The Ultimate First Timers Guide to Amsterdam

Oh, Amsterdam.

A city that captured my heart the first time I visited, and has lured me back many times since then.

Houses are tilted.
Stairs are steep.
Houseboats bob.
Candles burn in all the eateries.
Bicycles outnumber cars.
City lights twinkle on the canals.

A city on canals, Amsterdam is easy explored by foot, boat or bike. With delicious eateries, charming boutiques, and incredible museums, there’s no shortage of things to do in the capital of the Netherlands.

My first venture to Amsterdam was in 2015, and since then I’ve written a number of guides to different things in the city. As great and detailed as those guides are, none of them combine all the advice you’d need for a first time visit to Amsterdam.

I’ll never tire of Amsterdam, both as a city, and because of the family I’ve made there. It’s somewhere that feels like home a bit more with every visit.

Incorporating a Stop in Amsterdam Into Your Trip

Unless you’re planning on visiting more places in the Netherlands, or live in Europe and will be heading to Amsterdam for a weekend trip, chances are your trip to Amsterdam will be part of a trip to see more in Europe, or a stop-over en-route to somewhere else.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol is one of the world’s most connected, which makes it a great hub for countless places in Europe, as well as Asia, the States and other parts of the world.

The great news is that Shiphol isn’t far from Amsterdam- usually less than a half hour by train, or about the same in an Uber.

Not flying?

You could train to Amsterdam from London, France or Brussels. In fact, if it’s your first time in Europe, the London -> Paris -> Brussels -> Amsterdam route is popular, in part, because it’s simple to traverse.

If you’re adding Amsterdam as a trip stop or layover, I’d give yourself at least 3 days, accounting for the fact you may be exhausted from your travels. That said, there’s plenty to do in Amsterdam, and around the Netherlands, so you could easily spend much longer seeing more of what the city, and country, has to offer.

What to Do

Tour the Anne Frank Huis & Climb to the top of Westerkerk

Visit the house where Anne Frank hid with her family during the war. Seeing the Secret Annex was a powerful experience. It’s a dark and airless space, and hard to imagine the families who lived there had to be completely silent during the day.

Admission is under €10, amd purchase your tickets in advance if you don’t want to wait to get in. Post-Anne Frank, if you have a nice day, walk next door to the Westerkerk, a Reformed church within Dutch Protestant church. For ~€7, you can join a guide-led tour to the top for incredible views of the city. The tours are scheduled, so heading there in the morning is best if you want to have flexibility with when you climb to the top. When we went, it took ~30 minutes to climb up and down- a small chunk of time for such stunning perspective.

Visit the Van Gogh Museum + Rijksmuseum 

It’s hard not to love seeing Van Gogh’s famous works. As a big impressionistic art fan, a trip to the Van Gogh Museum was at the top of my to-do list, and although I may be biased, I can’t say enough good things about it

  • Tip 1: Spend the extra money and buy a headset for a guided tour. We did the highlights tour and loved the background context and move-at-your-own-pace experience 
  • Tip 2: Unless you want to wait in line, buy your tickets (€17) ahead of time

Nearby the Van Gogh Museum, you’ll find the Rijksmuseum, which despite it being one of the city’s most popular, I still haven’t visited. However, it’s at the tippy-top of my ‘to-do’ list upon a return venture to Amsterdam.

Cruise the Canals

Few things I love more in the world than cruising Amsterdam’s canals. 

Amsterdam is known as the “Venice of the North” because it has so many canals, so touring them by boat is a must. I’ve done nighttime and sunset canal tours- both times with  Holland International, but there are a bunch of providers to choose from depending on the kind of cruise experience you want. Try to time your cruise for sunset, the sun’s setting reflection on the water is stunning.

And, if you’re not sold on a group tour, fear not- there’s also G’s brunch boat, and companies which cater to small groups, allowing you to rent an entire, tiny boat for picnics on the canal.

Go Shopping

Amsterdam’s most picturesque canals are in and around the Jordaan district. Known as De Negen Straatjes (9 streets), it’s a wonderful shopping area filled with trendy boutiques, cozy cafes and restaurants.

Favorite shops in/near De Negen Straatjes:

    • Ko: Cute little gift shop, picked up a pair of darling earrings here
    • Property Of…: Perfect place for accessories and a good cup of coffee
    • Sukha: Quite possibly the most beautiful shop I’ve ever visited
    • Store Without a Home: Started in 2010 as a design gallery with temporary pop-up locations, now the store represents a good balance of emerging designers and international brands.
    • Restored: A well curated shop- clothing, accessories and housewares with a minimalist feel

Favorite shops outside of De Negen Straatjes:

    • COTTONCAKE: Located in Oude Pijp, this cafe is an interesting concept with an open Scandi-style store up front and a loft with cafe tables in the back
    • Also in Oude Pijp, I always like stopping in Circle of Trust, All the Luck in the World and Anna + Nina

Amsterdam is also home to some great markets, three to check out:

Albert Cuyp: With 260 stands, it’s the largest market in Europe. You’ll find fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, textiles, leather goods and trendy clothing here.

