Amsterdam travel guide: 8 things for first time visitors to do, see and eat
I stepped out of the skinny brown and white hotel nestled in one of the city's outer canal rings, and Amsterdam instantly let me know where I was. Cyclists whizzed past my face, barreling away into the foggy sunset as I quickly stepped further back on to the pedestrian side of the pavement. I clopped along in my serious lace-up boots, rounded a corner, and walked through a slowly emptying street market.
The stallholders were starting to pack up for the night, underneath the shimmering Christmas lights that looked especially otherworldly in the mist, but there were still a few shops left to browse. I took a few more steps, and realized I had seriously under-estimated the cold. Flip, I should have put those legging things on under my jeans. Where did I put that beanie?
A short walk further, a cute red and white trailer caught my eye - a stroopwafel shop! I quickly fished out some Euros and was rewarded with a freshly made, magical dessert and instructed to eat it horizontally or risk losing the syrup. I stood in the purpley fog, munching away happily, barely off the plane and already impressed with Amsterdam.
The Netherlands' capital city can do that to you. It's pretty but interesting, quaint but quirky, modern but classic. If you're planning a trip to the land of canals and clogs, I hope this guide can help you make the most of all the wonderful sights, find some incredible food, and avoid common pitfalls. Let's go!
It's my first time in Amsterdam! What should I expect?
A quirky, busy, historic city filled with bridges, rows upon rows of stacked houses and legions of bicycles. Although central Amsterdam isn't very big (you'll know all the major canals within a day or two) and it's easy to get around it quickly, it is very dense - think tall, skinny buildings with steep staircases and not much excess space in restaurants or hotel rooms. Cramped or cosy; it's up to you to decide.
Amsterdam has a fantastic public transport network, so it is easy to take a tram, bus, or metro pretty much anywhere in the city. If you're more of a wanderer or on a tight budget, don't worry; the city is very flat and walkable, as long as you stay out of the bike lane and don't mess with people on two wheels. The scale in order of importance on the roads seems to be: trams, bikes, pedestrians, then cars.
While Dutch is the official language of the Netherlands, nearly everyone speaks English too and the central areas of Amsterdam are set up for tourists with menus and signage in English or other major languages. Because the city is visited by millions of tourists a year, it can also be a bit of a pickpocket hot spot, especially in areas near major attractions (like the museums or center of town) or the train from the airport. I didn't have any issues, but put a lock on your bag and keep an extra cautious eye on your stuff just in case.
The food in Amsterdam is incredible - from street food finds to fancier restaurants, nearly everything I had was worth writing home about. The traditional Dutch desserts are particularly delicious, but there are also so many vegetarian-friendly restaurants and many entirely vegan cafés that serve healthier options when you've had one too many stroopwafels. Most trendy cafés and breakfast spots have oat/soy/almond milk available, so dairy-free drinks are easy to find too.
Ready to wander around this European beauty? Here are some of ideas on what to do, see and eat on your first trip to Amsterdam!
Visit the Markets:
Amsterdam is home to many markets - they float on the canals, fill up central squares and wind down streets in the city, offering everything from tulips to fresh produce. Here are a few to get you started:
- Albert Cuyp Market: This is the biggest day market in Europe, occupying an entire street in a neighbourhood called De Pijp. It is filled with flowers, clothes, fresh fruit and vegetables, home ware, shoes, and souvenirs, as well as stalls selling local delicacies like stroopwafels (freshly made as you watch) and haring (raw herring served with onion and pickles, which I skipped).
- Ten Kate Market: Located in Amsterdam's Oud West, this is a great spot to pick up some flowers, fresh produce, bread or deli items for your Airbnb or your next snack.
- Foodhallen: Part of the larger hallen network, this indoor market is a maze of street food stalls with local and global influences, with many vegan and vegetarian options available. There is also a pop up makers' market next door, which is held monthly and is an amazing spot for cool gifts, books, clothes, art and home ware from local designers and creatives.
