One of the most picturesque cities in Europe, Amsterdam is in many ways a first-time traveler’s dream.
The city has plenty of sights, sounds, and tastes on offer–charming canals, cobblestone streets, beautiful gabled houses, world-class museums, delicious cuisine and of course, their legendary nightlife.
The historic district is easily navigable–whether by foot, by bicycle, or by using their very organized public transportation system.
Best of all, the locals are friendly–majority are very tolerant, open-minded and speak fluent English.
However, these characteristics also reflect the city’s downside–there’s so much to do and see that first-timers can easily get overwhelmed by it all!
On our recent trip, which was coincidentally also our first time, we compiled all of our favorite tips that can help you make the most out of your first time to Amsterdam:
1) Visit the museums
Amsterdam is home to a variety of world-famous museums. In fact, it boasts of the world’s highest concentration, about 75 museums now and counting!
Whether you like classical or contemporary, historical or interactive, you’re sure to find one (or several) to pique your interest.
In case you can’t quite decide where to go, here’s our recommendation of must-see museums:
- Anne Frank House -- witness unforgettable and moving exhibits at the actual home/hideout where Anne wrote her famous diary
- Van Gogh museum -- get to know the enigmatic painter through the world’s largest collection of his art
- Rijksmuseum -- one of the world’s finest museums, don’t miss their collection of art from the Dutch Golden Age masters
- Royal Palace -- a magnificent active palace owned by the Dutch Royal Family, which also used to be the city hall
- Heineken Experience -- go behind the scenes of the making of Holland’s signature beer brand with this interactive attraction
2) Taste the delicious Dutch delicacies
When travelers think of Amsterdam or the Netherlands, their cuisine may not be the very first thing that comes to mind.
It’s true that much of traditional Dutch cuisine is simple and straightforward. However, there’s actually quite a number of yummy local dishes that’ll delight even the most discerning foodies!
Here’s our list of must-try dishes in Amsterdam:
- Pannenkoeken -- Also known as Dutch pancakes, they're thinner than American pancakes but thicker than French crepes. They come in sweet and savory varieties.
- Stroopwafel -- This sweet treat is best tried at local stalls and farmer’s markets which serve them fresh & hot. Even the pre-packaged kind sold at the supermarkets served as great souvenirs, we grabbed a couple to bring back to family and friends! 🙂
- Bitterballen -- Much like croquettes, these are deep-fried balls with a crunchy outside and soft inside. This is a favorite among the pub regulars since it’s best eaten with a cold glass of beer.
- Raw herring -- Think of it as herring sashimi. To be honest, this is our least favorite on the list. But hey, when in Amsterdam, right? This snack is usually served in 3 ways: full with tail, sliced up Amsterdam-style, or in a small sandwich with pickles and onions.
- Kibbeling -- If raw herring is not quite your style, then try kibbeling instead for something more familiar. Much like the British fish and chips, these are deep-fried battered pieces of white fish; usually cod. They also often come served with a mayo sauce and fries.
RELATED: The above are just our faves -- click here for more traditional Dutch foods to try while in Amsterdam.
3) Embrace the Dutch cultural icons
The Netherlands is a pretty small country in terms of landmass–you can actually drive the whole country from top to bottom, in about 5 hours straight.
However, that didn’t stop them from becoming a major superpower and global trader, during the Dutch Golden Age starting in the 17th century.
While their imperialist days may be behind them, it’s undeniable that their influence on world culture lives on. Here are just a few of the uniquely Dutch cultural icons that you CAN’T miss when in their capital of Amsterdam.
NOTE: Some of the recommended sights listed here are outside the main city of Amsterdam, but you could easily take day trips to them, and use Amsterdam as your home base!
- Clogs -- Best seen in person in Zaanse Schans or Marken
- Cheese -- Best seen at the Cheese Factory Volendam, but could also be seen all over Amsterdam
- Windmills -- Best seen in the countryside at Zaanse Schans, only a 25-min drive from Amsterdam. But if you want to stay inside the city, there are also a couple of windmills around, at the De Gooyer Windmill, the IJ Brewery and d’Admiraal Windmill and within Amstelpark.