Noordermarkt: Huge farmers market in the Jordaan held on Saturdays (food focused) and Mondays (textile focused). Loved this market almost as much as I love the Union Square Greenmarket, which is one of my favorite places in New York City.

Bloemenmarkt (flower market): Floating flower market situated on barges on the Singel Canal. Although the array of plants and flowers was impressive, I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way for this market. If you’re nearby, it’s a cool place to stroll through.

Taste Local Cheese

Holland is the largest cheese exporter in the world. The cheese and wine tasting at Reypenaer Proeflokaal didn’t disappoint. Their cheese literally melts in your mouth. And they’re still producing it the traditional way, letting it age in a warehouse where temperature control means opening or closing the windows.

If you’re traveling on a budget, this is a pretty affordable afternoon activity, coming in at €15. Over the course of the tasting, you try six wine pours and have unlimited access to accompanying cheeses, so it’s a good value. Tastings sell out though, be sure to book your spot in advance.

If you can’t make it to Reypenaer, hit up the Amsterdam Cheese Company. They carry many different kinds of cheeses and let you sample before buying.

Visit Vondelpark, and Get Lost in Botanical Gardens

Explore Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s most popular park. Pack a picnic lunch, go for a morning run or afternoon stroll- it doesn’t matter what you do in the park, just make sure you find time to enjoy it.

If you’re a big fan of being immersed in nature, and surrounded by plants, don’t miss Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam. It’s one of my favourite places to head on a cold day in Amsterdam- there’s just something about being surrounded by tropical plants that makes everything feel brighter and better.

Wander the Canals

  • Wander through the streets of De Pijp, the ‘Latin Quarter’ of Amsterdam (it’s an artsy, eclectic area)
  • Walk the narrow cobblestone streets in the Jordaan district, window shopping as you go
  • Check out the three main ring canals that connect Amsterdam’s oldest streets – Herengracht, Prinsensgracht and Keizersgracht in the late afternoon light for stunning canal photo opps
    • One street in particular that’s adorable because of all the shuttered old warehouses: Brouwersgracht (Brouwersgracht 107, 1015 GD Amsterdam, Netherlands)

See Windmills in the Netherlands

If it’s your fist time in the Netherlands and you’re hoping to see windmills, travel 20-30 minutes outside of city center (easily accessible by bus!) to Zaanse Schans. Is it a bit touristy? Sure, but it’s also one of the best places to get a postcard worthy picture of working windmills

I’ve been to Zaanse Schans twice, each time only for a few hours, but you could rent a bike and easily spend a day exploring this idyllic town. While you’re here, get a fresh stroopwaffel- they’re incredible.

Take a Day Trip to Rotterdam

Rotterdam is the second largest city in the Netherlands, and home to one of the world’s largest seaports. Most of the city centre was bombed during World War II, so Rotterdam is known more for its industrial side and architectural uniqueness than Dutch quaintness like Amsterdam.

If Visiting in Spring, Make a Day Trip to Lisse to Cycle the Tulip Fields

There really aren’t words to describe the flower fields- rows and rows of colorful daffodils, hyacinth and tulips, it’s extraordinary.

While you’re biking, as you approach a field, you’ll likely smell it before you see it- heavenly. You can rent bikes from Lisse (or even Haarlem, if you’re up for a half day cycling), and bike the countryside without going to Keukenhof. The flower fields were so magnificent, I’d definitely look into the details of just renting a bicycle if I ever returned to The Netherlands in springtime.

Time wise for a trip, try to plan for mid-late April- it’s usually when the flowers are in full bloom.

