You’ll know when you’ve arrived in Amsterdam. The constant ring-ring of bicycle bells, the wonderfully oddball Dutch humour, its mighty museums, cute-as-a-button canals and the occasional waft of legal marijuana single it out as a unique destination within Europe. No wonder cries of overtourism haven’t affected the appeal of this multi-faceted city.
That said, its popularity means a little extra planning goes a long way – so here’s our guide to getting the most out of a visit.
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What to do
Museums, galleries and exhibitions
It’s rare to turn a corner in central Amsterdam without hitting what might be the main attraction in lesser cities. The most famous trio are the Heineken Experience, the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House, as suggested by the impossibly large queues at peak times. Niche offerings stretch to a museum dedicated to hidden attic churches with the delightful Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, a Museum of Bags and Purses, and even an interactive microbe exhibition, Micropia. At the bigger attractions, including the Rijksmuseum (adjacent to Van Gogh), booking timed tickets in advance is a must.
Lounge around at A’dam Toren
A free ferry ride away from Centraal Station is the A’dam Toren, a music-themed 22-storey multi-use building in which to eat, drink, party, and sleep. It’s for daredevils too: the rooftop bar, which often features live DJs, features a swing that propels you off the building. Open daily 10am-10pm; tickets from €13.50 ($14.80).
Smoke ’em if you got ’em
For those who choose to, Amsterdam is the place to imbibe cannabis legally. As the longest-running coffeeshop, The Bulldog The First is a popular hangout, as is the Grey Area: the Amsterdam coffeeshop of choice for Snoop Dogg, Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson. Owners are accustomed to novice smokers, so seek a few words of advice before getting stuck in (and opt for a pre-rolled joint rather than attempting it yourself).
Hang out at NDSM
Like Shoreditch but in Amsterdam, NDSM is a reclaimed industrial wasteland now filled with street art, cafes, event spaces and a beach. Because hipsters need to catch the sun too.
Explore the canals
The classic excursion for seeing the waterways is to buy canal boat tour – again, booking in advance will help preserve your sanity – but if you prefer to feel in control, opt for hiring a pedalo instead and take yourself on a self-guided (and pedalled) tour.
Where to stay
A decently priced option is The Albus, a budget design hotel that’s well-located and offers great service, including a welcome drink. Rooms are functional for a short break, especially with triple-glazed windows blocking out any traffic noise. Doubles from £150 ($194), room only.
Ecomama is a funky hostel that looks like a member’s club on entering. In addition to private rooms and basic but functional dorms, those used to festival life can crash in the teepee or sleep pods, just off the reception area. Private rooms from €115 ($125), room only.
Or swap the convenient location for a better price at Volkshotel. With dedicated workspaces, a raft of social goings-on and a rooftop hot tub and sauna, it’s one for those looking for a temporary community. Private rooms from €69 ($75), room only.
For something uniquely Amsterdam-esque, Sweets Hotel is a city-wide series of 28 transformed bridge houses, where staff once manually controlled the canals. Now, guests use a passcode to electronically enter their unique suite, with beautiful canal views and modern amenities. Suites from €160 ($175), room only.
An outstanding premium option is The Dylan, in the 9 Streets area. It’s a homely 40-room boutique hotel with impressive attention to detail; the inviting open-fire lounge and Michelin-starred restaurant are appealing enough to keep guests from exploring the city outside. Doubles from €223 ($245).
Where to eat
Bakers & Roasters is the go-to place for breakfast. They don’t take reservations, but show up, get your place in the queue, and wander around for an hour or two while checking the website to see your progress. Once inside the cramped space, dishes are generous and contemporary.
Alternatively, try Dignita, whose all-day brunch includes umami avocado (€14/$15.30) and a Dutch cooked breakfast (€11.50/$12.60), with many ingredients from their own garden.
Pancakes Amsterdam is close enough to Centraal Station to be disregarded, but its prime location on the banks of the IJ and unending range of pancakes – try the apple and cheese toppings for the traditional Dutch style – are a treat.
De Kas is a former municipal greenhouse that now serves a daily fine dining set menu of divine dishes (€35.50/$39 for three courses up to €65/$71 for six). A daytime visit highlights the airy, glass-encased space.
Need a nibble? For the sweet toothed, Van Wonderen serves top-quality Stroopwafel, freshly caramelised while you wait, with chunky toppings like mixed nuts, Oreos and Speculaas.
