Amsterdam is one of those major European cities that people know they should visit if given the opportunity, but a concrete reason isn’t necessarily as obvious as it is with, say, London, Paris or Berlin. Yes, there’s the pot. There’s even some history, most notably the Anne Frank House, which requires a special trip in and of itself thanks to lines stretching around the block (you can purchase tickets in advance).
But why else? Why go to Amsterdam? For me, my incentive was the urban design and seeing the cycling culture firsthand. There are two cities in the world people talk about when they talk about preeminent cycling culture. Those cities are Copenhagen and Amsterdam. A trip to the Dutch capital is more than worthwhile to see what a pedestrian, cycling-first culture looks like.
This isn’t a place for cars farting out their poisonous exhaust. There are too many pedestrians and cyclists for that. Indeed, Amsterdam is a place for people, for fresh air, for parks, for centuries-old architecture, narrow canals, and perhaps best of all, bacon cooked inside pancakes.
WHERE TO GO
First off, Amsterdam ain’t cheap. Anecdotally, their lodging is some of the most expensive I’ve ever seen in planning a trip, and you’ll likely hear the same from anyone else who’s ever been.
Oud-Zuid is a southern neighborhood that offers some more affordable alternatives. That’s not to say you’ll be slumming it by any means. To the contrary, I stayed at the citizenM Amsterdam Hotel. Here you’re right next to some fresh green space in Beatrixpark and right off the tram lines of Beethovenstraat. Plus the staff were especially friendly, showing me how to check myself into the hotel, and offering recommendations around town. Surely this beats staying in a cramped one-star joint in the heart of the city just to say you’re sleeping in Amsterdam-Centrum.
Though the tram line is a quick ride into the city center, you should go for a walk if it’s your first time in Amsterdam. I suggest starting at @7 for breakfast where you can get Holland’s legendary pancakes (something between a crepe and a pancake in the States) with bacon cooked inside. One of my few regrets in life is that it took me 30 years to find this manifestation of breakfast bliss.
Oud-Zuid does not even remotely look like what you probably expect out of Amsterdam. Things are much more spread out and modern here with only a smattering of cyclists as opposed to the hordes closer to the heart of town.
After filling up, walk northeast over to Vondelpark for another stroll through some scenic urban nature. The Van Gogh Museum sits nearby here, if you’re so inclined, otherwise continue through to Craft & Draft where you can get all the Dutch craft beer you want without a tourist in sight. Either grab a seat inside or camp out on the patio where things have taken a decidedly urban tour compared to the start of the jaunt by the hotel.
Cross into Grachtengordel over the Singelgracht river to start getting the dense, urban Amsterdam you’ve imagined. This is when the uniformed canals start up in quick succession with the city center nearby.
You’ll also want to keep your head on a swivel because this is also where the roving hoards of cyclists by far outmatch pedestrians. Cars? Forget it. Yes, there are a handful of buffoons driving around here, but it must have been the slowest means of transport. Why anyone would drive in Amsterdam is a mystery to me.
If you want to continue with the craft beer route, then check out Cause Beer Loves Food. Otherwise, hopefully, you’ve already made dinner reservations at Los Pilones — a Mexican restaurant that comes highly recommended by Mexican expatriates in Europe. (I first read about it in Jessica Lipowski’s Flavors Of Life.) The enchilada mole is as about as tasty as Mexican food gets.
Inevitably, this is the most touristic corner. You’ll find your coach buses and lemmings following the colored flag in these corners. Though hardly off the tourist trek, it’s worth the walk at least once. You can expedite your time here by knowing what you want to get out of it. One obvious suggestion would be the Golden Age Cheese Store to stock up on all things gouda, limburger, and everything in between.
Of course, there are plenty of sights to see here (my favorite being the Amsterdam Centraal train station, an overlooked architectural wonder in its own right). To get the full effect of Centrum, I’ll offer the same suggestion I give for seeing any touristy neighborhood — go early in the morning before the tourists come out.
People come to Jordaan, west and adjacent to Centrum, for the Anne Frank House. The word to the wise on this is to plan a trip specifically for visiting the home and museum because the line will be absurdly long if you think you can just trot on up at your leisure. Purchase your ticket in advance, too.
Otherwise, Jordaan offers a much more residential feel than Centrum, especially the further west you go. It’s incredible what a block or two can do for restoring tranquility. Personally, there are more bars here that I’d like to explore at a future date, but in the meantime, I can recommend De Blaffende Vis for a cozy lunchtime sandwich followed by Winkel43 for what’s deservedly known as the best apple pie in town.
De Pijp is one of the neighborhoods you’ll hear about if you do any kind of research for cool neighborhoods before heading to Amsterdam. It’s essentially an island with canals and the Amstel River surrounding it. Your excuse to come here (not that you need one) is Restaurant Mamouche for some Moroccan cuisine. Hands down, it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had in Europe. I went with the Couscous Mechoui, an assortment of grilled meat, vegetables, dates, and almonds. Let’s just say I would’ve become violent if someone tried to take that plate away from me. Coupled with the Middle Eastern decor and ambiance, I left a fan for life.
Have I mentioned how stupid it would be to take a car here already? Well, if you’ve scrolled ahead, allow me to reiterate. Driving here is dumb. Real dumb. Like, slam-your-head-against-a-wall-to-nurse-a-headache-dumb. Amsterdam is a major transportation hub, so it’s easily accessible by high-speed rail if you’re coming from Europe. Your next step after arriving (same goes for air travelers) is to purchase an I amsterdam transit card from the Amsterdam tourist board. Whatever card you get — a weekend pass, perhaps — will no doubt save you money and possible frustration trying to figure out a new system to purchase a transit ticket.
Cycling is the obvious option for getting around town, but I will admit to feeling a bit hesitant about getting on a bike. I’ve cycled the Tour Of Flanders (twice), across central Switzerland, and around Tenerife, but those feats of personal accomplishment don’t stand up to cycling in Amsterdam. I imagine it’s great for the locals. They know how their two-wheeled take on the East Australian Current works. I, on the other hand, was fine walking my first time in town.
Again, not off the tourist trek, but I would like to visit the Anne Frank House at some point in my life. Afterward, I’d want to head right back off the tourist trek by exploring some additional neighborhoods and more of the restaurants in Jessica’s book.
BEFORE YOU GO
On that note, I highly recommend reading Jessica’s Flavors Of Life before a trip to Amsterdam. Each chapter is about a different immigrant family and their story of opening a restaurant. It’s a different way to see (and prepare for) the city, rather than speed reading through all the main attractions in a guidebook.