Whether you’re into architecture, history, art, good food, or pretty cities, Amsterdam is a perfect destination! Here’s everything you need to know to plan your visit.
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General things to know
The Netherlands, like most of its Northern European cousins, isn’t cheap when it comes to the general cost of living. I’d put Amsterdam in the same range as Brussels or London. That being said, it’s still doable on a budget!
Amsterdam is one of those cities where you absolutely need to book tickets (especially museum tickets) in advance. There are several small but amazing museums that sell out in advance, even in the off-season! And unlike other countries, they don’t hold any tickets back for walk-up purchasing. When they’re gone, they’re gone.
The city has reliable trams, buses, and basic metro. They offer day passes or hourly passes, so it depends on how much you plan to use the transport. I felt like the city was small enough to not use it much and so picturesque that I wanted to see it! We only used it when we hauled our luggage to and from the train station. Contactless purchase is usually available when you board, but to be on the safe side, I’d buy in advance at a metro stop, public transport machine, or online.
Be wary of the weather! Even if the forecast says no rain, bring rain gear. Especially waterproof shoes. There were times during my trip when the forecast said no rain when it was actively coming down.
Bikes rule the road here. Look both ways, for bikes, every time. There are some streets too small for cars but still used by bikes, and visitors often make the mistake of walking in the middle, only to be fussed at by bikers! Just be aware, you don’t have the right of way in Amsterdam.
What to do in Amsterdam
Anne Frank House
Anne Frank, her family, and four others hid from the Nazis in an unassuming canal home for over two years. Her now-famous journal during that time illuminates the experience in a way that, for many, provides one of their earliest understandings of the Holocaust. The house she was hidden in is now a museum dedicated to her life, their experience in hiding, and an exploration of discrimination.
As I mentioned before, entry to the Anne Frank House is tightly controlled, and buying tickets days or weeks in advance is crucial. They sell out year-round, so if this is a priority (and I recommend it!), buy them as soon as you pick your dates for Amsterdam.
Van Gogh Museum
Of all the Netherlands’ famous painters (and there are more than you think), Van Gogh might be the most known. His post-impressionist style and prolific work made him one of the most well-known painters in the world! The Van Gogh Museum covers his childhood, adult life, and experience with mental illness as well as his art.
This may be an unpopular opinion, but if you only have time for one art museum and you have to choose, I’d take the Van Gogh Museum over the Rijksmuseum, out of sheer enjoyment of his style of art.
Mentally, put Rijksmuseum in the same category as the Louvre or Spain’s Prado. Although much smaller, it’s the Netherlands’ foremost art museum. It covers hundreds of years and dozens of styles in a building created specifically to house the nation’s art.
There are pieces by both Van Gogh and Rembrandt, so if you don’t have time or don’t want to do a bunch of art museums, this gives you a strong overview. I recommend their audioguide – it even offers a highlights tour focusing on the most influential or important works on display.
Rembrandt House Museum
Famous for his paintings as well as drawings and prints, Rembrandt is considered by many to be the most important artist in Dutch history. He lived in Amsterdam in the building now containing the museum! The Rembrandt Museum shows both his home recreated and his works. Unfortunately, the museum is currently closed for renovations but is projected to reopen in spring 2023.
A canal tour is a must for a real sense of the city! It’s beautiful, historic, and allows you to cover more ground faster than a walking tour can. There are lots of options at all price points, but I recommend The Best Dam Boat Tour.
The Best Dam Boat Tour guides, as the name implies, love the city but don’t take themselves too seriously. They know their stuff historically, but also love telling silly stories about the reality of life in Amsterdam. They also allow you to BYO your own snacks and drinks, so you know you’ll have your favorite beverage!
Do a canal tour on your first day to get the lay of the land and basic history! If you go in December, you can choose to do a historic tour or a nighttime light festival tour. Amsterdam hosts an annual light festival with a theme that takes entries from anyone. To be clear, this is a modern light festival, not a Christmas decor situation. Not a bad thing! It’s definitely still entertaining and interesting. But don’t sign up expecting holiday cheer to be the focus.
This should go without saying, but Amsterdam is a city that begs to be walked. The architecture is picturesque and every bridge has some small artistic detail if you’re paying attention. It’s a great city to meander for an hour with no particular agenda.
Additionally, if you don’t do a canal tour, definitely do a walking tour! These are consistently my favorite way to experience the city. Many of them are tips-based, so the guide is incentivized to be both entertaining and knowledgeable.
Go to Amsterdam Noord
This was recommended by multiple locals as their favorite thing to do in Amsterdam beyond the obvious museums. This part of the city used to shipyards, and the architecture has kept that industrial feel while transforming into a creative haven.
The A’DAM Lookout is a great observation deck complete with a swing for the adventurous! There’s also a cinematography museum, street art on every corner, and unique restaurants. Or wander a little further to find quaint residential neighborhoods.
There’s a free ferry that leaves from Amsterdam Centraal every few minutes, so you don’t need to pre-book that. As a bonus, it’s a gorgeous way to see the city!
De Wallen, the Red Light District
As an integral part of the city, the red light district bears mentioning. There are shops, museums, bars, and more. I walked through it one evening, but I don’t know that I have any advice here – not really my field of interest. If you’re interested, my friend Hannah laid out her experiences doing a red light district tour!
Weed in Amsterdam
Another thing Amsterdam is famous for is the decriminalization of weed. Possessing a personal amount (5 grams or less) of marijuana is okay here! Weed is sold at coffeeshops – the name dates back from when it was less than legal. That means, if you’re looking for a good cup of coffee, ask for a cafe, not a coffeeshop.
If that’s of interest to you, it’s perfectly legal and safe to try from a reputable coffeeshop! They have all kinds of different vibes – from psychedelic to rasta to hipster to local chill. This article does a deep dive into the different options in Amsterdam.
Generally, I recommend staying in the Jordaan area (pronounced yordan). While it’s not cheap, it’s very centrally located and makes exploring the city on foot really easy.
The Pulitzer Hotel is considered one of the best boutique hotels in the city. You get the benefits of a swanky hotel without it being a giant building that doesn’t fit into the neighborhood. This 4-star hotel typically runs around 250€ per night.
Mr. Jordaan is another good option if you go the hotel route. It’s modern and a little quirky, full of character and comfort. Rooms are roughly 150€, depending on time of year.
One of the things I love about booking apartment accommodation (VRBO is my current favorite) is that you can stay close to the action, and usually for less money than a hotel room in the same neighborhood. This is even more true when traveling with a group! I found this great little basement apartment in Jordaan that we loved, complete with a sauna and private garden! Highly recommend it.
If you’re on a budget, I’d recommend checking out the hostels in the city! Using a search aggregator like Hostelworld allows you to make sure it’s safe, has the amenities you want, and even is the style of hostel you want (party focused, family-friendly, good for making friends, quiet, etc). I like the looks of The Bee and St. Christopher’s at the Winston.
Since no travel guide is complete without food, check back next week for my restaurant guide to Amsterdam! Or, if you can’t wait, I’ve also put together an interactive master guide for Amsterdam on Thatch. It has everything here as well as restaurants, more famous buildings, and a few of the most picturesque spots in town!