Amsterdam: The Northern European City With 300+ Miles of Bike Paths
Bikes, canals, coffeeshops, tulips, the Red Light District... the list of Amsterdam icons is well known and draws an estimated 20 million tourists to the city each year. That’s about 20 visitors for every resident, making it understandable why Amsterdam is at the center of many conversations about overtourism.
But there is more to Amsterdam than these classic stereotypes, and despite the city’s popularity, even within the center of Amsterdam there are unique hotels, quiet canals, and revived landmarks and neighborhoods to explore away from the crowds.
Life on two wheels
No matter the weather or the number of tourists, there's one thing that will never change about Amsterdam and that's the popularity of cycling—some estimates even say there are more bikes in Amsterdam than residents!
It’s not just because this flat city is perfectly set up for easy cycling and has 300+ miles of bike paths. It’s also because legislation has been in place since the 1970s to prioritize cyclists over other road users, which came about in direct response to the increase in road traffic accidents as roads became busier and more dangerous.
Cycling is still one of the quickest and easiest ways to get across the city, but it's good to know a few things about cycling in Amsterdam first. Keep right on bike paths, don’t go too fast, and don't panic when you hear a bell ring behind you, as it's normally someone telling you they're going to overtake you.
A bed for every traveler
Amsterdam's hotel rooms are notorious for being expensive and small, but thanks to the growing interest in more sustainable travel, there is increasing demand for more eco-friendly and unusual accommodation alternatives beyond the usual tiny white box.
SWEETS hotel converted many of the long-unused old bridge houses across the city into luxury hotel suites, often in very central and unique locations, like in the middle of a mini man-made island on the River Amstel. For a more budget-friendly option, there's the possibility of a night in prison. Not at the expense of Amsterdam's authorities, but rather in Lloyd Hotel, a converted one-time prison that is a revered Dutch architectural monument and the world's first 1- to 5-star hotel, meaning there really is something for everyone.
And if those options are too urban, head west to The Unbound, where guests sleep in luxury wooden cabins under an open sky, feeling like they're lost in the countryside while still 20 minutes from the center of Amsterdam.
Boating off the beaten path
It's no secret that much of the Netherlands is built on land reclaimed from the sea. Indeed, parts of Amsterdam are 22 feet below sea level. So, how does the city not become flooded? Because of the very canals and waterways the city is famous for. They aren't there for aesthetic purposes only. They’re essential to Amsterdam’s survival because they contain and guide water away from the city’s urban sprawl and help prevent it from returning to the swamp it once was. However, the fact remains that the canals—which collectively stretch about 31 miles around the city—are a great way to see this picture-perfect city.
Skip the big tour boats, though, for something more unique. Plastic Whale boats tour the city's canals collecting plastic waste that gathers in the water while giving guests a private tour of Amsterdam's most famous waterways. Rederij Lampedusa explores the city’s canals and history on a boat that brought refugees to Europe's shores.
Alternatively, there are tours offering dinner, drinks, pancakes, and even a place to smoke weed aboard the Smoke Boat. Other ways to see Amsterdam from the water for those who like to be more active include kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding, or even "cycling" around on a pedalo.
A historic ‘hood
Sex work is legal in the Netherlands, and in Amsterdam it is concentrated in the Red Light District, where workers offer their services from storefront windows often illuminated with a red light. But among the titillation of the area, it’s often forgotten that De Wallen, the medieval city center where the Red Light District is located, is Amsterdam's oldest neighborhood and rich in history and culture.
It's home to Oude Kerk, Amsterdam's oldest church, and Amsterdam's Chinatown, where you can find the city's best Asian food restaurants and one of the largest Buddhist temples in Europe. There’s also the Nieuwmarkt, one of the city's oldest markets, and close by is the Allard Pierson museum, which documents over 10,000 years of history as compiled by the archaeological department of the University of Amsterdam.
If finding out more about sex work in the Red Light District is still of interest, the most ethical way to do so is by taking a tour with PIC (Prostitute Information Center), an organization that supports sex workers.
Coffeeshops and coffee shops
There are two kinds of coffee shops in Amsterdam. Both serve coffee, but one also has a cannabis menu. Some come to Amsterdam just for the latter, but it's untrue that cannabis is a legal drug in the Netherlands. Rather, the official policy is to tolerate retail and recreational use under strict circumstances, including coffeeshops.
