Canal cruises are something that absolutely must be done when visiting Amsterdam. I know they are completely “touristy.” I know there are several blogs out there that suggest avoiding the canal cruises. But, how can you return home from Amsterdam, not having cruised the canals? How do you tell friends, “yeah, we just didn’t feel like taking the canal cruise?” People ARE going to ask.
I am not suggesting that vacation choices should be based on what others think. Heck, if I did that, I’d be gambling in Vegas twice a year, missing out on half the world. But, there are special things that can only be done in limited locations throughout the world. I know I have said it on this site before. When visiting Paris, go to Notre Dame. When visiting Rome, go to the Coliseum. If you are going home to Venice, Bruges, or Strasbourg, skip the canal cruise, otherwise, when visiting Amsterdam, take the canal cruise.
I will not pretend to be an Amsterdam expert, or give a suggested itineraries. There are numerous tourism websites and blogs that do this, with qualifications to do so. I researched dozens of them prior to my trip. Even after all that research, we discovered some things, several which were not documented in any of those sources. Here are our 10 tips about Amsterdam, beyond where to go and what to see.
Tip 1: Amsterdam is a Small Metropolis
No matter how amazing the photographs of Amsterdam are, they do not do justice to its indescribable beauty. Pictures also do not accurately depict exactly how busy Amsterdam is. Believe me, it is not the quaint little village in your imagination. The Amsterdam urban area has about 1.4 million residents. That puts it on par with Dallas.
On top of that, 5 million tourists visit Amsterdam each year. Do the math. That is about 14,000 tourists coming into the city each DAY. The area around Amsterdam Central Station is among the busiest and most crowded places that I have ever been. If you are uncomfortable with crowds, be prepared for this! Take a deep breath and focus before you step off the train.
Once you get beyond city center, and out into the ring, it does not feel so busy. There are still a lot of people in the area. However, the canals give space between streets and buildings. The city is quite compact, compared to similarly populated cities, but it still feels airy out in the ring. But you have to get through the packed city center to get there. Move quickly.
Tip 2: Distracted Walking and Inexperienced Bicycling are Risky
A large percentage of Dutch citizens use bicycles for their daily commute and transport. There are bicycles everywhere in the city, probably more than you have ever seen. Be mindful and vigilant when walking. Main transportation routes are often composed of a street, a tram track, a sidewalk and a bicycle lane, all going along the same direction. Walkers need to stay in the walking lane, and failing to do so is dangerous.
Since the city is relatively small in area, there is much to see in close proximity. Many visitors do the majority of their sight-seeing on foot, and this is entirely feasible. But pay attention!
Other visitors opt to rent bicycles that are available at numerous locations throughout the city. Locals recommend that tourists who are not experienced bicyclists, do not attempt this. It risks not only the tourist’s own safety, but that of many others as well. If you are not a skilled bicyclist, do not ride in central Amsterdam. If you want to bike, and feel like a local, do so out in the quieter neighborhoods.
In lieu of walking and biking, public transportation is widely used by locals and tourists. We found the trams convenient and easy to use, although sometimes crowded, despite our wrong way mishap.
Tip 3: Get Around Free with the Iamsterdam Card
I am not affiliated with the Amsterdam tourism Department, or the Iamsterdam Card, in any way. But, I cannot stress enough how pleased we were with the Iamsterdam card. The card is purchased in increments of 1 to 4 days, but specific to the hour. I explained it in more detail in this article: Further Amsterdam Adventures
We used public transportation any time we were not walking in Amsterdam, going all over the city with just a swipe. A fold out map of transportation routes and popular attractions was included, and provided to us when we picked our cards up. Getting around conveniently and without worry, made the Iamsterdam card well worth the money. If you are only interested in moving between destinations, the Iamsterdam card can be purchased with a public transportation only option.
If you purchase the full option card, it includes the canal cruise, and numerous attractions. Many museums and other attractions are included free, and a few are at a discount. Some participating locations also give small free items or snacks, or discounted shopping.
Tip 4: Day Trip Options are Numerous, but Can Be Expensive
Often visitors have an inkling to get out of the city, and see some of the other fabulous locations in the area around Amsterdam. Day trips are offered by various tourist agencies and websites, running out of Amsterdam each day. Some of the more popular tours include Zaanse Schans and Vollendam, offered several times daily, as well as Marken, Haarlem, and Muiderslot Castle. In the spring Keukenhof, and the tulip fields take over for several weeks.
While there is some comfort in having a set schedule, transport, and guide, these tours can be expensive. If you are more adventurous, your best option may be to set up your own itinerary ad go at your own pace.
One other important thing about the Iamsterdam card is that it covers public transportation to and from all of these locations, including the ferry ride. Proper routing there and back is noted in the guide, that come with purchase. Entrance fees to many attractions at each of these locations is included as well, but it varies by location. In Haarlem, there is free entrance into the Franz Hals Museum, and the Teylers Museum, and discounted food or drinks at two establishments. On the other hand, in Zaanse Schans, free entrance into every attraction in the historic village is included.
