Amsterdam. That’s the capital of The Netherlands, right? And The Netherlands are where again? Near Holland, right? Just kidding. More like in Holland. This European country goes by both names.
So what do you call the people? Netherlanders? Nope. Hollish? Nope. Dutch. Weird, huh? This weird country in the heart of Europe is home to one of the wackiest, weirdest, wildest, most wonderful cities on earth: Amsterdam.
A historical yet progressive city with a rich cultural legacy is also one of the most visited cities on the planet, attracting over twenty million tourists annually. Despite all that, Amsterdam is quite small. Neighborhoods practically have one foot in each other at all times. That’s a joke, but this whimsical city is very easy to wander.
Before you get lost, best to explore some of the history of Amsterdam.
A Short Summary Of A Long History
Local Farmers inhabited the region now known as Amsterdam as far back as three millenia ago. But the city itself was not officially developed until the twelfth century, in response to the All Saints Flood of 1170. Amsterdam gained ‘city rights’ in the early thirteen hundreds.
The high point – no pun intended – for Amsterdam was in the seventeenth century. This period is considered its golden age, when it stood atop the list of world’s wealthiest cities. There was a decline in the eighteenth century and during World War II, Amsterdam was occupied by the Nazis, after remaining neutral in the First World War.
Today, Amsterdam has been revitalized by tourism, driving prices higher.
Though Amsterdam is known by a variety of disparate nicknames, from ‘The Dam’ to “Venice Of The North”, the official name, Amsterdam, derives from the Dutch language. ‘Am’, for river, and ‘stelle’, meaning river bank. The Canals of Amsterdam are one of the city’s main attractions.
Why Would You Want To Go To Amsterdam?
Amstel Beer! And Heineken! The Heineken factory is in Amsterdam and you can go on a tour, as you will learn a little later in the things to do section.
Beer is not the only reason to visit Amsterdam. The canals are beautiful and historic. The Museum district is uncontestedly one of the most distinctive in the world. The architecture is classical and easy to admire.
Amsterdam is a waterfront metropolis, which can provide spectacular views. It’s also a very walkable city. In addition, The Dutch have a unique and delicious cuisine, starting with roast beef and ending with pancakes, two things they get really right in Amsterdam.
And don’t forget the Dutch cheese! It’s better than good, it’s gouda! Besides the gouda, Holland is known for the tulips, which bloom in vibrant and diverse colors all across the country. And what’s even better than the cheese? The nightlife!
It would be irresponsible not to mention one aspect of the night (and day) life in Amsterdam. The cannabis cafes and the redlight district, home to a very unusual kind of window shopping. Oddly enough, despite all the cannabis cafes, nobody calls it the ‘green light’ district. Probably because the cafes are found all over the city.
PRO TIP! If it’s a cup of coffee you want, don’t ask the locals ‘Do you know where the nearest coffee shop is?’ (although the cannabis cafes usually have coffee too). They’ll think you want something else. Phrase it as ‘Where can I get a good cup of coffee?’. It’s just semantics, but it makes a big difference here. So no reason to be anti-semantic.
The cannabis coffee shops have been around since the late seventies; the redlight district even longer. Signs of the progressive mindset of the Dutch and probably one of the only examples in the world where the authorities looked at the facts and said ‘Hey, people are gonna do this stuff, it’s gonna happen, so let’s make it regulated and safe.’
Luckily, whether your interest is cannabis tourism or museums, in Amsterdam, you can combine both those interests into one visit at the Sensi Seeds Hemp Museum. There are a lot of unique, off the beaten path museums like that in Amsterdam, which will be singled out a little later in this article.
Anyway, no matter your interests, there is a hotel for every budget in every neighborhood, all of which offer different appealing qualities. Thus, it’s time to go Dutch and start exploring the ‘Venice Of The North’.
You might have heard that phrase – ‘Going Dutch’ – which means to each pay your own tab when dining together. That’s not how it is meant here. This section will tell you how to get around Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is a compact city and very walkable. Basically, you want to stay within ‘The Ring’, Areas considered to be outside of ‘the ring’ are on the other side of the A10 Highway. Amsterdam is divided into eight boroughs, or ‘stadsdelen’ in Dutch. These eight boroughs, or districts, combined are roughly the size of just one borough in New York City: Brooklyn.
The boroughs are further broken down into neighborhoods, which will be examined a little later in this article. First, some advice on transportation.
