Guide to Visiting Amsterdam

I timed my first trip to Amsterdam for April so that I could (hopefully) catch a glimpse of the fabled (and fleeting) blooming season in the Netherlands.  That particular year our visit was a little on the early side of spring, but the flowers that we did see did not disappoint.  Luckily, for travelers with the Dutch capital on their bucket list Amsterdam is definitely a year-round destination.

Overall I found the city to be the most charming along the outer canal rings thanks to the gingerbread-like gabled houses and photogenic bridges that double as bike storage racks for locals.  The closer we got to the center of the city, the more crowded (and sometimes seedy) it felt with a higher concentration of tourists and “coffeeshops”.  The nice thing is that Amsterdam is a city with so many different facets that truly does offer something for everyone.  Here’s what you need to know.

Getting There and Around
Most visitors to Amsterdam arrive either by plane or train.  Schiphol Airport (AMS) is only 5.5 miles (9km) from the city center, and the fastest and cheapest way to get between the two is by a direct NS Sprinter or Intercity train.  The trip from the airport to Amsterdam Centraal station is about 15-20 minutes with trains departing every 15 minutes or so (buy your ticket from the yellow and blue automated machines).  The station is located at the northern edge of the city with the main street Damrak leading south towards Dam Square and the canals fanning out in a u-shape around Amsterdam’s center.

Amsterdam Centraal station

From Amsterdam Centraal you may be able to walk to your accommodations depending on where you’re staying, otherwise you can take a taxi or hop on a bus or tram.  Buy your public transportation tickets from the GVB automated machines where you’ll have the option of purchasing individual tickets or a reloadable OV-chipkaart.  Note that different tickets are required for other carriers like the Connexxion, EBS and Arriva regional buses and the NS national railway.  I recommend downloading the 9292 route planner app for public transporation, and I also found the NS national rail app helpful when planning daytrips to other cities around the Netherlands.

Amsterdam transportation options

Most of Amsterdam can be seen on foot, especially if you cluster your sightseeing in a given neighborhood each day.  And if you’re feeling up to the challenge, you can do as the locals do and rent a bike to get around town.  Whether you’re a biker or pedestrian, be sure to look both ways, twice, because uneven sidewalks and bikes that seem to appear out of nowhere could spell disaster if you aren’t paying attention.  When in Amsterdam, right?

What to See and Do
If you love art then you’re in luck as Amsterdam is home to several world-class museums including Rijksmuseum (old Dutch masters), the Van Gogh Museum (the life and work of the artist himself) and the Stedelijk Museum (modern art), which are all located around the beautiful Museumplein where you’ll also find the iconic “I amstersdam” sign and the sprawling 70-acre Vondelpark nearby.  For these “big three” museums as well as the Anne Frank House (which limits the number of visitors at any given time), it’s extremely wise to purchase your tickets online in advance to avoid waiting in very long lines.  You’ll also find a museum for everything else in Amsterdam – cheese, tulips, houseboats, canal houses, maritime, sex, marijuana, purses, the Dutch Resistance and more.  Beer lovers may also want to check out the touristy Heineken Experience.

The Rijksmuseum and “I amsterdam” sign on Museumplein (top), Heineken Experience (bottom left), Van Gogh Museum (bottom right)

In addition, one of my favorite spots in Amsterdam is the Bloemenmarkt, the world’s only floating flower market where you’ll find a row of barges selling fresh flowers, bulbs and souvenirs along the Singel canal.  Other major sights clustered around Amsterdam’s central Dam Square include the Royal Palace and New Church, as well as the peaceful Bejinhof courtyard and Amsterdam Museum further south, the Red Light District and Old Church further north and more.  Amsterdam is also a great city for exploring, as you never know what you’ll find as you wander or take a cruise along its postcard-perfect canals.

Bulps and flowers for sale at the Bloemenmarkt

For shopping, one of the best spots for niche boutiques is the grid-like Nine Streets, which lie to the west in the Jordaan neighborhood.  You’ll also find lots of big-name department stores around the city center, as well as the open-air Albert Cuyp Market in the De Pijp neighborhood south of the canal belt.  Note that most shops keep regular hours (roughly 10am to 6pm with no mid-day “siesta”) and do not stay open late into the night as in other big cities around Europe.

Albert Cuyp Market

Thanks to the compact size of the Netherlands and the country’s super-efficient transportation network, there are a lot of options for daytrips with Amsterdam as your home base.  If you’re visiting in the spring, then a trip to the gorgeous Keukenhof Gardens is an absolute must (consider renting a bike to explore the country’s Bollenstreek – aka the bulb region – at your own pace).  You can also witness the magnitude of the country’s flower industry in action at the Aalsmeer Flower Auction year-round.  Other cities with daytrip potential range from Haarlem (a charming mini version of Amsterdam) to Delft (home of the famed blue and white pottery) and Rotterdam (major port city with modern architecture) towards the south, as well as the charming fishing villages in the Waterland region and the Zaanse Schans open-air museum towards the north.  Read more about some of these daytrips here.

