Most people travel to Amsterdam to visit the Anne Frank museum, or to see the tulips and windmills. Ha, as if!
Let’s face it, a LOT of people visit Amsterdam to get stoned off their noggins on coffee shop hash brownies or to trawl the red light district and gawp at the sex workers plying their trade in the infamous glass-fronted cubicles in De Wallen.
But, unless you’re a teenager or on a bachelor weekend, there’s so much more to the Netherlands’ capital. There are the wide leafy streets, grand and historic architecture, clean fresh air, beautiful bridges and canals, amazing restaurants, fascinating little stores, art galleries, and bicycles — bicycles everywhere.
Amsterdam is one of those cities you can visit over and over again, and discover something new every time, but if you’re a first time tourist or a returning visitor who fancies stepping away from all the regular sight-seeing shenanigans then check out our good guide to Amsterdam — do the Dam like a local.
Amsterdam is packed full of markets, both outdoor and in. If you want to get your shop on like a local then your best bet is to head to Albert Cuyp. The sprawling market is known to be the “most beautiful” in Amsterdam and it has literally hundreds of stalls selling fresh fruit and veg, clothing, antiquities, traditional Dutch snacks, fish, accessories… the list is endless. Plus point? It makes for a cheap shop, by Amsterdam standards at least.
If dairy products derived from milk and formed by coagulation of casein are your thing, then has The Alkmaar Cheese Market got a treat for you! According to Holland.com, there are “Up to 30,000 kilos, or 2200 whole cheeses, lined up and waiting for customers.” You can discover how giant wheels of cheese have been traded for centuries, and “see this colorful, folkloric spectacle taking place at the picturesque Waagplein.”
[Random “fun” fact: Holland is the world’s largest cheese peddler, producing 1,433 million pounds annually, two-thirds of which is exported. The average Nederlander scarfs down 315 pounds of cheese a year — and not one ounce of it comes out of an aerosol can.]
If you’re lactose intolerant you may want to swerve the dairy and get down to nature instead. In addition to cheese, Holland is also the world’s largest exporter of flowers. The Dutch love their blossoms, almost as much as their stonewashed jeans, and there’s no better place in Amsterdam to wake up and smell the tulips than at Bloemenmarkt: The World’s Only Floating Flower Market. Not surprisingly, browsing the multitude of stalls on the moored houseboats lining the Singel canal makes for a fragrant, vibrant, and wondrous experience.
Usually, the key to escaping the hordes of tourists that plague any major metropolis is to get the hell out of the city center—and Amsterdam is no exception to the rule.
Luckily, the Dam is pretty small, and in addition to the throng of bikes everywhere it has an ace and highly affordable public transport system. Buy a disposable one-hour, day, or week-long OV-chipkaart and gain access to the city’s metro, extensive network of trains, trams, buses, and even the ferry.
Just a short 10-minute tram ride from the center is the multi-ethnic and trendy neighborhood of Oud-West. The area is filled with super cool little cafes, bars, restaurants, and shops but retains a down-to-earth and authentic vibe. It’s a great place to sit back, sip a tulip-shaped glass of Jenever and watch the world walk (or more likely, cycle) by.
If you want to hang with the really hip though, De Pijp should be your destination of choice. Located to the north of the city the Bohemian neighborhood is home to the too cool for school crowd. The charming narrow streets are flanked by market stalls selling Dutch favorites like herrings and waffles, old-school taverns, Middle Eastern restaurants, and hookah bars, boutiques, and fabulous little quirky stores, and even a matcha bar — because hipsters love their swanky green tea y’all! De Pijp really comes alive as the sun sets and it’s one of the best nightlife areas in the city.
When you’re over the beautiful people and you’re hankering for some beautiful scenery instead get yourself over to Jordaan (pronounced “your-dahn”). The area attracts more tourists than Oud-West and De Pijp, but given its status as one of the ten Netherlands UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Jordaan is kind of a must-see.
The neighborhood’s packed full of historic monuments and sights, all of which have been painstakingly protected and preserved. It’s nicknamed “The Greenwich Village of Amsterdam” and it’s probably the most Insta-perfect area in all of Holland—if that kind of thing floats your boat. But, it’s also perfect if you’re more interested in actually floating in an actual boat, as it’s at the epicenter of the city’s 17th-century canal ring.
During the day you can sail down the water and take in the beauty of the flower-decked bridges that span the Prinsengracht, Lijnbaansgracht, Passeerdersgracht, and Brouwersgracht canals. However, it’s equally magical, and perhaps even more awesome at night, after the tourists disperse, peace descends and hundreds of lamps light up the streets.
Oh, and while you’re in Jordaan be sure to seek out the tiny hidden houses. Blink and you’ll miss them, but pay attention to the area between 54 and 70 Westerstraat, and you’ll be rewarded with a truly magical treat. Seven teeny tiny little houses, all stacked on top of each other, wedged into a minuscule four-inch crack in the wall. Might sound dumb, but it’s actually super cute, for real.