- Ships -- Learn about their exploration legacy at the Maritime Museum and the Rijksmuseum’s permanent collection of explorers' weapons and shipmodels
- Art -- The Netherlands has no shortage of talented artists such as Jan Vermeer, Frans Hals, etc., and most of their artwork can be seen in Rijksmuseum. The other wildly popular artists also have their own dedicated museums, such as the Rembrandt House and the Van Gogh Museum. >>> BONUS: Tulips & Flowers in the Spring -- Nothing says Holland quite like their tulips, and they are quite a sight to behold in the springtime. Our best recommendations for flower-hunting:
- Tulip Museum
- Keukenhof (in Lisse, 2 hour drive from Amsterdam)
4) Save with the I amsterdam City Card
Here’s possibly the most useful tip we discovered during our time in Amsterdam: using the I amsterdam card. This one card gets you FREE or discounted entry to the city’s top attractions and free public transport for the duration of your card.
We loved that it gave us the flexibility to see as much as we wanted in just a few days. In fact, most of the paid attractions that we mentioned above can be accessed for free or at a discount with the I amsterdam city card. It’s definitely value for your money; the 24-hour city card starts at 59 euros.
What’s more is we were able to skip the ticket lines at most museums since our card already served as our admission ticket. This was especially useful when we saw the never-ending Rijksmuseum line that one rainy day when everyone was trying to get indoors!
The only thing I would add to this card is the option to add on the train ride into the city from Schipol, for those arriving by air.
- Free canal cruise
- Free public transport
- Free entry to 50 museums and attractions
- 25% discount on music and special shows
- Discounts at selected restaurants
>> BONUS: You can choose from 24-, 48-, 72- and 96-hour cards and it comes with a comprehensive city map. The card instantly worked at the museums and on public transport, we just swiped it at the terminals.
We claimed our card at the Amsterdam Schipol Airport (Terminal 2). It’s also available for train travelers at the Amsterdam Central Train Station.
5) Explore the different neighborhoods
The city center definitely has no shortage of things to do. But for those who want to see Amsterdam from a local’s perspective, we suggest that you venture outside the usual tourist route and explore its nearby neighborhoods.
You’ll soon find that each neighborhood has its own distinctive character. And it’s definitely fun to escape the crowds and discover the charming hidden treasures in these areas:
- Jordaan -- Once a working-class district that’s since been gentrified, it’s now become popular thanks to its beautiful houses, nice restaurants, and quirky shops. It’s also home to the Anne Frank House.
- Noord -- The Northern area of the city directly across the IJ River, Amsterdam Noord combines quaint neighborhoods with a lively waterfront area featuring major attractions such as the A’DAM Tower, EYE Filmmuseum and This is Holland. It can be easily accessed in under five minutes with the free ferry from Central Station.
- De Pijp -- Amsterdam’s Latin Quarter and a popular Bohemian hangout since the '60s, this area is the perfect a melting pot of cultures and nationalities. The Heineken Brewery and Albert Cuyp market are located here.
- De Plantage -- An oasis of green found east of the city, De Plantage is characterized by its numerous tree-lined avenues, a well-tended zoo and classically decorated gardens.
- Oostelijke Eilanden -- Fully enclosed by water, the Oostelijke Eilanden (or Eastern Docklands in English) has a lot for modern architectural fans to see. It’s also home to the National Maritime Museum and one of the city’s largest wooden windmills at Brouwerij ‘t IJ, which also happens to serve the best craft beers.
>> BONUS: De Wallen -- This is Amsterdam's famous Red Light District. You may have heard plenty of stereotypes about this area. Let's be honest: some of them are indeed true--you WILL find sex shows, girls in windows and plenty of marijuana. However, there is more to this area than just that. It's actually the oldest part of Amsterdam--filled with history, charming canals and interesting shops.
Hope these Amsterdam tips help!
Is Amsterdam on your bucket list? Or have you been to Amsterdam?
Let us know in the comments!
DISCLAIMER: During our Amsterdam stay, we were invited to use and to review the Iamsterdam City Card. However, all opinions are our own and based on our honest personal experience.
All photos taken by Rob & Joli