What to See and Do in Amsterdam

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By Mike DuBose and Debra DuBose with Blake DuBose

Amsterdam is a magical place that invites one to wander and marvel at its uniqueness. As Dyan Machan explained in a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, “Most cities are designed on grids that fill them with hard angles. Not Amsterdam, which has a softness about it imparted by the watery curves of the 16th-century canals that fan out through the city.” It had never been on our travel “bucket list,” but after a short visit preceding a river cruise down the Rhine, Amsterdam captured our hearts. We hope to return one day soon!

When someone mentions Amsterdam, many of us think of its canals, along with tulips, windmills, wooden clogs, and cheese—all of which are connected to the city’s vibrant history. For example, people really did wear wooden shoes to help keep their feet dry, and some citizens still do today for outdoor chores! Others might think of more modern characteristics, like Amsterdam’s tolerance regarding soft drugs—although, according to a 2016 USA TODAY article by Nancy Trejos, “This small Dutch city wants to be known for its other attributes—its world-class museums, vibrant dining scene, and trend-setting design and architectural accomplishments.”

After extensive research on www.traveladvisor.com and other sites, we chose Toms Travel Tours (www.tomstraveltours.com) to serve as our private guides while visiting Amsterdam. Tom van der Leij and his wife, Ana, have lived in the area for all of their lives. They are passionate professionals with in-depth knowledge of their history, country, and culture (in fact, Ana has a Ph.D. in European history). In addition to being a great guide, Tom is also an expert photographer, and he has some great pictures of Amsterdam on his website. We highly recommend them if you hire a private guide during your visit!

History and Culture

It’s important to note that, although many people use “Holland” and “the Netherlands” interchangeably, they’re actually not the same. Since 1815, the correct name of the country has been “the Netherlands,” and it is made up of twelve provinces. Two of these are North and South Holland, which contain most of the Netherlands’ major cities (Amsterdam, which is the largest; The Hague; and Rotterdam). The term “Dutch,” which is used to refer to the people of the Netherlands, comes from the Old English word for “people.”

Amsterdam was founded around 1170 AD, when a bridge and dam were built over the Amstel River. Eventually, “Amstel Dam” became “Amsterdam,” giving a name to the city, which now consists of 90 islands separated by artificially-laid canals and spanned by 500 bridges. Trade began flourishing in the area in the 1400s, and by the 17th century, Amsterdam was the wealthiest city in the world, basking in its “Golden Age.” Dutch science, banking, art, military power, and trade were at their peak. These international influences are still seen today, especially in Dutch society and its cuisine.

Amsterdam’s multiculturalism endures in the present age, with more than 150 nationalities represented in its population. One citizen proudly told us that Amsterdam is more diverse than any other city in the world! Ninety-one percent of people living in the Netherlands speak more than one language, and 87% speak English (good news for travelers, as many English-speakers find the Dutch language difficult). Most signs are in both Dutch and English, so you do not need to know the local language to maneuver around Amsterdam successfully. In our experience, people in Amsterdam were very friendly and helpful to tourists.

Seventy-three percent of people aged 15-64 in the Netherlands are employed, and 76% of adults 25-64 have obtained an upper secondary education. Amsterdam ranks as the fifth safest city in the world, according to The Economist magazine. You rarely see any panhandlers or beggars on Amsterdam’s streets, because it is forbidden in the city and social housing is part of the culture. The country truly believes in taking care of its citizens and the less fortunate in other countries. The Netherlands is fourth in the world in terms of foreign aid given to other nations (for comparison purposes, the United States is 21st). There are high taxes in place to support all of the domestic and foreign aid programs.

As a very liberal society, the Netherlands also allows behaviors that other countries prohibit. In Amsterdam, “soft” drugs like marijuana and hashish are sold in “coffee shops.” However, we never saw anyone using drugs (90% of people who smoke marijuana in Amsterdam are foreigners, according to CNN). The city is also known for its Red Light District.

Cars are strictly regulated by number and where they can travel. For those who drive cars, electric vehicles are very popular, but bikes are actually more prevalent in Amsterdam. Perhaps this is due to the narrow streets, or because gas cost roughly $7 per gallon when we visited and parking could go as high as 5 euros (about $6) per hour. During our time in Amsterdam, it was surprising to see nearly everyone, including models in high heels and businesspeople in suits, riding around on bikes!