- Bloemenmarkt: Yes okay, maybe you can't do much with a bunch of tulips while on holiday, but this floating flower market is worth a visit anyway. There are flowers in cans, bags of bulbs to take home, packets of seeds, and tons of flowery souvenirs. There is everything from bonsais to strawberries, succulents, and lemon trees, as well as all the tulip things you'll ever need, from multiple varieties and colours of the real life flowers to tulip tote bags, clothing, pens and umbrellas.
- Waterlooplein Market: This flea market, located near the metro station of the same name, offers more alternative stalls selling vintage and boho clothing, shoes, books, jewellery, and antiques, along with souvenirs and food.
Explore the Rijksmuseum:
Amsterdam's iconic Rijksmuseum is a massive collection of priceless art and artefacts, split over multiple floors and gorgeous gallery spaces. The building itself is a major landmark, with the much photographed I Amsterdam sign located behind it.
The Rijksmuseum is the place to find works of Dutch masters, from Van Gogh to Rembrandt, but it also gives visitors insight into the time period they were created and the scale of the Dutch empire. From drawings, to furniture, sculptures, weapons, paintings, jewellery, coins, tapestries and even dioramas, it is an art and history lesson in one.
The building itself is quite confusing (there are multiple wings straddling a central corridor that stretches over a public walk way and road), so be sure to pick up a map if you want to see the exhibitions in chronological order. Otherwise you can just wander around, but seeing the progression of styles and learning about the developments in the particular time period gives the artwork extra weight.
In the winter months, the open fields behind the Rijksmuseum (called "museum plein") host an ice rink and super cute Christmas market, which sells everything from hot chocolate to food and clothing.
Wander around the Neighbourhoods:
The central canal rings (radiating out in semi-circles from the central station) are the most popular part of the city for tourists, and are home to attractions like the Anne Frank House, Red Light District, Madame Tussauds, the royal palace and Dam Square. It's a great area for shopping and seeing the sights, but it can get a little crowded.
Fear not, there are other awesome neighbourhoods that are just a short walk (or tram ride) away. Here are some of my favourites:
- De Pijp: Named for its long streets with rows of packed houses ("pipes"), De Pijp is a quirky, creative neighbourhood with interesting shops and restaurants. There's the Albert Cuyp Market, of course, but also hip cafés, cool home ware stores, colourful eateries and Sarphatipark, if you're in need some green space.
- Jordaan: Located on the fringes of the major canals, the Jordaan district has gained a name for itself with its pretty streets and cool cafés. Snap some photos of the bridges and gorgeous houses on Egelantiersgracht or Prinsengracht, browse the shops on Westerstraat, or stop off to stuff your face with some apple pie at Winkel 43.
- Oud West: Bohemian, multicultural and cool, Oud West is a haven for amazing restaurants (especially vegan and vegetarian-friendly ones) and trendy shops. Head to Kinkerstraat or Jan Evertsenstraat to browse the stores and hunt for interesting gifts to take home. You can stop for an amazing flat white at White Label Coffee, wander around modern Rembrandt Park and feed some ducks, browse Ten Kate market, fill your stomach at Foodhallen, or have a healthy breakfast or lunch at Koala Republic.
Marvel at the Van Gogh Museum:
Located just across the museum plein from the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum offers an incredibly insightful look into Vincent Van Gogh’s life and works. From sketches to paintings, letters to family and friends, and even some of his possessions, it’s a multi-storey escape into the Dutch artist’s world and houses the largest collection of his art.
The museum, which was founded by the artist's nephew, traces the evolution of his inspirations and skills with an array of multimedia and interactive exhibits. You’ll be able to see some of Van Gogh's most famous paintings, from the Potato Eaters to Wheatfield with Crows, Sunflowers, and numerous self portraits.
There are also a number of rotating exhibitions as well as paintings by his artistic friends and those who inspired him, including other celebrated creators such as Claude Monet, so you can see their influence on his development as an artist.
Take a canal cruise:
Want to see Amsterdam in a new way? Catch a canal cruise.
The experience is similar to taking a traditional sightseeing bus, but the perspective is very different than it is from the street. The cruises can cover distances much easier, so you can take an hour-long trip and see highlights from around the central canal belt.
There are a variety of cruises departing from near the central station, ranging from hop-on hop-off rides to a formal tour with audio guides. It's a good way to get orientated with the city, and close to landmarks you may only see from a distance or want to explore more later in your trip.
