Amsterdam Guide: Best Insider Tips for First Time Visitors
Amsterdam is more than hookers and weed. In fact, only 10 percent of Dutch people say they smoke marijuana. Want a more authentic Netherlands experience? Follow the advice of Audrey Sykes, author of the Amsterdam edition of the Moon Travel Guides (Don’t worry, we’ll still tell you the best places to smoke weed).
“There’s over 60 miles of canals running through the city,” Audrey says, “and then you have these narrow houses. They’re all about three or four stories tall. They’re all made out of brick, but they all seem to have their funny little facades that are special to them and they almost seem to look like faces. A lot of the canal houses are leaning a little bit here and there, so it’s got this sort of charming cozy character to it.”
In addition to being a travel writer, Audrey’s an American expat who took advantage of the Dutch American Friendship Treaty to start Stick Together, an Amsterdam-based agency that helps artists develop their careers.
Subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast to hear all of Audrey’s top picks and insider tips for visiting Amsterdam. Here are the highlights.
Best way to see Amsterdam
Canal cruise. Of course, Amsterdam is famous for its bikes, but have you thought about touring the city by boat? “My favorite thing to do with my friends is rent a boat and cruise around the canal ways. We have a few companies here where you can be the captain. You can bring your good friends and bring whatever food and drinks and music you like and rent a boat for a few hours. It goes very, very slow and there are buoys all over the outside of the boat for your own safety.” Try renting with Mokumboot.
Best neighborhood to wander around Amsterdam
Plantage. “I love the neighborhoods that are in the east. Plantage in particular is a neighborhood that goes overlooked a lot because everybody pays more attention to the Red Light District, the Museumplein, where the museums are, and then the Canal District, where the Anne Frank House is. But the Plantage, which is right on the east side, used to be the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, and then after World War II, they really did a good job at [developing] the whole neighborhood into this more green, leafy part of Amsterdam. It's where the botanical gardens are. It's where the zoo is. It’s where a lot of Jewish memorials are: the Holocaust Memorial, the Dutch Resistance Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue, the Jewish Museum. And a lot of water. I think it’s a beautiful neighborhood to cruise around in, and beautiful cafes, as well.”
Best museums in Amsterdam
Van Gogh Museum. Next to the Rijksmuseum, you’ll find the largest collection of Vincent Van Gogh paintings in the world. “They’re displayed in chronological order, so you get a good history of the country and then you get a very interesting history of a one-of-a-kind artist.”
In the summer, Audrey works as a private guide in both these museums. “I find myself amongst the Dutch Masters and the Dutch impressionists almost every day.”
Best place to see street art and galleries in Amsterdam
“See what's going on in the north part of Amsterdam, Amsterdam Nord. That’s just across the river behind Central Station. If you take one of the ferries to the NDSM area, then you'll see one of the few areas that urban artists can go and paint fresh murals. There's a lot of different artists that go over there on a weekend basis to paint new things. So I'm always checking that out. And then there's Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, that’s a place where there are a lot of traditional galleries. And then there are some really great urban galleries out here, like the GO Gallery the Original Dampkring gallery.
Audrey's agency, Stick Together, represents Max Zorn, who creates gorgeous street art using packing tape and a scalpel (see video above).
Best place to see tulips in Amsterdam
Keukenhof. “One of the main attractions during tulip season, where they have over 6 or 7 million flowers. You’ll see thousands of people there.”
Best food market in Amsterdam
Albert Cuyp Market. “If you want a food market where you can really taste the traditional Dutch food — herring and cheese and fries and, of course, the desert — the market you want to go to is the Albert Cuyp Market. That's the oldest running outdoor market in Amsterdam, and it has a lot of different stalls for you to try a lot of different foods. But it also has a lot of fresh produce; it has the flowers; it has good deals on clothes. I would say even if you want to go souvenir shopping, that’s a good place to look.”
If you’re looking for vintage clothes and collectables, go to Waterlooplein Market.
Best foods to try in Amsterdam
“We're kind of up north so it's hardy cabbages and meats and potatoes. But the good news is that since the Dutch sailed around the world and dominated trade for almost 200 years, they brought spices back to Amsterdam. So the sort of remnants of Dutch colonies like Indonesia and Suriname, you can still see it in a lot of the restaurants here in Amsterdam. We have our own little China Town that has a whole street full of different Asian cuisines…so if you like those sort of exotic flavors, maybe a lot of spice, you can find that here, too.”
Also make sure you try Dutch cheese, fries with mayonnaise, and stroopwafel, “which is this delicious waffle cookie with this caramel inside.”
