amsterdam city guide
I underestimated how much time it would take to create a city guide, especially for a place as enchanting as Amsterdam. After a whirlwind trip from NYC to Amsterdam and now in the quiet of New Mexico, as I write this, I finally have time to sit down and reflect on my favorite things. This list is not close to being comprehensive--I'd need at least a year, but just wanted to share the places I happened to stumble upon and enjoy wholeheartedly.
In Amsterdam you can have no agenda but to wander the cobblestone streets and gaze at the leaning, off-kilter homes on the many canals that wind through the city. The people of Amsterdam are open-minded and progressive. The food is fresh and locally sourced from one of the many climate-controlled sustainable farms in the Netherlands. You can get most anywhere by bike or foot, and day excursions are accessible by an efficient rail system. The city is so visually poetic, you'll be hard-pressed not to find a photo op at every turn--do try to resist and take it all in.
From the Schiphol Airport, take the Intercity Direct train or the Sprinter to Amsterdam Centraal (about a 15 minute train ride). It's €4.30 for 2nd class or €7.20 for 1st class (I went for 1st class, it's such a small discrepancy). Just be sure to validate your ticket on the scanner machines, after purchasing, and before getting on the train, if your ticket does not have a date. Once you get into town you can take a taxi or walk to your destination depending on how much luggage you have, or how far your accommodations are. Alternatively, you can also take a taxi from the airport. I don't recommend using Uber although it is available in the city; the cars are often rundown and drivers inexperienced. The taxis in Amsterdam use luxury vehicles, are well maintained and tend to have friendly enough drivers. And, most accept credit card. Just be sure to use official taxis with the company displayed on the lighted roof plaque.
Watch out for bicycles! That would be my first piece of advice when navigating the city. Everyone in Amsterdam has a bicycle and it is the most popular method of transportation. The city is a farely small and you can get around by foot comfortably. I recommend walking the first few days of your visit, get lost in the streets of the Jordaan, explore the city's countless canals and traipse the nine streets. Then, do as the locals do and rent a bicycle from one of the many shops around the city.
Amsterdam also has an efficient tram system within the city limits and train system to navigate other parts of Holland and The Netherlands. From Amsterdam Centraal there are direct connections to Belgium, Germany and France.
//Language & communication//
Almost everyone in Amsterdam speaks excellent English. The city is laden with international residents and English is the lingua franca. A few local restaurants and brown cafes may not speak English very well, but someone within arms reach will. The Dutch are very friendly people--when in doubt, ask a passerby.
//Currency & tipping//
Amsterdam's currency is the Euro and many places only accept cash--be sure to always have some on hand. It's also good to have a few coins for tipping. Speaking of, coming from The States, it's hard to wrap your head around the tipping policy and not feel some sort of deeply ingrained guilt (my mother was a waitress). With that said, it is their custom to leave a maximum of 10% for the tip if it's a full meal, or between 5-10% at a cafe. Tip between 5-10% for taxis and about €1 to €2 per bag for porters. It is not expected to leave a tip for the cleaning staff nor is tipping expected in bars.
//Where to stay//
In Amsterdam, it's all about location which can make or break your trip. I recommend staying in the Canal District near the nine streets or the Jordaan for a more local vibe (pronounced Yor-dan). My Favorite hotel (pictured above) is the Pulitzer, sandwiched between the Prisengracht and Keizersgracht (canals). It's adjacent to the Jordaan and located within the nine streets, near the Anne Frank House. Even if you don't end up staying here, they have a great bar that's worth visiting, that over looks the Kiezersgracht (canal).
There are also many ideal and affordable (Amsterdam is pricey) options on Airbnb. It's nice to have a kitchen if you are staying long-term or want to save money by eating in a few meals. When I went with my family in 2014, we stayed on the Herengracht (canal) near the nine streets, in a beautiful Airbnb designed by an architect. On Joshua's and my most recent trip, we were put up at the Hotel Pulitzer because it was a work trip for Josh. Both experiences were nice--choose what suits you! Here are additional hotel recommendations, all within walking distance and great places to stay:
//Food & libations//
As aforementioned, the food in Amsterdam is locally sourced, seasonal and delicious! The Netherlands has a sea of greenhouses, or climate-controlled farms, and is the second largest exporter of food, only behind the United States--quite amazing given it's size! And, they do it all sustainability (more about that here). I didn't get to as many restaurants as i would have liked, but these were my favorites as well as some others that I would've liked to try given more time.
Cafe de Klepel is one of my favorite restaurants in Amsterdam (pictured above). The food is organic and local, and delivered fresh each day. They have an extensive wine list and a knowledgeable and friendly staff. The ambiance is perfectly quaint; you feel like you're eating in someone's home. It's located within the nine streets, on Prinsenstraat, just off the Prisengracht (canal). They have a three-course set menu, typical in Amsterdam, that changes every few days. A reservation is a must (try to make it at least a month ahead of time) as the restaurant is very small and popular with the locals. You can also stop in for their apertif hour (sans reservations) from 6-7:00p or after 10:00p.