Love it or hate it, Amsterdam has a number of great coffeeshops that are safe and even quite sophisticated places for smokers. And whether you partake or not, you can learn more about the city’s history with the drug at the Cannabis Museum on Damstraat.
The other kind of coffee shop is another reason to visit Amsterdam, thanks to an increase in the number of independent coffee roasters, specialty coffee houses, and cozy cafes.
Amsterdam was arguably the world's most important port at the time that colonialism made coffee the global import it is now. Today, the vast majority of the indie and micro roasters are doing so with sustainability and fair trade in mind. Amsterdam roasters that are popular with local coffee (and cake) enthusiasts include Bocca on Oude Kerkstraat, Rum Baba Bakery and Roastery in Amsterdam Oost, and LOT61 in locations all over the city.
A secret (and sustainable) foodie's paradise
Not many choose Amsterdam for its food, and indeed the Dutch aren't exactly known for their haute cuisine. However, these are two unfortunate misconceptions because not only is Amsterdam a foodie's paradise, but traditional Dutch food, while admittedly stodgy and filling, has some real treats to be discovered.
There’s the heavily-spiced and thick-crusted Dutch apple pie, the heart- and stomach-warming stamppot and hutspot winter favorites (mashed vegetables and potatoes, served with warm gravy and sometimes sausage or other meat), and the unofficial national dish, rijsttafel, which is actually an Indonesian buffet-style feast of various curried dishes with pickles and rice.
Amsterdam currently has 21 Michelin-starred restaurants and myriad other award-winning, innovative restaurants and eateries. Sticking with the Dutch tradition of cooking seasonally, Amsterdam is a heaven for fans of sustainable cooking. There's farm-to-table favorite De Kas (which has its own greenhouse you can wander around), zero-emissions restaurant The Greanery, and InStock, which serves chef's menus using food that would otherwise go to waste.
The fast growth of Amsterdam in the late 21st century forced developments to expand into the long-neglected North (Noord), which until relatively recently was little more than a collection of scattered villages and purpose-built business headquarters and industrial buildings leading to the city's port in the west.
But Amsterdammers and visitors alike are now waking up to the appeal of Amsterdam Noord that offers quick access to the center of town thanks to free ferry boats from Centraal Station. It's also an easy journey to the picturesque windmill-filled Waterland areas farther north which are perfect for long walks or bike rides.
It’s in Amsterdam North that you'll find hotspots like urban beach club Pllek and NDSM Wharf, a converted warehouse used for street art, flea markets, festivals, and more. There are other cultural centers in the form of the new A'DAM LOOKOUT and the EYE Film Museum, which has some of the best views of the city.
Amsterdam's Black history
The Dutch colonial empire comprised overseas territories in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, where for more than 250 years it exploited the labor of enslaved people.
As with many other European nations, the Netherlands has a complicated relationship with this part of its history and while discussions about colonialism, slavery, and racism are being had more openly and constructively, there is still much work to be done, not least because this period in Dutch history is still called (and celebrated as) the nation's Golden Age.
One way a more comprehensive history of Amsterdam can be understood is on a Black Heritage Tour which shares stories of Black Amsterdammers over the last 400+ years. Likewise, the Tropenmuseum, an ethnographic museum about the Dutch empire, has excellent interactive exhibits that are family-friendly. It’s located in a stunning 19th-century building in Amsterdam East, another often ignored multicultural neighborhood in Amsterdam that is home to the recently revamped Oosterpark city park and a vibrant daily street market on Dappermarkt.
Cozy = together
The Dutch love of gezelligheid—an untranslatable term that encompasses a sense of "cozy togetherness"—means that much of the city's attractions are designed and managed with the whole family in mind.
Originating from when the Dutch word “gezel” was used to mean friend or companion, at its heart gezelligheid is about being with others, and a few days in Amsterdam will reveal how important it is to do gezellig things like having a drink with friends on a bar's terrace, a family picnic in a park, or dinner with a loved one.
In Amsterdam, to encourage as much gezelligheid as possible for all, accessibility is good on public transport, museums often have kids' guides and activities, and there are countless public parks with splash pools, flower gardens, space for BBQs and picnics, and numerous playgrounds.