Best bakery in Amsterdam
De Bakkerswinkel. “I love going to De Bakkerswinkel. There are a few of them in town, but, to me, the best one is at Westerpark. You should go there, order some scones, and just enjoy and absorb the park outside.”
Best lunch spot in Amsterdam
Bird. “I would take you to China Town to this great Thai restaurant called ‘The Bird.’ On the left side of the street, there’s the bird restaurant. But we're not going there. We’re going to the other side, which is sort of their smaller kitchen/take out cafe. You order the food there and you either sit outside on the bench and eat it, or you walk down the street to New Market and you sit out in the sun amongst all the people on the terrace.”
Best dinner places in Amsterdam
Cafe Bern. “A scientist perfected the recipe to French fondue cheese, as well as this sort of steak entrecote that’s served on a platter of herbs de Provence that sort of sizzles and cooks your meat for you. And then you wash it down with a glass of their house wine.
Cafe De Klos. “The best place I've ever had ribs in my life. There's usually a long wait for it. But you just go across the street and you wait at their brown cafe and have a few drinks.” Brown cafes are a type of cozy, old world-type Dutch pub. “There are usually stained wood walls and wooden tables and bar stools…where you can feel warm on a cold winter's day…large windows overlooking the streets where people walk by…you can enjoy a Belgian beer or a nice glass of wine…Those places carry a lot of charm.”
Best veg-friendly neighborhood in Amsterdam
De Pijp. “There's amazing vegan restaurants around De Pijp. They call it the Latin quarter, but I think it's just more of a place where a lot of our younger student generation are. They have a very expansive, eclectic list of different sort of things people can eat. Different cuisines, whether it's vegan or Indonesian or burgers from America. There’s these new places called vegan junk food bars.”
Best coffee shop to smoke weed in Amsterdam
Original Dampkring. “The Original Dampkring that's got this great chill hippie sort of vibe. The owner’s an especially good friend of mine. You have a lot of celebrities and musicians…but not pretentious at all. Very open and friendly.”
In days past, a contest called the Cannabis Cup awarded coffee shops that had the best quality marijuana. “I don't think they have that anymore, but some big winners were definitely the Greenhouse, the Original Dampkring, the Grey Area, and Amnesia.”
Best craft brewery in Amsterdam
Brouwerij 't IJ. “When I have friends in town, we’ll usually start at one of the micro-craft breweries that are now around here. My favorite is the Brouwerij 't IJ, which is underneath an Old Dutch windmill that also has a beer garden outside and is flanked with beautiful canals. So you could have a bit of a cultural experience, as well as beautiful scenery, and you can enjoy a craft beer from one of the original craft breweries and Amsterdam.”
Best bars in Amsterdam
Cafe Belgique. “It's really tucked away next to the Damm square. That's really good for Belgian beers.
Cafe Brecht. “If you like cocktails and just your sort of run-of-the-mill beer, I always like Cafe Brecht. It has sort of an Eastern German vibe to it, but it's got a really great atmosphere.”
Café De Spuyt. “That's a beer bar.”
L&B Whiskey Bar. “They have over 2,000 whiskeys tucked in this tiny little cafe. Very cozy. Very Charming. Probably from the 16/1700s. It feels like they've never really left those centuries.”
Best place to see live music in Amsterdam
Paradiso. “It’s an old church from the 19th century that they turned into a music venue. It's just gorgeous. You have stained glass windows behind the stage. You have these wraparound balconies. Everybody wants to play at Paradiso…they’d rather play there three or four nights in a row than a big arena.”
Best party in Amsterdam
Pride. “There's always a festival somewhere around the city…I personally love the Gay Pride weekend that happens at the end of August or early September, and that's just a huge party in the city. It really celebrates individuality. There's a huge boat parade and everybody's just so happy in the streets.”
Best souvenirs to remember Amsterdam
“Dutch cookies, chocolate, candies. I'll even be bring back Dutch craft beer. If it's tulip season and it's the right time to buy tulip bulbs, I'll bring back the bulbs. You can also get small wheels of Dutch cheese that are just a few Euros.”
How much do you tip in Amsterdam?
“Tipping isn't really a big thing. If you're going out for drinks at a bar, you’re not really going to tip. If you feel guilty about it, sure, you can drop them a dollar at the end of the day, but most people pool their tips in bars, and then they use them for Christmas parties later on. When it comes to restaurants, the norm is to usually tip about 10% of the bill.
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 7 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.