Marius is the only restaurant experience that rivals Cafe de Klepel. It perfectly captures that cozy atmosphere you often find in Amsterdam. The menu changes with the seasons and whatever produce is delivered that day. The chef worked at Chez Penisse, Alice Water's famous restaurant, in the 80s, so 'nuff said. The restaurant is local and located in a quiet neighborhood just outside of the city center. The staff speaks little English but this only adds to the charm. Although the menu is set, they are willing to adjust for dietary restrictions within reason. They also have a meat or fish option, and sometimes a vegetarian option as well. Make reservations.
Balthazar's is located in the Jordaan District just off the Prisengracht. The space is charming and has an interesting history denoted by the rustic painting on the wall (just ask the servers about it). They too have a three course set menu (you can choose between fish or meat) that changes weekly with whatever local and organic produce is available. Make reservations.
De Kas is out of the city center but the charm lies in the location, set inside several greenhouses built in the 1920s. They grow most of their food onsite, but everything else is also local and organic. They have a set menu based on what they harvested that day. Vegetables are usually the main focus, but they are accompanied by a protein--either meat or fish. However, they are more than happy to accommodate vegetarians. Make reservations; it's open for lunch or dinner.
lunch recommendations or casual dinner
Dignita is perfect for a healthy breakfast or lunch. The food is fresh and homemade and the space modern and homey. They have two locations--one is near Vondelpark (pictured above). It's a nice idea to have a meal here and then walk through the park to the Van Gogh or Rijksmuseum.
De Hallen is a food court set in an old tram station. There are lots of different vendors that serve a variety of food and drinks. There are also some little shops and studios.
Fou Fow Ramen is located in the Jordaan, just off the Prisengracht. The space is narrow with a clean, modern decor. Always a packed house here, but the wait is never too long. There's a local bar across the street where you can sit outside and enjoy a drink overlooking the canal. Just let the hostess know where you are and she'll wave to you when your table is ready. They make their gyoza from scratch and, what tastes like, house-made noodles. Their pickled daikon is delicious.
Vegan Junk Food Bar gets creative with plant-based junk food. It's casual but has a nice, trendy ambiance. There are two locations so pick whichever is convenient.
Meatless District is another option for fun plant-based cuisine. It's casual and open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Pllek is just across the river from Amsterdam (you take the ferry to get there) and it boasts panoramic views of the city. The space is constructed out of shipping containers and the food is organic and local. It's a great place for a scenic lunch or dinner, perhaps a bit commercial. They also have a good amount of vegan and vegetarian options on their menu.
Rainarai is a great lunch spot that serves North African fare that is fresh and flavorful (shown above). Most of their foods are naturally gluten-free and vegan/vegetarian, but they also have meat dishes as well. At the Prisengracht location, they have quite the production of sous chefs peeling, chopping and prepping vegetables. The food is prepared ahead of time each morning and heated in the oven upon serving. There are two locations.
Winkel is a prized European cafe that serves hearty meals and a renown apple pie. I am not able to enjoy most of the foods on their menu as they contain gluten, but I thought I'd mention it as it's one of the Jordaan's staples. It is in a great location, overlooking the Westerstraat and Noordermarkt. Enjoy a coffee and pastry in morning or a glass of wine on the terrace. They also have vegetarian options, albeit not gluten-free, and gluten-free option albeit not vegetarian last time I checked...
Brasserie Blazer is in the Jordaan set on the Lijnbaansgracht. Come here on a nice day, sit outside and enjoy the canal-side view. The food is fresh and the wine is OK--better brew options. It's really about the location here.
Piqniq is a nice place for lunch, located in the Jordaan. It's casual but the food is fresh and and light. They have something for everyone and accommodate all dietary needs. It can get busy at lunch time but the wait isn't ever too long. They also offer picnic baskets for take away--perfect to enjoy in Vondelpark or on a canal cruse!
Dining options I'd like to try but haven't...
Restaurant Vlaming, Jordaan
Chez Georges, local, nine streets
La Olivia, Jordaan
Chez Lorraine, Jordaan
Bleu, nine streets
Venus & Adonis, Jordaan
Volt, De Pijp neighborhood
Bistrot Neuf, near Amsterdam Centraal
La Perla Pizzaria, Jordaan; cute neighborhood restaurant if you're not gluten-free
Men Impossible, vegan ramen, Jordaan
Scandinavian Embassy, good for breakfast/brunch, De Pijp neighborhood
Café Hegeraad is about as traditional, in terms of an Amsterdam bar, as you'll get. The structure is nearly 400 years old, and the decorum looks so too! The bartender does not speak English, but she's nice and welcoming. You walk in and smell stale cigarettes and dust--at which point you'll wonder why I ven recommended this place at all. Resist the urge to walk away and guide yourself to the bar or a table and sit down for a cheap drink. Soak in the history and ambiance; people watch--you'll see some Dutch regulars. And, you've got to appreciate their hours, open from 8:00a-3:00a. Drinks for breakfast anyone? Enjoy.