People in the Netherlands tend to exercise a lot by walking and biking, and many children bicycle half an hour to school each day (some others travel to school in boats). According to our guides, Tom and Ana, children are taught at an early age that riding bicycles is an important way of life. They personally bicycle 20-30 miles to visit their other home on the North Shore! Before bicycles became popular, most people walked to work. With physical activity so ingrained in the culture, it’s no surprise that the Netherlands has one of the lowest obesity rates in Europe. They are also now the tallest people in the world, on average.

The Netherlands is a constitutional monarchy, and the ruler is King Willem-Alexander. Amsterdam is the official capital of the Netherlands and home to the Royal Palace, whereas The Hague is the seat of the government. One of the country’s best-known exports is tulips, which first came to the region in the 1500s from present-day Turkey. In fact, the country is now the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter of flowers and live plants, accounting for two-thirds of the global total. The country produces up to 3 billion tulip bulbs annually. Many are grown in the fields outside of Haarlem, a city that is just a 15-minute train ride from Amsterdam.

When to Go

Amsterdam’s sea climate means moderate temperatures throughout the year. Its high season reflects its best temperatures, which occur May through October, and the largest crowds descend on the city in July and August. If you’d like to see the region’s famous tulips in bloom, visit mid-April to early May.

Where to Stay

We stayed in the Amsterdam Hiltonat Apollolaan 138, 1077 BG Amsterdam, and would recommend it since it is centrally located near a canal and other sites. The bedroom where John Lennon of the Beatles and his wife, Yoko Ono, conducted their infamous 1969 “bed-in” interview with reporters is also located there! We met other Americans at the hotel who said they visited Amsterdam often since there was so much to see and do.

Fortunately, the historic center of Amsterdam is very compact, so as TripAdvisor.com notes, “it doesn't matter where you stay, as long as you are within the inner canal belt. If you are staying anywhere in that area, all the main sights and entertainment areas will be easily reachable.” There are a number of different hotels at various price points in the Rembrandtplein, Leidseplein, and Museumplein areas of Amsterdam. TripAdvisor recommends avoiding the Red Light District’s “low end” accommodations, though, and hotels on Damrak Street, which can be overpriced.

Getting Around

You can travel in Amsterdam’s small city center by walking or by using the system of cheap, frequent, and easy-to-use trams that shuttle people back and forth. It only takes about 10 minutes by tram or 30 minutes on foot to cross from one side of the city to the other. Other public transportation methods like the subway (Metro) and buses are also good. You can buy a chip card for using public transportation at vending machines, or purchase a tourist pass (which vary in price depending on how many days you need) from the tram or bus driver.

Want to get around like a local? Try renting a bicycle from one of the many rental businesses or your hotel. Amsterdam is the bicycle capital of the world, with more bikes (nearly 900,000) than residents (about 800,000)! In fact, many people own two or more cheap bikes so they have a backup in case one is stolen or breaks down. (Every year, up to 15,000 bicycles, many of which had been stolen, are pulled from the city’s canal system.) There are 249 miles of bike lanes around Amsterdam, and cyclists have the right of way, so be sure not to stand in them!

If you are visiting the city on your own (rather than with a tour group or private guide), you may want to consider buying an “I Amsterdam” card, which provides you with free use of public transportation, a complimentary canal cruise, no-cost entry to many museums (such as the Van Gogh Museum and Hortus Botanicus), and discounts on other attractions and restaurants. There are options ranging from 24- to 96-hour cards, with prices from 55-85 euros. See www.iamsterdam.com/en/i-am/i-amsterdam-city-card/order-your-card for more information (including links to participating attractions) and rates.

Museums and Zoos

Rijksmuseum was built in 1885 as a national museum, similar to what the Louvre is to France. The arts, crafts, and history-focused museum recently underwent a 10-year renovation, reopening to the public in 2013. It is the largest museum in the Netherlands and the most-visited in Amsterdam, drawing nearly 2.5 million people annually. The 8,000 specimens displayed there include works by artists like Rembrandt, Frans Hals the Elder, and Johannes Vermeer, including Rembrandt’s famous painting The Night Watch. Rijksmuseum is in Amsterdam’s Museum Square at Museumstraat 1. It is open from 9 AM-5 PM, 365 days a year. Tickets cost about 18 euros for adults (aged 18 and up) and are free for those younger than 18. To skip the ticket counter lines, purchase yours online in advance at www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/tickets.

