Since moving to Amsterdam, many of my friends and family have come to visit so I’ve had the opportunity to show them the beautiful, lively city that I call my home. There’s no denying that visitors will have no shortage of things to do during their visit, whether it’s the museums, parks, restaurants, coffeeshops, and typical tourist attractions calling for your attention. However, as an avid and enthusiastic traveler myself, I’ve always found that I can’t get a good sense of the “essence” of the city by just visiting one museum after another, or one tourist spot after another, all with crowds of people in the background of my photos in all these tourist hotspots. So, instead of getting a superficial “tourist” experience from your visit by seeing lots of things, my hope is that my guidance in this post will help you experience and immerse yourself in the Dutch way of life.
Having moved to Amsterdam from the U.S. (3 years in LA, 6 years in Philadelphia, born and raised in Boston), I’ve had a blast discovery things that, in my view, are quintessentially Dutch / European. Here are some of the top experiences I’d recommend for anyone wanting to blend in and experience the city and its way of living. Here are some of the top experiences I think you should have during your visit to Amsterdam.
Picnic in the Park
I’ve been hearing recently that the park is the new beach. No place does this seem more true than in cities where a great beach is not readily accessible =D So grab some food & drinks and head over to a nearby park to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air. In the summers, you’ll see sunbathers in the afternoon and people having a picnic through 22:00! A portion of all public parks in Amsterdam are dog-friendly. Most allow dogs off-leash as well, but if there are a lot of picnics going on, remember to be considerate and not have your dog go running into people’s lunch. If the picnicers call your dog on their own though, I say it’s fair game – if you call my dog over and then she gets to your food, it’s definitely your fault and I will not be sorry =)
Your options for “picnic food” are nearly endless. From take-out at nearby restaurants, to fruits from a food shop or outdoor market, to ready-made food / fresh-baked goods at Albert Heijn (the national grocery store), you’re bound to find something that fits your tastes and budget.
Go Boating through the Canals
When in Amsterdam, do as the Dutch do and go boating through the canals!
If you have 2+ people in your party, it’s amazing and relatively affordable to rent your own tiny electric boat instead of going with a tour company. At 4+ people, the cost is about the same as buying a seat on a bigger boat. The most economical option I’ve found is as low as EUR 79 for a 3-hour electric boat that will fit 6 people + your dog via boaty.nl. What you’ll miss in not having a pre-recorded narrator telling you about the history of Amsterdam or a tour operator telling you which important buildings to look at and take a photo of, you’ll gain in being able to cruise the canals at your own pace, and enjoy the peace of listening to your boat wade through the waters, and the quiet of having some canals all to your own.
The best street market in the city is undoubtedly the Albert Cuyp mark in De Pijp. Open Monday through Saturday from around 09:00 to 17:00, you can food sample & souvenir shop your way through the street. Dog-friendly and open rain / shine, this is a great place to spend an hour or two sampling around the stalls.
Look for a vendor that offers raw herring, one that has made-to-order stroopwafels (syrup waffles), another who offers made-to-order poffertjes (mini Dutch pancakes), another with genitalia-shaped chocolates, one with fresh fruit juice, another with fragrant flowers, and one who makes Belgian waffles. See if you can find them all!
There are also other street markets to explore as well. Notable ones include Noordermarkt (fruits, veggies, flowers, and fresh-made food), Amsterdam flea market at Waterlooplein, the Ten Katermarket in Amsterdam West, and the Flower Market in the canal rings (fresh flowers sold on floating barges).
Visit an Museum… or Two
There are 56 museums in Amsterdam alone, which surely is enough to bring satisfaction to even the most avid museum buff. Popular ones include the Van Gogh Museum, Rijksmuseum, and the Anne Frank House. My favorite is MOCO – they currently have an exhibit featuring the works of Banksy (graffiti artist) and Dalí (surrealism), but take a scan of the available options and choose a few that interest you the most. Here is a good list provided a short description and recent prices of each museum.
For those interested in visiting more than 2 museums, consider if the Museum Kaart is right for you. Most locals have this card because for Dutch residents, it lasts for 1 year. However, I haven’t seen many tourists get this card as it’s the same price but only lasts 31 days for tourists.
Try Authentic Dutch Cuisine
When I first moved to Amsterdam, all I wanted to try was traditional Dutch cuisine but when I would ask my coworkers where to go, they all claimed that Dutch people don’t go out to eat Dutch food – after all, that’s what grocery stores and your own kitchen is for. But how is an expat or a tourist supposed to try a proper Dutch dinner? I don’t mean the snacks or bar food, though they were nice to try as well. Then one day I found Moeders Restaurant.
