I spent over four years living in the Netherlands from 18 years old, with over 3 of those years in Amsterdam. So, I like to think of myself as a bit of an expert on things to do in Amsterdam. In between studying at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, I would spend my free time exploring the city.
It means you are in great hands for planning your first time in Amsterdam. Read on for travel tips from a local and everything you need to know when visiting Amsterdam for the first time.
The below quote is from The Fault in Our Stars, a book and film by John Green. I have always found it an intriguing quotation. I like its concept that people feel comfortable acting freely in Amsterdam.
Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.John Green – The Fault in Our Stars
Must Do in Amsterdam
A common misconception is that Amsterdam is all about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, it is a small part of it. There are so many other things to do in Amsterdam. Amsterdam has a reputation for being a crazy stag party city. But in reality, there is so much to do so that you are a cultured tourist.
Read on for my recommendations on what to do in Amsterdam during your first time in Amsterdam.
Museums in Amsterdam
Starting with the obvious – Amsterdam is museums galore. But do not roll your eyes and say that you are not interested in history. There are some world-renowned museums, as well as some fun and quirky museums. Amsterdam is also partial to a spot of rain, so it is good to have a wet weather activity in mind in case.
Here is a list of my favourite museums in Amsterdam.
Anne Frank House
A visit to the Anne Frank House is a must. You need to make time in your itinerary for a visit to the Anne Frank Huis. You will learn about the secret annex where Anne Frank was hidden during World War II.
You should buy tickets online as soon as they are released. The tickets sell out quickly – every first Tuesday of the month for the following month.
The Anne Frank museum can now only be visited with by purchasing a ticket with a time-slot on this website.
You may wish to accompany your visit with a World War II walking tour around Amsterdam.
Amsterdam Cheese Museum
There are many museums in Amsterdam; however, if history/art is not your cup of tea, then try the Cheese Museum. It is my favourite because you learn a little about cheesemaking whilst consuming large amounts of cheese testers.
Yes, it is cheesy and touristy (pun not intended), but just a bit of fun.
Entrance to the museum is free, but you may want to buy some cheese to support the shop.
I will admit, I have never been inside this museum. But, the exterior of the museum is a wonder.
Even if you do not have time, or interest, in visiting the Rijksmuseum, at least go to Museumplein (museum square) and walk through the passage under the museum.
Red Light Secrets Museum
This museum is not at all a tacky sex museum. At the Red Lights Secrets museum, you will learn all about the “art” of prostitution. You will also get a behind the scenes look at the Red Light District, which I know intrigues you!
You can show up at the museum and pay at the door, or you can book your ticket in advance if you want to pay in your local currency.
Not technically a museum, but an immersive experience – the Heineken Experience is another fun indoor activity in Amsterdam. Even if you are not a beer drinker, learning about beer is still a fun way to spend a few hours.
Or if you are not interested in visiting the Heineken Experience, try something a little more local, like a craft beer brewery. For example, try Brouwerij ‘T Ij, which is next to a windmill.
A canal cruise is another activity that you must experience when in Amsterdam. Most cruises depart from Damrak or outside the Heineken Museum.
Pay attention when choosing a company to book your tickets. I tend to go for a company that offers a personalised language headset for each person. Some tours use a speaker for everyone to hear, translating it into several languages. I find it much more pleasant to hear all the stories and facts in just English (or your language preference).
If you buy the Iamsterdam card, you get a free canal cruise included, along with access to museums, discounts and transportation around the city! Purchase yours here.
You should consider a private canal cruise to see the city from a different perspective. They are the best way to spend an afternoon in Amsterdam.
Ride a bike around Amsterdam
When you think of Amsterdam (or the Netherlands, for that matter) you often think of bikes. Therefore, it would only be right to explore the negen straatjes (9 streets in Amsterdam’s canal belt) by bike. There are plenty of bike rental shops around the city, such as MacBike.
But, please take care when navigating the city on a bike. The locals have no patience for tourists with a lack of spatial awareness. Amsterdam also has bike traffic lights, so make sure you pay attention to them.
If you are riding your bike at night, have your lights turned on, or the police can give you a fine. Also, you should ensure you have some travel insurance, just in case of biking accidents.
Walk around Amsterdam
Amsterdam is a walkable city. There are so many things to see around the city, whether it is your first visit to Amsterdam or fifth. Feel free to get lost in the city because it is a small city, particularly compared to the likes of London and New York.
When walking around, do not walk in the bike lanes. If so, you will hear angry bike bells by the Amsterdammers.
Must See in Amsterdam
Here are the things you must see during your first trip to Amsterdam.
Make sure you have downloaded offline maps or have access to mobile data to check Google Maps. It is easy to get lost in Amsterdam around the many picturesque canals.
