With its famed tolerance of soft drugs and prostitution, Amsterdam’s hedonistic aspects have often eclipsed its homely charms, cultural treasures and ‘normal’ nightlife. Richard Tulloch takes a look at the whole picture…

Lose yourself in a canal maze. Window-shop where live merchandise is lit with red neon, or duck into a smoky little ‘coffeeshop’ selling substances not available over the counter elsewhere. If you think you’re a bit above all that, visit great art museums… and of course take your chances with the traffic and trams on a bike.

Those who didn’t enjoy (or barely remember) a trip to Amsterdam tell of drug-hazed weekends in seedy red light district hotels shared with British rugby teams on post-season booze-ups. Those who loved it pedalled round quiet streets, ate on a café terrace by a leafy canal, picnicked in the park, heard great jazz and marvelled at the most beautiful paintings in the world.

Amsterdam city breaks
The ubiquitous boats and bikes

First-timers are surprised to learn Amsterdam is so small. The world famous capital has less than 800,000 residents and a compact city centre you can cycle right around in a couple of hours – making it pretty much the perfect size for a city break.

Amsterdam looks casual, but it is very organised. If you haven’t yet mastered the Dutch language, don’t worry. Everyone you meet will speak English (and probably French, German and Italian) better than you do, and will remind you of this while casually organising you – ‘Plis moof to de middel off de trem!’, ‘Dat iss de bike path you are stending on!’

Best of the Beaten Track

The big three ‘must sees’ are the Rijksmuseum (Rembrandt, Vermeer) the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House. Queues can be excessively long, particularly during mid-morning and at holiday times, and the savvy travellers would be wise to invest in skip the line tickets where possible (hint: click on Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum to reserve yours via GetYourGuide). And just because they’re ‘must sees’ doesn’t mean you must see them; Amsterdam has plenty more on offer if time is too short to tick all the typical boxes.

Travel guide to Amsterdam
Park life in autumn

A rondvaart (round trip) in a glass-topped canal boat looks like a clichéd introduction to the city, and it is, but it’s also well done and prices start at just 15 euros for a 75 minute cruise. More options here.

The Waterlooplein flea-market is high on many people’s lists, but for me it’s now overrated, selling the same imported junk you can find anywhere in the world. The city has better markets in the Noordermarkt and Albert Cuyp Street.

The famous and beautiful Vondelpark is usually busy, with free concerts in the open air theatre in the summer, a good selection of al fresco cafés and always something going on.

Tip: An Amsterdam Card gives you up to three days of free public transport and free entry to most – but not all – museums. It also includes a canal cruise, and plenty of discounts. If you’re staying longer or plan on walking or cycling rather than using trams and buses, a 60 euros Museumkaart (Museum Card), valid for one year, may be even better value. It gives unlimited entry to most museums in the country and saves you the queuing.

Hipster’s Guide

For the best cheap lunch with a view, go to the public library (OBA), close to Centraal Station. The library? On holidays? Are you kidding?? But this is a state of the art facility with superb architecture, free internet access on their computers or your laptop, and up-to-date world newspapers. La Place cafe on the seventh floor has a decent smorgasbord lunch and a bird’s eye balcony view.

Then pop in next door to the Music Conservatorium. Classical and jazz are their specialties, lunchtime concerts are free and the students from around the world are prodigiously talented. At night, the Bimhuis in the nearby Muziekgebouw is the place to go for jazz.

Amsterdam cafes, bars, restaurants and nightlife
Koffie with appeltaart

The Jordaan area used to be a crowded slum but is now trendy, with excellent growers’ and bric-a-brac markets on the Noordermarkt and Lindengracht on Saturdays, and a clothing and textile market on the Westerstraat every Monday.

Café Winkel on the corner of the Noordermarkt and Westerstraat consistently wins the award for best Dutch ‘appeltaart’ (apple cake) in town. They queue around the corner for it on market days. It’s traditionally taken with ‘koffie’, a popular Dutch drink which IMHO bears little relation to ‘coffee’, and none to real Italian ‘caffee’.

Best alternative Amsterdam museum – the Tassenmuseum (Museum of Handbags). No, really. If you’re not into fashion accessories, there’s a pleasant cafe and garden. Take a book; your companion may be some time.

Finally serious hipsters should check out our article on the resurgent district of North Amsterdam.

Experience & Events

Amsterdam’s trams are fast, frequent and efficient, but if you have functioning legs and any sense of balance, rent a bike. They’re cheap (10-15 euros a day) and safe (car-free cycle paths everywhere). Guided bike tours of the city are popular, but you can easily ride on your own. If you’ve got a free day to ride out into the countryside, it takes just 20 minutes to reach the green fields and picture postcard villages of Waterland, north of the city. Ask your bike hire place or hotel reception for a map.

Amsterdam travel tips
A jam in the ‘Dam

De Parade travelling festival in August features weird, wonderful and short music, theatre and dance performances in an old-fashioned fairground tent setting.

For the best in world music, there’s the Amsterdam Roots Festival in June and the Caribbean-inspired Kwakoe Festival in July and August.

Beer lovers wise enough to eschew the Heineken experience can opt instead for The Original Amsterdam Beer Tour, to discover three of the best breweries and bars in town.

If you’re curious to find out more about the Red Light District then this needn’t (necessarily) involve dropping your trousers. The Prostitute Information Centre or ‘PIC’ is run by ex-sex workers and they offer a weekly tour of the Red Light zone on Saturdays at 5pm (click the link to find out what happened when Urban Travel Blog went!). Otherwise this two hour walking tour has great reviews.

