When you mention to someone that you are going to The Netherlands, what’s the first thing you think they’ll say? If you said anything along the lines of, “So…are you going to Amsterdam?” Well, you’d most likely be bang on. Of course when they ask you this, they’ll have a smirk on their face. That’s the reaction I received at least. A city famed for thousands of bikes whizzing by pedestrians, The Red Light District and a heavy marijuana presence, Amsterdam offers far more than the typical stereotypes that it is associated with.
Amsterdam is steeped in history dating as far back as the 16th century. The streets are lined with canals with the cutest little bridges, which twinkle with lights at night, boats of all sizes quietly put down the waterways, quirky and crooked houses that even today’s architect will look cockeyed at and yes, the faint smell of weed wafting through the air no matter the time of day, or the path you take. Some stereotypes ring true to Amsterdam, but I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing. Yes, you have the pot, yes you have the girls in the windows trying to seduce the onlookers, but even though Amsterdam is seen by many people as a bachelor’s dream party weekend city, it is much more than that, by far.
Amsterdam is a city that I loved almost instantly. The architecture was unique and unlike anything I’ve seen before. “How is that house so crooked, yet still standing?” I thought this many times while strolling around the city streets. The streets were bustling with locals stopping in at hip shops and hanging outside at canal-side cafés sipping a latte, or a beer with a friend while laughing and chatting it up. Everything seemed so relaxed and easygoing, despite being one of Europe’s top destinations for tourists. The city is teeming with creative people, left and right. There are artists perched along the canals painting serene scenes on a canvas, fashionable hipsters strolling the streets in the coolest looking clothes while snapping Instagram worthy shots and tourists window shopping and giggling at the sex shops’ merchandise proudly on display for everyone to see.
Amsterdam is a world class city unlike any other I’ve been too. The easy-going and carefree attitude of the locals is a breathe of fresh-air, albeit if that air has a slight scent of Indica and Sativa. *wink wink*
If you’re heading to Amsterdam anytime in the near future, or are wondering what you should do and see while visiting, I’ve compiled a helpful list of things you can add to your Dam bucket list. 🙂
Read more: 10 Amazing Days Exploring The Netherlands
Stroll Around the Canal Ring
The canal ring area was historically an area that poor immigrants lived in and is made up of a series of canals; Singel, Herengracht, Keizergracht and Prinsengracht. Today, the canal ring is a rich and vibrant sought out area to live in where shops, charming gabled houses, restaurants and cafés reign supreme. The area called the Golden Bend, which was built up in the 1660’s, boasts some of the most expensive built houses. The canal ring was also built to extend to the east end of Amsterdam and reaches the Amstel Canal. The calm and beautiful canals are lined with cafés and restaurants that just beg you to sit back, relax with a coffee and watch the Dutchies maneuver their bikes in a way I still cannot explain. In 2010, the Canal Ring was declared an UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most beautiful areas of Amsterdam to get lost in.
Visit a World Class Museum (Quirky or Traditional)
Amsterdam is jam packed with museums to suit any visitor’s desire. If you are into art history, visit the Rijksmuseum; a massive and impressive museum that is built in a Neo-Gothic style which houses famous works of art from Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642), Vermeer’s The Kitchen Maid (1658) and Frans Hals’ The Wedding Portrait (1622). The Rijksmuseum is so large, that most say it cannot be seen in a single visit. Another must see museum for the art lover is definitely the Van Gogh Museum. This museum has a modern glass presence and houses Van Gogh’s most famous pieces such as Sunflowers (1889), Vincent’s Bedroom in Arles (1888) and Wheatfield and Crows (1890). If art isn’t your bag and you are into history instead, then a visit to the Anne Frank house is a must. This is the home where Anne Frank and her family lived and hid to avoid Nazi persecution, but unfortunately in 1944, the home was raided by the Gestapo, everyone was found and arrested and taken to Concentration Camps. During their time in hiding, Anne would start writing her famous diary, The Diary of Anne Frank, on her 13th birthday. Make sure to book your tickets for the museum online (you can up to two months in advance) in order to avoid the lineups that gather daily and span for blocks. Sadly, I missed the mark and got stuck without tickets and did not want to wait in a lineup that large. If you can’t bring yourself to visit an art or history museum, Amsterdam is chalk full of quirky and interesting museums that may spark some interest. Some include the Marijuana and Hash Museum, The Cheese Museum, Tulip Museum and even a museum dedicated to sex workers and the Red Light District. With so many museums to choose from, there is truly something for everyone.