Good to know
How to budget for a trip to Amsterdam
Amsterdam has amassed a reputation for being one of the most expensive cities in Europe, but while it isn’t cheap, there’s no reason a trip here has to break the bank. Hotels generally cost $100+ for a good stay, whereas vacation rentals range from $75-$200/night. The restaurant scene is certainly posh, so if you plan to eat your heart out, budget $100/day for food, while if your tastes are more simple, you can get by on $30 for three square meals.
It sounds cliche to wax on about how places in northern Europe like the Netherlands, Denmark, and Norway have achieved near-utopia, devoid of societal ills like pollution, flawed healthcare, and crime.
There’s more nuance to it all, of course, but the fact remains that safety-wise, Amsterdam is among the best cities in the world. Yes, there is pickpocketing; tourists also fall victim to mugging on an occasional basis. But on the whole, Amsterdam is safe for LGBTQIA+ travelers, BIPOC travelers, solo women, and families with kids. Just be careful when you’re crossing the street as a pedestrian. The city’s many cyclists can appear as if out of thin air.
Weather in Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s more northerly location keeps the weather fairly temperate, with summer highs ranging from 68° to 71°F and most winter days hovering around 42° F. While snow is a rare occurrence, and it doesn’t often get cold enough to freeze the city’s canals, winter (November to February) can be damp and drizzly.
When to visit Amsterdam
Summer brings the best weather—warm, sunny, and dry—but also the most visitors and highest prices. The fall months of September and October are a good compromise, with good weather but fewer crowds. Spring is also a popular time to visit as this is when the tulip fields are in bloom and the Keukenhof Gardens (generally open March to May each year) are awash in more than 7 million flowers.
Money saving tips
Grab an I amsterdam city card for access to more than 70 museums and attractions, free public transport, and other discounts.
Picnic in the park. Amsterdam has dozens of beautiful green spaces, like Oosterpark and the famous Vondelpark. Hit one of the markets like Nieuwmarkt and Noorderkerk to pack a picnic and enjoy lunch or dinner with a side of people watching.
Go long. If you plan to rent a bike, rent by the day instead of the hour or for multiple days instead of one. Generally the longer the rental, the better the value.
Public transportation options in Amsterdam
How to traipse through Amsterdam? Let us count the ways. There’s the metro, the rail line, the bus, the ferry, and the train—and that’s to say nothing of the complex cycling infrastructure throughout town. In fact, biking is the preferred method of transport in Amsterdam: The city is mostly flat, there are hundreds of miles’ worth of bike lanes, and bike-share and rental companies abound. If you need to get somewhere in a hurry, the tram and Uber are your best bets; if you’re in need of wheelchair accessibility, hop on the tram, as Amsterdam’s cobblestones and steep bridges can pose a problem.
The largest and busiest airport in the Netherlands is Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS), often called simply Schiphol Airport. It’s less than six miles from Amsterdam’s city center and the hub for KLM as well as a hub city for Martinair, Transavia, and TUI fly Netherlands.
Only have a short time in the city between flights? Check out our layover guide to Amsterdam.
How to get to Amsterdam from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS)
There is a train station underneath the airport, and from there it takes less than 20 minutes to arrive at Amsterdam’s Central Station. A single ticket costs €4.50, or a day pass (for unlimited public transit trips) is €17. The Amsterdam Airport Express bus, number 397, is also covered by the same day pass and that trip takes about 25 minutes. Taxi rides take about 15 minutes and fares start at around €45. An Uber ride may cost from €30-60.