Pillow Talk

When in Amsterdam why not try the houseboat experience? Stay at water level and see the world slosh past your bedroom window. Some Dammers actually live this way! If you prefer canalside to actual canal, then the ‘t Hotel comes highly recommended at around 139 euros for a double, whilst for something chic and basic, why not opt for the trendy and affordable, not to mention appropriately-named, Chic and Basic Hotel. Backpackers need look no further than the stylish Cocomama. Some 80s Playboy pics in one of the dorms allude to the house’s former occupation as Amsterdam’s number one brothel, but these days the naughtiest thing that might happen in this well-renovated digs is smoking a joint with fellow travellers in the spacious garden.

To filter over 2000 hotels and find the perfect one for you, try Hotelscombined.com.

Fork Out

Traditional Dutch cuisine is stodgy; heavy soups and ‘stampot’, mashed carrot and potatoes with chunks of fatty sausage; perfect comfort food on a drizzly day when you’ve been out in your clogs, shovelling cowpats onto the tulips, but it’s not five star restaurant fare. For that you might want to try Lastage, on the Geldersekade near Centraal Station. Amsterdam food guru (and very hard marker) Johannes van Dam gave it 9.5/10. Indonesian food used to be popular, but it’s been passed in quality by the Suriname, Turkish and Moroccan establishments. Bazar is a big brassy Moroccan in the middle of the multicultural Albert Cuyp market and as good a place as any to sample the multicultural tastes of the Dutch capital. Amsterdam’s ‘eetcafes’ (eating cafes) are often better value than restaurants and have an authentic local atmosphere and clientele. Usually there’s a limited but classy menu, with vegetarian options. Try Gent aan de Schinkel or Café Amsterdam.

weekend guide to Amsterdam
It gets busier later, at Cafe Amsterdam

Drop In

Most first time visitors to Amsterdam are inevitably drawn to the plethora of bars and coffeeshops around the Red Light District, which is of course a mistake as you’re more likely to find yourself hanging out with a British stag party or wide-eyed American backpackers than any locals. Areas like De Pijp and Jordaan offer a much more authentic vibe and you can always pick up tips from the drinkers at the likes of Kingfisher bar (in De Pijp) or Struik (in Jordaan) on where to continue your pub crawl. For dancing head to Leidseplein (Leidse square) where a clutter of big clubs like Sugar Factory (their Sunday parties aka ‘Wicked Jazz’ are legendary), Melkweg, Paradiso and Jimmy Woo can be found. The latter is the posh hang out of Ajax players and other poseurs and pouters.

Amsterdam nightlife, bars and clubs
Standing pretty in the club

For more inspiration read what happened when our Editor went exploring the Amsterdam nightlife for himself!

Getting There & Around

Easyjet flies to Amsterdam from London (Gatwick and Luton), Edinburgh, Rome, Barcelona and Geneva. Book early for the best deals. Whilst for flights to Amsterdam from the US the comparison sites can serve up some good options. The train from Schiphol Airport to Centraal Station takes about 20 minutes, or if you prefer a private pick up then get in touch with Book Taxi Amsterdam. The Thalys train from Paris Nord is now 3hrs 18min, faster (door to door) than a plane. Arriving from elsewhere in Holland is extremely easy, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a city that’s more than 1.5 hour train ride away from the capital. Rotterdam is just 40 minutes away for example and we’ve also got plenty of advice for a weekend break in the Netherland’s second biggest city.

More Juice

For a general summary of attractions, see www.amsterdam.info. For ‘real people’s’ restaurant recommendations, see the Facebook page Great Little Place Amsterdam. For some fun food and fashion tips check out funky lifestyle blog, Your Little Black Book.

Hard Copy

City Pick Amsterdam (Oxygen Books Ltd. 2010) has entertaining snippets of writing (mostly translations from Dutch writers) and gives a good feel of the place in all its aspects. Amsterdam: The Brief Life of a City by Geert Mak – the definitive work by the city’s best-known historian.

Silver Screen

Oceans 12 is hardly the thinking man’s choice of cinema, so how about checking out Amsterdamned, The Girl With The Pearl Earring or the excellent Black Book, directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Carice Van Houten (aka the crazy “Red Woman” priestess from Game of Thrones!).

Soundtrack to the City

Jacques Brel – Dans le port d’Amsterdam
Coldplay – Amsterdam
Peter, Bjorn and John – Amsterdam
Joni Mitchell – Carey
Tante Leen & Johnny Jordaan – Potpourri
Wim Sonneveld – Aan de Amsterdamse Grachten (On the Amsterdam canals)

City Map


View Amsterdam City Guide in a larger map

Video Inspiration

Naturally the Dutch capital made our shortlist of best LGBT breaks in Europe, and you’ll find some specific tips for gay travellers in that article. For more general reading you can find all our Amsterdam stories here. And finally a tough message from the local police if you intend on overdoing it.

18 thoughts on “Long Weekend: Amsterdam

  1. Very nice guide, Richard! Amsterdam is often synonymous with drugs and excess. Actually there is always something new and amazing to do in the city… It’s been two months since I live here and I’m totally excited about all the cultural activities and great exhibitions available around the town… 🙂

  2. Hello there, just became aware of your blog through
    Google, and found that it is really informative.
    I am going to watch out for Brussels next.

  3. Heya thanks a Mill for this. I’ve been 5 times and wish I read this sooner! Will be going again in October and plan Take in lot of the recommendations. 🙂

  4. Love the blog! It’s really detailed, informative and inspirational. I am living in Amsterdam and Club Trouw has closed it’s doors. So maybe you can adjust it in your guide. Keep up the good work 🙂 Atilla

    1. Hey Atilla thanks for the heads up about Trouw… shame that it’s closed! I will ask Richard (author of this guide) if he knows a good replacement, but if you are a clubber maybe you can recommend something great… something authentic like Trouw!?

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