The name, Dutch for Mothers, is appropriate given the restaurant is decorated nearly from floor to ceiling with photos of mothers from around the world. If you dine here and bring a photo of your mother, they will add to their amazing collection. Frame your photo though – I think it looks better like that. Or else your mother’s photo might go on their bathroom door. Yes, even when you go to the toilets, there are hundreds of mothers looking at you.
Experience an Indonesian Rijsttafel Meal
he Netherlands has a very strong Indonesian culinary influence given it’s historical conquest of Indonesia in the 16th century. Perhaps the name ‘Dutch East Indies’ strikes a memory from your history class? The country only relatively recently won it’s independence (in 1949) and renamed as Indonesia. Try an Indonesian dinner of rijsttafel, translated as rice table, where small portions of Indonesian food will be presented on the table all at once at the beginning of the meal to be eaten with rice, family-style or order a la carte, whichever you prefer.
While rijstaffel is a great way to experience Indonesian food, the term is a uniquely Dutch exploit. Try to order a rijsttafel in Indonesia and you’ll answer to blank stares and confused waiters.
Rent and Ride an ‘Omafiets’, aka a ‘Grandma Bike
To get around the city, a mix of public transportation (trains, trams, busses) and walking is the best way to go from point A to point B, but definitely take a day or two (or at least a few hours) to try cycling through the city. To visit Amsterdam and not try your hand at biking with the locals would be to miss out on a very pleasurable experience, and I won’t let you do it!
While biking in Boston or Philadelphia always felt like I was gambling my life each and every time I would share the streets with the cars (i.e. most drivers in the U.S. are not used to sharing a road with bicycles so either the very considerate ones drive all the way into the other lane to give you 2 meters of space, the frustrated ones will speed past you, or the distracted ones will simply not realize or check if there are any bikers before making a right turn…), biking in Amsterdam is mostly a pleasurable experience because of the dedicated biking infrastructure throughout the city and the biking culture and mentality of its residents.
If you don’t want to just cruise the streets aimlessly, I’d recommend riding to Amsterdam Bos (forest at the edge of Amsterdam).
Try Dutch Fast Food at FEBO
If you’re on a budget, or just hungry for a (late night) snack, try the Dutch snacks from a coin-operated vending machine at FEBO. FEBO is like the hot food section of 7/11. Many options for deep-fried fast food. Just don’t eat it too often – it’s not very healthy.
My recommendations: kroket, chicken sandwich, or the bitterballen.
Take an Evening Stroll Through the Red Light District
If you’re on this website, there is a very high chance that you’re not interested in the activities that generally go down in the Red Light District, but if you’re at curious about the area, a quick half hour stroll through the main street in the late evening will give you a good idea of the area. I have never felt unsafe in Amsterdam, and this area is no different. As you walk around the De Wallen neighborhood, walk down the two parallel streets of Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal to get an glimpse of the red-lighted brothel windows, sex shows, sex shops, cannabis coffeeshops, and other attractions.
Eat Delicious EUR 1,50 Ice Cream
I don’t know about you, but when I was in the U.S., the minimum I could pay for ice-cream was around USD 4.00. Thus, when I stumbled into my first ice cream shop and saw that a scoop was only EUR 1,50 + the variety of delicious flavors + comes with a free cone + my dog was allowed inside while I sample the flavors + the gregarious server was the shop owner, I declared it my favorite ice cream shop! Little did I know that most ice cream shops (and a good number of restaurants) are dog-friendly and most ice cream shops offer 1 scoop for EUR 1,50.
Regardless, my first ice-cream shop is still my favorite. If you’re curious, my favorite is Massimo IJsfabriek, located in De Pijp right next to Sarphatipark. Give it a try and let me know what you think!
Experience a Coffeeshop and a Cafe, and Know the Difference
Visit a coffeeshop to smoke or try some edibles, if you’re into that kind of experience.
Important note: If you’re not experienced with getting high, go slowly and moderately. Take caution, especially if trying edibles as it is difficult to tell how strong edibles are until after they are consumed. Unlike smoking, which will hit you as you smoke, the effects of edibles will not hit you until 3 hours later. Ask the shop employees about recommended quantities to consume.
Every story about edible weed:
1. Not high.
2. Not high.
3. Still not high.
4. Not high.
5. Please drive me to the emergency room.
— Bill Dixon (@BillDixonish) November 1, 2015
Amsterdam is a fantastic city. I’m so glad it’s my home for the foreseeable future and so grateful I was able to move here. I hope you’ll consider my list when planning your own travel adventures. From the feedback I get, fully experiencing a city makes it way more memorable than merely visiting one major TripAdvisor tourist attraction after another.
Happy travels & enjoy beautiful Amsterdam,