There’s a lot more to the Dutch capital than liberal politics and that infamous red-light district. With arts, culture, and history galore – not to mention stunning canals and tony eateries – the “Venice of the North” has all the makings of one of our favorite European destinations. For more fun than an armful of tulips, treat yourself, and visit Amsterdam.
A bit of history
Founded in 1275 from humble beginnings, the fishing village known as Amsterdam grew into a global trade and political power by the early 17th century. Its ascendance was largely built around an influx of European merchants and intellectuals (thanks to the city’s relative religious tolerance), competitive advantage in ship-building, and seafaring culture.
Thus followed the Dutch Golden Age in the mid to late 17th century – characterized by vast wealth creation. Trade and finance behemoths the Dutch East (and West) India Companies dominated global trade and sponsored the expansion of Dutch territories, while Dutch artistic and intellectual life blossomed at home.
Despite significant setbacks, including the emergence of the bubonic plague during the late 17th century and wars with the United Kingdom and France in the 18th and early 19th centuries, Amsterdam continued to grow. Amsterdam’s industrial revolution toward the end of the 18th century accelerated the pace of progress and included the creation of major waterway Amsterdam-Rijn Kanaal, providing Amsterdam a more direct water route east to the North Sea.
Indeed, the city continued to expand throughout the 20th century, though struggled through a severe food shortage during WWI and the Nazi invasion in May 1940. During this period, over 60,000 Dutch Jews, including teenager Anne Frank, were deported to Nazi concentration camps from the city.
After the war, with the assistance of $1.27 billion under the Marshall Plan, the Netherlands (including Amsterdam) eventually rebuilt its economy. Immigration in the 1970s and 80s brought further growth and a transition away from an industrial economy to a more service-based, globally integrated one.
Since then, Amsterdam has grown to include a series of outer boroughs with a vast canal and public transport infrastructure and remains one of Europe’s leading ports and commercial hubs.
Amsterdam is laid out in a fan of six districts that emanate south from its historic primary district (Centrum), located at the bottom of the Northern Europe’s Markermeer Lake. A seventh district (Noord) lies across the IJsselmeer Canal to the north.
Just south of Centrum, the Zuid district contains tony residential area Oud-Zuid (great for top shopping and museums, and known for its beautiful city park); and trendy De Pijp, a once working-class neighborhood currently offering diverse eateries and hip shops.
The Weesperzijde neighborhood, once the area of choice for prosperous 19th-century merchants, is now known for its residential architecture. Inspired buildings nestle alongside the leafy eastern shores of the Amstel River, mingling with top-choice cafés and restaurants.
The city’s canal system is apparent throughout the broader area but is densest in Centrum. Here you will find the main Amstel River artery running north-south from Centrum’s center and the three main canals that ring much of the district: Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht. Main city streets bisect the canals like spokes in a wheel.
De Wallen is the city’s infamous and very active red-light district. While this may be on your “must” list if you visit Amsterdam, we recommend passing if junior is along — the product is generally on full display. Also, don’t confuse a koffiehuis (where you go to get your caffeine high) for a “coffee shop” (where you go for the cannabis-kind of high). Also, take heed of local restrictions: A person is legally allowed to purchase a maximum of 5 grams of product per day, per shop.
Finally, while Dutch is the city’s official language, you’ll find that most people also speak English and are happy to do so.
How to get there/get around
All major U.S. airlines offer regular service to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, one of Europe’s busiest air hubs and Amsterdam’s local airport. A 20-minute taxi ride from the airport to the city center will cost about €40 ($45), though there are reliable and less expensive alternatives. The train costs €5.40 ($6) (also about 20 minutes into town) and a 35-minute bus ride will run you €5 ($5.60).
Getting around when you visit Amsterdam is a breeze thanks to its extensive public transportation system (known as the GVB Amsterdam) and bicycle/pedestrian-friendly streets. Trams are the most convenient public transport option with buses and metro preferable for reaching more remote city regions. A single public transport ticket (good for an hour) costs €3.20 ($3.59), with day-long to five-day tickets ranging from €8-29.50 ($9-33). Tickets are available from GVB vending machines (available throughout the city) or from a tram/bus driver. Importantly, drivers can only sell tickets ranging from one hour to two days, and under all circumstances only accept credit or debit cards.
We recommend (at least for a day) renting a bicycle to get around. It’s easy, inexpensive, and bike shops are scattered across the city. Expect to pay a daily rate of €8-10 ($9-11) and a deposit of about €25 ($28). For more on where and how to rent your two-wheeler, go here.
Where to stay
For easy access to most major attractions, restaurants, shopping, and nightlife we recommend securing your digs in Centrum, Oud-Zuid, De Pijp, or Weesperzijde. And while the usual global hotel brands are here (Hilton, Marriott, and Best Western, for example), we’ve included a few we prefer below.
For class and comfort, go with NH City Centre Amsterdam (Centrum). Amenities include free WiFi, cable TV, and a free breakfast buffet. Rates start at €154 ($173) per night. While the hotel lacks a restaurant and bar, a wide selection of both is available within easy walking distance.
If boutique-y is more your style, Volkshotel (Weesperzijde) is your place. Rooms are on the small side but include modern design, cable TV, and safes. Rates start at €208 ($233) per night. Roof-top eatery-lounge Canvas serves meals and snacks throughout the day and smart cocktails to a hipster crowd at night.
