Nothing compares to the tulip festivals of spring, but Amsterdam blossoms all year as one of Europe’s most enriching historic and green cities — while using less of your green if in the know.
Ignore the overly publicized alternative attractions to appreciate a water-centric cultural center most anyone can walk from one end to another in little over an hour. But who would want to that quickly? Crawling around the streets and alleys of the famous tree-lined canal systems reveals an affordable plethora of arts and activities, with about 40 outstanding and easily accessed museums for every interest.
Embracing a progressive and green infrastructure, Amsterdam is easily navigated by foot, bicycle, trolley, bus, and metro — just hop on. Not geographically vast, the city is productive, diverse, clean, and fun. North Americans will appreciate that everyone speaks English in addition to Dutch and frequently another language of their own origin. Any crime is usually limited to theft and the occasional drunken brawl from a passionate voetbal (the real football — or soccer) match. Europeans love their football more than we love ours.
A popular way to experience scenery is by a rental bike tour in the outlying and slower-paced suburban countryside. But if time is limited, stay in the city and bike like you mean it, or walk — which is not at all a bad thing. Amsterdam is flat, with its famous network of canals radiating throughout the city as wondrous giant blue tarantula legs on all their maps, keeping riders and pedestrians geographically referenced and entertained. Despite the latitude, the area has milder winters than other countries up that way thanks to ocean currents similar to the U.K.
Amsterdam and bicycling are practically synonymous. Biking is taken seriously as basic and affordable transportation attested to by more cycles, cycle stands, and dedicated paths in one place ever. This is not the time to ride in tandem, coast, or stop to check a map. I once rode in a taxi and remarked to the driver I did not see an overweight person. He responded saying they are here but don’t see them because they are in the cars. Cyclists went everywhere, even in rain and cold, without a lot of protective clothing. But they also nearly missed pedestrians, went against red lights or others’ right of way, and even steered with one hand while smoking. It is what it is. Keep up or get out of the way.
We can learn from the Dutch regarding transportation and public services. A car is simply not necessary, and walking most anywhere is easy. Don’t leave home without good shoes, some time, and an umbrella. A huge bargain is to purchase an “I amsterdam City Card” online or upon arrival at one of the tourist centers (identified by the Dutch acronym VVV). It offers unlimited use of almost all museums, public transportation, a canal cruise, and discounts in many restaurants.
My favorite theme is the prominent maritime and water heritage. The more industrial areas of the navigable city waterfront remind visitors Amsterdam grew as a port of call for much of the world’s sea traffic. Explore the canals, historic districts, and the various mixed bag of streets and alleys scattered among trendy neighborhoods — each with their own flair and culture.
A good starting point is the city center, well marked by the famous and old downtown train station, plaza, and visitor information office. Save the popular and touristy canal cruises on the long and narrow boats for exploring the downtown harbor waterfront, including the edgy, up-and-coming Noord (North) Amsterdam. Back in the city, don’t miss the canal houses. They were once waterside homes that are now museums and hotels, and key to having the canal district added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Try to include the Canal House Museum (Grachtenmuseum) and the Museum van Loon.
Two mandatory stops are the Rijksmuseum (National Museum), Netherlands’ largest and most famous, and Vondelpark, a kind of an Amsterdam Central Park with safe biking and walking. After the city’s endless tree-lined canal vistas, Vondelpark is probably the best urban attraction. And for something completely different, include the moving and thought provoking Anne Frank House, far exceeding expectations. Other must-sees include the Amsterdam Museum, Science Museum, Van Gogh Museum, ARTIS Amsterdam Royal Zoo, Jewish Historical Museum, and National Maritime Museum. Not surprisingly, many highlight Rembrandt’s and Van Gogh’s lives. For a treat, visit Rembrandt’s restored house, dating from 1639.
Quiet places to get away from it all without leaving the city are the Zoo and Botanical Garden. The last may not be a big deal to some but is surreally secluded and even better for those with a nerdy flair for biology (as this writer). A treat in the slower fall season is the annual Museum Night on the first Saturday of November when museums throw impromptu and usually free after-hours concerts, events, and — well — just party. For a quirky balance to its cultural yin, check out the edgy yang of Amsterdam’s fringe, including museums about cats, medical pathology of mutants, sex, cannabis, tattoos, bibles, houseboats, purses, tulips, and even spectacles. Something for everyone.
Regardless of one’s opinion about Amsterdam’s liberal approach to personal behavior, it is at peace with commingling culture with legal prostitution and “coffee houses” (euphemism for marijuana establishments). For better or worse, this is a huge tourism income source for the city, contributing to its efficient infrastructure and public services. Something that may not be clear to visitors is that Amsterdam does not support but rather allows these, and by its government regulation and licensing has almost removed all organized crime and trafficking influences. Don’t like it? Don’t go.
Diverse dining opportunities may surprise the first time visitor as ethnic eateries can seem more popular than the local fish, meat, and potatoes. A product of the Netherlands’ colonial history and alliances, Asian eateries may exceed those in most American cities. Common snack and on-the-go foods include their local version of french fries, where mayo is substituted for ketchup, and their pancakes, which are more like a thick crepe, popular for breakfast or anytime actually. I like the fruit preserve filling, but meat versions are also available — and a good alternative to the mainstream smoked cold cuts and herring if that is not your thing.
The entertainment scene is just as diverse including lively night spots (open late) featuring music everywhere for all audiences with Irish music bars being surprisingly popular. Street vendors are concentrated in a few but famous flea market areas with bargains on antiques, souvenirs, clothes, and of course tulip bulbs.
Amsterdam is an easy city to experience. I knew I succeeded when near the end of my stay, I was stopped on my way to the Zoo by foreign visitors who asked directions as if I appeared to live there. Here is the best part — I knew the answer.
Amsterdam is also easy to get to. Non-stop flights are available from most major cities. Once there, popular ways to get to city destinations from the airport are the train and shuttle, and the information booths are super helpful. The local train is a bargain, but if jetlagged or have a lot to carry, go for the slightly more expensive shuttle that makes the rounds to all the major hotels. No need to stay at one of them to utilize the conveniently placed stops. Avoid taxis if possible to save money. They are to be accessed at stands and not available to flag down to assure regulation.
The best deals for private accommodations are usually the local independent hotels (including canal houses) and rooms for rent in homes — a great way to feel part of the community rather than a visitor. Popular chain hotels abound but tend to be more expensive. They have a place, though, for familiarity and utilization of rewards points. The most affordable and fun, if you want to socialize and meet others, are the internationally world-famous hostels with a dormitory type of approach. Summer is the peak season and most crowded, but other times are not assured to be slow either, so plan ahead.
Make it happen
Amsterdam visitor information is so well organized and informative that the U.S. Tourist Office and City of Amsterdam Tourism are more than ample one-stop shops for all things regarding attractions, activities, transportation, accommodations, and the I amsterdam Card, with specific links to more information by topic.