1. Rent a bike for the day, and explore
I don’t think there’s a better way to see an unfamiliar city than to ride a bike through it, and biking is a very popular mode of transportation in Amsterdam. It will seem intimidating at first. Pedestrian tourists in this city fear being run over by trams and cyclists who have no time to stop for your jaywalk, but once you start navigating the bike lanes it’s easy. The Guardian said it well, calling the biking culture in Amsterdam “…a chaos that works incredibly well.”
Tip: There are bike rental shops all over the city. It’s inexpensive to rent one for the day. Ask someone at the front desk of your hotel/hostel for one nearby.
2. Visit the Van Gogh Museum
This is a great museum for anyone, not just art lovers. The paintings are displayed in the order in which Van Gogh painted them. As you walk through, it’s interesting to see how his style changed, and to learn what influenced his paintings at various points in his life.
Tip: Buy your tickets online ahead of time to avoid wasting time in the ticket queue.
3. Eat traditional dutch food
One of the best things about traveling is trying the native cuisine in a country you’ve never visited. Dutch food is hearty – think meat, potatoes, and greens. There’s also a lot of fish and seafood. I would give you a list of places I’ve visited. But why trust an American tourist when you can go straight to the source? Here’s a list of the Top 10 Dutch food restaurants on Amsterdam’s official website. The Pantry, pictured above, is a hot spot for many tourists.
4. Visit the Anne Frank House
The Anne Frank House and the Van Gogh museum are the two quintessential things you should do in Amsterdam. It was in the annex of this house where Anne Frank and her family hid from Nazi persecution during World War II. This was also where Anne Frank wrote her famous diary. She did not survive the concentration camps, but her father did. He got the book published in 1947 after returning to Amsterdam. This museum is dedicated to Anne Frank’s life, and shares a great deal of history about the treatment of Jews during WWII.
Tip: You should buy your tickets in advance for this, too, in order to avoid long lines. It’s nine euro for adults.
5. Pick your poison: Coffee shop or cafe
In Amsterdam, if you go to a coffee shop, you should know that’s where you go to legally purchase and smoke marijuana. If you only want coffee, you’re looking for a cafe.
Your nose will help you sniff out the right place.
Tip: If you have a crowd mixed with smokers and drinkers, you may want to split up. Coffee shops do not sell alcohol, and bars do not sell marijuana.
6. Sail away on a canal tour of the city
A canal tour in a city like Amsterdam is a great way to see the entire city. I’ve been on two tours with the Blue Boat Company, and they’re great. You’ll see the harbor, the Anne Frank House, the Red Light District, and more; and you’ll be guided by an audio tour, if you choose to wear the head phones. There’s also hors-d’oeuvres and drinks on the boat. Seeing the city from the canal at night is absolutely gorgeous, and it’s a fun thing to do with a group.
Most of the canal tour boats are enclosed, so you don’t have to worry about rain or cold.
7. Shop at a street market
There are more than a dozen street markets in Amsterdam, most of which are open daily. The markets are a great place to eat a little street food, and meet local vendors. At the markets you can buy cheese, waffles covered in chocolate, tulips, and locally made goods.
Checkout the hours and locations here.
8. Educate yourself about cheese at a cheese shop
Dutch people are very friendly, and in a tourist trap like Amsterdam, most of them speak English. Don’t hesitate to walk into a shop and talk to local vendors. Be careful with cheese, though. Some of the street vendors will tell you you’re buying 3-year-old, high quality cheese, when you’re not. The real fromagers will talk to you about cheese, share their cheese wisdom, and excitedly give you samples of their best cheeses.
Tip: The longer a cheese has matured, the crispier and stronger it tastes. If a vendor tells you you’re eating three-year-old cheese, but it’s creamy like the cheddar you buy at Harris Teeter, he’s lying.
9. Eat an authentic Indonesian meal
I don’t know how else to describe Indonesian restaurants other than to say that it’s stacks on stacks on stacks of food. Plates filled with spicy and savory Indonesian cuisine are served family-style. Lamb, pork, chicken and things I can’t describe. Sit down. Order a drink. And don’t ask questions. Just eat what you are served. It’s delicious.