Rent a Bike and Explore (if you dare)
Amsterdam is a city where bikes reign supreme. In fact, there are more bikes than people. The sight of tens of thousands of bikes careening past pedestrians and dodging cars is the norm in Amsterdam and what better way to blend in with the locals and do as they do than renting a bike to explore the city. Renting a bike in Amsterdam is a definite “attempt at your own risk” type of activity. The locals in Amsterdam are seasoned pros and can easily text and ride a bike, hold a boxed T.V. while riding (I’ve seen it) and also be eight months pregnant and still be a boss on a bike and all while not wearing helmets! I had slight anxiety watching them zip around the side streets which had no stop signs anywhere? It’s crazy! Disclaimer: If you have NOT ridden a bike before, or haven’t in awhile, PLEASE refrain from trying to ride one…especially in Amsterdam of all places. The one thing that will surely piss any local off in seconds, is trying to maneuver around a tourist that has no idea where they are going, not having any knowledge of the bike lanes, or road rules and trust me, they will NOT stop for you. While spending three days in Amsterdam, I can recall at least two collisions and many close calls. You know what, maybe it’s best to rent a bike in a smaller, less crowded town. You’ve been warned. 😉
Grab a Beer and People Watch
There is no better place to grab a beer and people watch than on the streets of Amsterdam. With almost all patios facing a road, or a canal, you’re bound to see some colourful characters walking, biking or floating by in their boats. Amsterdam is a hub for beer (it is the home to Heineken after all), but more recently, the craft beer scene has made its mark in the city and you won’t be short for choices when it comes to picking a brew to enjoy. A great place to people watch in Amsterdam is, you guessed it…The Red Light District. If you don’t feel comfortable heading there during the night hours, it’s a great place to meander through during the daylight hours and also less busy, so pick a patio, order up and sit back and relax.
Visit a Brown Café “Bruine Kroeg”
You cannot visit Amsterdam without visiting a traditional brown brown café, or “bruine kroeg” in Dutch. The brown café is renowned for it’s dark wooden interior and smoke-stained walls and makes you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time. The atmosphere inside a brown café is very warm, cozy, inviting and relaxed. You’ll find more locals than tourists meeting up and chatting with each other over a beer, a glass of wine, of a coffee. Brown cafés are mostly found within the oldest parts of Amsterdam and date as far back as the 1600’s. Every brown café has its own charm to woo over its visitors, whether it be cozy couches, or perhaps even a fireplace. One thing is for certain though, once you step inside, you’ll instantly feel a homey vibe and feel like you’re part of the local scene. Just make sure to bring some cash with you, as a lot of brown cafés may not accept credit or debit cards. I visited Café Karpershoek, which was established back in 1606. I just happened to walk in and immediately felt like I was grabbing a beer inside the pages of a history book. I could tell that I was the only tourist inside at that point, which made the experience even better. The staff was friendly, attentive and chatting with everyone, which was nice to see. I also hit up Café Van Zuylen for a warm cappuccino. Click here for a list of other great brown cafés located in Amsterdam.