Where to Eat

I’ve been to many restaurants in Amsterdam, but these are some of the places I love returning to (*), or that I recommend for any first time visitor:

  •  The Pancake Bakery*: When you’re in Amsterdam, it only makes sense to eat a Dutch Pancake. This restaurant may be tiny, but they make amazing sweet and savory pancakes. You’ll also find the best poffertjes (mini pancakes) in the city here
  • Moeders: I’ll admit I was skeptical of Dutch food (my diet is plant and whole grain based, so I was worried traditional Dutch food would be too heavy). But, you really can’t go wrong mixing potatoes, cheese and vegetables- hotpotch is where it’s at. Moeders does a great presentation of the Dutch classics, and the photos of mothers everywhere are super adorable
  • Foodhallen*: Beautiful food hall with lots of great vendors. Don’t miss the gin & tonic stall
  • Omelegg*: There are a few locations in the city, which makes it easy to have a great breakfast (awesome omelets) wherever you’re staying
  • La Perla*: Wood fired pizza, def among the best in Amsterdam
  • SLA*: Healthy, tasty salads. Usually a go-to for me for lunch if I know dinner is going to be a ‘treat yo self’ meal
  • Pluk*: Easily one of the most Instagrammable cafes in Amsterdam, it’s the kind of place that’s a joy to browse (because of their gorgeous homewares), or pull up a seat and brunch (bonus: so many healthy, delicious eats and drinks)
  • The Avocado Show: As the name suggests, this place features avocados as the main event

&& A few great picks for dessert-

  • Winkel 43*: The place to be for traditional Dutch Appeltaart (so good)
  • Van Stapele Koekmakerij: Get a warm chocolate cookie with white chocolate center and walk the canals with your treat
  • Van Wonderen Stroopwafels: Chocolate dipped stroopwafels, made to order
  • Stroopwafelkraam: Located at the Albert Cuyp market and Zaanse Schans, these stroopwafels are made fresh and served hot. Few things are better than crispy wafers with gooey caramel sandwiched in between

Where to Drink

If you’re in the mood to sample some of the best beer in Amsterdam, head to Brouwerij ‘t IJ, a modern brewery next to a windmill producing organic blonde and dark beers. We ordered the sampler to try a few local crafts and really enjoyed the experience of drinking them in the garden with the after-work crowd. The brewery also offers tours if you’re interested in the creation process.

And, if you’re more-so up for cocktails or a glass of wine canal-side:

  • Door 74: Known as the first speakeasy in Amsterdam, the cocktails are amazing. If you don’t have a reservation, come early- otherwise, be prepared for a wait
  • Tales & Spirits: Phenom and inventive cocktails. If you tell the waiters what kind of flavors or spirits you like, they’ll take care of you. And, if you’re here on a warm day, try to grab a table outside
  • Cafe P96: There are a lot of places to sit and enjoy a drink along the canals, but I’m a fan of this one because it’s on a super cute street, and there’s houseboat seating

Which Coffeeshops to Visit

Famed worldwide for its association with legalised marijuana, Amsterdam is a good place to try a pre-rolled joint, or even edible whether you indulge regularly or dabble occasionally. Having tried a few coffeeshops over the course of my visits back, there are two I gravitate to time after time- Basjoe and Amnesia.

On a recent trip, I visited Green House and Barney’s and enjoyed both, but not enough to add either of them into my regular rotation. Many people (especially Americans) recommend visiting Grey Area, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as others I’ve been to- a bit too ‘vibey’ for me.

Where to Have Coffee

One of my favourite things to do in the city though, is find a cosy cafe and settle up for conversation or reading.

Whether you’re visiting Amsterdam for the first time and looking for a caffeine fix to power your explorations, or on a return visit and keen to take things a big slower, to absorb more of local life, these cafes are my favourite ones to frequent in the city of tilted houses and twinkling canals.

Coffee & Coconuts: Located in a former movie theater, this multi-level cafe has an open, gorgeous interior. Come for breakfast and linger over coffee or a freshly cracked coconut.

Back to Black: Second only to Coffee & Coconuts, I love Back to Black. It’s a cozy cafe with good speciality coffee. Location wise, it’s near Vondelpark, the Rijksmuseum & the Van Gogh Museum, making it a great stop for a caffeine pick-me-up while sightseeing.

Screaming Beans: Screaming Beans equals great coffee. Period. Their location in the Jordaan is recently renovated, and perfect for a sit-in or takeaway espresso.

Lot 61: No trip to Amsterdam is complete without a stop here, in my opinion. Their flat whites and lattes are great, I usually pop in before or after heading to Food Hallen. Every time I’ve been, there’s always a few locals milling about, which is one of the reasons I love dropping it- helps me feel like I’m living in Amsterdam 😉

Little Collins: Aussie coffee always wins, and here, flat whites are an art form.

Scandinavian Embassy: Scandi-style design, great coffee, and hearty breakfast dishes, like porridge. A great place to pop in for coffee while in the De Pijp neighborhood.

Two for Joy: Another one of my favourite cafes in Amsterdam, and for good reason- the vibes are calm, cozy and ideal for getting a few hours of work done, or curling up with a good book on a rainy day.

Worth nothing, on my last visit to Amsterdam, I found this cafe was in the same location, but now goes by a different name. Google doesn’t turn up its new name, but will lead you to the right place if you search for Two for Joy.