Collectively, the below places all add up to make a lovely self-guided walking tour of Amsterdam. You can follow these spots in the order I list them or do it backwards.
Jordaan is a beautiful neighbourhood with streets of classic Dutch houses and canals. It is a great place to have lunch as there are many nice cafés. You could spend a morning exploring just this area of Amsterdam and taking photos.
Dam Square is the focal point in Amsterdam – a well-known location just a 5-minute walk from Central Station. Often there are street-performers and food stalls, and in some months, there is a mini funfair!
It is home to the Royal Palace, one of the King’s official palaces. There is also an extensive shopping street, Kalverstraat, that runs off Dam Square.
This little courtyard is hidden away from the main streets. It is hard to find for those who do not know where it is. Go through a concealed door or find the side gate. You will come to a courtyard that was originally built for Catholic ladies who lived like nuns.
The houses in the courtyard are sweet but do not enter certain areas that are off-limits to the public. There are still ladies who live in these houses, so you have to be respectful.
Bloemenmarkt in English means flower market. It is the only floating flower market in the world due to it being on top of barges. Walk through the flower market and then walk on the opposite street to see a view of the other side.
Leidseplein is a bustling little square in Amsterdam filled with bars, cafes, restaurants, and sometimes some street performers.
It is a fun place to look around, but if you are looking for a place to eat, the establishments in the initial vicinity are pretty touristy. I would recommend going a street or two away to find something a little more local.
If you are looking for nightlife, your best bet is Leidseplein or another similar square called Rembrantplein.
Vondelpark is the largest city park in Amsterdam, where you will find many locals and tourists relaxing on a sunny day or biking through it. If you decide to rent a bike, this would be a safe and fun place to ride around.
The name means Museum Square in English. It is aptly home to many museums, including Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum and Stedelijk Museum. The Iamsterdam sign used to be here, but it was taken away because it became too popular.
It is still a lovely spot to walk around, even if you don’t go in any museums. There is also an ice skating rink in Museumplein in winter.
Albert Cuyp Market
Albert Cuyp is a market located in the De Pijp neighbourhood selling all kinds of products from food to clothes. It is open from Monday to Saturday from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm.
Make sure you buy a stroopwafel, one of my favourite Dutch snacks and a must on your first time in Amsterdam. It is made of two pieces of waffle filled with a thin layer of caramel-like sauce. The stroopwafel is best served warm.
The neighbourhood of Waterlooplein is close to where I used to live for some time and it is a peaceful area of Amsterdam. Walk along the canals and the Amstel river. You will come to Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge), which is a photogenic bridge.
On your way to the Red Light District, walk past Nieuwmarkt. Here, there is a castle-looking building that I like to photograph from across the canal on the bridge.
If you are hungry, there are some cafes located around Nieuwmarkt. There are also plenty of places to eat in China Town, which is close.
Red Light District
The Red Light District has got to be one of the most famous places to see in Amsterdam. To understand the full effect of the atmosphere, go when the sun has gone down.
If you speak French, walk past Quartier Putain (an espresso bar), and have a little chuckle. Google translate what it means if you do not speak French.
Walk along Trompettersteeg, which is the narrowest street in Amsterdam at only 1 metre wide. Wander around all the different streets and then for another laugh, continue to the Condomerie.
But please, do not take photos of the workers in the windows. They will get very upset. Plus, you may end up with your phone being thrown in the water.
Amsterdam Self-Guided Walking Route
If you are only in Amsterdam for a long weekend, you can go and see each of these places in the order I suggested in a day.
Food to Try in Amsterdam
If you are looking to try some local food and some Dutch favourites, I have compiled a list of what I would suggest.
These are one of my favourite Dutch desserts. They are mini puffed pancakes with a dusting of sugar and butter. They sell poffertjes at food stands such as at Albert Cuyp or you can try them at Pancakes! Amsterdam.
A guilty pleasure of mine, and by no means “Dutch Cuisine”. Febo is a fast-food chain where the food is behind small window slots and released when you put money in – much like a vending machine. You will need coins to use the machines and you will not get any change.
Febo is cheap and perfect for when you are hungry on the go. Febos are dotted all over the city. Rundvleeskroket (beef croquette) are one of my favourite snacks.
Winkel 43 is well-known for selling the best apple pie in Amsterdam. I would take my friends and family to try it every time they visited me. On weekends you might find a queue out the door.
Try it for yourself to see if you agree. In my opinion, it is a good apple pie.
The Foodhallen is a great place to go for a casual lunch or dinner. As the name suggests, it is a hall full of different food stands offering different cuisines.
It is also located more on the outskirts of Amsterdam, in the west, so you can explore another part of the city.
