shops!
Anyways, the famous Amsterdam Coffee Shops are EVERYWHERE. Some are bigger and more corporate than others. For instance, I wanted to take a peek inside one of them and the bouncers asked to see our passports and made us go through a metal detector. At a different one, they just asked if we were old enough and were happy enough when we said yes. While smoky inside, the coffee shops were not at all what I expected. People weren’t going crazy or acting silly, it was very chill. It was mostly people having casual conversations with their friends.
We didn’t partake in any of it, but from what I saw the prices aren’t cheap. Also, in every tourist shop you go into, they sell “weed” cookies, candy, beer, etc. You name it, they have it. But don’t expect there to really be weed in there, my friends. Most of the time it is just clever packaging and maybe a hint of weed flavor. Not to mention, everything is ridiculously overpriced.
Another thing I was super surprised by was how many ‘head shops’ there were that sold every drug you can imagine, from mushrooms to ecstasy. I knew marijuana was legal here, but I had no idea pretty much everything else was as well. Be careful if that’s what you’re into!
On the far end of the main part of Amsterdam, you find Leidseplein, a very popular square for young people. There are tons of bars, restaurants, and concert halls here. We walked the whole way, but we would recommend taking a tram considering it is included with the 3 day pass and it is much quicker.
Drinks here are super expensive, so beware. You can expect to pay about €5 for a pint, which is up there with Dublin for some of Europe’s priciest drinks. Also, on weekends, they seem to make you pay for the restroom… EVERYWHERE. It was super frustrating. When you’re out drinking with friends, the last thing you want to bother with is some jerk making you pay 50 cents every time you need to go. Be prepared, and bring change!
The I Amsterdam Sign and Museumsplein
It is obligatory to take a picture with the Amsterdam sign when you’re there, or so it seems from the plethora of photos all over the internet. Before we went, I had read somewhere that it’s necessary to arrive very early in the morning in order to get a decent picture without hoards of people in it. We didn’t heed this advice, unfortunately. If this is a priority for you, keep this in mind!
Nearby, you’ll find the Rijksmuseum (in fact, that’s the building you see behind the I amsterdam sign), the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum. Like I mentioned before, it is necessary to buy tickets to all of these places beforehand, unless you have tons of time to kill! The Rijksmuseum is very highly rated, with a lovely collection of masterpieces including Rembrandt and Vermeer, but unfortunately we didn’t have enough time for that and the Van Gogh Museum.
A garden to the right of the Rijksmuseum.
The Stedelijk Museum costs about 15€, and includes works from Monet, Picasso, Rodin, etc. And last but not least, the Van Gogh Museum will cost you about 17€. It displays Van Gogh’s early works and drawings, and has some great hand-written letters between himself, his brother, and his friends. It was very interesting, there was a lot about Van Gogh that I did not know before going!
Van Gogh’s Palette
The Keukenkoff Gardens, Where You’ll See More Tulips than you have in your Entire Life!
We had read really good things about this, so we decided to devote one day to going. That day happened to be Easter, and everyone else had the same idea. You can pick up a bus from the airport that will take you there, it is about a 50 minute ride. However, if you’re unlucky, you will be stuck standing in the bus the whole time. Since Easter was a big day for the gardens, when we arrived at the airport there was a huge line like I’ve never seen. We almost ditched our plans immediately. However, we asked a few people towards the front of the line how long they had been waiting, and they said only about an hour. We sucked it up and decided to go for it. Luckily, they’re very efficient! It costs about 25€ for the gardens and transport to and from the airport. If you have a car, it’d be better to take that option (plus you’ll see tulip fields along the way!). You can also take bike tours to see the tulips on your own. For more information, visit Your Dutch Guide’s website.
Keukenkoff Gardens is basically a huge park with tons of different types of tulips. There are some buildings scattered throughout that house various exhibitions using different kinds of flowers, it was pretty cool to see. There’s also a windmill that you can go inside. The gardens are only open for 2 months a year, so check to see if you’re there during the right season! In general, it begins at the end of March and ends sometime in May. If you go in the beginning of April like we did, not all of the flowers will have bloomed, but it is very nice nonetheless.
We were lucky that we went at the right time, they were celebrating the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death and had one building entirely themed after his paintings. Check their website to see if there are any special events!
Have you visited before? What was your experience? Let me know, I’d love to hear from you! Happy travels! 🙂
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