Flower fields in Lisse near Keukenhof (left) and Zaanse Schans (right)

And if you’re the marathon sightseeing type, you may want to look into the I amsterdam City Card, which offers free admission to a ton of sights around Amsterdam and the surrounding area, plus unlimited use of the city’s GVB public transportation network for 24, 48, 72 or 96 hours, among other discounts.

Where to Eat and Drink
Hungry visitors are in luck as Amsterdam had a pretty diverse food scene.  Traditional Dutch fare is generally distinguished by hearty menus of meat and potatoes, as well as fish, stews and soups, sweet and savory pancakes (pannenkoeken, which are a cross between an American pancake and a French crêpe) and more varieties of cheese than you can imagine.  For a treat definitely try a sticky caramel-filled stroopwafel or an order of bite-sized poffertije mini pancakes.  You’ll also find stands selling twice-fried Flemish fries (Vlaamse friets) served in a paper cone with a mayonnaise-based sauce for dipping, and others selling pickled herring, a local specialty that’s eaten raw and can be ordered on a on a soft white roll with chopped onions and pickles (and a little Dutch flag) for the less adventurous tourist.  Herring is available year-round but is most fresh after the conclusion of the May/June fishing season.

Traditional Dutch fries (top left), stroopwafel (bottom left) and cheese (right)

You’ll also find a lot of ethnic eateries throughout Amsterdam – from Indonesian to Israeli, Thai, Italian, Greek, Spanish and more – many of which I found to be located south of the canal belt away from the city center or west in the Jordaan neighborhood (especially along clustered around Tweede Egelantiersdwarsstraat, aka “restaurant row”).  In terms of beverages, beer reigns supreme in Amsterdam, with options ranging from global brands like Heineken to local brews from the city’s own IJ brewery.  Also popular is Dutch gin (jenever).  In addition, Amsterdam is famous for its brown cafés (bruin café), appropriately named for their wooden interior and dark smoke-stained walls, which are great for a light bite or leisurely beverage (Café De Prins is a favorite).  It’s important to note that cafés and coffeeshops are NOT the same thing (the latter is an establishment that legally sell cannabis – more on that later).  I also had a hard time finding cafés open for a quick coffee and a pastry in the mornings, so we ended up grabbing an easy and affordable breakfast at the train station on most days.  For a few restaurant recommendations to get you started check out my EATS: Amsterdam post here.

**GIVEAWAY ALERT: In the spirit of the holiday season, I’ve partnered with GPSmyCity to offer a free download of my EATS: Amsterdam article in app format so you can access these restaurant recommendations on the go.  The app is available for free this week from Monday, December 28 through Sunday, December 4 by clicking here.**

Dutch apple pie at Winkle 43 is not to be missed

Where to Stay
Since we would be daytripping a lot, our goal was to seek out accommodations relatively close to the train station and found the perfect home base in The Hoxton.  Located in the Jordaan neighborhood – an area distinguished by its gabled canal houses, boutique shops and a good selection of restaurants as mentioned earlier – the hotel was pleasantly removed from the craziness of the city center but still with walking distance to Amsterdam Centraal (15 minutes) and many other major sites.

The Hoxton in the Jordaan neighborhood

A lot of other canal-side hotels we came across in our search were dated and “homely” to say the least, but The Hoxton was the exact opposite.  This relatively new hotel, which first opened in 2015, boasts a traditional exterior along the Herengracht canal that opens up to a contemporary interior that weaves a laid-back hipster vibe throughout – complete with a large and inviting lobby lounge, restaurant and bar area.  We choose the slightly larger “Roomy” room, which was clean, comfortable and spacious as the name implies, outfitted with modern furnishings and stylish décor.  It proved to be the perfect home away from home, and perhaps even a little decorating inspiration.  The in-room refrigerators are stocked with free water and milk, plus the hotel’s “no rip off mini bar” concept lets guest buy other beverages and snacks (like 1 euro beers) from the front desk for cheap.  You’ll also get a breakfast bag to hang outside your door each night, which is magically filled with orange juice, a banana and yogurt parfait the next morning.

As an alternative, other visitors may prefer to rent a houseboats through sites like Airbnb or HomeAway.  And while that would definitely make for a uniquely-Amsterdam experience, our stay at The Hoxton did not disappoint in the least.

Also Good to Know
One thing that may first time visitors to Amsterdam may be curious about is the city’s pot policy.  While the sale and use of marijuana is legal at coffeeshops throughout the city, the practice is highly regulated (for example, the minimum age to purchase cannabis is 18 years old).  You can read more on the city’s website here.

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