A good place to try is Kantjil & de Tijger.
10. Take a picture in front of the IAMSTERDAM sign
Tip: If you want a picture in front of the sign by yourself, or featuring your group, don’t go on a weekend. Wait for a weekday when there are fewer tourists.
11. Eat at an Argentinian steakhouse
Argentinian steakhouses are everywhere in Amsterdam. I’m not sure why. I asked Google, but I didn’t really find an answer. Maybe the Dutch just love the way Argentinians do steak? Anyway, you’ll see one of these steakhouses down just about every street. I ate at two while I was in Amsterdam, and thoroughly enjoyed both restaurants. Gaucho’s is popular and has good reviews.
12. Snack on waffles and stroopwafels
Unless you’re Buddy the Elf, waffles in Amsterdam are dessert, not breakfast. I got one smothered in chocolate. You can add candy and all sorts of goodies, too. Most of the street markets mentioned above have vendors selling these sweet treats.
Stroopwafels are like cookies with a caramel-like syrup inside, and you buy them in a package. They’re a great gift to take home to friends and family. I imagine taking waffles would get a bit messy.
Tip: Place a stroopwafel on a cup of coffee while the coffee’s hot. The heat from the coffee will melt the gooey caramel in the stroopwafel. Yum!
13. Walk or jog through Vondelpark
Vondelpark is Amsterdam’s version of New York City’s Central Park, and it’s pleasant to stroll through. You don’t realize how metropolitan Amsterdam is until you escape into this calm park.
There are several entrances, but one of the main ones is directly across the street from the Hard Rock Cafe – a prime tourist region. If you’re a runner or an outdoorsy person, this is worth your time..
14. Visit a tulip field
I’ve never been to Amsterdam at Springtime, so unfortunately I haven’t done this, but it’s on my bucket list. Here’s a Guide to Seeing the Tulip Fields near Amsterdam.
15. Visit the Heineken Museum
Personally, there are other things I would do before making this a priority. If you’re between 18 and 21 years old and can’t drink in the U.S. you might enjoy it. But if you’ve been to one brewery, you’ve been to this one. With that said, it’s inexpensive and you get three beers with your ticket. You also learn about Heineken’s history and how Hollanders drink beer.
You will not go to a bar or restaurant in Amsterdam that doesn’t serve Heineken. It’s their version of Budweiser.
16. Try Middle Eastern cuisine
The only Middle Eastern place I’ve been in Amsterdam is Bazar, pictured above. SO MUCH FOOD! Bazar is also one of the few places I’ve eaten in Europe with really great service. I highly recommend it, and so do those who have reviewed it on TripAdvisor.
17. Walk through the Red Light District at night
Prostitution is legal in the Netherlands, making Red Light Districts (there are multiple) in Amsterdam a popular place to visit for tourists. This certainly is no place for families to tour together, but it is a cultural element of Amsterdam many don’t want to miss.
Women pose in small rooms or cabins illuminated by red lights, and they offer sexual services to men. Learn more about red light districts and prostitution here.
18. Checkout a relatively new street art display
19. See what swims in the canals and more at Artis Royal Zoo
Artis Zoo is a fun way to spend a few hours in Amsterdam, and it’s family-friendly. There’s an aquarium at the zoo, where you can see what fish and creatures live in the canals, in addition to your usual zoo things like chimps, lions, and llamas.
20. Drink your way through the House of Bols
The House of Bols prides itself on being one of the world’s oldest distilleries. The museum and tour is right across the street from the Van Gogh Museum. This is similar to going to the Heineken Museum – you learn how vodka is made, and you get complimentary drinks with your ticket. If you’re choosing between the Heineken Museum, and this one, I would go to House of Bols. This is something you can’t get in the States, and the drinks are great!
Did I miss anything? Feel free to leave suggestions in the comments!