I’ve been to Amsterdam a couple of times, once for an extended period to do research for an interesting work project, and another to walk the streets with a friend, take a dinner cruise and rent a bicycle to join the locals cycling alongside the canal. It is a unique and fun city that is famous for many different things and has cultural and historical layers that make it feel instantly familiar, yet begs for discovery.
This is a beginner’s guide to the city of Amsterdam and why I long to return there one day.
Amsterdam, is a city that never fails to delight
Amsterdam is a city that impresses with sights, sounds, and aromas that speak to all the senses. A place known for the liberal ‘anything goes’ mentality, one that isn’t afraid to push boundaries. Yet there’s so much to do there beyond visiting the clubs and bars that have for decades drawn curious revellers. Amsterdam has all of the historical, cultural and attractions that you would expect from any major European capital, yet retains an unmistakable identity and charm.
An attractive city, it feels more like a village with many pedestrianised streets and about 58% of the population of residents cycling everywhere. Be warned that at first it can be difficult to dodge the bikes and work out the lane systems and you may get shouted at by a local for blocking the route, but cycling means fewer cars and a much more charming ambience. Adding the carefully planned urban wonder, there are many parks that you can stroll in.
Vondelpark is the biggest and most famous of these and has bars, restaurants and regular concert events. Outside of the city and a little to the West, you will find Westerpark where locals spend hours hanging out on the grass beside the canals and where can hire a boat.
Canals, Museums and Cafes
There are 165 canals protected in a UNESCO canal ring, and more bridges than Venice, so seeing Amsterdam by boat is a really special experience and offers a completely unique perspective of the city, a chance to gaze out at the crooked architecture and people watch from the water as tourists and locals drink and eat at canal-side cafes.
If it is museums and art that you seek, the Museum Quarter should be your priority. There you can find a world-class line-up of galleries, including the famous Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk and the Van Gogh Museum, which houses over 1000 artefacts from the artist.
For the gourmands and foodies
Amsterdam has a lot of options for the gourmands and foodies who travel to eat fine food. It’s quite difficult to find Dutch food in the actual centre as most of the restaurants are aimed at tourists wanting a familiar-looking meal or burger, so make your way to the newly refurbished De Halen food hall for upmarket street food that the locals themselves are eating. As such an international city, you will also find Asian, Indian, Cantonese, Italian and many different types of cuisine here.
For the Shoppers and Experience Collectors
If shopping is your thing, Amsterdam is known for its upmarket boutique-style stores, huge shopping malls and quaint little markets. De Negen Straatjes (the nine streets) are full of tiny boutique stores, while De Bijenkorf and De Kalvertoren are among Amsterdam’s largest department stores. Check out the floating flower market, flea markets and the famous Albert Cuypmarkt. If the weather is right you can spend much of your day strolling, cycling or boating between them.
There are plenty of tour options, from basic bus-style boats to luxury private cruises, but if you prefer to stay in control of your time then boat hire is the way to go – you have the freedom to go wherever you want and even to moor up for breaks at your favourite spots. Pedalos and rowing boats are available too.
For the Night Revellers and Luck Seekers
There is of course no denying that the nightlife in Amsterdam is exciting and what a lot of people go there for. There’s a huge selection of bars and clubs to keep you entertained, as well as the laid back coffee shops and established cafe culture. It’s not unusual to see tourists and locals alike relaxing outside with a drink by day, and as night falls the atmosphere and party steps up a notch. I had to see the Red Light District on my visits. Really something that can’t quite be imagined. Contrary to what you might think, the area is populated with all kinds of people and tourists and not at all dingy.
Amsterdam also has a fairly decent selection of casinos, though many offer mostly video machines. The largest casino is the Holland Casino, where the game selection is greater. The city also plays host to major international poker tournaments like the EPT and WPT, and Dutch poker player Fatima Moreira de Melo has hosted a PokerStars VIP club event in the city.
The Quintessential Dutch Charm
The village charm of Amsterdam is not the only reason you need to visit this beautiful city. When there talk to the friendly locals, try out a bit of Dutch – which is very similar to Afrikaans, and take at least one trip a day to a museum, art gallery or park. Don’t miss out on the true spirit of the city. I know that I managed a good balance of exploration that has left a deep impression on me and very happy memories and I will always recommend it as a choice European destination.