There are few places quite so lovely as Amsterdam. After living in Barcelona, West Amsterdam was a shift, to quieter more standard days. Instead of the wild, humming atmosphere of El Born, we were surrounded by a reserved and practical energy, in a bookish city full of bikes.
The city and the country have a dedication to bike culture and bikes as a mode of transportation, building an incredible infrastructure for bike transport that makes it an incredibly freeing way to get around and explore the city. With our bikes we could see, feel, hear, and experience so much more than if we were in a car or a tram.
Nearly everywhere in the city is within a 15-minute bike ride. We quickly became familiar with the rules of bike transport and even became accustomed to riding in the rain to the gym, to our pancake breakfasts, or to the museums, of which the city has 400+. My belief is that the national commitment to movement of body and mind contributes to the high quality of life in Amsterdam.
People are outside much of the time, no matter the weather and they love their exercise. Living on a park meant that just outside our window, we could watch people running, riding, rollerblading, and working out in groups at all hours of the day. Since many of the Dutch work an average of 38 hours per week (compared to 44 for Americans), they have more time to spend outside with family and friends.
Education, access to education, and literacy is highly valued. It was so fun to walk down our street and peek into the homes along the road, many with huge collections of books. At one point in history Amsterdam produced almost all of the books in the world. They have several beautiful historic libraries and one of the best public library systems in the world. And, as a city with its origins rooted in world trade, it’s an incredibly diverse city and one of the most welcoming of different cultures than any I’ve ever experienced. You can feel its sense of acceptance in the air. It's one of the most diverse cities in Europe with over 180 nationalities represented.
But, the Dutch don’t have it all figured out. It was interesting to see how such a progressive city, that values education and diversity, still struggles with issues of racism. For instance, there’s a holiday celebrated every year where the participants show up in black face. You heard that right. Black Face. It’s become a controversial event and one that seems to have divided some Dutch.
While not perfect, I can absolutely say that Amsterdam is one of my top five cities and I highly recommend you make a trip. I also want to debunk the idea that it's only a destination for the red light district and weed industry. There is so much more to this little city.
Here are some of our favorite places and things to do in Amsterdam.
Food & Drink
We didn’t spend a ton of time in the center of town, so most of our recommendations are for places outside the centrum. I also have to warn you, that most standard dutch food is primarily made up of fried things. Not that it’s bad, it’s delicious, bitterballen, frites (which are actually Belgian), and croquettes are food that you’ll find everywhere and while they make for great bar food, I was often left craving a giant salad.
However, there is a pretty interesting modern food scene. If you’re vegan, the Dutch have your back. It seems that there’s a big vegan food movement with dedicated vegan restaurants and vegan options on almost every menu.
There are also lots of pop up restaurants and food stalls. Our favorite spot was Foodhallen. It’s a huge space that includes a library, a cinema, and stores. But the food hall is the main attraction. With dozens of food stands serving food from all over the world. It is really busy and can be difficult to find a seat, so I highly recommend going during slower times of day…for instance grabbing a late lunch between 2 and 3. Some of the things that we had here were nachos with cashew cream cheese, BBQ spare ribs, a gin fizz from the beautiful gin bar. But there is sushi, pizza, tapas, tacos, Indian food, etc.
The thing the dutch really do right is breakfast. Get pancakes. They know how to make pancakes and you can get them almost anywhere and they will be delicious. They aren’t like American pancakes, they are more of a cross-over of crepes and American pancakes. If you’re on the outskirts of town, make your way to Local Hero or Bartack. If you’re in the centrum, there are dozens of places to go.
Another great breakfast spot in the centrum is Omelegg. It’s an incredibly delicious omelette restaurant that has the most creative dishes and the servings are huge.
One of the most fun days we had was when we took the ferry over to the Noord and visited two of the local breweries, Oedipus and Walhalla. I highly recommend making the trip. First, because it’s such a treat to take the ferry. It’s free and fast and comes often and then it’s great to see the local beer culture. Oedipus is more of an open warehouse space and Walhalla has a dark-wood interior and cozy.
Lastly, visit Winkel 43 for the best apple pie of your life. It’s not on the menu, but you just simply need to sit down and order apple pie with or without cream (with :)) and your life will be changed.
Coffee (the kind you drink)
Amsterdam has a wonderful cafe atmosphere. There are an abundance of coffee shops where people can set up to work, drink coffee, and enjoy what I found to be really delicious cafe food, usually in the form of creamy greek yogurt and homemade muesli, or tasty housemade breads and juices.
Some of my favorites:
Note, if you plan to work in these shops, while they are welcoming to people who are on laptops, they often don’t have outlets for use and they expect that those who are working to set up at the community tables so that the individual tables aren’t taken for those who are just stopping by to eat.
There are so many museums to choose from, but if you can only go to one, I highly recommend the Anne Frank House. Visitors tour through the actual home of Anne Frank and get a sense of the stress and intensity of the time in WWII occupied Netherlands. You must buy your tickets in advance and I recommend going early in the day on a weekday. The space is pretty small and can get crowded quickly, so getting there early before the rest of the tourists have had their breakfast will give you a bit more space and time to experience the house.
If you’re looking for more museums, take a trip to the Rijks Museum or the Van Gogh museum. The Rijks museum could be a two-day endeavor. The space itself is a work of art and there are entire rooms dedicated to some of the best artists in the world like Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Leyden, etc..
If you’re looking for modern art, check out the Stedelijk museum. If you’re in the museum area and looking for somewhere to work, this museum also has a library with excellent internet. It’s quiet, hidden, and a delight to work in.
And, if you’re looking for something a bit more historic, check out the Palace in the center of town.
Another fun spot to visit is the De Balie center. This organization hosts events and talks in both dutch and English on a variety of topics. We visited one night and listened to a talk about the state of journalism in Europe. They have events daily and an entire English-speaking event calendar.
And, lastly—if you like science, the Nemo Museum is a must. There are tons of installations and interactive exhibits that make this museum oh-so-much fun.
Other Fun Things to Do
Rent a bike and get out of the center of town to Vondelpark. Seriously, my favorite experiences and memories of this city are in this park. It’s so full of people and such a beautiful park, about 2.5 miles around, it’s a wonderful place to take a picnic or just ride your bike in circles and people watch. It’s right near many of the museums, so it’s easy enough to visit here for a late lunch after hitting up the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh, or Stedelijk museum. Don’t miss this park.
Rent a boat and tour it around the canals. It’s so easy and a great way to spend time in the canals. All you have to do is book the boat online through a company called Sloep Delen, show up and activate the boat with your phone. Then, download the VarWater app to get recommended routes and rules for boating through the canals.
Netherlands charm isn’t just restricted to Amsterdam, the surrounding areas are also wonderful. If you’re visiting Amsterdam for a week or more, I highly suggest making your way to Utrecht or Haarlem. They are mini-Amsterdams and almost have more charm for their smaller size. They are also generally, less touristy in the central areas of town.