Hummingbird: On the edge of the Jordaan, Hummingbird is a bright, open cafe. The decor is cool, and there are usually dogs lounging about. On a warm day in Amsterdam, Hummingbird hits the spot with its iced lattes.

NAKED: Tucked down an alley in one of Amsterdam’s busiest neighbourhoods, the Red Light District, you’ll find Naked. With modern, bright design and plenty of space to sit, Naked offers a reprieve from the city chaos with great coffee and an ever-changing array of cakes.

The Hoxton: Although I’ve never actually stayed at a Hoxton property, I love hanging in their lobbies early morning for coffee or breakfast. Often, there’s roomy, comfy space to sit (couches or booths), and a great morning menu.

Extra Amsterdam Travel Tips

Language: Dutch, officially, with many locals speaking German and other European languages (Italian, Spanish, Danish, etc.). It’s common for Dutch to learn three languages in school (Dutch, English and German), so you’ll likely have little problem conversing in English, especially in the more touristy areas of the city 

Safety: Never, have I felt unsafe wandering around Amsterdam (or other parts of the Netherlands) by myself. As with any global city, if you’re visiting during peak season and in crowded areas, keep an eye on your belongings

Currency: Euro. 90% of the purchases I make while in Amsterdam are contactless (by card). I usually carry €20-40 with me for the rare instance I need it- usually at street vendors, and sometimes at grocery stores, which only accept local cards.

Budget: Amsterdam sits among the pricer cities in Europe (London, Paris, Edinburgh). But, as with any trip, there are ways to keep cost down (shared accommodation, walking/taking public transit, making a few meals in, and so on).

Getting To Amsterdam’s City Center: From the airport you can easily hop on a train. Purchase your ticket beforehand, and watch for signs to tap on/off- they’re often discreet, so best to follow actions of locals. 

Once at the main station in city centre, you can take a tram or Uber to your accommodation if it’s not within walking distance. If I’m planning on going back and forth across the city during my stay, I often pick up a transit card before leaving- although, you can also purchase single ride or day passes onboard trams (at the back of the tram, there’ll be an operator). And, always remember to tap on and off when using the trams.

If you’ve only got 2-3 days in Amsterdam, you can likely structure your activity in a way where you can allow enough time to walk everywhere in city centre.

Where to Stay: Sometimes, I’ll stay with friends, and other times, I get a hotel/hostel room so I can be closer to city centre, as everyone I know in Amsterdam lives outside the tourism focused inner rings. 

  • Hotels: There are plenty of hotels in the inner rings, try to book early for the best selection and rates
  • Pod Hostel: On my most recent trip to Amsterdam, I stayed at City Hub to be close to the Jordaan for wandering, and loved the experience. You’ll have your own private room, and share bathrooms, showers and a lounge area. The pods are surprisingly roomy, and beds super comfortable. 10/10 would stay again
  • Airbnbs: As with hotels, plenty of options. Although, with an ongoing housing crisis in Amsterdam, I’m usually weary of using Airbnb while there
  • Houseboats: On one of my first trips to Amsterdam, I booked a houseboat (found through Airbnb, though there are other booking sites as well). We loved staying on a houseboat, it’s such a unique experience and perfect to try in Amsterdam. Best to do in a group, as boats usually have several beds, and are way more spacious than you’d believe

When to Visit: I’ve been to Amsterdam in every season, and prefer summer. Even though it can be busier, there’s so much greenery – vines on homes, outside plants, and the like, which makes wandering a gorgeous experience. 

I’ve also enjoyed spring, and cycling through tulip fields in Lisse (easy day trip from Amsterdam). And, while we’re covering the other seasons- autumn can be great as well with the changing leaves, cooler temps, and fewer crowds, and right before Christmas, the city is its own kind of magic with festive lights strung up everywhere.

Tipping: Tipping is not common practice in Amsterdam, but if the service is exceptional, it’s nice to leave a few extra Euros

WiFi Access: You’ll find WiFi at some cafes and restaurants, but it’s not common to have it open for customers to use everywhere. So, it’s best if you come with international service, pick up a SIM or rent a hotspot

SIM Card Options: Every time I’ve traveled to Amsterdam, I’ve had international service (if coming from the US) or a general EU SIM that I’ve used in other countries. That said, you’ll have no problem picking up a SIM in the airport or places in the city

Packing Necessities: What you bring depends on the season you visit. One thing to bring for certain- a raincoat or umbrella, as it’s not uncommon for weather to change quickly in Amsterdam, regardless of season

Have you ever visited Amsterdam? Is it on your list of places to visit once COVID-19 ends?

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