This restaurant is a unique dining experience in Amsterdam. De Kas offers a tasting menu where you will be served whatever has been freshly harvested from the greenhouse.
You will dine in a large conservatory and you can visit part of their greenhouse to see the food growing.
Book your table in advance because it is a popular restaurant in Amsterdam.
You will not find a menu on their website because it changes all the time. However, below is the menu on one of the occasions that I visited De Kas.
I LOVE Dutch pancakes. Yes, capitals are necessary. Dutch pannekoeken are more like crepes than American pancakes in terms of size, but a bit thicker than a crepe.
My favourite topping combination on a pancake is bacon and apple. Then, I top it with a Dutch syrup (Schenkstroop) and powdered sugar that is always offered complimentarily.
Pancakes are served all over Amsterdam, so you won’t be short of an option. But some pancake specialist restaurants have line-ups for tables, so you may have to wait when you arrive.
Make sure to include some Dutch pancakes on your first time in Amsterdam.
Van Stapele Koekmakerij
This place is a shop that sells only chocolate cookies with melted white chocolate in the centre. The cookies are truly divine.
I remember when this store just opened up around five years ago and it would offer free samples.
As a stingy student, I loved to take the free sample to save money.
But now, I can justify purchasing luxury cookies when they taste this good.
The store is located down a quaint side street.
Belgium is famous for its fries, but to be honest, the Dutch fries are good too. Again, these are served all over the city.
Most establishments in Amsterdam claim to be “the best”, but in my opinion, they are all great.
If you want to stay in the same area as my previous suggestion – opposite Van Stapele Koekmakerij there is a place that sells chips with a wide variety of sauces.
But if you want to go traditional, choose mayonnaise. It is also popular to have a mixture of ketchup and mayonnaise.
Where to Go for Drinks in Amsterdam
Amsterdam has some cool rooftop bars, each suited to different occasions.
Visit Blue Amsterdam if you are looking for a daytime rest spot. It closes at 6:30 pm, so it is good for lunch or a pre-dinner beverage.
The drinks are a reasonable price, and given its 3rd-floor location, you get a great view of the Dutch rooftops. It is located on top of a shopping centre and offers you a 360-degree view so there are plenty of window seats.
You will find it nestled near the flower market.
A sunny afternoon in Amsterdam would be well spent on the W Lounge Rooftop bar inside the W hotel. The view from the bar is beautiful with its pool and the architecture of surrounding buildings.
Of course, you also cannot go wrong with any bar along the canals with some outdoor seating, for example, the Jordaan neighbourhood. Have a wander and see where you can find a table.
If you are looking for a sleek venue for some evening drinks, try out the SkyLounge Bar near Central Station. To get to the bar, you need to enter the Hilton Hotel and go to the rooftop.
The drinks are at a higher price point, with one cocktail setting you back €15 to €20. But the view is fabulous of the Amsterdam city skyline and it has both indoor and outdoor tables.
Where Should I Stay in Amsterdam?
My main recommendation for choosing accommodation in Amsterdam would be to book a hotel on a canal street. Even though the city has a good transportation system, it is worth it to stay directly in the city for the experience of being amongst the canals.
|The Hoxton $$||A hotel that looks like a canal house, located near Dam Square||Click here|
|InterContinental Amstel $$$||Grand hotel overlooking the Amstel river in a lovely neighbourhood on the outskirts of the canal ring||Click here|
|Sofitel Legend The Grand $$$||Luxurious hotel close to the Red Light District||Click here|
|De L’Europe $$$$||A high-end hotel in the centre of the city||Click here|
Transportation in Amsterdam
Public transport in Amsterdam is popular and convenient.
There is the metro (underground/subway), trains, trams and buses. But if you are not interested in using public transport, Uber is quite readily available. However, public transport is often quicker than driving.
Transportation from Amsterdam Schiphol Airport
Travelling from the airport to the city center is relatively easy by train. A one-way ticket from Schiphol to Amsterdam Centraal Station is about €4.50. It takes around 15 minutes for this journey.
You can buy a train ticket from a yellow NS ticket booth at the airport, or you can go to a person selling them at the counter. Use the screens in the airport to find out the platform and what time the train is leaving.
If you prefer to arrive in the city by car, you could arrange a private transfer.
Transportation in the city
You need to purchase your city transportation ticket separately from your airport train ticket. You can buy city passes at ticket booths in the city for unlimited travel around Amsterdam for the number of days/hours you need it for. This is helpful if you know you will be travelling around the city a lot by public transport during your time.
If you are a frequent traveller to Amsterdam, it is worth purchasing an OV chipkaart for €7.50. This card allows you to load money onto it to use on trams, metros and buses. You will need to buy an anonymous card (it is blue), one without your name or picture on it.
