Amsterdam Touring Tactics
Tourist Amsterdam is a compact, crowded, horseshoe-shaped area interlaced with numerous canals. Navigating the city and its bicyclists can be difficult if you are not prepared and alert. Speaking of difficulties, be prepared for street names that have more vowels that you could possibly imagine – like Reguliersbreeestraat.
In this section, we describe the things travelers need to know about: getting around Amsterdam, notes on lodging, dining tips, help finding the best shopping areas, the age for drinking (and “smoking”), and a host of suggestions for making the most of your time in Amsterdam.
If you only have a day in Amsterdam keep reading below. If that isn’t of interest, find the rest of our travel tips on the menu to the right and read away. Don’t forget our section on day trips from Amsterdam.
Just a day
If you want to see Amsterdam, but just have a few hours between flights, take the train from the Airport to the Centraal Train Station where you can catch a taxi to the Van Gogh Museum. From there, walk back to the Masterpieces at the Rijksmuseum. Next hop a taxi to the Anne Frank Huis and then on to some nearby shopping.
You will end your day close to the Centraal Station where you can catch the train back to Schiphol. If you have more time, take a canal cruise or wander to the Dam and then through the Red Light District to catch some of the local color on your way to the Centraal Station. You won’t see all of the city, but you will see some of its treasures. (Look at our page on Best Places to Visit in Amsterdam for descriptions of these attractions).
Unfortunately, several of the city’s top attractions are undergoing renovations during 2013. Always check locally for the most up-to-date information. We provide the address of the official websites of all the major attractions to help you keep current.
If you are not in a rush to get to some other place in Europe, take a couple of days to get to know this delightful city. Amsterdam is best seen by walking, riding the streetcars and the occasional use of a canal boat. A leisurely stroll reveals more about the heart and soul of this city than you can experience any other way. If you are short on time, take public transportation. Whatever you do, do not try to drive to or in Amsterdam. The city is not a car-friendly location and you will pay a great deal to park your vehicle during your explorations.
We have created a new street map of Amsterdam showing the locations of the Best Places to visit in Amsterdam. It is based on Google Maps and can be viewed as a map, satellite image or a hybrid of the two. Click the “hybrid button” on the map, select the Dam, zoom in close and you can see images of people milling around..
One key to conquering the city is to take advantage of its efficient public transportation. Riding the streetcars is the fastest way around, although renting a bicycle is probably the best way to get around. Walking is very enjoyable here, especially on weekends as the city is usually crowded, fun and noisy.
After you arrive in Amsterdam, stop in the transport ticket office next to the Information Center (just across from the Centraal Train Station) and buy a OV-chipcart or other ticket. See this official site for more information on the types of tickets for public transit. Click to see the Information Center on a.)
You can also use the canals for transportation and, if this is of interest to you, consider purchasing a Hop-On, Hop-Off Day Pass for one of the canal cruisers. The canals are a more expensive and slower way to travel, so you might just want to settle for a simple one-hour sightseeing cruise instead.
Drinking Age and Smoking Age
The legal drinking age in the Netherlands for alcoholic beverages with less than 15% alcohol by volume (e.g. beer) is 16 years. You must be 18 to drink spirits with more than 15% alcohol by volume (vodka or other “hard” liquors). If you are going to drink while in Amsterdam, do so in bars or cafes, as drinking in public is illegal.
Visitors older than 18 can from buy up to 5 grams of cannabis and at the licensed, “brown” coffee shops found around the city. You can smoke the cannabis at the shop and have a coffee, or you can take it with you. Rumor has it that this “weed” may be much stronger than that which you are used to consuming at home, so be careful with your intake.
Nightlife in Amsterdam
It is hard to miss the club scene in Amsterdam and you will likely meet someone who can recommend the best spots. However, if you are looking for specific information on “clubbing” in Amsterdam, the DJ Guide lists bands and the venues at which they are appearing by day of the week. as well as providing links to the websites of the clubs mentioned.
When looking for a meal, you might be interested in trying an eetcafé, a small, neighborhood restaurant. The fare, frequently limited to Dutch or other ethnic cuisine, can be quite good. The prices are competitive and sometimes bargains. By the way Amsterdam’s “brown cafés” (bruin cafés) are bars and similar to pubs in London. You can find a limited food selection at brown cafes, but if you are hungry, try an eetcafé.
