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.
Winter is cold (with January and February the coldest months), but tourists are gone and locals have reclaimed the town. In Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, two of the city’s open squares, skating rinks and oliebollen stands appear. Holiday lights decorate bridges; seasonal decorations transform streets. The season culminates with fireworks at Museumplein. Amsterdam Fashion Week struts through in January, drawing international style to city streets. In the spring, tulips bloom, flowers overflow balconies, tourists jam museums, and locals celebrate long days. Millions arrive in Lisse to visit Keukenhof, a stunning outdoor garden. The summer is time to head outdoors for a picnic in Vondelpark, Museumplein, Amsterdam Bos, or any of the city’s green spaces. During Open Garden Days in June, many canal houses open private courtyards for viewing. Outdoor concerts and festivals abound, patios spill over with diners, and locals flee to urban beaches for sun, sand, and surf. In the fall, as the leaves change color, Amsterdam ushers in the cultural season. New shows debut. Visitors come for opera, museums, and year-round attractions such as nightlife and canal cruises.
Amsterdam is an international hub for many airlines. Flights arrive at Schiphol, Europe’s fourth-largest airport, which is about half an hour from the city center by public transport. Trains arrive at Central Station, where countless connections are available. London is less than five hours away on high-speed Eurostar and Thalys lines. 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 southern suburbs; another, slated for completion in 2017, will link the Museum District to North 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.
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 unless you like being overcharged for an overcooked steak. On the street, try Vlaames frites—twice-fried potatoes smothered in mayo⎯or raw herring 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 Dutchies 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.
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
Never buy drugs off 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.