10 Things to Know Before You Go to Amsterdam
Amsterdam often evokes thoughts of a red light district, coffee houses famous for substances other than coffee and a sea of blue uniforms passing through Schiphol Airport (AMS). Yet there's so much more to this fascinating city. Here are nine of my favorite things — and the top nine reasons I'm itching to move back! — along with one thing to be careful with if you're planning a trip to this vibrant European capital.
1. Bring on the Beer
While Heineken, Amstel and Grolsch are synonymous with Amsterdam — and I'd highly recommend the Heineken Experience to anyone visiting the city — beer lovers would be remiss to forgo a visit to some of the city's smaller craft brewers and microbreweries. Brouwerij 't IJ and Brouwerij de Prael both offer tours, tastings and great food to boot. I particularly enjoy the tastings at de Prael and the views over the canals from 't IJ pair perfectly with their organic brews. A 15-minute train trip from Amsterdam will take you to Haarlem, where you'll find two more of my favorites. Jopen Beer is brewed at Jopenkerk, which is well worth a visit just to see the architecture of this former church that has found new life as a brewery and café. Brouwerij 't Uiltje ("the Little Owl") is also in Haarlem and at only five years old, it's very much a newcomer on the craft beer scene but is quickly making a name for itself with tasty seasonal brews and one-offs.
2. Feast on Some Bitterballen
These little pieces of fried goodness perfectly complement any beer you happen to be enjoying in Amsterdam. Tourists often overlook them or even purposely steer clear and they're often mistranslated on menus as "bitter balls," so it's easy to understand why one might hesitate to order them. But fear not: Bitterballen are essentially croquette-like balls of chunky beef or veal roux that have been rolled in flour and fried. They're almost always served with mustard and are, in my humble opinion, the pinnacle of Dutch cuisine. Make sure you order a plate next time you're in town — you'll find them in pretty much any bar or restaurant.
3. Pick Up An OV Chipkaart
Getting around Amsterdam (and indeed the Netherlands) is easy as pie. When you get to Schiphol, pick up an OV Chipkaart, or chip card. You can load it up with cash and use it for all of your public transportation in the Netherlands, including buses, trams, subways and trains. It works in every city across the country and is one of the most seamless payment systems you'll find anywhere in the world. You can also buy individual tickets, which tourists usually do without realizing there's a much more efficient and cheaper alternative. (Fares are lower when you use a Chipkaart.) Pick a Chipkaart up when you arrive or even order one before you go.
4. Try the Indonesian Food
When you think of food in Amsterdam, you probably conjure up images of beer and space cakes. Dutch cuisine is in fact far more varied, and thanks to the Netherlands' colonial history in Southeast Asia, Indonesian food is an integral part of the Dutch culinary scene. Rijstaffel ("rice table") is the most common way to go about it, and my personal favorite. This is a meal where the price is fixed per head, and it involves lots of little plates being spread out on the table along with a heaping, steaming bowl of rice. It's a great way to try a little bit of everything and perfect for sharing with a group of friends. Kantjil & de Tijger (Spuistraat 291-293) and Puri Mas (Lange Leidsedwaarstraat 37-41) are my go-to places.
5. Celebrate Koningsdag (King's Day) With the Locals
This is the national holiday in the Netherlands, and it's a party like no other. If you're planning a trip to Amsterdam, make it late-April. King's Day is typically celebrated on April 27 (or the 26th if the 27th falls on a Sunday), so you'll not only bear witness to a national holiday but also be there during peak tulip season — two for one! Parades of boats come down the canals with happy revelers all decked in orange, the national color; vrijmarkten (literally "free markets" but meaning flea markets) pop up all over the country, where people sell the goods that they've cleaned out during their spring cleaning. Of course, there are outdoor concerts and parties throughout Amsterdam; the largest concert is held on Museumplein in the city center, which is closed to automobile traffic for the day, making it easier to walk around and enjoy the festivities. It's a great day to be in Amsterdam, and a unique, orange spectacle that you won't see anywhere else.
6. See the City on Two Wheels
As a tourist, one tends to stick to public transportation, walking and awkwardly trying to decipher maps on street corners. Leave all that behind you in Amsterdam and jump on a bike, the most popular form of transportation in the city: According to official figures, there are more than one million bikes in this city of under 800,000 people, and close to 13,000 of them have to be retrieved from the canals every year. (So be careful where you park!) Many hotels have their own fleet of bikes that they're happy to rent to visitors, and if yours isn't one of them, note that there are both public bike-share programs (also accessible with the OV Chipkaart), and private agencies to rent from. I've had friends visiting rent from Discount Bike Rental, and they always had good experiences with them.
7. Stop by the Begijnhof
This little-known courtyard right in the middle of the city is a respite from the relative hustle and bustle of the city that surrounds it. The Begijnhof was originally a kind of nunnery — the Begijntjes lived like nuns but took no official vows — and today the houses within the Begijnhof are still set aside as homes for young, single women. It's a great place to marvel at archetypal Dutch architecture and take in a little history.
8. Visit During Sail Amsterdam
SAIL Amsterdam is an event that only occurs once every five years (the next will be in 2020), and it is unlike anything you'll see anywhere else in the world. In 2015, more 8,000 ships sailed through Amsterdam's harbor, continuing a tradition that began in 1975 to celebrate the city's 700th birthday. The weeklong event is a must for sailing aficionados and history buffs alike — the oldest ship in the flotilla in 2015 dated back to 1881, and there were replicas of ships that dated back as far as the 16th century.
9. Pick a Museum, Any Museum
Amsterdam is home to more than 75 museums — some of which are globally famous, like the Rijksmuseum and the Anne Frank Haus — and a ton of others that are lesser-known but no less interesting, like the National Maritime Museum (or NEMO), a science-and-technology museum that's almost entirely hands-on and a crowd-pleaser for kids and adults alike. There are museums for those who like to drink — the Heineken Experience that I mentioned above is very popular but also very crowded. Instead, I highly recommend the Bols Experience, at the House of Bols, a genever distillery. The tour is informative and interactive (you can mix your own cocktail) and the groups tend to be small, making for a more intimate experience than you'd have at Heineken. There are also museums geared toward specific interests, like the Houseboat Museum. For those who are in town to enjoy Amsterdam's more adult offerings, there's the Erotic Museum and even a Hemp, Hash & Marijuana Museum. You'll be spoiled for choice when it comes to museums in Amsterdam, so do a little homework before you go to avoid being overwhelmed on arrival.
10. Pay Attention at the Train Station
Thanks to Amsterdam Centraal's unique design, there are three tracks among the platforms instead of the usual two, and they're all linked. This means that there can be two trains leaving from Track 10 going to completely different places. Make sure you pay close attention to what track and section your train is leaving from, e.g., Track 10a, or Track 9b. All too often, visitors (or even residents in a hurry, like yours truly) fail to pay attention to this small but vital detail, and end up at the opposite end of the country in no time.
What are your favorite things to do in Amsterdam? Let us know!