Van Gogh Museum is the world’s largest collection of paintings and drawings by Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh created 2,100 artworks (including 860 oil paintings), but he sold only one painting in his 37 years of life. Only after his death in 1890 did he begin to gain critical acclaim, particularly due to the determination of his brother Theo’s wife to promote his work. His famous paintings Sunflowers, Bedroom in Arles, and The Potato Eaters are housed in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, located at 6 Museumplein in Museum Square.We have visited many Van Gogh sites across the world, so it was exciting to see so many of his paintings up close! The museum is open daily from 9 AM-6 PM, with hours extended to 10 PM on Fridays. Tickets are 17 euros for visitors age 18 and up and free for 17 and below; they can be obtained online at www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/plan-your-visit

Anne Frank House preserves the home at Prinsengracht 263-267where Anne Frank went into hiding and wrote her famous diary, which was published in 1947. Anne and her family hid in a portion of the 17th century canal house (called “the Secret Annex”) for 25 months in an attempt to escape the Nazis during World War II, but were betrayed and sent to concentration camps. Only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, survived. Today, the Anne Frank House not only memorializes Anne and the other Jews murdered during the Holocaust, but also has exhibits on other forms of persecution and discrimination. The museum is open only to visitors who have bought online tickets from 9 AM-3:30 PM; from 3:30 PM on (closing at 10 PM April-October and at 7 PM November-March), you can only enter if you buy tickets at the door. Tickets are available at www.annefrank.org/en/Museum/Practical-information/Online-ticket-sales/ two months before the desired visit date. If you buy them in advance, you also get to enter through a private side door. Tickets cost 9 euros for adults, 5 euros for children 10-17, and nothing for children under 10. The museum is open every day except Yom Kippur.

Artis Zoo, built in 1838, is the third oldest zoo in the world. In addition to many species of animals, the 27-building complex also features a planetarium, an aquarium, an arboretum, and a micropia, a museum dedicated to microscopically small life forms. Tickets to the zoo cost about 21 euros for ages 10 and up and 17 euros for ages 3-9. Artis Zoo is located in the center of Amsterdam at Plantage Kerklaan 38-40. Hours vary by season; check www.artis.nl/nl/language/visitors-information/ for details and to buy tickets online. (As a side note, the Dutch value their animals, even amphibians—when we were riding with our guide in his car, he pointed out areas under the road where frogs and toads could travel without being run over!)

Hortus Botanicus is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world, originally founded as a medicinal herb garden in the 1600s. As Dutch colonial power grew in the following decades, the garden expanded rapidly, filled with many examples of plants collected by traders on their international trips. Today, it contains over 4,000 plant specimens, including a 300-year-old cycad plant and coffee plants like those first cultivated by Hortus Botanicus and shipped to South America, sparking Brazil’s booming coffee trade. It is located at Plantage Middenlaan 2A (near Artis Zoo) and is open from 10 AM to 5 PM daily. The price for adult entry is about 9 euros; seniors and people aged 26 or less can enter for 5 euros.

Attractions

Canals—165 of them, totaling 60 miles—crisscross Amsterdam, earning the city its nickname of “the Venice of the North!” The three main canals are called Herengracht, Prinsengracht, and Keizersgracht and were dug during the Dutch Golden Age in the 1600s. They make up a belt of canals called the “Grachtengordel,” which is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) World Heritage Site, one of 936 famous landmarks in the world that are of special cultural or physical significance.Many historic buildings overlook the canals, and you can sit at a restaurant next to the canals or take a cruise on them to enjoy the view. Most Amsterdam citizens also have gardens or colorful flower beds in their backyards, and it is nice to look at the ornate facades of some homes.

Windmills were once prolific in the Netherlands—at one point, there were 10,000 of them scattered throughout the country! There are about 1,000 old windmills left today, and although some are still used to pump water out of the canals, most of them are now protected monuments that are open for people to visit. Harnessing the power of wind, they were historically used to drain water (26% of the Netherlands sits below sea level) and mill grain. Amsterdam retains eight of these windmills, and the tallest wooden windmill in the Netherlands, De Gooyer, stands at Funenkade 5, 1018 AL Amsterdam. You can’t go inside, but you can enjoy traditional Dutch beer next door at Brouwerij 't IJ while sitting outside and taking in the view.

Oude Kerk, or “Old Church,” is Amsterdam’s oldest building, originating as a wooden chapel built on the site in 1213. Today, the part of the city it is located in, called Der Wallen, is Amsterdam’s main Red Light District, contrasting against the religious services and events that still take place in the church. Oude Kerk is located at Oudekerksplein 23 1012 GX Amsterdam. Hours are 10 AM-6 PM Monday-Saturday, and 1 PM-5:30 PM on Sunday. You must buy a ticket (about 8 euros) at the ticket desk to enter.

