Intro to Amsterdam [and the Netherlands in general]
The Netherlands is a flat canal-laced country filled with tulips and windmills in Northern Europe. It’s part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands which also includes the island nations of Curacao, Aruba, and Sint Maarten. The Netherlands eastern neighbor is Germany, Belgium is to the south, and the North Sea makes up its up its diagonal northwestern border. Amsterdam is the nation’s capital but the seat of government is in the Hague and its economic engine is Rotterdam, the largest port city in Europe. The Netherlands is an efficient and hard working nation but it’s also famously liberal on social issues. Prostitution is legal and pot is easily purchased at “coffeeshops” in every town and city. Much of the land here is below sea level. Communities of medieval peasants and merchants built canals and dikes and used wind power to pump out the ocean water, creating vast expanses of fertile farmland that remain today. The early Dutch were more concerned about keeping the ocean off their land then they were with the petty religious squabbles in the rest of Europe. This attitude formed the basis of that famous Dutch tolerance. In the 17th century Dutch seafaring technology propelled what is referred to as the Dutch Golden Age, when the powerful Dutch East and West India Companies established trading posts in every corner of the world including present day Manhattan. Everyday Dutch life during this time was captured masterfully by artists like Rembrandt.
The name ‘Amsterdam’ is derived from a dam that was built on the Amstel River in the 12th century. That dam is today’s Dam Square, the city’s main square and arguably its touristy focal point. During the Golden Age, ships returning through the North Sea would unload their cargo onto boats which would use the city’s many canals to transport to merchant warehouses. It was during the Golden Age that Amsterdam hit its peak. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company decided to fund its voyages by selling small ownership stakes in the company. The worlds first stock exchange was born and Amsterdam became the leading financial center. Today Amsterdam is the worlds best example of a preserved 17th century metropolis but also modern and vibrant city.
Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport is consistently ranked as one of the best airports in the world. It’s big, efficient, clean, and easily accessible to the city via the country’s great rail system. Most international airports in the US, particularly on the east coast have direct options. From NYC it’s about a 7.5hr flight with multiple options throughout the day. Coming back there are late day return options, which allow for one last lunch and canal side bike ride. Most European cities will have one direct flight back, and it’s usually early in the morning.
Amsterdam is one of those cities you should see once as a tourist and at least once more as a local. The city can be enjoyed in 2-5 nights. In our opinion, for a first timer or a return customer, a long 4 day weekend is best, particularly Easter; fly over Thursday night, land Friday and stay 3 nights returning Monday later afternoon. If Easter is late enough you might even see the tulips.
Holland is little and every major town and city is connected by their rail system, including the airport and Centraal Station. Once in Amsterdam there is a handy tram system but you should rent a bike to get around (more on that later).
When we went
Multiple times, every season
Our travel video circa 2014:
Our travel video circa 2013:
What to do in Amsterdam
If this is your first time in Amsterdam then the Van Gogh Museum, Rijks Museum, Anne Frank House, and the flower market should be on the top of your must see list. And while you’re there don’t forget to rent a bike, eat some herring and take a stroll through the infamous red light district.
Once you’ve seen the biggies, come back and immerse yourself in this unique and fascinating city. Whether it’s your first time or fifth time, try to base yourself in the Jordaan neighborhood.
The best way to feel like a local is to get a bike. You haven’t experienced Amsterdam until you’ve glided to dinner through the patchwork of neighborhoods, over the gently arching bridges, and along side picturesque canals.
The first time we went was for New Years, which was crazy and probably not recommended. We’ve been back in late spring, early fall, summer, and April when the fields of flowers just outside the city burst to life. Not surprisingly this would be our choice for best time to visit.
Seeing the Tulips
We went to Amsterdam three times in the Spring before finally getting a chance to tiptoe through those famous colorful fields. It should be noted that the first two times we somewhat knowingly went too early (every early April) thinking we’d be cute and beat the crowds. Bad idea. The tulips will come up in Spring but the peak bloom only lasts a couple weeks. It can be earlier or later depending on the weather but your best bet is mid to late April. Even if you miss the peak bloom you’ll still see a lot of color.
Keukenhof Garden is the best “sight” for tulips. It’s open from mid March to May. Everywhere you look you’ll see tulips. Every kind, every shape, every color. It’s located near the town of Lisse about a 40 minutes drive from Amsterdam. There are no shortages of buses and tours that will take you. There are even buses from the airport if you find yourself on a long layover in Amsterdam.
