Living in Amsterdam, I’ve had many opportunities to show my friends and family this beautiful, lively city – and now I can share them with you!
There are plenty of typical tourist attractions that visitors can choose from, whether they want to visit a few of the 56 museums, cruise the canals, or check out the infamous Red Light District. However, as an avid 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 or historical building after another to check off some sort of generic “bucket list”. So, instead of getting a superficial tourist experience from your visit by seeing lots of things, I’m writing this post to 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 hang like the locals and experience the Dutch culture.
Go Boating through the Canals
Amsterdam has over 100+ km of canals looping through the city. If you’re here for more than a day, you must get on the water. A quick search on online and you’ll have your pick as to what kind of cruise you want, whether it’s a short 1-hour loop through the main sights, or a romantic sunset cruise with candlelight dinner, or a historical tour inspired by the Rijksmuseum, or unlimited pancakes on the boat, you have your pick based on duration and “theme”.
If your budget is more flexible, or you have enough people in your party to justify the cost, it’s an amazing and relatively affordable experience to rent your own 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.
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. No boating experience necessary to navigate within the canals.
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!
Other street markets to explore 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 and other trinkets sold on floating barges).
Try Authentic Dutch Cuisine
When I first moved to Amsterdam, I really wanted to try traditional Dutch cuisine but when I would ask my coworkers where to go, they all claimed that Dutch people never 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 discovered Moeders Restaurant.
The name, Dutch for ‘mothers’, is appropriate given the restaurant is decorated 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.
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 picnickers 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 fresh fruits from a food shop or outdoor market, to ready-made meals / fresh-baked goods at Albert Heijn (the national grocery store), you’re bound to find something that fits your tastes and budget.
Visit an Museum… or Three
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 that provides 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.
Rent and Ride an ‘Omafiets’, aka a ‘Grandma Bike’
To get around the city, a mix of public transportation (train, tram, bus, boat) and walking is the best way to go from point A to point B. I’d be wary of any resource telling you that biking is the best way for a tourist to get around. While biking is definitely the easiest for locals, from my experience, it’s quite stressful for tourists who depend on it entirely.
Though I’d advise against relying entirely on a bike if it’s not your forte, I’d definitely recommend taking a day or two (or at least a few hours) to try cycling through the city. You’ll certainly be amazed and impressed by how developed the biking infrastructure is.
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 Vondelpark or Amsterdam Bos (forest at the edge of Amsterdam) and then just riding through the park/forest.
Experience an Indonesian Rijsttafel Meal
The Netherlands has a very strong Indonesian culinary influence given it’s historical conquest of Indonesia in the 16th century. Indonesia only relatively recently won it’s independence in 1949. 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 – so enjoy while you’re here!
Take an Evening Stroll Through the Red Light District
If you’re slightly curious about what you’ve heard about the Red Light District in Amsterdam, I’d recommend a quick half hour stroll through the main street in the late evening to get 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 a glimpse of the red-lighted brothel windows, sex shows offerings, sex shops, cannabis coffeeshops, and other attractions. Note: 1) do not take photos of the windows, 2) it will be very crowded, and 3) you’ll smell weed or alcohol with every breath you take.
Experience a Coffeeshop and a Cafe, and Know the Difference
In The Netherlands, a coffeeshop offers marijuana and a cafe sells coffee and baked goods – don’t confuse the two or you’ll provide locals a nice, hearty chuckle. If you’ve come to Amsterdam with the intention of trying weed for the first time, take it slowly and consume moderately. Many first-time users want edibles because they are not used to smoking, but take special caution with edibles as it is difficult to tell how strong they are until after the’ve been consumed. Unlike smoking where the effect will hit in the process of smoking, the effects of edibles will not hit you until 2-3 hours later (after you’ve consumed everything and it’s too late to undo the consumption).
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
Ask shop employees about recommended quantities to consume and follow their advice.
Try Dutch Fast Food at FEBO
If you’re hungry for a (late night) snack, try the hot food from coin-operated vending machines at FEBO. While not exactly healthy, it’s a fun experience, the shops are open late, and the food is tasty.
For Dutch specialties, try the kroket with bread (and mustard) or the bitterballen (basically a kroket, but in smaller bite-sized pieces). I’ve had Dutch tell me that when they leave the country, the only thing food they miss are their krokets. If you want to try the coin-operated vending machines, but are not as experiemental with different culinary optioins, the chicken sandwich is a good choice. Don’t get the frites (fries) or the ijs (ice-cream) – if you like those, there are so many better options throughout the city.
Eat Delicious EUR 1,50 Ice Cream
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!
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. Traveling is often such a whirlwind of new sights and limited time. I hope that taking the time to experience more of the city, slowing down your explorations, will let you remember your trip to Amsterdam for decades to come.
Happy travels & enjoy beautiful Amsterdam,