Dam Square is the historic city center, situated on the site of the dam from which Amsterdam (and the square itself) takes its name. It is surrounded by many notable structures, including the Royal Palace, the Nieuwe Kerk (a former 16th century church that is now used as an exhibition space) and the National Monument, which recognizes the Dutch people’s suffering during World War II. Dam Square is a very touristy area, as well as a popular site for fairs, events, street performers, and demonstrations.

The Royal Palace—one of three in the country—is located on the western end of Dam Square. It is supported by nearly 14,000 wooden pilings driven into the watery soil back in 1665 to provide a stable foundation. The building served as a city hall until 1806, when Louis Napoleon (Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother) was installed as king of the then-Batavian Republic and took it as his palace. It has been used for many important ceremonies and occasions over the years, such as the official return to Indonesia of its own sovereignty, Queen Beatrix’s investiture in 1980, and then-Prince Willem-Alexander’s kiss with Princess Maxima on their wedding day in 2002. It is possible to visit the Royal Palace, provided that it is not closed for an important event. Hours are typically 10 AM-5 PM daily. Check www.paleisamsterdam.nl/en/opening-hours to ensure that the palace will be open during your visit. Tickets are 10 euros and can be purchased at www.paleisamsterdam.nl/en/e-tickets; children under 18 do not need tickets.

Vondelpark, the largest park in Amsterdam at 120 acres, sees roughly 10 million visitors per year. Upon its opening in 1865, it was called Nieuwe Park, but the name was changed in 1880 to honor playwright Joost van den Vondel, a statue of whom stands in the park. The Openluchttheater (open-air theater) hosts dance and musical performances from June through August, which are free to attend, although donations of one euro are encouraged. There are several bars/restaurants in the park if you desire to obtain some refreshments while you relax. Make sure to see Vondelpark’s sculpture by Pablo Picasso called The Fish if you visit. Vondelpark is situated south of the Leidesplein area near the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum.

De Pijp District is a great spot for shoppers, especially these streets: Van Woustraat, Ferdinand Bolstraat, Eerste van der Helststraat, Goovert Flinckstraat, Albert Cuypstraat, and Gerard Doustraat. The Albert Cuyp market, a daily event on Albert Cuypstraat, boasts 300 vendors selling everything from cheese to clothing to the city’s famous stroopwafels (a cookie consisting of two thin waffles with caramel in the middle). It is open from roughly 9:30 AM-5 PM daily, although it may close earlier if the weather is bad. Another popular shopping area in Amsterdam is Nine Little Streets (De Negan Straatjes), nine roads that run between the Prinsengracht and Sinfwl canals and are filled with cafes, shops, and boutiques.

Zandvoort Beach is located about 15 miles from Amsterdam on the North Sea. It’s about a 30-minute train ride from Amsterdam, and many of the city’s people choose to live at Zandvoort Beach for three months of the year. It is a popular vacation spot, featuring 38 pavilions littered with cafes that provide a wide variety of food. We recommend taking a trip out to this delightful place, as well as visiting some of the smaller villages on the way back to Amsterdam to really soak in the culture of the Netherlands.

Dining

Cheese plays a huge part in Dutch food culture and has for many years. Archaeologists have found cheese-making equipment in the Netherlands dating back to 200 BC, and markets in Edam, Gouda, and Alkmaar have been operating for 600 years! The country is currently one of the largest cheese exporters in the world. Three of the most famous types of Dutch cheese are:

  • Gouda, whichrefers more to a general style of cheese and does not have to be made in the town of Gouda. There are seven different categories, each based on age; the taste of the cheese depends on how old it is. The first recorded mention of Gouda was in 1184, making it one of the oldest cheeses still being produced today.
  • Edam, Debra’s favorite, is a pale yellow cheese with a red plastic rind. It originated in the town of Edam and has a mild, nutty flavor that sharpens with age. Because it doesn’t spoil (it only hardens), it was very popular between the 14th and 18th centuries, when colonists and traders were often at sea for long time periods.
  • Limburger is a white cheese is known for its pungent odor, often described as smelling like stinky feet! Its name comes from the Duchy of Limburg, where it was first made.

Traditional Dutch dishes include “Hollandse nieuwe haring,” a mixture of chopped raw herring with onions and gherkin pickles; “bitterballen,” meat and gravy covered in breading and fried; “appeltaart,” a type of apple pie; and “poffertjes,” small, puffy pancakes covered with powdered sugar. Other popular dishes feature a strong influence from their colonial past, such as “satay,” a spicy Indonesian peanut sauce; Surinamese curries; and “rijsttafel,” an assortment of Indonesian dishes centering around rice that is so entrenched in Dutch culture that it is considered a Dutch dish! French fries (“patat”) are also popular, and can be ordered with toppings: “patatje oorlog'” means they come with satay sauce, mayo and onions, and “patat special” comes with curry ketchup, mayonnaise, and onions. Amstel beer was created in Amsterdam in 1870 and was named after (and refrigerated by) the Amstel River.Gin was also first produced in Holland and was initially used as a medicine!