However, in our opinion, the best way to see the tulips, and even the garden is to get on a bike. Keukenhof is located in one of the premier tulip growing areas in the Netherlands and the fields around the garden burst with miles of color each spring. The best way to experience this is to rent a bike in Amsterdam and buy a train ticket (don’t forget to tell them you have a bike too) and head for the town of Hillegom. The ride is all of 30 minutes and most trains are direct although you might need to transfer in Haarlem. Once at Hillegom exit to the left (if you’re looking in the same direction as the train was headed) and peddle in the same direction as the train , away from Amsterdam. Follow alongside the tracks and little canal. In a couple hundred yards you’ll get to a rail crossing. Turn right and cross over. Stay on that street for another couple hundred yards and take the first left. That little local road which turns into a bike path and parallels a canal will lead you alongside some great tulip fields and if you stay on it you’ll eventually get to Keukenhof. Just follow the signs for it. Eventually at the end of this road you’ll take a left back over the train tracks. From the train station to the garden, including photo stops, should take no more than 30 minutes. If you don’t stop it can be done in 15 easily. Take a look at Google earth before you go. It’s super easy but helps to have a visual basis.
It’s important to note that you’ll never be riding on streets. Even when you’re riding on a street you’re really on a separated bike lane next to the actual road. There are few countries, maybe no countries, where biking is as easy as it is here.
Another great area for tulips is north of Amsterdam. Similar to above, get a bike in Amsterdam and a train ticket to Den Helder Zuid. Get off the train, on a bike path, and peddle. Head south and/or west towards the North Sea. You can go back to the same train station to get home or head for Schagen. Starting in Den Helder Zuid and criss-crossing your way through tulip fields while sometimes in view of the north sea is a great way to spend half a day.
The Netherlands has bike routes like other countries have roads. You can leave Amsterdam on a bike lane and make it all the way to the North Sea without ever peddling on a road. Along the way you can see the tulip fields, ride through small towns, and stop in Haarlem, a kind of mini Amsterdam.
The Netherlands has bike routes like other countries have roads.
The Netherlands is about a flat as a pancake, which the Dutch love. No matter when we go to Amsterdam our first meal is always a big Dutch pancake at the aptly named: “Pancakes!” in Jordaan. If you’re looking at a map of Amsterdam the main canals seem to form a series of U’s sloping first towards the west. The north portion of the city is Jordaan. While physically close to the more famous red light district (everything is actually close as the city is fairly small) it feels a world apart. It has a cool urban neighborhood vibe. And don’t be surprised to see nearly entire families riding along on one homemade looking bike contraption, mom at the helm, two kids in a box in front, and oldest in the back.
Last time we went to Amsterdam we did something we had always wanted to, stayed on a houseboat. You’ll see these on every bank of the big canals. Some look like they should have been condemned years ago. They’re also not really boats anymore. Most, including the ones you’ll stay on, are permanently attached to the seawalls and have city provided electricity and plumbing.
Our last visit also coincided with one of the year’s biggest parties, King’s Day. Think Fourth of July meets St. Patrick’s Day.
We’ve gone the Netherlands three separate times to see the flowers, but were only successful once. The first two times we admittedly got too cute, trying to time it very early to beat the crowds. Your best bet is mid to late April. And if you do go out of the city with your bike to see the fields you should 1) take the train because public transportation is super easy and 2) try not to go on a weekend, when tour buses unload onto the bike paths that weave through the fields.
Pancakes! – (Berenstraat 38) We’ve gone to this place every single time we’ve been to Amsterdam. Dutch pancakes. You have to get some. They’re not light and fluffy with maple syrup. They’re a bit thinner but not like a crepe and get toppings on and in them like bacon, apples or camembert cheese! They also give you cute little wooden dutch shoe keychains with each purchase. If you show up and see a line…that’s typical. I’d wait.
Tempoe Doeloe (in Centrum) – (Utrechtsestraat 75) Besides pancakes and street shacks selling pickled herring (which by the way, is actually kind of tasty) there really isn’t an authentic Dutch cuisine. The Dutch were travelers (Dutch East Indies Company) where they picked up different spices and cuisines from all of the world and brought it back to Amsterdam. So, a few hundred years ago, Amsterdam was the cuisine capital of the world…then famine and hard times hit and people went back to bread and butter. Tempoe Doeloe is an Indonesian restaurant. In order to get a chance to try all the different dishes and spices that the spice ships would travel to, the Dutch created something called a “rijsttafel” (pronounced “rikes-staf-fel”) which is a sampling of the different spiced dishes (you will get 12-16 ramekin sized dishes each with a different spiced veggie or meat dish served with rice). This is what you should get, otherwise, I wouldn’t bother going. Let them know if you want it mild or spicy. Note that they are CLOSED ON SUNDAY. Definitely make a reservation because it isn’t big.
Restaurant Greetje – (Peperstraat 23-25) It’s an older restaurant (opened in the 1920s) and serves “traditional dutch cuisine” ( I think this means duck and cod and the sort). It was good but I definitely would say it’s not a “happenin’ kind of place”; be sure to try some Jenever liquor.
