With 65 miles of Golden Age canals lined with handsome gabled houses and criss-crossed by photogenic bridges, the Dutch capital is perfect for lazy boat tours, romantic wanders or gentle bike rides. For the culturally inclined, world-class art awaits in the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum. For those of a less high-brow disposition, big draws are the many inviting cafés – some old-fashioned, others trendy – and a nightlife as lively and decadent as you want it to be. The city is very digestible in a weekend; you can stroll from one side to the other in half an hour.
Unique, picturesque canal city
World-class art galleries
Cosy café culture
South of Centraal Station and the IJ waterway lies Amsterdam's medieval core, which includes the infamous Red Light District. A ring of stately Golden Age canals – the Grachtengordel – forms a semi-circle around the old city centre. Directly west of the Grachtengordel is the enchanting Jordaan district. Head south of the Grachtengordel, and you soon come to the museum district – Museumplein – and the multicultural De Pijp district. To the east lie the hip, residential Eastern Docklands.
Famously liberal Amsterdam is a laid-back, friendly, let-it-all-hang-out city. The Red Light District is regulated and legalised, as are the famous ‘coffeeshops’, which sell cannabis – though there is ongoing debate about whether tourists will be banned from partaking in the future. Like the Netherlands as a whole, bikes rule: most Amsterdammers use pedal power to get around on the city's 250 miles of cycle lanes.
Non-Dutch places to eat predominate in multicultural Amsterdam. Indonesian restaurants are commonplace – the Dutch East India Company introduced the cuisine into Holland long ago. Dutch food has a reputation for being stodgy, but has undergone a renaissance in recent years. You can eat well in many cafés: eetcafés are like food-oriented pubs, while so-called ‘grand cafés’ are good for soups, salads or sandwiches at lunchtime. Brown cafés are quaint and cosy old-fashioned bars.
What to try
Traditional Dutch dishes include pea soup and stamppot (mash mixed with veg). Raw herring, chips with mayonnaise, bitterballen (deep-fried croquettes) and wedges of apple pie are classic Dutch snacks.
Where to eat & drink
Restaurants and eetcafés are scattered right across Amsterdam's canal belt and central district. The Spui area, and Utrechtsestraat on the southern Canal Ring, have a wide selection of appealing restaurants, cafés and bars. The same is true of the Jordaan, home to the city's most characterful brown cafés. For a lively night out, head for Leidseplein, which has the biggest concentration of bars and nightclubs in Amsterdam – including famous, multi-purpose venues the Melkweg and Paradiso.
Where to stay
The most appealing area to stay in Amsterdam is the scenic Canal Ring. Most hotels here occupy classic old gabled buildings with immense character, the streets along these canals are pretty quiet, and you'll be within strolling distance of many of the city's most enticing restaurants, bars, cafés and shops. If you plan to spend time in the main art museums, also consider staying in the 19th-century streets near Museumplein, where rooms can be more spacious than in canal hotels. Parts of the city centre within the canal belt are seedy, noisy and tacky, so be wary there.
Where to shop
Amsterdam's most delightful shopping area is the Negen Straatjes or Nine Streets, where one-of-a-kind, independent stores, specialising in everything from cheese to toothbrushes, line little lanes crossing the canals. For antiques and art, browse the Nieuwe Spiegelstraat. For designer boutiques and jewellery, make a beeline for PC Hoofstraat. The main (and rather unexciting) shopping street in the city centre is pedestrianised Kalverstraat.
What to buy
Bulbs (real and wooden) from the Flower Market on the Singel; Delftware ceramics, old and new; Dutch cheeses; reproductions of famous Dutch paintings – the main museums have good shops.
Health & safety
In general terms, Amsterdam is a safe and friendly city. Nonetheless, unsavoury characters do hang out in the Red Light District – be on your guard there. Cannabis is openly sold and smoked in designated 'coffeeshops'. If you rent a bike, cycle with more caution than locals do – stick to the ubiquitous bike lanes and use the locks provided, as bike theft is common.
When to go
Amsterdam is least busy November to March. Though it can be bitterly cold then, there are lots of cosy cafés to hole up in, and hotel rates are at their lowest. April and May is a peak time, as it's the tulip season – trips to the famous Keukenhof gardens and bulb fields can easily be combined with time in Amsterdam. July and August are also very busy, but the city is lovely on warm summer evenings, with many an Amsterdammer chugging along the canals on their battered old boats.
The cheapest and quickest way to get from Schiphol Airport to the centre of Amsterdam is by rail. Very frequent trains leave from below Schiphol Plaza concourse, and the journey to Amsterdam's Centraal Station takes 15-20 minutes. Another option is the Connexxion Schiphol Airport Shuttle, which provides minibus transfers between Schiphol and most Amsterdam hotels. Taxis from the airport to Amsterdam centre are expensive, and the journey during rush hours can be slow.
All main districts and sights are reachable on foot. If covering a lot of ground in a short period, rent a bike – MacBike is well-known and recommended. Though the public transport system includes a metro, buses and trams, you may well just use trams. Single fares are expensive; OV-chipkaart passes, valid for 24-hours, are better value. Free ferries criss-cross the IJ waterway behind Centraal Station. For information on public transport, see the GVB website.
What to take
Amsterdam is often cold and wet: pack an additional layer of clothing. After dark in summer, mosquitoes can be a nuisance on the canals: take repellent or an electronic zapper.
- Type City
- Notoriety Well known
- Price guide $$$$$
- Time zone GMT / UTC +01:00
- Currency EUR
- Climate Cold temperate
- Environment Urban
- Politics Liberal
- Best time Jan-Dec
Schiphol [Amsterdam] [AMS]
Get in the mood
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne FrankReading the teenager's articulate and moving account of life in hiding in Amsterdam during the Second World War will make a visit to the Anne Frank House much more rewarding.
Diamonds Are Forever (1971)Amsterdam is famous for its diamonds, and scenes from the seventh James Bond movie were shot here.