Shop the Nine Streets:
Hello, rows and rows of cute shops, boutiques, cafés, and gift stores. The 'nine streets' (de 9 straatjes) is the name given to the roads crossing three major canals on the south western edge of Amsterdam's main canal ring, which are simultaneously picturesque and home to many stores selling designer and handmade items.
From clothes to artisan chocolate sprinkles (more on hagelslag later), it's a cute area to walk around and pick up some non-touristy souvenirs for your loved ones (and yourself, of course).
See the Anne Frank House:
One of the most famous spots in Amsterdam is the house where Anne Frank, her family, and family friends hid during World War 2, when the city was under occupation by the Nazis. The house (which was originally a warehouse and office building) has undergone some renovation to accommodate visitors, but the rooms have been restored to their previous state and left empty as a symbol of all that was lost in the war. It's a moving place to walk through, especially if you've read her diary.
The Anne Frank House offers 30 minute introductory sessions that can be booked in addition to the standard visit ticket, which cost a bit extra but are helpful to understand the context of the war, the history of the Frank family and what happened to the people who helped hide them.
The house itself is tiny (the annex where the families hid is even smaller), so the number of people admitted daily is limited. An audio guide is provided on arrival, allowing you to walk around at your own pace without a tour guide, and imagine what it must have been like to hide in such a cramped space with creaky floors while oblivious warehouse workers carried on their tasks below.
Appreciate some Cat Art:
If you're a fan of felines, you'll love this one. It is a museum of cat-themed art. Yep!
Dedicated to the owner's beloved pet, the KattenKabinet (Cat Cabinet) is a treasure trove of cat everything, from art by Picasso and Rembrandt to movie posters, prints, paintings, drawings, ornaments, sculptures, furniture and ceramics featuring the humble felines.
The public museum is located on the first floor of the collector's 17th century home, and is a bit kooky with minimal signage and creaky floors, but it is something different for the cat-lovers out there. There are even resident cats, who come visit from the residential area upstairs and spend their days giving visitors ankle rubs and sleeping on the windowsill in the sun.
If you know any cat fans who would appreciate some snail mail, the gift store also has a fantastic collection of cat-filled post cards and reproductions of the art, as well as other catty posters you can easily pop into a suitcase for your trip home.
What to eat:
- Stroopwafels: Think caramel syrup sandwiched in between thin cinnamony waffles. They're best when fresh, but you can also buy mini stroopwafels in packs at the super market and warm them up by balancing them on the rim of your mug of steaming tea or coffee. (Fear not, vegan versions are available at organic stores like Ekoplaza).
- Oliebollen: These are traditionally a new year's treat, but they're sold in street food stalls and grocery stores long before the 31st. They're fried dough balls (plain or with raisins inside) which are served with icing sugar - the perfect thing to much at a frosty winter market.
- Appel beignets: My absolute favourite Dutch dessert were these apple fritters - they're a cross between a doughnut and mini pies, and are sold at street food stalls and winter markets.
- Apple pie: Crusty outside, soft inside... there's just something different about the way the Dutch make apple pie.
- Hagelslag: These are chocolate sprinkles / vermicelli which are often poured onto buttered bread as a breakfast food. I know it sounds weird, but it's worth a try. There are quite a few varieties of hagelslag, from plain ol' milk chocolate to dark ("puur") and even multi coloured fruit-flavoured ones.
- Dutch pancakes: Thicker than a crepe, bigger than a crumpet, these can be enjoyed sweet or savoury. I particularly loved how pancake spots put icing (powdered) sugar and syrup on the table (like it was salt and pepper) and allowed you to add as much as you wanted to your pancake. Next-level stuff.
- Bitterballen: These round croquettes are traditionally made with meat, but there are also vegetarian versions with cheese and vegan options at places like Vegan Junk Food Bar.
- Rijst tafel: A "rice table" is an assortment of multiple little Indonesian dishes for very hungry people. It evolved after the Dutch empire spread to modern day Indonesia, and seems to have become a favourite since then. The meal is built for sharing and there are usually vegetarian options among the many dishes, but standalone vegetarian versions are also available at restaurants like Sampurna.