The best time to visit Amsterdam is probably in April, when spring is in full bloom and on display, turning the city into something out of a fairy tale. The summer months can be exciting and filled with activities, plus it’s less rainy, but be warned that because this is the peak holiday travel period in Europe, prices will be higher.
The climate in Amsterdam is like most of the rest of Northern Europe – continental. Which means the winters are cold and wet, autumn is stormy and summer is mild.
Amsterdam is interconnected mostly by trams, which complements the classical, romantic atmosphere. You can generally buy passes for an hour, twenty four hour or forty eight hour period. The metro can be used for more obscure trips outside the ring and it’s an easy every ten minutes train ride to and from the airport.
Other parts of the city are accessible by ferry, which is fun. You can also rent a boat and cruise around on the canals. The most popular form of transport in Amsterdam is cycling, a well-known fact about the city. Cyclists can be cutthroat and this article will delve into that later on.
A Word About Dutch Words
Before exploring the neighborhoods, take a moment to examine the language, it’s amusing.
Sometimes it seems like the Dutch Language is Undercover English. Like they took English and just switched a few letters around, took out a few and added a few more here and there and ouila! Oh wait, that’s French. Dutch sometimes seems like a highly evolved form of Pig Latin.
By the way, the Dutch are some of the best English speakers in the EU – especially now that England left. So you don’t have to over-worry yourself about the language barrier too much.
In any case, here are some examples that will teach you a quick Dutch lesson. Take Oost, for example. That’s gotta be something, right? Is it East? Ding ding ding! Yes. And Oude – old. They just swapped out the ‘l’ and added an ‘e’. Then there’s kwarter – quarter. Or that canal really means channel, but not the kind of channel you’re thinking of. Starting to see what I mean?
Then there’s gezellig, which sounds like nothing except what you might say when a Dutch person sneezes, but actually means ‘cozy’. There’s plenty of cozy neighborhoods in Amsterdam, so it’s a good word to know. Check ‘em out.
Here Come The Neighborhoods: The Lucky Seven
Starting in alphabetical order happens to take us to the most historically significant district in the city. So significant that it is actually a UNESCO Heritage site. Which ‘kwarter’ is that? Read on to find out!
Or, the channel district – but don’t call it that. It’s also known as ‘The Canal Belt’ or Grachtengordel. The three main canals found here are fancily named: The Knights Canal, The Emperors Canal and The Princes Canal.
The Canal Belt is one of the most photogenic neighborhoods and the best for sightseeing. And believe it or not, it’s remained nearly untouched for almost four centuries. Plenty of the accommodation is waterside. High-end luxury and retail boutiques dot the area.
If you enjoy sightseeing and luxury, try the Canal District.
Quite almost the opposite end of the spectrum and very lively. De Pijp directly translates as ‘the pipe’ – there we go again with the ‘jusstt slightly altered english alphabet’ – and the neighborhood is also known informally as the ‘Latin Quarter’.
FUN FACT! – Don’t take the phrase “Latin Quarter’ to mean some sort of Latin American equivalent of Chinatown. The reason it is called ‘Latin Quarter’ is because centuries ago, students came to university in this area, and back then, the universal language was still Latin, not English. So pupils would study medicine and law in Latin. It’s the same in Paris, actually.
De Pijp is a very Bohemian neighborhood and where you want to stay if you want to live most like a local.
Universally considered the coolest neighborhood in Amsterdam. LIned with art galleries and vintage stores and culinary delights.
Joordan sounds a little like ‘garden’, no? Well, this neighborhood hides a number of top-secret green spaces worth discovering. There are also a number of live music venues and museums. Take a walk and stumble upon flea markets.
Joordan is the best neighborhood to stay in if you want an eclectic mix of new and old.
This is the neighborhood to crash in if you like to party late then ‘sleip in’ – get it? ‘Sleep in’?
Ledsleipen is most well known and well regarded for its nightlife. The most world-famous cannabis cafe – The Bulldog – is located in the heart of Ledsleipen, which is part of the Amsterdam City Centre.
FUN FACT! Ledsleipen Square used to function as a parking lot for horse-drawn carriages!
The center, as can be surmised from the name. This is the historic old center of Amsterdam. It’s also, a little surprisingly, one of the cheaper districts in which to stay. And the most convenient – Centraal Station is in Oude Centrum.
There are many appealing aspects to be found in the Old Center. Here is where you will find Amsterdam’s Chinatown, known as ‘Zeedjik’. The oldest building in Amsterdam is in this neighborhood. Not to mention the Royal Palace.