A trip to Amsterdam isn’t complete without indulging in some pancake goodness. These babies are sure to satisfy even the strongest case of the munchies. 😉 Made slightly thinner and crispier than a crepe, pancakes are as much of a Dutch staple as windmills and clogs. Get your pancakes customized at Pancakes! Amsterdam, or choose from a myriad of options listed on their menu. Like your pancakes sweet? Then you’re in luck. The Dutch serve their pancakes with a generous dollop of whipped cream and tons of other sweet offerings. Not much into sweets and like the savory side of life more? Well, they have that too. Get a pancake with bacon, cheese, spinach and other delicious toppings. Whatever you’re craving, you’re sure to find it in Amsterdam. Click here for a list of the top 10 pancake restaurants in Amsterdam.
Stroll Through Vondelpark
What used to be a private park for the rich up until 1953, is now a lush, green mecca for relaxation for locals and tourists alike. Vondelpark is a beautifully manicured public park that sees approximately 10 to 12 million visitors a year and is located just south of the canal ring area. Vondelpark is best enjoyed during a nice, warm day with a picnic on the grass, or simply a book to read on one of the many benches scattered throughout the park. There are many bike and walking paths that take your from the hustle and bustle of the streets, to a relaxed emerald oasis embedded in the middle of the city. The better the weather, the busier it gets, but you’re bound to find a little private space to call your own for a little while.
Shop De Negen Straatjes (The Nine Streets)
De Negen Straatjes, or The Nine Streets is exactly as the name states; nine streets chalk full of artisan shops, cute boutiques, cafés galore and even local cheese shops. These nine tiny streets only span about a block in length each and form a grid that spans from the Prinsengracht canal to the Singel canal. The Nine Streets consist of – Reestraat, Hartenstraat, Gasthuismolensteeg, Berenstraat, Wolvenstraat, Oude Spiegelstraat, Runstraat, Huidenstraat and Wijde Heisteeg. Be sure to spend some time meandering through these somewhat quiet streets because you’re bound to stumble on some cute little treasures, one of a kind clothing stores and a quaint canal side café to enjoy a coffee and snack. To help you navigate the oodles of shops in the area, visit the official site of De Negen Straatjes.
Explore Each Neighbourhood
Amsterdam is broken into diverse neighbourhoods and each have something special to offer locals and tourists. Some of the more popular and must-see areas are full of historical significance and beauty. Oude Zijde (Old Side), which is the area home to the Red Light District, Zuiderkerk, Nieuwmarkt and the Waag, is the oldest part of Amsterdam. The impressive and massive Oude Kerk is Amsterdam’s oldest building and dates back as far as the 13th century and sits right in the heart of the bustling Red Light District. Nieuwe Zijde (New Side) sits on the western side of medieval Amsterdam and goes as far as the Singel Canal, which used to be a moat around the city before the rest of the canals were built. The Nieuwe Zijde is home to Dam Square, Nieuwe Kerk, Centraal Station and the Torensluis, which is the widest bridge in the whole city. One of the most popular and beautiful areas in my opinion is the Canal Ring area. This area was constructed in the 1600’s and it home to some of the most beautiful tree lined canals and quirky canal houses in the entire city. The canal ring loops around the entire city centre and is officially an UNESCO World Heritage Site as of 2010. This area is also home to the hip and boho Jordaan neighbourhood that boasts a serene atmosphere, lively brown cafés, more locals and less tourists. Other sites in the Canal Ring are the Westerkerk and the Anne Frank House. The Museum Quarter is, you guessed it, a neighbourhood dedicated to all things artsy and cultural. In this area. you’ll find the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum and Vondelpark. Definitely your one stop shop for the art history lover. Wandering outside of the city centre will bring you to the hipster haven and trendy area of De Pijp. This area used to be part of a poor working class sector, but now is a vibrant neighbourhood filled with classy restaurants, shops and the famous Albert Cuypmarkt, which has over 300 stalls selling everything and anything from stroopwafels to cheese to flowers.
