Explore Amsterdam, Netherlands
Explore Amsterdam the capital of the Netherlands. With more than one million inhabitants in its urban area (and almost two and a half million inhabitants in its metropolitan area), it is the country’s largest city and its financial, cultural, and creative centre calling for you to explore Amsterdam.
Amsterdam is one of the most popular destinations in Europe, attracting over 7 million international travellers annually.
Amsterdam is colloquially known as Venice of the North because of its lovely canals that criss-cross the city, its impressive architecture and more than 1,500 bridges. There is something for every traveller’s taste here; whether you prefer culture and history, serious partying, or just the relaxing charm of an old European city.
Districts of Amsterdam
- Old Centre. The medieval centre and most visited area of Amsterdam. It is known for its traditional architecture, canals, shopping, and many coffee shops. Dam Square is considered its ultimate centre, but just as interesting are the areas around Nieuwmarkt and Spui. The Red Light District is also a part of Centrum.
- Canal Ring. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Canal Ring was dug in the 17th century to attract wealthy home owners. It is still a posh neighbourhood with many Dutch celebrities owning property. The Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein are the city’s prime nightlife spots.
- A traditional working class area gone upmarket with plenty of art galleries, hip boutiques and happening restaurants. Also includes the Haarlemmerbuurt and the Western Islands.
- Pleasant 19th-century district with many museums. Just beyond the Waterlooplein you will find the Jewish Historical Museum, the Hermitage Amsterdam and the botanic gardens. All within walking distance from the Artis Zoo, the Tropenmuseum (Museum of the Tropics) and the spectacular Scheepvaartmuseum.
- One of Amsterdam’s prime areas, a trip to the city is not complete without a visit to the Museum Quarter. You can chill in the Vondelpark with a bottle of wine, or go hunt for bargains at the Albert Cuyp Market. It is the most popular area for accommodation as rates are considerably cheaper than in the city centre.
- A vast suburban area that can be divided in Old and New West. The Old West is a charming area built in the late 19th century. The New West was built after World War II and often catches newspaper headlines for crime; urban renewal is underway to improve living conditions in this area.
- The North is mainly a residential suburb that lies at the northern side of the IJ, with a rapidly developing hub of cultural activity along the shore of the river. Many visitors are attracted to the area east of the motorway A10, a protected polder area that culturally belongs to the Waterland and Zaan Region. This traditional Dutch countryside is best explored by bicycle.
- The East is a large and diverse residential area. The Eastern Docklands and IJburg stand out as relatively affluent neighbourhoods known for their modern architecture.
- An exclave of Amsterdam, Southeast was foreseen as a neighbourhood of the future with large apartment blocks separated by tracts of green. It turned into a lower-class residential district home to people of over 150 nationalities, often associated with crime and robberies. Its safety record has improved remarkably the last years, but it still is mostly visited by adventurous travellers (and football fans).
- An affluent green suburb of Amsterdam (and technically not Amsterdam), home to most ‘Amsterdam’ sports clubs, a large shopping mall and the Amsterdamse Bos (a park south of Amsterdam, east of Amstelveen). Tramline 5 and metroline 51 go to Amstelveen. (Not highlighted on the map.)
Settled as a small fishing village in the late 12th century, Amsterdam became one of the most important trading centres in the world during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, with the first stock exchange and the joint ventures that gave birth to modern day Capitalism. The city’s small medieval centre rapidly expanded as the Jordaan and the Canal Belt neighbourhoods were constructed; the latter’s cultural significance was acknowledged when it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the city expanded in all directions, with many new neighbourhoods and suburbs designed in modernist styles.
Many people choose to visit Amsterdam because of its reputation for tolerance, although part of this reputation is attributable to cultural misunderstandings. Prostitution is legalised and licensed in the Netherlands, and in Amsterdam it is very visible (window prostitution), and there are large numbers of prostitutes. The sale, possession, and consumption of small quantities of cannabis, while technically illegal, is tolerated by authorities (the policy of gedogen). This does not mean that you can get away with anything in Amsterdam. In any case, public attitudes and official policy have hardened in recent years.
Depending on your viewpoint some people will consider Amsterdam an unwholesome city whereas other people will find their relaxed attitudes refreshing. If you avoid the red light district, Amsterdam is an excellent family destination.