When using the OV chipkaart you only pay for how much you travel, e.g. the distance of your journey. But do not forget to “check in and check out”, i.e. tap the card on a machine, when getting on and off the tram etc. If not, it will charge you a standard amount much more than your journey most likely was.
Use the website 9292 to plan your route. It has up-to-date train times.
If you are taking a tram or a bus, make sure you press one of the red stop buttons located around the vehicle just before you want to get off. Unless someone is waiting at the stop on the street, the driver will keep going.
If you will be using public transport frequently, visiting many museums, and will go on a canal cruise – check out the Iamsterdam card, which includes all of the above!
How Many Days to Spend in Amsterdam
The beauty of Amsterdam is that it is the perfect destination for a weekend trip, but there is also enough things to do to keep you busy for a week.
It is possible to come only for 2 or 3 days if you are travelling from nearby for a weekend. Or, you might include a few days in Amsterdam as part of a Europe trip.
Read more: How to spend a weekend in Amsterdam
If you have longer to spend in Amsterdam, I recommend that you explore outside of the city. Some of these places include Keukenhof, Zaanse Schans, and the seaside.
If you are wondering when to travel to Amsterdam, I suggest between April and May to see the tulips. The tulips are spectacular inside the city, as well as out of the city in the flower fields.
It will likely be too early for tulips in March, but it is off-season, so you may find better prices for flights and accommodation.
Advice for First Timers in Amsterdam from a Local
To round off this article, I wanted to provide you with some information about Amsterdam and quick Dutch phrases. This is knowledge I learnt from the time I spent living in Amsterdam during my university studies.
Read on for more Amsterdam travel tips.
Where to Buy Essentials in Amsterdam
Albert Heijn (pronounced Albert Hine) is the most popular supermarket – you will see people carrying the famous blue reusable carrier bags everywhere. Bring your own bag or expect to pay for a reusable one.
If you need any toiletries, try Etos. For a bit of everything, check out HEMA.
What is the Difference between a Coffee Shop and a Café in Amsterdam?
A Coffee Shop is where they sell weed. Not to be confused with an actual café where they sell coffee.
One of the most famous Coffee Shops in Amsterdam is The Bulldog.
What is the Difference between Holland and the Netherlands?
Holland is not a country; it refers to a region of the Netherlands.
There is a North Holland and a South Holland. Amsterdam is in the north and The Hague is in the south of Holland.
The Netherlands encapsulates both regions and more. For example, the Dutch city of Maastrict is not in Holland, but in the south of the Netherlands in a region called Limburg.
Do you need Cash in Amsterdam?
Bring Euros in cash with you to Amsterdam. Many shops only accept a special Dutch debit card called Maestro and they do not accept international credit cards.
There are plenty of ATMs around the city at banks like ING and ABN AMRO, and they all free withdrawals.
Are there Public Bathrooms in Amsterdam?
Following on from the point above, bring coins with you at all times. If you are ever out and about and need to use a bathroom, you may need to pay 50 cent or so.
There are limited free bathrooms in the city for ladies, but there are plenty of street urinals for men.
Do not expect to be able to sneak into a McDonalds to use their facilities. They have bathroom attendants there to charge you or show proof of purchase.
Click here for a map of the public bathrooms in Amsterdam.
What Shoes Should I Wear in Amsterdam
Leave your heels at home. Amsterdam is full of cobblestones which means you are best wearing comfortable shoes that are easy to walk in. Plus, the Dutch like to dress relatively casually.
If you are going to dinner where it is a little posher, bring some boots or flats.
Can I Drink Tap Water in Amsterdam?
The tap water in Amsterdam is drinkable. If you would like tap water at a restaurant, make sure you specify that, otherwise they will charge you for bottled water.
Some restaurants do not like to provide tap water, so watch out for these.
Biking Etiquette in Amsterdam
I have mentioned bikes before, but you should take all advice seriously.
Do not walk or dawdle in bike lanes and look both ways twice before crossing a bike lane. People on bikes will come hurtling past because they have right of way.
Do they Speak English in Amsterdam?
The Dutch speak English very well. In fact, according to Education First English Proficiency Index for 2020, they scored the highest for proficiency out of 100 other countries.
However, it is always good to learn a few words and phrases before you visit. As a language learning lover, I also find it fun when I realise that I have understood something foreign.
Important Dutch Words & Phrases
|Dutch||How to pronounce||English|
|Dank je wel||Dank-yuh-vell||Thank you|
|Eet smakelijk||Ate smak-e-lik||Enjoy your meal|
|Gracht||Don’t even try to pronounce this||Canal|