For savoury munchies, nearby Vlaams Friteshuis Vleminckx offers a premium style of chips with an extra-long list of toppings.
Alongside Dutch choices like Restaurant Greetje and modern European options like Harmsen, the colonial link means Indonesian restaurants are popular, and the rijsttafel (small bowls of curries served with rice) is a must-try while in Amsterdam.
At Blue Pepper, owner and chef Sonja Pereria’s modern takes include excellent vegan and vegetarian options (€44.50/$49 to €64.50/$71). Occasionally, the kitchen moves into a canal boat for a dinner cruise – an efficient use of time for the weekend visitor.
Where to drink
On a cold day, a takeaway hot chocolate from Urban Cacao hits the spot – they use 15g of chocolate drops in each cup, and the choice of 60 per cent, 70 per cent or milk cocoa is yours. Die-hards can take a tour of the factory too.
Excellent tea options are found at Ts. It’s out of the way in the De Baarsjes suburb, but can’t be beat for lovingly-prepared brews for supping on site, or loose leaf teas for enjoying later.
Beer aficionados will adore the In De Wildeman, which offers 250 Dutch, Belgian and international beers by the bottle and a good selection on draft.
If you take a shine to craft beer brand Walhalla, the taproom in Amsterdam Noord is open at weekends, offering a tasting flight of four for €10 ($11).
The Flying Dutchman is an always-popular diminutive drinking den that hits the holy trinity of impressive service, innovative cocktails and great atmosphere.
A stylish alternative is Satchmo, a new hotspot found in the depths of a former tobacco HQ dating from 1647. Forgo the restaurant upstairs in favour of drinks and bites at the cocktail bar, where their signature espresso martini – including Patron Cafe and white chocolate liqueur – is just one of the well-balanced concoctions made to order.
For drinks with a view, the W Lounge is a pricier but sophisticated rooftop bar with 360 degree views of Dam Square and beyond.
Where to shop
Visitors who get a kick out of browsing supermarket shelves (just me?) should make a beeline to one of the many Albert Heijns around. Otherwise, the first place to check out is the 9 Streets, an area between the central canals with a range of independent and boutique stalls that sell everything from locally-made gifts to elaborate hosiery (the last is Nic Nic if you’re interested).
De Hallen is another cluster of independent traders, this time under the shared roof of a former tram depot. The cafes outside catch the morning light perfectly, so enjoy a coffee before wandering through the stalls selling black garlic, handmade jewellery, funky stationery and wall art. At lunch, the Foodhallen is a mix of street food stalls circling a bar – this is the place to get burritos and baos.
On a rainy day, Magna Plaza is a decent mall in a stunning building that was Amsterdam’s former main post office. Browse international brands like Lacoste and Mango alongside specialist fashion and gift shops. Open until 7pm daily, or 9pm on Thursdays.
For designer shopping, don those Louboutins and take a walk along PC Hooftstraat, home of labels like D&G, Tiffany, Rolex and Gucci.
Unending rows of super cute canal houses – tall and narrow from the outside, steep-staired from the inside, and occasionally sunken on one side – are the hallmark of Amsterdam. Find out their history and unique features at the Het Grachtenhuis Canal House Museum, open 10am-5pm daily, closed Mondays.
Nuts and bolts
What currency do I need?
What language do they speak?
Dutch, but English is widely spoken.
Should I tip?
Service charges might already be included. If not, a 10-15 per cent tip is appreciated but not necessary.
What’s the average flight time?
It’s less than an hour from the UK. Better still, there’s a direct Eurostar train from St Pancras that’s an easy four hours to Centraal Station; the direct return train starts from 30 April.
From the US, non-stop flights go from New York, LA, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco, among others, taking from just under seven hours.
Much of central Amsterdam is walkable, but if not, the tram network is easy to navigate, especially with apps like Citymapper on hand. If you’re confident enough, rent a bike and travel as the locals do.
Ma’dam is A’Dam Toren’s panoramic bar, and features cultural info about the city, plus an great view of Centraal Station.
Many of the otherwise-heaving attractions open late one night of the week, which allows a more relaxed visit. For example, the Van Gogh Museum is open until 10pm on Fridays, the Stedelijk Museum until 10pm on Thursdays, and the Rijksmuseum until 8.30pm on Fridays
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Read more on the best places to stay in Amsterdam