When we were first planning our trip around Europe, I was honestly a little hesitant to even include Amsterdam in our itinerary. People rave about it all the time, and it seems like 90% of the time that’s just in relation to the easily accessible weed, so I was worried that this might turn out to be another one of those overrated destinations that has been largely ruined by crowds of tourists.
I could not have been more wrong. This city is actually incredibly beautiful and extremely quaint. There’s something inexplicably magical about the canals and all the charming houseboats with their little gardens, and I absolutely loved the mix of hip youngsters and older expats all milling around together (our Airbnb host was from Seattle and went to the same university as my parents before moving to Amsterdam 30 years ago). I’ve already moved there in my head, that’s how great it is. Here are the 6 best things to do in Amsterdam and everything else you need to know before visiting!
What's in this travel guide
Hop on a canal cruise
One of our first activities in Amsterdam is to take a cruise through the canals, which is great fun and not as touristy and annoying as you might expect. There are a heap of companies that do the same cruise for the same price (14-16€), so we just choose the first one we come across and settle into window seats to snap photos during the hour long cruise. Only about two dozen people share our boat, so it isn’t too crowded, and the captain offers some commentary and points out interesting buildings along the way. It’s a great way to see the whole scope of the city and then return to specific places to explore more later, which is exactly what we do.
Visit the Anne Frank House
This amazing, can’t-be-missed museum is housed partially in the office building and “secret annexe” that hid 8 Jews, including Anne Frank and her family, for nearly 2 years during WWII. The museum also highlights the bravery of several employees who actively hid the Frank family, as well as supplied them with food, risking their own lives to do so. Sadly, everyone in the annexe and two of the helpers were arrested and sent to camps where they all died, save for Otto Frank, who returned to find his daughter’s diary and fulfilled her dream of having it published. I quickly re-read The Diary of Anne Frank the day before we visited, which really set the scene and made the museum even more significant (yes, there were tears involved). Even for travellers who don’t typically enjoy museums, I can’t recommend the Anne Frank House enough. It is one of the most profound ways to learn about the war and its impact on real people.
The internet is full of horror stories about 4 hour lines to get into the Anne Frank House, but the advantage of visiting during winter is the low tourist crowd, so we did not experience a line of any length, just waltzed right in. Tickets have to be booked online or you can just rock up to the museum after 3.30pm and buy tickets there, 9€ in both instances.
Stuff your face with poffertjes
No visit to Amsterdam is complete without at least one plate of poffertjes! Callum and I have had a long-standing obsession with Dutch pancakes since having them at a market (and then subsequently having them 12 more times at the market) here in Australia. We can personally recommend The Pancake Bakery, a cozy spot serving up all the poffertjes and hot beverages your heart desires. Butter, powdered sugar, and lemon is my personal favourite, but there are a number of flavours and options to suit any palate.
Swing over a view of Amsterdam from the A’dam Lookout
I think this A’dam 360 building must be quite new, because not even our Airbnb host knew of it, but it’s easily the best view of Amsterdam! We stumble upon it purely by accident. To get there, head to Amsterdam Centraal train station, walk through the tunnel, and catch a free ferry to Buiksloterweg, which takes about 2 minutes. The lookout from the top floor and roof is excellent and costs 12€; for 5€ extra, you can hop on the newly-installed swing off the building’s edge, and so worth it just for the thrill of going on Europe’s highest swing (and also it’s 5€!!).
Visit a coffee house
Obviously every person who visits Amsterdam is very aware of the reputation it has. Legal marijuana certainly wasn’t my primary motivation for visiting the city (actually not even a motivation at all), but on our last day, we figured we may as well see what all the fuss is about. A great deal of googling went into this excursion…
You can’t just buy weed anywhere. There are “coffee shops” all over the city that are licensed to legally sell marijuana, though they are not licensed to sell alcohol; then there are some other bars where you are permitted to smoke, but it is not legal for them to actual dispense marijuana. I’d recommend visiting a coffee shop for the herbs and then moving on to a bar for drinks. We are far from seasoned smokers, so we buy a joint pre-rolled to avoid embarrassment and share it between us, which is plenty. We then go to another “coffee shop” to actually smoke it, each have an orange juice, and reminisce on our trip so far. As far as cliched Amsterdam experiences go, it’s actually quite fun.
Hire bikes or scooters and zip around like a local
Our original plan was to hire bikes and ride around this insanely bike friendly city. (I so wish I had taken more photographs of the sheer volume of bikes here; it was unreal. Not only more bikes than cars or pedestrians, but entire bike parking garages that hold thousands of bikes, filled to the brim. Apparently bikes outnumber people in Amsterdam nearly 2:1.) Anyway, we end up hiring a Vespa instead, since it’s nearly the same price as two bikes! We zip around the city for a few hours and explore the red light district, as well as a number of random canal-ways in which we become lost. This is the best way to see Amsterdam!
Best time to visit Amsterdam
Amsterdam is an amazing year-round destination, but I personally loved visiting during winter! None of the main attractions really require warm, sunny weather and there are a small fraction of the tourists here from October-February, so this could be the perfect time to avoid queues and score cheaper accomodation in Amsterdam.
Getting around Amsterdam
Trains from all over Central and Western Europe arrive into Amsterdam Centraal, the city’s very conveniently located train station. For example, the train from Berlin Hauptbahnhof takes about 6.5hrs and cost us 39€.
The best way to get around Amsterdam is either biking or simply walking— the city is amazingly bike- and pedestrian-friendly, which means it’s flat, has heaps of footpaths, and is easy to navigate. Don’t bother with a car here!
Where to stay in Amsterdam
Within easy walking distance of the train station and all the city’s main attractions, Amsterdam’s charming Jordaan neighbourhood is a great place to stay. I’d highly recommend Airbnb— we loved our host, so feel free to reach out and I’ll share her details!
3-4 days in Amsterdam is enough to experience the best of this beautiful city, but you could easily entertain yourself for a week or longer if time allows.
The Netherlands is part of the Schengen area, which means any time spent in the country (and in most other European countries) will count towards your 90 day limit. Passport holders of most countries (including Australia and America) don’t need to do anything to apply for this visa, it is automatically issued when you arrive.
Weather in Amsterdam is notoriously unpredictable, so be prepared to experience all 4 seasons on any given day.
Don’t spend your entire time in Amsterdam getting high or hanging out in the Red Light District— there is so much more to explore here!