If you have a taste for Falafel served in a pita, Amsterdam has some of the best this side of the Middle East. We recommend the Maoz shops. They are small, crowded and the service is brusque, but your meal will be worth the wait. By the way, there is seating only along the window counters and this is a meal that you want to eat while seated, because these are big, sloppy (but delicious) servings of falafel, along with your selection of veggies and sauce in a fresh pita. So, bear with the crowd and grab the first seat that becomes available.
One final note, although the breakfast buffets are expensive in Amsterdam, they are more convenient that searching for an open restaurant in the early morning hours in Central Amsterdam. For those who want something less than a buffet, there is a McDonald’s on Kalverstraat near the Dam, or you can find pastries in shops throughout the central city.
Lodging is widely available in Amsterdam in the form of hostels, hotels, bed & breakfasts, and guest houses (especially on the canals). The cost of lodging in Amsterdam is often higher on weekends than during the week, which should tell you something about the town and its frenetic weekend activity. If you are booking over the weekend in summer, you may find both the city and your accommodations noisy at night – but isn’t that a good reason to visit?
Major hotels and hostels are clustered around the Dam, the Centraal Train Station and the Museumplein. Smaller independent hotels and guest houses can be found along many of the city’s canals. Some travelers prefer to stay outside the central city (downtown), while others prefer to lodge in the delightful town of Haarlem and “train” to Amsterdam.
We are constantly amused by the hotel ratings in Amsterdam. We think the “star” ratings applied to many, but not all, hotels are inflated. We have stayed at several four- star establishments that we would have generously rated at three-stars, some only two. So do your homework and see what other travelers have to say.
There is shopping everywhere you turn in Amsterdam, but you might appreciate the collection of trendy stores arranged along and around Kalverstraat, starting at the Dam and running down to the Muntplein. There is also a nice collection of shops about two blocks south of the Vondelpark, on PC Hoofstraat. These are high-end stores, so bring your plastic, although window-shopping would be better for your budget.
Next, north of the Anne Frankhuis, the area along Prinsenstraat and Herenstraat (which run between Prinsengracht and Herengracht) seems to be evolving into a trendy neighborhood. It now includes shops, cafes and restaurants, following the path of the Nine Streets shopping area which is close by (but south of the Anne Frank House).
Those of you who are interested in flea markets, might want to stop at the Waterlooplein, to the east of the center of Amsterdam. The area hosts a daily flea market where a variety of objects are sold, although clothing, jewelry and “junque” predominate. You might also be interested in the Noordermarkt for its Saturday farmers market in the Jordaan area, a colorful section of the city labeled “bohemian” by some and “trendy” by others.
Taking a break
When you tire of the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam, we suggest you consider taking a walk in the Vondelpark at the edge of the tourist area of the city. We find it a relaxing place and in the summers it offers free evening concerts that are quite popular. The park also provides numerous play areas for the kids.
We suppose this should go under our dining category, but it is likely that you will find some excellent bakeries as you traverse the city. The pastry in Amsterdam can be excellent and, at least for us, is always a lure to take a break from shopping. You know, there is almost no problem that can’t be solved with a coffee and a sweet roll (or something even more damaging).
Finally, bring or buy an umbrella; rain seems to be common in Amsterdam regardless of the season. Cold and moist in the winter, Amsterdam can be warm and humid in the summer. Early or late in the season seems to be the best time to visit.
Amsterdam is centrally located and day trips to surrounding areas in the Netherlands (e.g. Delft, the Hague and Haarlem), as well as to Bruges, Ghent, Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium are highly recommended. Trains are the easiest way to travel to these areas, but having a car provides more flexibility. While you can easily see Bruges in a day, if you have more time you should overnight to see its canals and the buildings that ring them, as they are spectacular when illuminated.
If you are going to visit Amsterdam during the spring, think about taking a daytrip to the Keukenhof Gardens outside of the city. When the bulbs start flowering, the area is stunning. Even if you do not garden, you should know that this event attracts visitors from around the world and it is a very unique place when the tulips are in bloom. The season is short (usually mid-March through mid-May), so visit if you are in the area in spring. Browse the official Keukenhof website for more information.