With the help of my hostel owners friends in Amsterdam and also using my 20 years experience of visiting the city, I have pulled together this locals guide to Amsterdam. I hope you find it useful. Amsterdam. The city of photogenic, instagrammable geometric canals, narrow gabled houses squashed next to one another, elbow to elbow and reaching high to the sky. City dwellers getting out and about on bicycles. Snow falling on the frozen canals in winter. Leaves scattered on the ground- forming rust-coloured patterns, while navigating the city in the crisp, clean air of Autumn- the neon signs of the red light district, the heady smoke from the coffee shops- this is what Amsterdam embodies to me.
The heart of the historic city is to be found in and around the medieval and colonial canals, in the oldest part of the city containing the famous red light district- De Wallen, and in the old Jewish quarter of Waterlooplein. However, scratch beneath the surface and Amsterdam will share new surprises with you.
History and Development of Amsterdam
The name Amsterdam originates from the fact that the twelfth century fishing village was founded on the River Amstel where a dam was constructed. In the Dutch Golden Age, Amsterdam rose to the heights of his prosperity as an important trading port.
Today it is an important financial centre and distributor of diamonds. The currency used is the Euro. The native language of the Netherlands is Dutch although most people speak English fluently.
The best way to get around Amsterdam
There seems to be a clear consensus on this point when you ask locals in Amsterdam- the best way to get around Amsterdam is by using the local trams or walking.
Even better, do as the locals and rent a bike. It’s definitely the best way to get around the incredibly flat city. Amsterdam has a dedicated system of biking paths, looping in and out of the most crowded sections of the urban landscape. Many hostels have the option of renting bikes. Its quick, convenient and gives you a chance to work off those stroopwaffels! The cost of a bike rental comes in at around the €10 mark for a day of limitless exploration.
There is also a very extensive network of tram routes, making it one of the most popular modes of public transportation.
The metro, tram, ferry and bus routes are operated by the GVB- the public transportation company. The GVB day or multi-day ticket provides you with unlimited travel on all GVB routes at all times.
When to visit Amsterdam
The tourist driven summer peak season extends from May to September. Your best bet would be to travel in April or late September to November, when the crowds are less and the prices not so debilitating. If you wish to visit during tulip season, which spreads from mid March to the end of May, the middle of April is your best bet.
Top things to do in Amsterdam
1. Visit the tulip fields of the Keukenhof near Lisse in April and see the beautiful flowers at the peak of their beauty. Row upon neat row of variegated colour will assail you- like a rainbow strewn across the earth. If the Spring is particularly cold then it might be a good idea to time your visit later into May. Visit the gardens during the weekdays to avoid traffic congestion.
2. Visit Vondelpark– a beauty in all seasons. If possible attend a free concert in the open air theatre, held between May and early September.
3) Visit the Rijksmuseum– a treasure trove of Dutch artistic history laying claim to masterworks by Rembrandt and Vermeer.
4) Visit the Anne Frank House Museum – a surreal reminder of the atrocities committed during the Second World War and the strength of the human effort of self-preservation. Here in a tiny cramped secret annexe, Anne Frank and her family were in hiding for 25 months before being discovered. It is a sad part of Amsterdam’s history and a raw and emotional encounter. If you visit the house cum museum you can learn about the conditions that the inmates of the house lived in.
5). If you’re out to do a spot of shopping but want to stick to a budget then browsing the Waterloopein Flea Market is a great option. The stalls are stacked high with all sorts of bric-a brac and historical relics from the past. The flea market dates back to 1880 when the street was a point of selling goods amongst Jewish traders.
Tip: Amsterdam City Pass
There are three Amsterdam City Passes of mention. They include the ‘I Amsterdam City Pass’, ‘Amsterdam Holland Pass’ and ‘Amsterdam City Pass’. Each of them offers different discounts that are variously time limited. It is better to study these passes individually and check which one suits your itinerary the best. Mostly these passes are beneficial if you would like to combine entry to the main museums with hefty entry fees with access to free rides on public transport.
Where to eat in Amsterdam
Dutch food is not all about stroopwafels and bitterballens, although admittedly these are the local foods I sample again and again when I visit the city. If feeling particularly brave do visit the abundant raw herring carts (haringhandels). If you simply can’t stomach the smell, don’t worry- ‘kibbeling’ are bite-sized pieces of battered, deep-fried-fishy deliciousness and are available at said carts too.
Amsterdam is a truly cosmopolitan city. Expect to be treated to a wide variety of international cuisine here. ‘Bazar’ is a converted church that now serves nothing else than Middle Eastern food! For good Spanish tapas hop along to ‘La Pata Negra’ or if in the mood for ramen visit ‘Fou Fow Ramen’. Soenda Kelapa on the Utrechtse Straat – an Indonesian Restaurant, or ‘Taco Cartel’ for Mexican tacos are eclectic options too.
However, if you’ve come to Amsterdam eager to sample local fare- make your way to Geflipt for Dutch-style burgers. Café Kale, Café Oosterling or Bar Fisk is the place for a taste of the local Dutch pub scene.
If you’re looking for some good food, eaten in an off-beat, beautiful location, head over to the waterfront.
‘Far from the madding crowds in central Amsterdam, Hotel de Goudfazant is nestled amongst some old industrial buildings on the IJ waterfront in Amsterdam Noord. The menu is seasonal and great value, especially considering the quality of what comes out the kitchen.’
Anna Hafsteinsson, Clink Hostels
Also checkout my guide to the best cheap eats in Amsterdam .