But most notably, Oude Centrum is home to the both famous and infamous Red Light District. The Red Light District is the oldest district in Amsterdam. Appropriate for the oldest profession in the world, as it is sometimes called. Truly, you will never see anything quite like it anywhere else in the world.
Oude Centrum, also called Binnenstad, is the neighborhood to stay in if you want to be in the heart of everything.
Oude West’s reputation is first and foremost for the foodies. That and being family friendly. That’s a lot of f-words. But, the good kind.
Cuisine ranges from Italian to Vietnamese to Gin. It doesn’t stop there! Dutch, Moroccan and Turkish restaurants dot the landscape. The neighborhood is also moderately priced and very accessible.
There’s a food hall in a tram station. A hip cinema that showcases quirky indie films. And don’t miss Vondelpark, a pride of the city where the Dutch go to unwind.
Oude West is where you want to stay to experience a sampling of the best Amsterdam has to offer. It could even be called gezelig.
Last on the list also starts with the last letter in both the English and Dutch alphabets! Zoouidoost, a mostly residential area that is most regarded for its music scene.
The hotels are cheap and Amsterdam Arena is in Zoouidoost. The neighborhood was originally planned as a futuristic community and remains diverse today.
Zoouidoost is best to stay in if you are attending a big concert or sports match.
Hotel, Botel, Holiday Inn!
Accommodation can be very expensive in Amsterdam. It’s pretty high priced by comparison to some other European capitals. Definitely one of the most expensive.
The upside is you have many, many hostels as an option. And even cooler, this whimsical city offers a plethora of unique and goofy concept hotels. If you’re going to spend all that money, might as well make it memorable, right?
Here are some suggestions for exotic and quirky hotels to bunk inside.
The Arcade Hotel
If you came to Amsterdam to play, then the Arcade Hotel is the place to stay for you!
Not only does The Arcade Hotel feature modern and retro gaming consoles in the rooms, it’s got a free-standing coin operated arcade room with all the games you remember from the good old days. And just for an extra dose of fun, there’s a life size chess board in the garden.
Ain’t no party like a Botel party! That’s right – it’s not a hotel, it’s a botel! A hotel on a boat.
Easily accessible by the ferry, the Botel is docked in the Amsterdam Noord neighborhood that rose from the rubble of a dilapidated shipyard. The motion of the ocean gently rocks you to sleep at night as you gaze at the moonlight over the water.
The Bulldog is informally known as ‘The living room of Amsterdam’. It’s the most well known and centrally located cannabis coffee shop, founded back in 1975. The Bulldog has since expanded to locales as far-flung as Aruba, which is a logical step since Aruba is a Dutch territory.
You might have seen Bulldog branded souvenirs since they are sold throughout the world. The Bulldog operates a cozy hotel at their flagship location, just a hop, skip and a jump from Dam Square. You can meet people from all over the world who all share one thing in common at The Bulldog: a love for cannabis.
A goofy concept hostel inside a church, featuring whimsical decorations like a T. Rex in the middle of the room – whattt? They also feature private bunk beds, combining luxury hospitality with the communal spirit of a Hostel.
Bunk Hotel is guided by a spirit of true art, honest food and sincere smiles, and it is reflected in everything from their cuisine to the interior design.
Hilton is a world famous brand. You’ve heard of it. So what is it doing on a list of quirky hotels?
There’s something that sets this Hilton apart from its brethren across the world. A singular slice of history. This Hilton is where John and Yoko held their infamous ‘Bed-In’’s of 1969 to protest the Vietnam War. And you can book their exact suite for a very pretty penny lane.
Lloyd Hotel is a historical building as well, over one hundred years old. Built in 1921, it was originally launched as a hotel for emigrants. During World War Two, the Germans used it as a detention center for Jews. Later, it became a juvenile hall.
Finally, it served as a haven for artists until a plan to turn it into a sort of ‘cultural embassy’ won a competition and the building was lavishly renovated to make guests like you feel welcome there.
Great! What To Do Next?
So much to do! Here are some suggestions found in the neighborhoods outlined earlier in the article.
- Albert Cyup Market – The biggest daily market in Holland and the oldest in Europe. Discover it in the heart of De Pijp (the pipe – remember?).
- Anne Frank Musuem – Perhaps you’ve heard of Anne Frank? The building where she hid from the Nazis and wrote her famous diary has been converted into a museum in her memory. It’s in the Joordan district.
