Amsterdam is a diverse and progressive city famous for its world-class art, quaint canal-side homes, and buzz-worthy coffee shops. It’s hard to resist the vitality of this pretty destination, which packs an incredible amount of culture into a walk-and bike-friendly footprint. Whether you’re here for the best of van Gogh, bicycle rides, or excellent beer, you’re guaranteed to have a good time in Amsterdam.
The first step to getting a handle on Amsterdam’s geography is to understand its canals. The Single wraps around the heart of the Centrum, which is made up from east to west of the Oude Zijde, Red Light District, and Nieuwe Zijde. Barely 1 km in diameter, the Centrum’s skinny streets overflow with bars, brothels, clubs, and tourists—many of whom won’t leave this area during their whole stay in Amsterdam.
The next set of canals, running in concentric circles, are Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht (hint: “gracht” means “canal,” so if you’re looking for a “gracht” street and you don’t see water, you’re lost). These enclose a somewhat classier area filled with locals, tasty restaurants, and plenty of museums. Rembrandtplein and Leidseplein, the twin hearts of Amsterdam party scene, are also nestled here.
To the east of the canal ring are Jodenbuurt and Plantage, the city’s old Jewish quarter. Moving southwest, you get to De Pijp, an artsy neighborhood filled with immigrants and hipsters, then Museumplein and Vondelpark, home to the city’s largest park and most important museums.
Working back north to the west of the center, you’ll find Oud-West and Westerpark, two largely residential neighborhoods that are experiencing a boom in popularity and culture. In between Westerpark and the canal ring is the reliably chic Jordaan. Finally, to the north, in between Jordaan and Centraal Station, lies Scheepvaart Buurt, the city’s old shipping quarter.
Between the pretty old churches, quaint canals, and nightly showcases of revelry and debauchery, Amsterdam is a sight in and of itself. You can see and learn a lot about the city on a self-guided bike or walking tour. If you’re planning on visiting a number of museums, it’s worth investing in the Museumkaart, which gives you free access to nearly 400 museums across the Netherlands for an entire year. Look for it online or at some of the bigger participating museums.
Pressed for time? Check out our shortlist of must-see attractions in Amsterdam. Click the links to reserve museum tickets or book a guided experience.
The typical Dutch ontbijt (breakfast) consists of bread topped with cold cuts and slices of local cheese, complemented with a dab of appelstroop (a thicker syrup made from apple juice). If you’re looking to satisfy that morning sweet tooth, top off your toast with some hagelsag (chocolate, anise, or fruit-flavored sprinkles). And a strong cup of koffie can always help kick off your day.
Lunch (we’ll let you figure out the translation for that yourself) includes rolls, sandwiches, or soup at one of the city’s cafes. Erwtensoep (pea soup) is a cold-weather favorite and often includes chunks of smoked sausage. You’ll probably also encounter uitsmijter, or Dutch fried eggs, sunny-side up—for some reason, the name translates to “out-thrower” or “bouncer,” as in the doorman at a club. A broodje haring, or herring sandwich, garnished with onions and pickles is particularly tasty (no, we’re not kidding); you’ll find one at various fish stands throughout the city.
Diner is served in Dutch homes at around five or six in the evening. A meat entree is traditionally accompanied by two veggie side dishes, but you might also see stamppot on the menu—this dish combines meat, vegetables, and gravy in a mash. Amsterdam also has a good slection of international food, like Indonesian cuisine (a tasty relic and means of still capitalizing off Dutch colonialism), Middle Eastern joints, Chinese restaurants, and Argentinean steakhouses.
Fruit, yogurt, or a cold custard followed by more kaffie are common local desserts.
It is helpful to know that cafes and bars are a packaged deal in the Netherlands—cafes serve kaffie by day and beer by night, so order a Heineken on its home turf, or sample some of the other famous Dutch pale lagers. A frosty witbeer (white beer) hits the spot after a long day of wandering the streets. Whatever your choice, do like the Dutch and eet smakelijk (“enjoy your meal”).
You could say the Dutch have some experience when it comes to art. Dutch painters, after all, spurred the departure from the Gothic style of the Middle Ages, sparked the Northern Renaissance, and perfected oil painting—you know, just a few notable achievements. The Dutch Masters are showcased in several top-notch art museums such as the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and Rembrandt’s former home.
Don’t miss the city’s smaller galleries showcasing modern and contemporary art. Many of them are clustered in the Jordaan district.