The Dutch are third in world in terms of coffee consumed per capita, so Amsterdam has plenty of “koffiehuis,” where you can purchase an actual cup of coffee (as opposed to the “coffee shops,” which sell drugs). There are also 1,500 bars (called “cafes”) in Amsterdam, and many great eateries.  Here are some favorite restaurants from our experience and reviewers from around the world:

Name/Location

Cuisine

Comments

Moeders

 

Rozengracht 251
1016 SX Amsterdam

 

Traditional Dutch

“If you’re in Amsterdam and want to try Dutch food, this is where you should go,” one reviewer proclaimed. This restaurant serves a variety of traditional Dutch foods, including appeltaart, rijsttafel, and stammpot (mashed potatoes with vegetables and sausage). You can choose from an a la carte or three-course menu, and there is a dish of the day offered for just 10 euros.

D'Vijff Vlieghen (“The Five Flies”)

 

Spuistraat 294-302, 1012 VX Amsterdam

Gourmet Dutch

This restaurant is housed in five 17th century canal houses, with the oldest parts dating back to 1627. Its chairs all feature plaques with the names of famous people who have dined there, including Walt Disney! The food is gourmet with Dutch influences, and you can either order a la carte or from multiple-course menus, with or without wine pairings.

Tempo Doeloe

 

Utrechtsestraat 75, 1017 VJ Amsterdam

Dutch-Indonesian

Of all of the many rijsttafel (“rice table”) restaurants in Amsterdam, Tempo Doeloe is consistently one of the highest-rated. Some said it was a little expensive, but noted that you get about 20 small dishes to sample! One TripAdvisor reviewer said that Tempo Doeloe “beats any Indonesian restaurant I have been to in Asia HANDS DOWN.” Reservations are recommended.

Pannenkoekenhuis Upstairs

 

Grimburgwal 2
1012 GA Amsterdam

Pancakes

This pancake house has been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show Layover for its traditional Dutch pancakes, and several reviewers said they were the best pancakes they had ever had. Bring cash, as they don’t accept credit cards, and consider making a reservation because it’s a small spot.

Brasserie Ambassade

 

Herengracht 339 

1016 AZ Amsterdam

(in the Ambassade Hotel)

French

Patrons recommend the 37-euro “chef’s surprise” option, where you indicate whether you prefer meat, fish, or vegetarian dishes and the chef creates three courses for you within those guidelines. One reviewer called it “a Michelin-star restaurant without the cost.”

Gartine

 

Taksteeg 7

1012 PB Amsterdam

French, Dutch

This off-the-beaten-path restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, all made with ingredients from its garden. Reviewers particularly raved about the breakfast. Consider making reservations at peak times, as there are only 12 tables.

Omelegg

 

Nieuwebrugsteeg 24
1012 AH Amsterdam

Breakfast, Brunch

This small chain (there is another location in the de Pijp area) serves omelets with a wide variety of fillings, pastries, and other breakfast foods. Reviewers praised its large portions, attentive service, and good prices. It is only open from 7 AM-4 PM, so go for breakfast or lunch.

The bottom line: A liberal city with strong roots in the past, Amsterdam is a great place to visit. Take a bike ride or a leisurely walk to enjoy 17th century architecture harkening back to the Dutch Golden Age, or stop at a street vendor to sample delicious cheeses and various foods. We hope you enjoy its combination of modern ideas and historic sites, as we did. We’ll be back!

About the Authors: Together, we have logged more than 2 million flight miles over the world in the last 40 years. Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at katie@dubosegroup.com.

Mike DuBose received his graduate degree from the University of South Carolina and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, Columbia Conference Center, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, health, and personal published articles.

Debra DuBose has been married to Mike for 44 years and co-writes articles with him. She holds bachelors and graduate degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group (www.duboseweb.com).

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

© Copyright 2016 by Mike DuBose—All Rights Reserved. You have permission and we encourage you to forward the full article to friends or colleagues and/or distribute it as part of personal or professional use, providing that the authors are credited. However, no part of this article may be altered or published in any other manner without the written consent of the authors. If you would like written approval to post this information on an appropriate website or to publish this information, please contact Katie Beck at Katie@dubosegroup.com.

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