The Hotel Atlantis in De Pijp is our top value-conscious choice. This is a cute hotel with small but updated rooms that include amenities like free WiFi, cable TV, a seating area with table, and a tea/coffee maker. For €69.75 ($78) per night, you can’t go wrong. An array of dining options is available just steps from the front door.
Finally, if you’re looking to luxe it, head to Japanese-themed Okura Amsterdam (De Pijp). With five restaurants (including one with a Michelin star), sumptuous accommodations, and top hospitality, Okura is a standout. Amenities run the gamut and include extras like a pillow menu (choose your own); access to the Executive Lounge for drinks and snacks; and use of the gym and spa. Rooms start at €205 ($230) per night.
What to do
Amsterdam’s rich history and unique setting make it a veritable goldmine for travelers of all interests. Historical art and architecture, European history, music, and markets abound. Likewise, innovation in commerce, science, and technology are also part of this vibrant city. We can’t cover it all, but we’ve included a few of our favorite Amsterdam attractions and to-dos below.
Cruise the canals (Centrum)
There’s no better way to tour Amsterdam than by canal. Enjoy a leisurely ride through the city’s UNESCO-listed waterways for an up-close look at well-known attractions and stunning 17th-century gabled architecture. Canal cruises are plentiful, though we recommend one with a live guide (versus recorded narration) and a smaller boat for a more intimate experience. Most originate from the main ring canals in Centrum. Check here for a list of reputable tours.
Explore the Anne Frank House (Centrum)
The realities of Amsterdam’s Nazi occupation are on full display at the secret annex where the young Anne and seven others hid for over two years. This immersive experience includes exhibits on Anne’s famous diary, photos, and other personal items, as well as a tour of the secret annex itself. Best to book well in advance online and wear comfortable shoes; there are steep stairs to navigate and queuing (even with a reservation) is typical.
Meander through the Museumplein (Oud-Zuid)
Amsterdam has some of the finest art museums anywhere and three are located together in the Museumplein (Museum Square). Here, you will find the world-renown Rijksmuseum, chock-a-bloc with bucket-list worthy pieces by Vermeer, Van Gogh, and Rembrandt; the Van Gogh Museum where you can “ooh” and “ahh” at over 700 additional works by the artist; and the Stedelijk Museum, a modern art and design powerhouse featuring works by Kandinsky, Pollack, and Warhol, among others.
Discover Amsterdam’s history in Dam Square (Centrum)
Site of the original 13th-century dam linking Dutch settlements across the Amstel River, Dam Square remains at the heart of Amsterdam life. Long home to local markets and the seat of government, the square houses the exquisite Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam (Royal Palace), once the home of the Dutch Royal family; the 19th-century Beurs van Berlage (old stock exchange building); and the National Memorial statue built in memory of those who lost their lives in WWII. For those who want to dig into the detail, try a guided tour of the square.
Go for the hands-on experience at Nemo Science Museum (Centrum)
With interactive exhibits for both children and adults — housed in a cutting-edge architectural masterpiece by starchitect Renzo Piano — the Nemo Science Museum is a top option when you visit Amsterdam, especially for science geeks and architecture hounds.
Shop ’til you drop at Albert Cuyp Market (De Pijp)
One of the most famous markets in Europe, the Albert Cuyp Market has been serving shoppers from around the world since 1905. With everything from fresh produce to fish, meat, clothing, accessories, and textiles, you’re sure to find a one-of-kind souvenir here.
Pro Tip: For a glimpse and a whiff of Holland’s famous blooms, head to de Bloemenmarket, Amsterdam’s flower market housed on a series of houseboats in Centrum.
Where to eat
Amsterdam’s dining scene reflects the rhythms of the city itself: part tradition, part culinary trendy with a collection of ethnic and fusion options to boot. There’s even an active craft brewing scene. To help with your planning when you visit Amsterdam, we’ve included a sampling of our favorites below.
For a yummy breakfast of warm pastry, fresh fruit, and strong coffee, we like Bakers & Roasters (De Pijp). The modern-styled Anne & Max (De Pijp) is another good choice for breakfast or lunch — aside from their chewy baguette sandwiches (Hummus with Avocado, please), there’s the Goedmaken: an exhilarating smoothie mix of pomegranate, blackberry, apple, strawberry, and ginger.
For dinner or lunch, there is traditional Italian fare at local favorite Caffè Toscanini (Centrum) or bistronomy upstart Café De Klepel (Centrum). Expect a traditional French bistro-style menu from the latter with solid (and affordable) wine pairings.
You can also treat yourself to a five-course tasting menu at Amsterdam hotspot Daalder (Centrum). Helmed by Dennis Huwaë (part of the team behind the two Michelin stars of &moshik), Daalder focuses on Asian-influenced takes on Dutch favorites and elevated vegetarian fare. Try the Monkfish, for example, with hazelnut, jasmine, and citrus; or the celeriac-based Lasagna with pecorino and Amalfi lemon. Delish.
For tasty brews, head north to Oedipus Brewing (Noord) where locals and visitors relax in the industrial-themed taproom, sipping on beers with kooky, inspired names. How about the tangerine-infused India Pale Ale (Avatar)? Or the spicier chili pepper-coriander-lemongrass tripel called Thai?
We also like Vesper (Centrum) for a trendy bar scene. Their wicked Vesper Martini is absolutely James Bond-worthy.
Before you visit Amsterdam, be sure to supplement our guide with additional inspiration from the city’s online tourism site. We’re only scratching the surface, after all.