Gebr Hartering – (Peperstraat 10HS) fancy, foodie restaurant, romantic
Cafe Thijssen – (Brouwersgracht 107) Fine little cafe on the outskirts of the Jordaan neighborhood. If you’re in the neighborhood I would go here for breakfast or lunch.
t’smalle cafe – (Egelantiersgracht 12, Amsterdam) This is another cafe that the Mr. and I have been to a few times. It’s one of our favorites. It’s actually a brown cafe…which means this is where old men used to come and hang out, smoke and drink beer and coffee. The walls are stained brown from the tobacco smoke. It’s a traditional pub with wood-paneled walls and a canal side terrace, serving hearty food & Belgian beers. Definitely stop by here and grab a beer and split a really good goat cheese salad.
Cafe de Prins – (Prinsengracht 124) Another great cafe! Perfect for lunch or dinner. They have an awesome gouda fondue to split for dinner. Nothing will make you feel more Dutch.
Villa Zeezicht – CLOSED (Torensteeg 7) This place is perfect for breakfast. They also make one hell of a dutch apple pie. It’s REALLY good.
Upstairs Pancake House – (Grimburgwal 2) This place is TINY…and it’s hidden and you have to walk up the steepest steps ever to get there (the steepest 10 steps you’ll ever take). It’s near the college and a reservation is a must.
La Fruteria – if you’re looking for a healthy juice bar, this one is near to Dam Square
De Kaaskamer – (Runstraat 7) cheese shop, pick up some gouda to snack on while you’re there — or bring back a small round of aged gouda
No matter how long or short of a stay, we always rent bikes. We’ve rented from three different places. If you want to pick up a red Macs Bike then you can get that at the main train station. These bikes say “hey, I’m visiting and not from around here but want to ride a bike”.
There’s also Frederic Rental. Located within walking distance from the train station. Super friendly…these bikes blend in with the locals. The third place is called Bike City. You can pick up a local looking bike here too. The guys there are friendly.
Biking should be your main means of transportation. Even if it’s cold out! Bike to and through Vondelpark. Generally explore the Jordaan neighborhood by foot and bike.
Hint – these do not sell coffee. if you looking for a caffeine fix find a cafe. Not all coffeeshops have the dingy feel that you might think. Some look far more like a neighborhood coffee shop then a place selling weed. Here are a couple of places with a more relaxed and welcoming ambiance…or so we’ve been told.
Paradox. (Eerste Bloemdwarsstraat 2R) Very relaxed and they have a pre-rolled selection, great for those who just want a small taste of Amsterdam. They also sell fruit juice and there are board games you can use.
Grey Area (Oude Leliestraat 2) Resides on a little residential street in Jordaan. The staff is very helpful and patient. Check out the ridiculous collection of celebrities that have stopped in here.
You’ll see Bulldog Cafes in many of the squares throughout the city. These coffeeshops are popular among the study abroad and backpacking crowds.
Museums & Sights
If you can buy tickets online, I would highly recommend doing so beforehand. Better yet, get the Museumkaart (no brainer for anyone visiting at least 6 sites). You can buy this at participating museums; try and buy it at a less popular museum like the Amsterdam Museum rather than one of the museums listed below. In most cases, this card allows you to skip the otherwise long lines.
Rijksmuseum; Amsterdam. The recently refurbished museum is home to the best collection of old world Dutch masters on Earth.
Van Gogh Museum; Amsterdam. Although the lines are ALWAYS long, this is home to the best collection of Van Gogh works anywhere in the world. Pre-purchased tickets with a specified time or MuseumKaart is a must.
Anne Frank Museum; Amsterdam. A physical reminder of the suffering inflicted by the Nazis against Jews in occupied countries during World War II. Pre-purchased tickets with a specified time or MuseumKaart is a must.
Canal House Museum; Amsterdam. A great example of what a canal house looked like (decor) during the 18th century.
Real estate in Amsterdam is at a premium and hotel prices are very expensive — especially for those canal view rooms. The contrast between neighborhoods is vast. Try not to stay in the Red Light District or in Dam Square as it can be REALLY touristy and seedy.
If you’re up for it, we highly recommend looking into staying on a houseboat. Search through AirBnb for one. We found our’s through Frederic’s Bike Rentals (in addition to bikes, they also rent a handful of houseboats).
Hotel Ambassade – classy old hotel on a great canal in Jordaan. It’s not cheap but the location and views are perfect.
Hotel van Onna – on the outskirts of Jordaan, this is an old sailor’s boarding house with creaky old staircases and very modest accommodations. The view alone is totally worth the (relatively) cheap nightly rate.
Hotel Dikker & Thijs Fenice – in a slightly rowdier section of town, just a stones throw from Leidseplein
Hotel Mr. Jordaan – a hip, new hotel a little off the beaten path in the Jordaan neighborhood. Located on the Bloemgracht canal and near a ton of cafes, bars, galleries and restaurants.