Jan van Eyck is sure to top any list of Amsterdam’s best-known painters. In the 15th century, he was one of the first artists to use oil paint as a medium, and he impressed the world with renderings of detailed architecture and realistic portraits of subjects in long, multicolored robes. (Okay, Jan, we get it, you’re pretty good.) Keep your eyes peeled for reproductions of Amsterdam’s most beloved knocked-up lady in green, featured in The Arnolfini Portrait. Van Eyck’s paintings are prized in museum collections around the world, but you can find a select few on display at the Rijksmuseum.
Although he probably could have been famous for bearing one of the most obscure names in history, Hieronymous Bosch decided to follow his artistic whims and left behind the Flemish style of van Eyck. His passion for originality carried him toward the cloud of Surrealism some 400 years before the larger Surrealist movement really got off the ground in the early 20th century. Notable for their departure from traditional technique, Bosch’s paintings might call into question his mental stability—those fantastical demons and hellish punishments just aren’t your average scene, man. This guy was either uncomfortably preoccupied with Hell, or he did some serious sinning in his spare time.
During the Protestant Reformation of the 17th century, the Church stopped funding religious paintings, liberating artists from all the cumbersome Catholic symbolism. Dutch painters turned their gaze down from the heavens, up from Hell, and right into the realm of the living. Many small paintings commissioned by bourgeois Flemish families depicted small, laughing children with kittens, their great-great uncles and entire extended families, and other semi-laughable portraits—the kind that could substitute for today’s embarrassing home videos.
The undisputed star of this Dutch Golden Age has to be Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Rembrandt, as he is conveniently called, was marked for his masterful realism and the illusion of movement in the scenes he depicted. Initially celebrated by his compatriots, Rembrandt ended up alienating his clientele by taking an experimental turn and was forced to declare bankruptcy and die in poverty. Fortunately, his reputation endured better than his finances—try to get up close and personal for some quality time with The Night Watch and Landscape with a Stone Bridge 2 at the Rijksmuseum.
Rembrandt’s contemporary Johannes Vermeer is celebrated for creating windows into everyday 17th-century life. Among Vermeer’s most renowned works is Girl with a Pearl Earring, widely hailed as the Mona Lisa of the north. Scarlett Johansson might be attractive in that movie, but this painting is probably worth putting down the remote and getting your butt over to the Mauritshuis Gallery in The Hague.
Amsterdam itself is something of an architectural miracle. The city’s many waterways forced architects to get creative: canalside houses were built with many large windows to keep the weight of the buildings from sinking them into the ground, and tight quarters resulted in resorting to the tall and skinny. On the city’s winding and characteristically narrow streets, homes were often built at terrifying angles so that large furniture could be hoisted through windows without hitting other buildings. Watch your head as you wander narrow alleys—not just for falling sofas, but for the hooks that served as pulleys to get them inside, which still stick out from just about every canal house.
It’s not hard to find great live music in Amsterdam. Many local artists tend toward electronic, techno, and house music, but you’ll find home-grown bands and international indie, punk, pop, and hip-hop acts as well. Small jazz and blues joints can be found throughout the city. Leidseplein and the Oud-West boast particularly high concentrations of quality venues, ranging from large all-purpose clubs and concert halls to cozy bars and repurposed squats. In the summer, festivals explode in Amsterdam and the surrounding cities, often centered around electronic or reggae. Check the websites of major venues, look for posters around the city, and consult the newspapers NL20 or Time Out Amsterdam for the most up-to-date listings.
So you’re obviously expecting some culture shock in the Red Light District, but there’s plenty more to look out for in your encounters with Hollanders. A firm handshake is customary when introduced to someone, and close friends greet each other with three (yes, three) kisses, comme le style français. Men, we know you’re hungry and growing and all that, but it’s common to wait for women to be seated when sharing a meal.
Though many travelers flock to Amsterdam for its carefree party vibe, travelers often have misconceptions about what is and is not legal here when it comes to drug use. Recent legislation, for example, is changing the way Amsterdam’s historic coffeeshops source and serve marijuana. It’s worth doing some homework before you partake. Time Out has helpful tips on how to approach the coffeeshop scene. Tobacco smokers should note that Holland has a nationwide smoking ban in bars, cafes, and restaurants.
Try to keep your debauchery to a minimum and you’ll be smooth sailing. Please remember that PlacePass does not condone or recommend drug use.