Amsterdam, capital city of the Netherlands, is known for its picturesque canal system, narrow brick houses sitting waterfront with their towering gabled roofs, and cobblestone roads filled with bicycles. It’s a city of art, with museums housing paintings by Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Vermeer. Fields of tulips draw crowds in the spring. And some visitors come for the edginess of coffee shops selling weed and the Red Light District.
What’s great about touring Amsterdam is that you can choose what to experience. I have talked with people who have a negative view of the city or think they wouldn’t enjoy it. But simply plan ahead and go to those sights that most interest you. If you would rather not venture into the Red Light District, for example, don’t go. If art museums aren’t your thing, skip those. Fill your days with fascinating places, and you’ll love Amsterdam.
Here are things to know before your first visit. More than any other European city I’ve been to, Amsterdam got mixed reviews when I was planning my trip. Once there, I loved every minute. An overview of what to expect will help you decide how to plan your time so you, too, fully enjoy your trip.
1. Prepare To Be Amazed By All The Canals
Amsterdam’s central network of waterways, known as the Canal Ring, is a defining feature of the city. The four main canals flow in graceful curves through central Amsterdam. Colorful boats line up at the edges. Bridges arch over the water. And leafy trees decorate the banks.
Plan for time to stroll along the canal-front streets. After all, this area is officially a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many of the central canals date to the 17th century when Amsterdam became a center of trade. Built for practical reasons, the canals are so lovely that they are now a reason to venture to Amsterdam.
For a wonderful taste of the best of Amsterdam’s canals and streets, plan to spend an hour or more strolling in the Jordaan District. It’s known for appealing restaurants and one-of-a-kind shops as well as beautiful houses. To find this area in the city center, look for the Prinsengracht, the Westerstraat, Haarlemmerstraat, and the 9 straatjes (nine little streets). You’ll find plenty of places to eat, shop, and take amazing photos.
2. Glide Along The Water On A Canal Cruise
In this city of canals, a cruise along the waterways is one of the most popular attractions. For your first visit, a cruise can give you a pleasant introduction to the city’s sights. You can take a one-hour tour or opt for a hop-on, hop-off experience. You may want to book a candlelight dinner cruise.
One option is to buy a Canal Cruise ticket online and use it whenever you want. No reservations are required. Show the ticket on your smartphone to board a boat for your historical Amsterdam tour.
3. Join The Locals And Ride A Bike
Bikes are everywhere in central Amsterdam. They line walkways and bridges. Riders navigate the winding streets with ease. Miles of bike paths are set aside for cyclers.
Consider renting a bike or taking a guided cycle tour as a way to discover the city from the viewpoint of locals.
If you prefer to walk along and simply admire all the bikes as you go, you will find many do-it-yourself upgrades to bikes. I saw one with an easy chair attached! People are so creative with their transportation here.
4. Visit The Anne Frank House
If your time in Amsterdam is short, I recommend that your top priority be a visit to the Anne Frank House. The story of Anne Frank is well known because she kept a diary that was published and is read around the world. In Amsterdam, you can tour the annex where Anne lived for months in hiding with her family. See the hinged bookcase that served to hide the entrance. Gaze into the rooms where the family stayed from June 1942 until their arrest in August 1944. Imagine the life of a lively teen confined to cramped, stuffy quarters for months on end. And she coped by writing in her red plaid diary.
The Anne Frank House will inspire you to look at life with renewed hope. Cut off from the world outside and in constant danger, Anne wrote: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.”
Book tickets online before your trip. Buy a dated and timed ticket. Add an introductory 30-minute program if you want to learn more about World War II and the history of the Frank family. Once you enter the house, you are welcome to stay as long as you like.
Pro Tip: The house is just as it was in the 1940s, including steep stairs in the annex. If stairs are a problem, you can use an access point on the ground level and see the small museum, go to the museum shop, and eat in the café.
5. Marvel At Original Masterworks At The Amsterdam Art Museums
Amsterdam boasts many art museums. If you are an art connoisseur, you are in the right place. The two at the top of visitors’ lists are the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum.
At the Van Gogh Museum, you can explore Vincent van Gogh’s famous paintings up close. The museum also displays works by Van Gogh’s contemporaries. Highlights of the artist’s collection include The Bedroom (1888), Sunflowers (1889), and two self-portraits.
Note that you must buy your ticket online. At the start time on the ticket, you may enter the museum. Also be aware that photographing the paintings is not allowed.
The Rijksmuseum serves as the national museum of the Netherlands. Here, you will see art that conveys 800 years of Dutch history, from 1200 to the present. Works by Johannes Vermeer and Rembrandt van Rijn are here.
The museum reopened after extensive renovation in 2013. Exhibits are in chronological order in this stunning new building. The museum states on its website: “More than ever, the modern Rijksmuseum is a museum of and for everyone.”
Pro Tip: If you spend the morning at the Van Gogh Museum, eat lunch in the museum café, Le Tambourin. The food is good and you will welcome the chance to rest your feet before going on with your day.
6. Figure Out If You Want To Purchase The City Card
Before your trip, check out what’s offered when you purchase the I amsterdam City Card. The card grants access to more than 70 museums and includes a canal cruise and a bicycle rental. City-wide public transport by metro, tram, bus, and ferry is also included. Depending on how long you will be in the city and what you plan to see, the card can be a money saver.
7. Walk In The Famous Red Light District
You have likely heard about the Red Light District of Amsterdam, where brothels and sex shops are legal and sex workers stand in windows to attract business. The name comes from the red neon lights that adorn over 300 of these windows. Visitors go to this neighborhood out of curiosity. If you want to see this unique area of the city, be aware of a few things.
While the Red Light District is fairly safe during the day, it can get more lively and dodgy after dark. Watch for pickpockets and go in a group if you can.
Also, photographs of the windows with sex workers standing in them are not allowed.
8. Be Aware That Coffee Shops Offer More Than Coffee
Amsterdam coffee shops should not be confused with cafés. Coffee shops offer a place to buy and smoke weed legally. They first opened in the 1970s when the government sanctioned “soft” drugs to discourage the use of “hard drugs.” You will not find drugs such as heroin at the coffee shops, for example.
If you want to experience a coffee shop, keep in mind that those in your group must be 18 or older. And weed can be used only in a coffee shop, not elsewhere in public.
9. Go In Spring For Tulips At Keukenhof
The Amsterdam region bursts into bloom each spring. Millions of tulips and other flowers cover the fields outside the city. The premier place to spend a day wandering among the colorful blooms is at Keukenhof Gardens.
At this one garden alone, seven million flower bulbs cover the landscape. Partake of flower shows and exhibits. You can also rent a bicycle or take a boat cruise through the gardens.
Check the website for optimal viewing weeks. If you miss the spring tulips, you may want to plan for the fall flowers.
No matter what season you go, Amsterdam offers spectacular scenes of canals and fascinating architecture, bridges and bicycles, historic sights, and world-class art museums. Enjoy this walkable city. As you amble along, be sure to look up at the skyline and note the decorative gables atop the buildings. You may see ornamentation, spouts, or bells. Also note the hooks — fixtures from long ago that are still in use today. They make it possible to move heavy furniture from the street to buildings’ upper floors.
Echoes of the past can be found everywhere in the bustle of present-day life. You’ll have so many treasured memories of your time in Amsterdam.