Photo Courtesy of Rene Mesman
With its Golden Age canals, 17th-century mansions, world-class museums, and well-established counterculture, Amsterdam is a European capital with an edge. While some come for tulips, cheese, and windmills, others are drawn by the city’s reputation for easy sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Whatever bri…ngs you to this charismatic global village, you’re sure to be charmed by its fairy-tale landscapes, tolerant vibe, and historical legacy that harks back to the small, 13th-century fishing village on the Amstel River that would become an international capital.
What to know before you go to Amsterdam
Winter may be cold (with January and February the coldest months), but tourists are gone and locals have reclaimed the town. Before the holidays, In Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, two of the city’s open squares, skating rinks and oliebollen stands appear (oliebollen are the local doughnuts). Twinkling lights decorate bridges; seasonal trimming transform streets into fairy-tale lanes. Amsterdam Fashion Week sashays through town in January, drawing international style-makers. In the spring, tulips bloom, flowers spill over balconies, tourists jam museums, and locals celebrate the lengthening days. Millions arrive to viist Lisse's Keukenhof, a stunning flower garden. Summer means picnics in Vondelpark, Museumplein, Amsterdam Bos, and all the city’s green spaces. During Open Garden Days in June, many canal houses open private courtyards for viewing. Outdoor concerts and festivals abound, restaurant patios overflow with diners, and locals head to urban beaches. In the fall, as the leaves change color, Amsterdam ushers in the cultural season. New exhibits open at galleries and museums and opera season kicks off.
January: Amsterdam International Fashion Week February: Chinese New Year Festival March: Amsterdam Restaurant Week April: Koningsdag (King’s Day, formerly Koninginnedag or Queen’s Day) May: Art Amsterdam (previously Kunst RAI) June: Holland Festival, Vondelpark Open Air Theater, Taste of Amsterdam, Nuit Blanche, Open Garden Days July: Amsterdam Roots Festival, Kwakoe Zomer Festival August: Robeco Summer Nights, Gay Pride, Grachtenfestival; Pluk De Nacht, Sail Amsterdam, Uitmarkt September: Open Monument Days, Jordaan Festival, Amsterdam Restaurant Week October: Amsterdam Dance Event, Amsterdam Marathon November: Museum Night, Amsterdam Antique Fair, High Times Cannabis Cup, International Documentary Film Festival, Sinterklaas arrives
Amsterdam is an international hub for many airlines. Flights arrive at Schiphol, which is about half an hour from the city center by public transportation. Trains arrive at Central Station, where countless connections to the rest of the Netherlands and all of Europe are available. Eurostar buses terminate at Amstel Station. Boat travel is an option for U.K. and Scandinavian travelers, via P &O North Sea Ferries, Stenaline, and Scandinavian Seaways. City parking is rare and expensive. If you must arrive by car, take the A10 Ring into town from any major freeway.
Amsterdam is among the most compact of the world’s major cities, making it easy to get around by foot or bike. An excellent system of GVB trams and buses facilitates travel throughout the city and beyond. A metro line connects Centrum with the suburbs.
There’s no sign, no agenda, and no boundaries at Supperclub, where it’s always a memorable evening. From the Salon Neige, where you’ll dine like a sultan to the gay urinal that doubles as a smoking room, this is experimental fun unfettered by convention. Expect eclectic cuisine and entertainment from the seductive to the bizarre, encompassing vaudeville, burlesque, and cabaret.
Holland is known for hearty comfort food, not haute cuisine. Yet its capital competes with the best of Europe on the dining front with nearly 1,500 options, from Michelin-starred restaurants and historic watering holes to gay cafés and Irish pubs. Amsterdam’s culinary melting pot includes diverse fare encompassing Indonesian rijstaffel, Spanish tapas, and Dutch favorites such as stamppot, bitterballen, and pannekoeken. Sample Asian flavors in Chinatown, near Nieuwmarkt, or cruise Haarlemmerstraat, Utrechtsestraat, or Reguliersdwarsstraat for dining options. Avoid touristy Leidseplein. On the street, try Vlaames frites—twice-fried potatoes smothered in mayo—or raw herring served with pickles and onions. Turkish pizza is popular, as are gyros, reflecting Middle Eastern influences. In the wee hours, buy a kroquet or burger from coin-operated windows at FEBO (the Dutch fast-food automat chain), where you’ll see locals trying to be inconspicuous as they grab a late-night snack. Heineken and Amstel are the local beers. For a stiffer drink, try Dutch jenever, which is juniper-flavored gin.
With classical music at Concertgebouw, theater at Stadsschouwburg, jazz at Bimhuis, contemporary music at Muziekgebouw, and cabaret at Royal Theater Carré, Amsterdam’s cultural scene offers plenty of variety. Renowned pop and electronic music venues include Air, Melkweg, Paradiso, Sugar Factory, and Escape.
AFAR’s travel partner, Context, offers visitors a private tour, led by a local historian, artist, or architect, of the city’s streets and canals called The Dutch Golden Age, with a focus on how a relatively small Amsterdam came to hold a global position of power in the 1600s.
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Melissa Adams Before falling in love with a soggy patch on the European continent and adopting it as home, Melissa wooed words as a travel writer, ghostwriter, copywriter, newspaper columnist and freelance journalist in sunny Southern California. She now blogs about cultural immersion in a mellow global village, where she enjoys living with seasons and the quirky Dutch. Read more at UnClogged in Amsterdam: An American Expat Plumbs Holland, WordGeisha, Ink, The Write Brain and Matador Travel Network.