Do the research on the specific areas outside of Amsterdam that you plan to visit, and compare the prices. It is likely you can set up your own tour for less money, and enjoy the experience at your leisure, rather than someone else’s pace and schedule.
Tip 5: Canal Cruises are Essential, and Can Be Free
Canal cruises from all the major suppliers come free with the Iamsterdam card. There are various types of cruises and companies, from full enclosed and heated cruisers, to complete open air cruises, with guests wrapped in blankets. It was very chilly at the time of our cruise, so we used Blue Boat City Canal Cruise, which was enclosed and heated, launching across from Holland Casino.
Cruises depart from all around the canal circle. If you are in town for more than one day, you have an opportunity to see how busy various areas are, so that you can choose to launch in an area with a smaller crowd. It is important to be among those first to board, particularly when taking an enclosed cruise. A window seat is a must! The cruise is not worthwhile with an inside seat. I actually felt sorry for the couple who boarded much later than we did, and took the inside seats next to us. They tried to take it in, but about half way through, they grew tired of straining to see, and were eventually looking at their phones.
Most of the cruise lines offer headsets, with a narrative in multiple languages. It was a little cheesy at times, but a lot of information was given, and we learned a lot. On an enclosed boat, check your windows before sitting down, if you are planning to take pictures! The views will be pretty amazing at times, and they give you a whole new perspective of the city.
There are also options to rent paddle-boats in Amsterdam, and ride around in the canals at your own pace. This did look fun, and if we had more time, we probably would have done this. However, it would not have replaced the standard cruise. The rental periods are in hour increments, and only a small fraction of the area will be experienced on pedal power.
Tip 6: Free Museum Entrance Sometimes Demands a Flexible Schedule
Amsterdam could very well be the museum capital of the world. There are a LOT, like dozens, of museums in Amsterdam. There are museums for everything from purses to pipes, from canals to cats, art masters to art moderns. The Iamsterdam card includes free entrance into most museums.
My singular most important visit in Amsterdam, was to be the Van Gogh Museum. The work of Van Gogh gets me a little emotional. I had my heart set on a couple of hours soaking in the splendor. I was aware that this museum is one of the most visited locations in the city, and I purchased tickets ahead of time, to visit on our first afternoon in the city. If you have read about our train ride experience, then you are aware we did not make it on time: The Long Train to Amsterdam
I was not heartbroken, because free entrance into the Van Gogh Museum is included with the Iamsterdam card. Well, I won’t drag out the whole sorry story of our hour-long wait in the freezing cold, to learn that we could not get in until 14:00, which was after our train departure. Suffice it to say, do not count on using the card for the Van Gogh Museum, unless your schedule is otherwise flexible for the day. The free entrance granted is the next available free spot in queue of the online purchased tickets.
Free entrance to the museums throughout the city is amazing! At some museums, you can walk right in. But be aware that at very popular locations, there will be hundreds of people with pre-purchased tickets ahead of you. Either plan your schedule so you can go elsewhere and return at the time you are given, or purchase tickets before your trip.
There are plenty of attractions in the area of the Van Gogh Museum, if you opt to take the free entrance, including the Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art, the Amsterdam Diamond Museum, Vondelpark, and of course, Amsterdam’s pride, the Rijksmuseum. If you are a shopper, the upscale shopping district, featuring all of the exclusive brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Dolce and Gabbana, Chanel, and Calvin Klein, is only 2 blocks away as well.
Tip 7: Wonderful out of the Mainstream Attractions
If you are looking for something outside of the mainstream attractions of Amsterdam, there are some other options that appeal to visitors with different interests. This is just a sample, so research your particular interests.
Are you a movie buff? Many movies have been filmed in the city, and the locations are easily accessible. Stand on the Skinny Bridge, as seen above, to see where James Bond began the epic boat chase in Diamonds are Forever. Walk through the Nine Streets, visit the Pulitzer Hotel, or visit the KattenKabinet, to follow the path of George Clooney and Brad Pitt in Oceans 12. Or have a seat on the Fault in our Stars bench.
Do you love the Olympic games and their history? Walk through the areas where the athletes of the 1928 Olympics made residence and trained, or take a tour of Olympic Stadium.
Do you Geocache? Amsterdam has some remarkable urban geocaches. There is a cache adjacent to the Anne Frank House, a cache among the million bikes at Central Station. There are caches on some of the canal bridges, from below, and above. There are some very interesting Earthcaches, and a couple virtual caches as well. Best of all, if you are a serious cacher, the oldest cache in the Netherlands, from January, 2001, is still maintained in Amsterdam.
Tip 8: Get Out into the Neighborhoods
To get a real feel for the true essence of how diverse Amsterdam is, get out into the neighborhoods. The city itself has several distinct neighborhoods. Right in the heart of it all is the City Center and the Red Light District. Chinatown is adjacent to the Red Light District, and people often associate them together. These are the areas where the crowds will be thick, especially young tourists looking for the experience of their lives.