Where to drink and party in Amsterdam
The Dutch are famous all over the world for their very liberal take on drugs that have restricted use in other parts of the world. It is not, therefore, surprising that the cannabis coffee shops (and also the red-light district) attract millions of international visitors annually. Amsterdam is a playground fo those looking to have a good time. There are bars and parties of every different kind and every flavour.
Some recommended names of bars and clubs in the ‘Dam include Marktkantine, Pacific, Leidseplein, Paradiso and Rembrandtplain.
Sitting on the banks of the IJ river, Pllek is a trendy industrial hangout constructed using old shipping containers. With its own man-made beach, live music and plenty of other events, it’s a great place to grab a cocktail or enjoy some alfresco beers when the sun is shining.Another recommendation is Pacific Parc for a great day to night venue. Grab a spot on the large sunny terrace from lunchtime and then, come night-time, head inside and groove till the early hours to an eclectic mix of DJs and live music.
I like to go for a walk…
Amsterdam has its fair share of green, open spaces in the city. Vondelpark is undoubtedly the largest and the best known. There are many more smaller parks serving as places of recreation to city dwellers and they consist of Beatrixpark, Sarphatipark, Oosterpark, Park Frankendael, Rembrandtpark, Westerpark, Flevopark, Amstel Park, Wertheimerpark and Sloterpark– to name a few.
Westerpark is a smaller urban park to the west of the city. The park is the perfect blend of greenery and impressive architecture. The converted Westergasfabriek gasworks hosts a number of events including exhibitions, markets, festivals, indie shops, an art-house cinema, a brewery and dance club.
Noorderpark is a green oasis in the heart of Amsterdam’s Noord district. With plenty of trees and green areas, it’s a great place to stroll around and escape the hustle and bustle of central Amsterdam.
The best places to relax in Amsterdam
Amsterdam is the city of canals and serene waterways. What better way to relax, than to take in the city’s architectural glory from the water?
“There’s something about cruising along the city’s pretty waterways that is very calming. We love Pure Boats whose cosy vessels offer a welcome change from the big tourist boats.”
Anna Hafsteinsson, Clink Hostels
Perhaps some floral-therapy might be considered a good way to inspire inner calm? A trip to Amsterdam in the Spring would be incomplete without visiting the tulip fields of the Keukenhof near Lisse in April and seeing the beautiful flowers at the height of their beauty. Row upon neat row of variegated colour will assail you- like a rainbow strewn across the earth. If the Spring is particularly cold, then it might be a good idea to time your visit later into May to see peak blooms. Visiting the gardens during the weekdays enables you to avoid traffic congestion.
Vondelpark is a beauty in all seasons. If possible attend a free concert in the open air theatre, held between May and early September. Listening to music in the lap of beautiful nature is a great way to bring on that feeling of zen.
The best viewpoint in Amsterdam
By common consensus one of the best views in Amsterdam happens to be A’dam Toren or A’dam Tower, which is just around the corner from ClinkNOORD. It has a great bar, where you can sip on cocktails and admire the panoramic views to take in the sights and sounds of Amsterdam. For those who are not faint of heart, the ‘Over The Edge’ Swing will provide you with more than an adequate adrenaline rush.
The Noorderlicht is another great spot for views over the river IJ from Amsterdam Noord. You can sit here for a couple of hours and watch the world go by.
The Doubletree Hotel Skylounge, the Nemo Panorama Terrace are also great options for catching bird’s-eye views of the city. The Westerkirk Tower is the highest church in Amsterdam. If you’re looking for a wee workout on a summer’s evening, climb up this iconic church tower and feast your eyes upon the Jordaan district below.
My secret place
Shhhh! Here’s a secret place only the locals and best informed people know about.
Blijburg is a beachside cultural spot just outside the city where Amsterdammers get together to play, swim, eat, drink and create. With live music and festivals running throughout the year, it’s a great place to feel the sea air and let your hair down!
Also checkout Haarlem and the dreamy Hello I’m Local Hostel and escape the everyday stress and strain of Amsterdam. Staying here reminded me of what holidays were like. Riding on bikes through the surrounding glorious open countryside. Maybe heading to the nearby beach. Quenching your thirst at some fine countryside pub. Playing board games in the common room. No wifi or TV in the rooms means a relaxed sleep. Beautiful beds as if you were back home. Wake upto the most gorgeous breakfast spread ever-all locally sourced. Then maybe grab a book and chill in their lovely outdoor patio. If you are thirsty enjoy the delicious local Joven beer along with some of their homemade bitterballen. Take a walk to the station and hop over to Amsterdam which is just a 15 minute ride away. Haarlem is ever so pretty though. Devoid of tourists completely. So peaceful.
My other secret spot is another piece of food heaven : there is a small Surinamese takeaway called De Hapjeshoek tucked away in the depths of Waterlooplein Station. Whenever I am in Amsterdam, I always pop in here for their delicious chicken curry sandwich aka ‘Kipfillet Kerrie Broodjes. For €3, this is a bargain.
Where to stay in Amsterdam
Getting there and away
Amsterdam Schipol is extremely well connected to all major airports in the UK. Budget and non budget airlines ply this route including British Airways, easyJet, Flybe, KLM, Jet2 and Vueling.
Amsterdam is also well connected by train and bus- for the best and cheapest ways to visit the city , checkout Omio to give you a comparison of plane, train or bus from key nearby cities. ( For example for Amsterdam, look at Paris or London for example)