Take a Canal Cruise
No trip to Amsterdam is truly complete without seeing the city from the canals on a boat cruise. The canals of Amsterdam are a way of life for the Dutchies. They can be found cruising the canals during rain, or shine; by day, or by night and so should you! Yes, it may be touristy, but you definitely learn quite a bit about the history of the canals, the canal houses, how they were built and you really get a sense of the city from a whole different perspective. There are a myriad of cruise operators within Amsterdam and most canal cruises disembark directly across from Centraal Station. I chose to do the one hour long night time canal cruise with the amazing guys from Lovers Canal Cruises and had a great time learning so much about Amsterdam and the canals they so lovingly adore. Doing a day time cruise would get you some great shots without a doubt, but I highly suggest doing the cruise at night because gliding down the canals with the twinkling lights lining the bridges is honestly one of the prettiest things I’ve seen.
Wander Through The Red Light District (De Wallen)
Quite possibly the most famous area of Amsterdam and also the most misunderstood, is The Red Light District, De Wallen in Dutch. Home to one of the world’s oldest professions (*ahem* prostitution), scantily clad women shimmy and shake within their windows under the bright red neon glow of lights and try their best to entice the crowds of the curious onlookers on the street. As seedy as the area may seem to most with the massive dildos in the windows, head shops on every corner and live sex and peep shows going on behind closed doors, the sex industry is a HUGE money maker for Amsterdam. Bringing in billions of euros every year, it’s no wonder why the country’s government made it legal. The girls even have unions, regular checkups and the right to refuse people. Although the ladies seem to be on display for tourists, whatever you do…do NOT bust your camera out and photograph them. There is usually someone wondering within the crowds keeping a lookout for shutter happy tourists and if they see you taking pictures, they WILL confront you and possibly smash your camera, or in one case, I have heard that the girls have thrown buckets of PEE out their windows at the person taking photos. UGH, GROSS!! Just save yourself the embarrassment and keep your cameras in your bag. If strolling through De Wallen at night isn’t your thing, don’t disregard the area by day, as it is in Amsterdam’s oldest area and there are still beautiful canal houses to see, cute restaurants to eat at and of course, the Oude Kerk is an Amsterdam gem in itself and dates back to the 13th century.
Visit a Coffeeshop
With a relaxed outlook on soft drugs such as marijuana, I’d be lying if I said tourists don’t come to Amsterdam to smoke some grass without risk of getting charged. I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t partake in the activity of lighting up as well. Amsterdam’s coffeeshops are far from grimey though. Some coffeeshops have modern interiors, a clean atmosphere and resemble high end cafés, rather than a dank place to smoke up, which bring in some high roller (pun intended) clientelle instead of just the stereotypical dreadlocked haired hippie, although you’ll see them mingling in the crowds as well. Outfitted with warm, comfy couches and chairs, dim lights and even some snacks and drinks (mostly coffee, tea and water), it’s the perfect place to get away from the crowds during the day time hours and chill. Everyone is relaxing, having fun, enjoying a coffee, chatting about their day and doing it peacefully. Professional staff help guide you through the strain, the type of high each will produce and even flavour of weed you want to try. You can purchase up to five grams loose, or even buy pre-rolled joints to smoke. You can also purchase edibles such as brownies and space cakes, but beware…if you’ve never tried edibles before, it is a much different and stronger high than smoking. You get a total body buzz and a lot of people cannot handle it and get anxiety from it, so if you are going to indulge in some edibles, start SLOW to test your tolerance. I visited two shops during my visit and had a pleasant experience by going during the day when the shops tend to be a little less busy. I visited Kadinsky’s located just off the Dam Square and Abraxas, which has one of the prettiest mosaic tile inspired interiors I’ve seen and a modest little sitting area outside, door security guard included.
I really hope this complete city guide to Amsterdam has given you some inspiration for what to see, do and experience while visiting this great European city. Have any of you been to Amsterdam? What was your favourite thing to do and experience there? I know I’ve left some points out, since there are a ton of things to do in Amsterdam. Let me know your favourites in the comments below! xo