The Pulitzer Bar is attached to the Pulitzer Hotel, however there is a separate back entrance off the Keizersgracht. Stylish spot with views of the Keizersgracht (canal). Small, light snacks are complimentary.
Brasserie OCCO, posh bar located in The Dylan hotel. Open all day, also offers food.
Bar Centraal, super hip bar with great wines that tend to be on the natural, more funky side. Light fare and snacks. Young and local crowd.
Café De Doffer is an authentic Dutch neighborhood bar located in the nine streets. It offers fresh pub food in a cozy atmosphere.
Glou Glou is located in the De Pijp neighborhood. Trendy wine bar serving cheese and light fare. Never made it here, but would have liked to. Same owners as Bar Centraal.
DiVino Wijnbar is nestled within the small streets of the Jordaan. I stumbled upon this little gem while walking aimlessly (my favorite pastime in Amsterdam). They have a good wine list that's reasonably priced. Perfect spot for an aperitif or post dinner glass of wine and cheese plate. The food and chef are Italian, and the owners are a middle-aged Dutch couple. They feature homemade Italian cheeses made in Amsterdam, a perfect marriage of my favorite places! Open from 4:00-11:00p.
Bocca Coffee is one of my favorite coffee spots in Amsterdam. On your way there you may feel like you're walking into a tourist trap, but then you'll arrive at a quiet street in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city center. The space is open and peaceful, quintessential Dutch modern. Peek around the back and you'll see their in-house roasting facility. The crowd and staff are international albeit locals. I recommend getting a pour over, or some sort of espresso drink. They also offer homemade treats: gluten-full, gluten-free and vegan.
Screaming Beans is another coffee gem located in the nine streets. They offer specialty coffee and house roasted beans. The ambiance is stylish and pleasant. They have excellent pour overs, cappuccinos and other goodies.
Caffè il Momento, specialty coffee on the edge of the nine streets
//Markets and shopping//
Noordermarkt is open and active on Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays (in the spring at least) till about 12:30p (Sundays may have longer hours). It's a nearly 400 year-old market that sells organic and local produce, books, antiques, flowers, clothing, textiles, jewelry and more. It's a great way to immerse yourself with the locals and it's located in one of the most beautiful squares in Amsterdam.
Fromagerie Abraham Kef (pictured above) is an adorable wine and cheese shop located on the western edge of the Jordaan, just off the Singelgracht. They have a few locations but my favorite is on Marnixstraat (as mentioned above). Come here and buy a few cheeses, snacks and wine to take on your canal cruise (more on that below!).
Chocolátl is located on a small street in the Jordaan. Great chocolate and an adorable, quaint shop.
Verse, eco-friendly clothing and accessories made in Amsterdam
Atelier des Femmes, unique hat and hair accessories, nine streets
//Things to do//
Shop your way through the nine streets
Wander through the Jordaan neighborhood, Lonely Planet offers a nice self-guided walking tour
See the city from a different perspective and take a cruise through the canals. We used Those Dam Boat Guys. The meeting point is in the nine streets district, and the boat is small, only carrying about 10-11 passengers. It's an intimate and personal cruise, the least touristy you can get. The captains are fun and knowledgeable. The best part is that they allow you to bring your own picnic, food and wine, and other alcohol is encouraged! We purchased some cheese and wine at Fromagerie Abraham Kef to bring along the ride. The cruise is 90 minutes and 25 Euro per person. You can also opt for a private cruise, 250 Euro for 90 minutes. I would recommend taking your cruise around sunset. Book a few weeks ahead to get desired date and time.
Take a snapshot of the seven bridges and wander the neighborhood on foot.
Sit canal-side at a cafe, enjoy an espresso or glass of wine while people watching.
Explore the De Pijp Neighborhood, Amsterdam's most bohemian side, often referred to as the "coolest" neighborhood.
Van Gogh Museum, buy tickets ahead of time to avoid waiting in line. The museum is very accessible and well-planned. It's nice to get an audio guide for an in depth commentary on Van Gogh and his work. On Fridays the museum is open until 9pm.
Rijksmuseum, buy tickets ahead of time. Go earlier rather than later to avoid the crowds.
The Anne Frank House is a must see in Amsterdam. It is heart-wrenching and chilling, but an important part of our history. The museum is small and intimate (it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to walk through), they only allow a certain number of people inside, which is why the line is so long if you don't buy tickets in advance. Book your tickets at least one month (up to two months) ahead of time. If you forget, you can always check the website the day of for cancellations.
Red Light District, I mean you have to at least walk through...
Take the train to Keukenhof Gardens to see the tulips (seasonal). I didn't make it here, I couldn't peel myself away from the city's core. But I hear it's beautiful when the tulips bloom in the spring.