Amsterdam: Netherland’s capital and the real city of canals

While traveling through Germany, my friend and I decided to pop over to the neighboring Netherlands. We both wanted to visit Amsterdam, known for its beautiful canals, flowers, and museums, among other things. We were really excited to explore this capital. Below are some highlights from our trip:

What to Do:

Canal tour. Amsterdam has a lot of canals (more than Venice), and a good way to learn some history about the city and to see important buildings from the water is via a canal tour. There are several large companies that run these tours multiple times throughout the day. The tour routes are similar, and the cost is comparable between the companies so choosing one over the other is not likely to make a huge difference. These companies offer several tours, including food tours, wine tours, evening tours and hop on hop off tours. We chose to do the basic one hour day tour. This was the least expensive one, and it provided us with some fundamental knowledge of the city. This guided tour is really an audio guide with headphones that allow visitors to choose their preferred language. The boats are covered so tours can still run in rainy weather. Visitors can choose longer tours that cover a bit more area, but the basic one will cover the highlights. I recommend taking a canal tour at the beginning of the trip in order to learn some information about the city.

Anne Frank House. This historic building has been turned into a museum about Anne Frank, her family, and the others who were in hiding in this building during WWII. It is a very sobering and informative look at some of the effects of that war. And it brings Anne Frank’s diary to life for those who have read her book. This museum exhibition is well laid out and accompanied by an audio guide that takes visitors through the building on a set route. Since the building is limited in size, there is a cap on the number of people allowed in at one time. Despite this limit, it is still very crowded inside as everyone is following the same audio guide and same route. Be prepared to stand in lines and wait to get into the next room. Also, make sure to purchase a ticket with a time slot ahead of time on the museum’s official website because tickets do sell out. Visitors can purchase tickets at the building, but they have to wait in line for tickets to go on sale in the afternoon (around 2:00 or 3:00), and they have to purchase tickets for the same day. People start lining up to purchase tickets much earlier than when they go on sale because there is only a limited number. Waiting in line is not a guarantee of getting a ticket and is not the most effective use of time so book online, if possible. This is a museum that visitors will not want to miss because of its uniqueness and historical importance. This is a must visit for everyone. Plan to spend two hours to do the full tour.

Van Gogh Museum. In my opinion, this is the second must see museum in the city. This museum has the world’s largest collection of works by Vincent Van Gogh. And as expected, his artwork is stunning in person. Seeing some of his masterpieces, such as The Potato Eaters, Irises, and Sunflowers, up close is amazing. The museum is well laid out and does not require a guided tour. We came here on our own and walked around for about two hours taking everything in. This is a must visit for art lovers.

Rijksmuseum. This museum is the largest art museum in the country and exhibits Dutch art and history from the Middle Ages onward. The museum’s collection includes work by prominent Dutch artists, such as Rembrandt and Vermeer. This place is supposed to be another must visit for art lovers. As I only had time to visit one art museum, I chose Van Gogh, but I would definitely visit this museum on a return trip. When I walked by here, there were long lines to purchase tickets and to get in so I would recommend buying tickets online ahead of time. There was a separate line for those who had already purchased their tickets. Plan to spend 2 hours here.

Coffee shops. Amsterdam is known for its coffee shops, which are all over the city. Each shop has its own unique atmosphere so visitors should try a couple of different ones. Although visiting one of these shops has turned into a must do, these shops mainly cater to tourists now so I recommend visitors not spend all their time here. However, these shops are a great way to spend a couple of hours, especially if it is raining outside. These shops are a nice place to grab a coffee and a smoke. Visitors who do not smoke, may still want to stop into one to grab a peek and a quick drink. There are several more well known shops, such as Dampkring, but these are always crowded so visitors should be prepared to stand and wait. And those who do not smoke, should plan to just grab a peek and move on to make room for visitors who will be smoking. The coffee shop that we liked on our visit was Abraxas. This one is not the most well known, but it is still popular. When we went it was crowded, but it does have an upstairs seating area where we were able to find seating with another group. The staff was nice, and the vibe was relaxed and not too touristy in the sense that there were no large tourist groups or lots of pictures being taken, which I did see happening at Dampkring. For visitors who want to stay away from the crowds, the smaller lesser known coffee shops are also a nice option for those who just want to relax, have a smoke and coffee, and are not trying to post something to Instagram. We ducked into one of these during a rainy period and enjoyed the no pressure atmosphere. Visitors should plan to spend 1-2 hours at these shops.

Red light district. Amsterdam is also known for this infamous district. While visitors can take a walk through this district, I do not think this is a must do. This area, known for its windows displaying women, will definitely be considered exploitative by many. Visitors who come to the area do have to show some respect. They are not allowed to take pictures and are now being encouraged not to look out of respect. For those who absolutely must visit here, I recommend taking a tour that includes this area so that a local who is more knowledgeable can provide the pertinent information.