Outside the center, but still within the canal ring you find the Nine Streets and the Jordaan. It is still busy in these areas, but with a calmer, more mature feeling. There are pubs and cafes with outdoor seating to take in the gorgeous views, shops and boutiques, often with locally produced goods. There are quirky museums and galleries you would not expect. There are also community events put on by residents and neighbors, such as flea markets and performances.
Outside the canal ring, another 9 neighborhoods separate the city into areas of unique history and character. Ideally, see them all to fully understand the full charm and diversity the city. With limited time, your interests can help zero in on the particular neighborhoods you should explore. I could attempt to describe their individuality, but the truth is, I would be taking it right out of their promotional booklet, as we did not have time to get beyond the edges of the Oud Zuid neighborhood.
We spent almost an entire day exploring the Nine Streets and the Jordaan though. Walking through these different areas of the city, it felt like there was a new discovery on every corner.
Tip 9: Pay Attention to the Ground You Walk On
Wherever you go, if you are on foot, look down. Pay attention to the sidewalks as you go. Although the Dutch are now among the happiest people on our planet, they have a history that is both sordid and heartbreaking. In World War II, many Dutch Jews were removed from their homes, and did not survive the holocaust. Throughout Amsterdam, you may come upon Stolperstein, or Stumbling Stones, that have been laid as memorials.
Stolpersteins are small brass bricks engraved in honor of a person lost in the war. The stones are in the tradition of an old Jewish saying, that if you trip upon a stumbling stone, there must be a Jew buried there. The stones are meant to “trip” the memory. Each stone begins with the statement “Here Lived.” This is to convey the understanding that each of these victims, were much more than victims. They were real people, with real lives, who loved and were loved.
Each stone laid has some basis among the community, as it is people in the community who do the research to substantiate the history of each person memorialized. Each stone is placed at the home where the victim last freely lived. Originally, Jewish who were lost in the holocaust were represented by the Stolpersteins, but Sinti, Roma, homosexual, and Jehovah’s Witness victims are now included.
Isador Emanul Drievoet and Renee Drivoet-Elzas once lived at the corner of Roemer Visscherstraat and Van Baerlestraat, where I came upon these stones, in their memory. Look down as you walk in Amsterdam, as you will come across the Stolpersteins in many locations.
For more information on Stolpersteins: http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/
Tip 10: Choose Lodging Carefully, Based upon your Goals
There are dozens of hotels and lodging options in Amsterdam, of varying price ranges and amenities. For us, the most important thing about lodging is that we will be able to sleep. We want a comfortable bed, and QUIET. After that, we also look for some local flavor and charm.
As I stated above, Amsterdam is an incredibly busy city. There is also a crazy active nightlife in particular areas. Consider your priorities when selecting your hotel If you are planning to party until dawn, then a hotel in the city center might be right for you. However, if you want to actually rest and recuperate, you want to stay at a minimum on the outskirts of the canal ring, where the reveling will not be heard at all hours.
Check your planned itinerary, if you have made one in advance. There are lodging options in all the neighborhoods of Amsterdam. There is a good chance that you can find a room close to many of the places you want to visit. Museumplein, Vondel Park and the Nine Streets were high on our “to do” list, so we centered our sights on lodging in the quiet surrounding area.
In the end we selected the Owl Hotel, which was perfect. It was very quiet, secure and had that local charm that we wanted. The rooms were small, but were clean, with comfortable bedding. Breakfast was included, consisting of classic central European fare- soft-boiled eggs, breads, sliced meats and cheeses, coffee and juice. The hotel also featured a lovely private courtyard in the back, where we sat each evening for quiet conversation, prior to retiring.
For more information on the Owl Hotel, see their website here: Owl Hotel.
If you plan to visit the Anne Frank House, plan to purchase tickets exactly 60 days ahead. Then see our story for tips on how to get right in without a wait: Visiting Anne Frank House
If you are planning to visit a coffee house, first know that Koffie is coffee, and Coffee is what you are looking for. Go to a Koffie Huis to drink coffee, and to a Coffee House to try other things. If you are a little nervous about how to behave, or make your purchases, see our story about our mishaps, and how to do it right: Further Amsterdam Adventures
If you are considering purchasing an Iamsterdam card, visit the website here: Iamsterdam Card.
If you want more detailed information, or suggested itineraries, see articles by some of the travel experts we read and follow.
Nomadic Matt gives an expert perspective on some of our tips, and an itinerary with information about numerous other sites. I used his articles when planning my trip. Read his Amsterdam itinerary here: Nomadic Matt Three Days in Amsterdam.
There are many more sources out there to find specific information on the specific attractions that appeal to you. Many blogs feature Amsterdam, and the city itself has a couple different tourist information websites.
Amsterdam is an amazing city, and one that is very visitor friendly. The locals speak English fluently, and are typically willing to help a visitor in need. If you get a chance to go, do it!
I will be going back.