- Boom! Comedy – Now that you cried at the Anne Frank House, laugh until you cry with Boom! Comedy. This comedy troupe was the first to create an English-language improv and sketch comedy scene in Amsterdam. You can catch a show at their theater in the Canal District.
- Eye Film Institute – The Eye Film Institute is as notable for its archive collection as it is for the building’s eye-catching design on the waterfront. The Eye Film Institute preserves both Dutch and foreign cinema and is found in Amsterdam Noord – if you guessed North, magic brownie points to you!
- Studio K – Studio K offers all kinds of artsy entertainment under one roof. It’s an art gallery, arthouse cinema and live music concert hall. Surely, on any given night you can find something to your taste at Studio K.
Finding Your Muse-eum
Finally, don’t miss the legendary Museum Quarter, also known as Oud Zuid, another notable neighborhood in Amsterdam where you can find lodging both luxurious or affordable. With so many museums in the radius, you might not even have time to leave the neighborhood.
In this kwarter sits the renowned Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh museum. In museum square, or museumplein, you’ll find even more, including modern art museums Moco and Stedelijk. Moco includes rare work by renowned street artist Banksy. There’s also the Diamant Museum, which features diamonds from the Dutch Royal Family collection.
Holland is known for its Tulips, so natch there is a Tulip Museum. This museum, located nearby the Anne Frank House, focuses on the history of the tulip. Bulbs can be purchased here so you can bring home some of the charming bursts of color to your garden.
For The Alternative Afficionado
As a progressive, free-thinking province, Amsterdam is home to institutions and exhibitions exploring subjects and lifestyles that in other places are swept under the rug. Here’s just a few examples.
The aforementioned Hash Museum, sponsored by Sensi Seeds, one of the oldest curators of cannabis seed strains in the world. Officially it is called the Hash Marihuana and Hemp Museum and counts hemp-related artifacts from millenia ago among it’s treasures and exhibits.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it at the Pipe Museum. This archive in a historic canal house honors the wonderful cultural tradition and rituals of pipe smoking throughout the world.
Amsterdam is a weird place for a Vodka Museum, but here it is! It’s the only one in Europe. After learning about the craft and history, the best part arrives: taste-testing!
A city that is home to the Red Light District wouldn’t be complete without a Sex Museum. Alternately known as the Temple of Venus, it opened in 1985 and is still pumping away. This museum examines how society has viewed sex throughout the ages.
You must have worked up quite an appetite now. Check out the yummiest delicacies Amsterdam specializes in.
If you’re a meat lover, just try Cannibale Royale. The name says it all.
The Dutch make a mean roast beef sandwich. Try the hot one at Broodje Beert. It’s only open for lunch.
Pancakes are, of course, so very Dutch. The most reputable pancake house is located right next to the Anne Frank House. Don’t want to face tragic Nazi atrocities on an empty stomach! So stop by The Pancake Bakery and leave with a complimentary keychain to commemorate your visit.
Finally, the cheese! If the pancakes have worn off, after Anne Frank, you can visit – big surprise – the Amsterdam Cheese Museum nearby! Reypanaer Cheese, located in a seventeenth century townhouse, also offers educational and delicious tastings. For unusual cheeses, try the three hundred years young Nieuwmarket on Saturdays.
Before we finish, some quick pro tips for the beginner.
Despite its reputation as a party town, things close early in Amsterdam.
Bank Cards are tricky. The Netherlands has its own internal card system and most stores do not accept foreign cards. So cash can be king. Lately, machines have been installed where you can transfer money and print your own card for use while there.
Watch out for bikes! Need I say more?
Prepare to beware of the stairs. That should be easy to remember – it rhymes. Dutch stairs are very steep and narrow.
To receive discounts on many of the famous museums, purchase an iamamsterdam card, which is a metro card that offers reduced admissions to many of the museums in the Museum Quarter.
According to the safe cities index, Amsterdam ranks high on the list. However, best to keep your wits about you. Use common sense and be aware of your surroundings.
Particular problems to point out in the Dam include pickpockets. It’s illegal to swim in the canals. In the Red Light District, stay in groups, stick to populated areas and don’t take photos – it is phorbidden! Don’t consume cannabis outside the coffee shops – the police can pinch you and Dutch police are way less fun than the coffee shops.
Watch out for the bikes! Did I say that already? Cyclists are not forgiving.
See, you already know some Dutch words and the rest you can figure out using the complex formula described previously in this article. You’re ready for Amsterdam! One parting note, in case you didn’t figure it out: It’s nicknamed ‘Venice of the North’ because of all the canals!