Room for a view
Amsterdam is ludicrously flat, geographically speaking — it’s what makes it such a perfect city for [the lazier of] cyclists.
However, that doesn’t mean it lacks viewing opportunities. To take in one of the best vistas, jump on the free 5-minute ferry from Amsterdam Centraal to Amsterdam-Noord then head for the A’DAM Lookout.
An alternative drinking and viewing opp is the fabulous SkyLounge Amsterdam. Their spectacular rooftop terrace serves up amazing cocktails with a laid-back vibe allowing you to chill and soak up the beauty of the city below you.
Let your freak flag fly
Amsterdam gives even Tokyo a run for its money when it comes to quirky and weird museums. There’s the Red Light Secrets Museum of Prostitution, the Venustempel Sex Museum — the first of its kind in the world, the Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum, the Tassen Hendrikje Bags and Purses Museum, and my personal favorite, the Torture Museum.
Torture Museum Amsterdam may not be for the faint of heart, but it’s a deffo for any sick and twisted lovers of gruesome macabre. The institution documents the obscene history of human cruelty with an array of terrifying medieval torture devices, including an “inquisition chair,” thumb screws, an Iron Maiden, a Catherine wheel, a scold’s bride, a skull crusher, a hanging scaffold, rack and stocks, the “flute of shame” and a good old-fashioned guillotine.
Meanwhile, if you fancy channeling your inner cat lady then get yourself along to The Kattenkabinet. According to their website, “the Cat Cabinet was founded in commemoration of the ginger cat John Pierpont Morgan (1966-1983). This special cat was the stubborn, headstrong companion of the museum’s founder, Bob Meijer.”
It seems Meijer’s pussy appreciation ran deep. To celebrate John Pierpont Morgan’s fifth birthday Meijer paid to have his portrait painted. For his tenth, a bronze sculpture was created, which the kitty posed for himself. For his fifteenth, a special book “A Cocky Cat from Toulouse and Other Cat Nonsense” comprising of fifty limericks all dedicated to Morgan was written and printed. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, the Dutch underground artist, Aart Clerkx also created a portrait of Morgan which he then placed on the US dollar bill, in substitution of George Washington. Yeah, this Meijer dude really did take cat love to a whole new level.
On your bike
When in Amsterdam do as the Amsterdammers do and put your foot to the pedal. There are cycle-hire places all around the city and bikes cost around €10 for a 24-hour rental.
If cycling on the roads in a foreign city makes you nervous, then pedal on over to The Vondelpark. The urban park is the most famous in the Netherlands as well as the largest in Amsterdam, spanning a whopping 120 acres. When you’re done with exercising, you can just chillax on the grass and watch the steady stream of roller-skaters, dog walkers and joggers pass by.
Sure it’s on every tourist’s bucket list, but locals also love to take to the canals too. You can rent a boat and drive it yourself, like a true native, but make sure to stock up on snacks and beverages beforehand to ensure maximum boating bliss.
For those who prefer to leave navigating the waters to a pro, jump on one of the many open boat canal cruises — be sure to snag a spot at the back of the boat though, where it’s open-air seating, for optimal viewing pleasure.
No guide to Amsterdam would really be complete without at least a couple of coffee shop recommendations. For the totally clueless, Amsterdam’s coffee shops aren’t like your regular run-of-the-mill Starbucks, because in addition to your latte you can also buy and smoke weed.
There’s a ton of coffee shops dotted around Amsterdam, with the most traveler-heavy ones located in the city center. So if you want to enjoy a relatively tourist-free toke head to the outskirts.
The trippy and psychedelic Kashmir Lounge in Oud-West is a safe bet, plus it has the added advantage of serving alcohol and hosting awesome local DJs on weekends.
Also worth a mention are Coffeeshop Spirit and Amnesia, which are both located in Jordaan and have a loungy, cool, and local vibe.
Become a Belieber
Sorry, but every visitor to Amsterdam should visit the Anne Frank museum, at least once.
The museum is located in the actual location where the teenager wrote her now-famous diary while hiding from the Nazis during WWII. You walk through the main house’s secret door, hidden behind a bookcase, that leads to the unknown annex where Anne and her family hunkered down. You stand in the actual room where the little girl slept, which still has remnants of the magazine cuttings and posters that she had stuck on the walls. And you can listen to Frank’s personal stories as well as anecdotes from those who knew her.
Anne, who lived in the annex for a total of 761 days, from the age of 13-15, was eventually discovered, along with seven others, by Nazi German and Dutch officials on August 4, 1944. Anne and her sister Margot were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany. In February 1945 they both died of typhus, and their bodies were tossed into a mass grave.
Sure, it’s a tourist trap, and it’s far from a unique thing to do in Amsterdam, but hey, even Justin Bieber stopped by the Anne Frank museum when he was in town. The Biebs’ visit caused outrage after he wrote in the museum guestbook, “Truly inspiring to be able to come here. Anne was a great girl. Hopefully, she would have been a belieber.”
True dat Biebs, true dat….