Amsterdam is a large city and a major tourist destination, so you can visit it all year round. However, in winter the days are short (8 hours daylight around Christmas), and the weather may be too cold to walk around the city comfortably, let alone cycle.
Amsterdam Airport Schiphol 15km southwest of the city. It ranks in the top 15 airports worldwide for passenger traffic, serving more than 60 million passengers per year.
A pleasant way to cover a lot of ground is to rent a bicycle. The city is very, very bike-friendly, and there are separate bike lanes on most major streets. In the city centre, however, there is often not enough space for a bike lane, so cars and cyclists share narrow streets.
What to buy
A day in Amsterdam without spending a penny: stroll along the canals, see the Begijnhof, smell the flowers at the Bloemenmarket, visit the Albert Cuypstraat market, see the Magere Brug and relax in the Vondelpark.
Amsterdam is a cultural haven with year-round festivals in Amsterdam for every pocket.
Amsterdam has a range of unique cultural backdrops that appeal to travelling photographers, from its unique architecture to urban street scenes and picturesque canals.
Amsterdam has amazing theatres to attract and entertain visitors from around the world.
The main central shopping streets run in a line from near Central Station to the Leidseplein: Nieuwendijk, Kalverstraat, Heiligeweg, Leidsestraat. The emphasis is on clothes/fashion, but there are plenty of other shops. They are not upmarket shopping streets, and the north end of Nieuwendijk is seedy. Amsterdam’s only upmarket shopping street is the P.C. Hooftstraat (near the Rijksmuseum).
Other concentrations of shops in the centre are Haarlemmerstraat / Haarlemmerdijk, Utrechtsestraat, Spiegelstraat (art/antiques), and around Nieuwmarkt. There is a concentration of Chinese shops at Zeedijk / Nieuwmarkt, but it is not a real Chinatown.
The ‘interesting little shops’ are located in the side streets of the main canals (Prinsengracht / Keizersgracht / Herengracht), and especially in the Jordaan – bounded by Prinsengracht, Elandsgracht, Marnixstraat and Brouwersgracht. The partly gentrified neighbourhood of De Pijp – around Ferdinand Bolstraat and Sarphatipark – is often seen as a ‘second Jordaan’.
Fashion & Museum District. Located in Amsterdam Zuid, this is considered the chic area for shopping in Amsterdam, close to the Museum district, the PC Hooftstraat and the Cornelis Schuytstraat have some of the finest designer shops in the city, including designer shoes, health and well-being specialists, massage, fashion boutiques, designer interiors, designer florists and specialist shops.
In the older areas surrounding the centre, the main shopping streets are the Kinkerstraat, the Ferdinand Bolstraat, the Van Woustraat, and the Javastraat. The most ethnic shopping street in Amsterdam is the Javastraat. There are toy stores and clothing shops for kids in the centre, but most are in the shopping streets further out, because that’s where families with children live.
You can find plus size clothing in the centre of Amsterdam.
English-language books can mostly be found in the Old Centre. Large Dutch bookstores also carry a selection of foreign language books.
A lot of shops aimed at tourists sell a certain kind of woolen hat with “AMSTERDAM” printed on it. Locals refer to this article as “the tourist hat” and wearing one will immediately mark you as a tourist, as no Dutch person would ever wear one. Buy one if you like it, but be aware of this if you want to simply blend in.
Street markets originally sold mainly food, and most still sell food and clothing, but they have become more specialized.
Albert Cuyp. Largest in Amsterdam, best-known street market in the country. Can get very crowded, so watch out for pickpockets. Monday to Saturday from about 9AM until around 5PM.
Ten Katemarkt. 3rd largest in Amsterdam. Monday to Saturday from about 8AM until around 5PM. Food, households, flowers and clothing.
Dappermarkt. In the east, behind the zoo, and was voted best market in the Netherlands. Monday to Saturday from about 8AM until around 5PM.
Lindengracht. In the Jordaan, selling a wide range of goods, fruit and vegetables, fish and various household items. Saturday only. 9AM to 4PM. Tram 3 or 10 to Marnixplein, and a short walk along the Lijnbaansgracht.
Lapjesmarkt. Westerstraat, in the Jordaan. A specialist market concentrating on selling cloth and material for making clothes, curtains etc. Mondays only. 9AM to 1PM. Tram 3 or 10 to Marnixplein.