Windmills. The Netherlands are known for windmills as well. Unfortunately, I did not have time to visit one of these as the majority are not located in Amsterdam. I believe there are 1 or 2 located in the city, but we did not come across any during our walks through the city and did not seek any out. I think the more well known and visited windmills are located slightly outside of the city. I did see advertisements for several day tours that take visitors to the windmills, a wooden shoe shop and a cheese factory (all of the stereotypes associated with the Dutch). I think these could be interesting cultural tours to take and would consider taking one on a return trip. The other option would be for visitors to rent a car or book their own transit (separate from a tour) to specific windmills they are interested in seeing. To see the windmills plan to spend half a day with travel.

Shopping:

There are multiple cheese shops located throughout Amsterdam, and I highly recommend stopping in one and purchasing some cheese. These shops have lots of samples out so visitors can try most of their best selling cheeses along with some accompaniments. As expected, the cheeses are really good. There is an assortment of traditional cheeses and blends, such as wasabi, pesto, or truffle, that are unique and delicious. Definitely buy a couple to take back home. And definitely sample all of them!

Amsterdam also has a huge flower market and a Tulip Museum. Both sell flower bulbs for beautiful and unique tulips, which are highly associated with the city. For those who decide to purchase some bulbs, be sure to buy the kind that can be imported into the return country so that they are not confiscated at customs. The sellers will know which ones are okay to take back to which countries. These flowers would make beautiful additions to any garden back home or great gifts for someone who has a green thumb.

What to Eat:

This city has some great snack and street food. One thing I recommend ordering at a pub is bitterballen, which is a fried meatball. This snack goes perfectly with a Belgian beer. The beer we enjoyed the most was Gulden Draak, which is fermented with wine yeast and has a caramel-y taste. Another sweet must try in this city is a stroopwafel, which is a desert of a sweet caramel syrup sandwiched between two thin waffles. This tasty desert can be found in street carts or bakeries. When by the street carts, also try thick dutch fries, which are served hot in a paper cone and topped with a choice of ketchup, mayo, onion, satay peanut sauce, or other options. This is perfect snack to eat on the go while walking around the city. The last thing I would recommend trying from the street carts is raw herring, which can be served on a sandwich with pickles and onions. We saw these being sold in several locations but did not get one to try. However, I think I would try one on a return trip as this is supposed to be a specialty of the city

Where to Stay:

Try to stay near the city center. We ended up staying in a hotel that was not near the center but that was supposed to have transport to the center. It did have transport, but the times were not as frequent or convenient as we would have liked, and the hotel was not located close to public transport either. We had to walk about 25 minutes to get to the closest metro so it was not convenient. It would have been worth it to pay a little more to stay in an Airbnb located in the city center where we could just walk everywhere.

Getting Around:

We arrived to Amsterdam by train from Tilburg, where we had stopped overnight from Germany. The train from Tilburg took about 1.5 hours. We took the train because it was the only way to get to Amsterdam, and the cost was not expensive. Once at the main station in Amsterdam, we were able to transfer to the metro to go to our hotel. As mentioned above, our hotel location was not too convenient so we took the metro to get back and forth from the main station, which is located in the center of the city. The public transportation is linked to Google maps, which was convenient to find our way around. Tickets for the train and metro can be bought inside the stations but not all of the machines take credit cards so have some cash on hand just in case. While visitors can hop on the metro without a ticket, there is a risk of incurring a large fine if caught. While we were riding the metro, we saw ticket checkers come by frequently (almost on every ride we were on) so definitely do not take the risk and buy a ticket. Once in the central part of the city, it is easy to walk around or to bike around. There are tons of bicyclists in this city, which has bike lanes everywhere. When we departed Amsterdam, we left by plane. One of the public transportation stops is located by the airport. The day I left, my hotel offered me a complimentary ride to the central station so I could store my luggage there for a small fee and walk around the city (because I had a night flight). When I left the city, I picked up my luggage and took the metro from the main station to the airport.

Overall:

I had a great time in Amsterdam, and my trip served as a great introduction to the city. We were only here for two days, and while we did see and do a lot, I would recommend visitors stay at least four days to see all of the highlights of the city and to be able to take a trip outside of the city. We were also here in October so the weather was not the best. It was cold and rainy the whole time. I would love to come back here in the spring, when all the flowers are in bloom, or in the summer, when the weather is really nice. Visitors may want to plan their trip around the seasons. I definitely hope to come back to this city at some point. Amsterdam is for travelers who enjoy art and culture in an active outdoor city.

Additional Tip:

For those travelers planning to go the Anne Frank House, I recommend reading The Diary of Anne Frank. Even those who have read it previously, should reread it if it has been a while. Reading the diary beforehand will give visitors a greater appreciation of the house. The book is a quick read and documents Anne’s time spent hiding in the house with her family for two years during World War II. The effects of reading the book and visiting the place where it was written are very sobering and will definitely leave an impression.

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