What to see, do, and eat in Amsterdam from Going
The top ten things to do in Amsterdam
- Visit the Van Gogh Museum, particularly lovely in the summer when the sunflower gardens are in bloom
- Visit the Royal Palace, the largest non-religious building on the continent, erected in the 17th century and formerly serving as Amsterdam’s town hall
- Shop the so-called Nine Little Streets
- Take an iconic boat tour through the Amsterdam Canal District
- Rent a bike and take yourself on scenic tours of the city
- Check out the Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, one of the oldest museums in the city that’s a relic of 17th-century life in Amsterdam
- See the Anne Frank House where Anne and her family hid from the Nazis and she wrote her famous diary
- Head to Zandvoort, the lesser-known waterfront attraction in Amsterdam but a great beach to visit in the summertime
- Take a tour of Rembrandt’s beautifully preserved former home, full of his art – and his collection of art
- Visit the National Maritime Museum, both a history lesson and an opportunity to learn more about boats
The local picks for top attractions and activities in Amsterdam
- Have a laid-back day in De Pijp at Sarphatipark, best enjoyed with a book or a picnic
- Take a stroll through Oud West on a Saturday afternoon—check out the Ten Kate Market while you’re at it
- Take to the canals on a rented paddle board or kayak
- Snap some pics of the Montelbaanstoren Tower, one of the strangest and loveliest buildings in the city; it’s particularly photogenic at Golden Hour
- Take a walk through Nieuwendam, a lovely village of wooden houses with a distinct aesthetic, formally incorporated into Amsterdam proper in 1921
- Check out the weird and wonderful petting zoos in the middle of the city; they’re all volunteer-run and intended to help Dutch children enjoy a bit of rural life in the urban grid
- Rent a boat to cruise the canals on your own terms rather than taking an organized tour
- Have a beach day without leaving town at Sloterplas in Nieuw West
- Drop by Begijnhof (a hof, or hofje, is the Dutch term for a courtyard) for a respite from the madness of the city center
- Visit the Museum Willet-Holthuysen, a small and gorgeous garden
What to eat and drink in Amsterdam
Amsterdam churns out posh, exciting cuisine with the best of them, perpetually vying for the element of surprise in both execution and ambience. A foodie will surely fall in love with Amsterdam’s many cafes, coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, but less passionate eaters can also be heard making yummy sounds in every corner of town. From upscale to down-home, there’s something to satisfy every appetite here.
- De Foodhallen is a go-to food hall when you can’t decide what you fancy for dinner; be sure to check out Taqueria Lima and the G&T bar
- Restaurant Barceloneta serves the best Catalan food in Amsterdam
- Hannekes Boom is a favorite summer bar among locals, with a packed terrace along the canal
- Eetcafe Festina Lente is a great choice if you’re looking to try out a traditional Dutch brown cafe, so called for the pervasive brown wood decor
- Glouglou is a fun, lively watering hole that specializes in natural wine
- Mastino is a great spot for authentic Italian (and vegan, and gluten-free) pizza; all their ingredients come straight from Italy
- Madam is a swanky date-night spot with a great view and an onsite cocktail bar (make reservations)
- Hennekes Boom is a good option for a delicious hamburger or a beer on the canal
- Dignity serves up the best brunch in Amsterdam at its handful of locations throughout the city
Top Amsterdam neighborhoods for visitors
Amsterdam is extremely heavily trafficked by tourists, so while the city center offers plenty in the way of attractions, you’re likely to enjoy your stay more if you’re able to remove yourself from the throngs. Westerpark is a great option, full of green spaces. De Pijp and Jordaan are also fun; the former is a bit of a nightlife hub and the latter is full of eclectic, hip places to eat, drink, and shop.
Recommended hotels in Amsterdam
- Volkshotel (~$67/night): colorful and quirky with small rooms for small budgets
- Hotel Pontsteiger (~$109/night): waterfront hotel with clean Scandinavian design
- Hotel Mercier (~$164/night): design-centric with a stylish onsite restaurant and bar
- Pulitzer Amsterdam (~$351/night): luxurious rooms with canal views
- SWEETS hotel ($140/night): unique rooms spread around the city in historic bridge houses
Day trips from Amsterdam
Take a 40-minute train ride southwest from Amsterdam to The Hague, arguably the poshest city in the Netherlands. Be sure to go to the coastline district known as Scheveningen.
Take an hour-long train ride southeast to Rotterdam, a modern urban oasis in the country of gingerbread houses, tiny narrow streets, and bikes, plus lots of great spots to eat and drink.
Ride the train for 1.5 hours southwest to Keukenhof in the springtime to witness the tulip fields. It’s touristy, but it’s also incredible.
Take an hour-long bike ride to Zaanse Shans to see the classic Dutch windmills and 18th-century architecture.
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Published August 9, 2023
Last updated February 15, 2024
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