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 brings 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.

Amsterdam canal at fall, several tall little houses in a row next to the river canal

Sergey Borisov / Alamy/Alamy


When’s the best time to 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

How to get around Amsterdam

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.

Can’t miss things to do in Amsterdam

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.

Food and drink to try in Amsterdam

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.

Culture in Amsterdam

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.

Local travel tips for Amsterdam

  • Never buy drugs from street dealers.
  • Urinating on the street will cost you €60.
  • Taxi drivers may rip you off unless you know exactly where you’re going.
  • Don’t overtip for inferior service at Dutch bars and restaurants.
  • Establishments along Damrak and in Leidseplein are touristy, overpriced, and often mediocre.

Guide Editor

Read Before You Go
Resources to help plan your trip
Locals take a casual attitude toward food in the Netherlands. Service is mellow if there at all, but Dutchies don’t mind. Unlike Americans, they linger over food at informal joints with high-quality food or grab street snacks like herring, fries smothered in sauce, or brodjes (sandwiches). Many Amsterdammers will claim they’ve never bought a kroquet at a FEBO, but you’ll find them in the wee hours at these coin-operated eateries.
If you only have three days in Amsterdam, a walking tour, boat tour, museum-crawl, and evening concert are just a few of your activity options. Over three days, you can also experience Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District, get lost in the canal ring, chill out in Vondelpark and take a ferry to Amsterdam-Noord. Plus: get out of town and see picture-postcard Holland a short cycle-ride away, but worlds apart from bustling Amsterdam.
A perfect day in Amsterdam might begin with breakfast at Papeneiland on Prinsengracht and Brouwersgracht, a brown café on Prinsengracht and Brouwersgracht that’s been around since 1642, where former President Bill Clinton famously downed a hunk of apple pie. It might end in infamous De Wallen, the city’s lovely (and safe) Red Light District. In between, consider a walking tour or canal tour, a picnic at Vondelpark, and a visit to some of Amsterdam’s world-class museums.
Amsterdam is a shopper’s paradise, with vintage shops, one-of-a-kind boutiques, Dutch design outlets and pop-up boutiques throughout the city. If you’re a serious shopper, you won’t want to miss special shopping streets like Haarlemmerstraat/Haarlemmerdijk, Hazenstraat, Utrechtstraat, Kalverstraat, Leidsestraat and the nine small streets that comprise the Negen Straatjes. All offer great window shopping, as well as retail treasures you may not yet know you can’t live without.
If staying in a big hotel owned by a multinational hotel chain doesn’t float your boat, choose from numerous smaller boutique hotels in Amsterdam for a more authentic Dutch experience. In these intimate settings, you’re more likely to experience life as a local. On the con side, you may not enjoy 24/7 concierge services and might face lugging your suitcase up stairs that ascend at a nearly 90° angle to upper floors—a hallmark of historic buildings in Holland.
Amsterdam—a mecca for design fans—is a shopper’s paradise for everyone else, too, with vintage stores, one-of-a-kind boutiques, Dutch design outlets, and pop-up shops lining the streets and canals.
Holland may be synonymous with beer, and brewpubs certainly abound along Amsterdam’s canals—but travelers shouldn’t miss a taste of the local spirit, genever, as well as the chance to sample some of the craft cocktails around town. Proost!
In a country the size of a postage stamp, it’s easy to hop on a train that will take you from the buzzing capital to iconic windmills, dazzling blooms and sandy beaches in less than an hour. To see the real Holland of emerald plains and verdant meadows studded with dykes and dunes, get out to the countryside, where you’ll find kitschy Dutch gardens, plump cows, day-glow tulips and families of swans gliding along carefully constructed polders.
Amsterdam’s diverse population is reflected in its dining scene. With restaurants offering everything from spicy Indonesian rijkstafel and Mediterranean cuisine to Argentijn barbecue, Ramen noodles and Dutch fusion, there’s something for everyone to eat in the Netherlands’ capital city.
From nature to nibbles, Amsterdam has all the trappings of a perfect weekend getaway. Rich in more than just bike culture, it’s a quintessentially charming city with stellar nightlife, welcoming cafés and a burgeoning food scene. Now is absolutely the time to visit.
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