Noordermarkt. In the historical Jordaan area of the city. On Monday morning (9AM to 1PM) the Noordermarkt is a flea market selling fabrics, records, second-hand clothing etc, and forms part of the Lapjesmarkt mentioned above. On Saturday (9AM to 4PM), the Noordermarkt is a biological food market, selling a wide range of ecological products like organic fruits and vegetables, herbs, cheese, mushrooms etc, there is also a small flea market.
Smoking is banned in all Dutch bars and restaurants, although many bars and cafes have sealed smoking rooms in which smoking is permitted.
Eating and drinking
Amsterdam is renowned for its liberal drug policy. Coffeeshops, not to be confused with coffeehouses or cafes, are allowed to sell cannabis and hash for personal use (not more than 5 grams). While technically still illegal, mostly to comply to international treaties, personal use of (soft) drugs are regulated by the Ministry of Justice under an official policy of gedogen; literally this means to accept or tolerate, legally it is a doctrine of non-prosecution on the basis that action taken would be so highly irregular as to constitute selective prosecution. Coffeeshops are to sell only soft drugs (such as cannabis), selling of other drugs is not allowed. Also selling of dried hallucinogenic mushrooms is not allowed.
That said, drug usage is increasingly being strictly controlled by the Dutch government. Garish advertising is not allowed (look for red-yellow-green rasta colors and the English word “coffeeshop”); no alcohol or edible cannabis products may be sold inside a coffeeshop; customers who want to smoke their weed mixed with tobacco are limited to special sealed ‘smoking areas’; the amount of coffeeshops has decreased significantly since 1995; coffeeshops within a ‘250 meter school zone’ have been closed down; and the usage of magic mushrooms has been forbidden since December 2008 (after two fatal incidents with foreign tourists).
Still there are about 250 coffeeshops in Amsterdam, most of them in the Old Centre. Most coffeeshops are happy to recommend varieties and prepare your joint for you. Some offer vaporizers/inhalators for people who don’t want to smoke.
Using (soft) drugs are not allowed in public places, though in reality it will never be an issue. Just stay away from children’s playgrounds and schools. Many coffeeshops offer a ‘smoking lounge’ where soft drugs may be used. Also note that despite the confusion on the subject, the Netherlands-wide smoking ban applies only to tobacco.
Places to visit near Amsterdam
- Direct trains connect Amsterdam to Paris, to major Belgian cities like Brussels and Antwerp, and to German cities like Cologne, Frankfurt and Berlin. The ticket machines directly sell tickets to nearby destinations in Belgium and Germany, for longer journeys you will need to consult the international ticket office at the west end of the Central Station. CityNightLine trains run directly from Amsterdam Central Station to Milan, Vienna, Copenhagen, Prague, Warsaw, Moscow, Munich, Innsbruck, and Zurich (reservation compulsory).
- Alkmaar – historic town with its cheese market
- Enkhuizen – interesting small town with the Zuiderzee Museum, that shows how people used to live with the persistent danger of the sea
- Hoorn – historic city with a medieval city centre and several historic museums
- Haarlem — the closest of the historic cities, just 15 minutes from Amsterdam centre by train
- Muiden — formerly a small port at the mouth of the Vecht river, it boasts the Muiderslot, the best-known castle of the country, from april through october connected by a tourist ferry from Amsterdam
- Naarden — surrounded by a complete ring of 17th-century fortifications
- Hilversum — affluent town known for its magnificent town hall, also offers cycling tours through forests and the heath
- Waterland and Zaan Region — picturesque villages a short trip from the city
- Zaanse Schans — historic windmills, tradesmen workshops and an open-air museum
- Zandvoort — closest beach resort to Amsterdam
- Delft — well-known for its typical blue and white ceramics
- Gouda — historic town famous for its Gouda cheese and the cheese market
- ‘s-Hertogenbosch — typical city for the Southern Netherlands, goes crazy during carnival
- Keukenhof — a seasonal attraction in the Spring, these enormous flower fields are popular among travellers
- Kinderdijk — this authentic network of windmills shows the typical Dutch countryside at its best
- Leiden — vibrant student town with the country’s oldest university and several museums
- Rotterdam — has a history of rivalry with Amsterdam, and a completely different atmosphere with modern architecture
- The Hague (Den Haag) — political heart of the country, Madurodam, and Scheveningen, the most popular beach of the country
- Utrecht — historic town that has a less-ambitious canal system