- Poffertjes: Mini buckwheat pancakes, served with icing (powdered) sugar and other toppings (like butter).
Where to eat:
- The Breakfast Club: I take my breakfasts seriously, and this place gets it. There are a few of these cool, creative restaurants around town, serving magical things like matcha pancakes and a Mexican-inspired breakfast plate (pictured above).
- Gartine: This is a tiny, gorgeous breakfast, tea and lunch spot with homemade and farm-fresh food and a menu filled with amazing flavour combinations. Think spiced pear juice, cinnamon syrup and mulberry flower pancakes, and farmer's yoghurt with mascarpone and muesli.
- Golden Temple: This Asian fusion vegetarian restaurant has multiple vegan options and beautiful wall murals, great decor and a great vibe. Try the coconut lime curry and try not to weep.
- Dignita: Cloistered away in a mini city park behind the Hermitage Museum, the Hoftuin branch of this restaurant is an airy, cosy space you'll never want to leave. Their incredible menu is vegan and vegetarian friendly - think smashed avo, vegan budda bowls, chickpea and zucchini fritters, and maple glazed pecans.
- Juice Brothers: There are multiple branches of this juice bar, which serves healthy vegan-friendly breakfasts like acai and smoothie bowls, along with yumminess like date balls, chia puddings, raw cheesecakes, and cold brew coffee.
- Meatless District: This trendy, entirely vegan restaurant serves delicious, creative food. If you're visiting over the festive season, grab a spot at their Christmas brunch and enjoy.
- Vegan Junk Food Bar: Super awesome graffiti decor, pink neon signage on the walls, vegan-friendly junk food... what more could you want? Stop off for a burger or the vegan versions of Dutch favourites like bitterballen and kapsalon (loaded fries).
- Koala Republic: This is an amazing vegan-friendly healthy breakfast / brunch / lunch spot. Think acai bowls, falafel waffles, and other dishes designed to get you maximum nutritional value and minimal nonsense.
- SLA: This chain is kind of the Subway of salad bars, but much cooler. You pick your order, and they put together an amazing bowl of colourful, organic food for you to enjoy. They also do soups and warmer dishes, if you're visiting in the winter months and need something hearty.
Amsterdam Travel Tips:
- In Amsterdam, "coffeeshops" don't usually sell coffee... they're for products made from a different kind of plant. Ah hem. If you're looking for the caffeinated beverage, it's sold in cafés, so switch your vocab to avoid giggles from locals.
- Book major tickets online beforehand - a few weeks before your trip, if you can. The Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Anne Frank House are incredibly popular and it's worth planning a bit in order to skip the queue. There are lots of special combos and discounts available if you book online for travel and sightseeing activities in the city, such as the I Amsterdam city card / museum card, so it can work out cheaper too.
- Depending on the length of your visit and how much you plan to use public transport, it may be wise to buy a reusable train/metro/bus/tram card (called an OV-chipkaart) at a machine at the first major station you see and top it up as you go. Buying individual hour / day passes on the tram itself is quite expensive in comparison to loading up a card.
- Make sure you carry some cash on you, even if you want to use a card for payments around Amsterdam. Debit and credit carts (even from major names like Visa and Mastercard) are not accepted at some ticket machines and even grocery stores (like Albert Heijn), so you'll need to use plain old cash. Even then, some smaller stores don't accept cash at all, while others have dedicated cash-only queues you'll need to stand in, so keep an eye out.
- Amsterdam's weather changes super quickly, so pack clothes that can cope with both rain and wind, or pop a mini umbrella in your day pack in case there's an unexpected shower.
- Depending on your budget and how close you want to be to the action, consider staying a bit outside the central canal belt. It is quieter, you get to see more of what it's like to be a local, and it's a very quick trip into town on a tram.
- The red lane is for bikes. Watch out -- they won't stop for you.
- If you're visiting in the winter, be prepared. While I acknowledge I'm not used to serious oh-my-gosh-it's-snowing cold (as I grew up in South Africa and then moved to a desert in the Middle East), Amsterdam's freezing wind is no joke. Pack thermal leggings, multiple layers, beanies and thick socks if you plan to be outdoors a lot.