Amsterdam, the capital of the Netherlands, is a popular tourism destination for a variety of reasons. From the crooked Golden Age houses lining its meandering canals to its top-notch partying, liberal attitude towards recreational drug use, and wealth of museums, cafés, and green spaces, it’s no wonder backpacking Amsterdam tops many European bucket lists.
Located near one of Europe’s largest air hubs, Amsterdam is a great way to kick off a European trip or for a standalone visit. Read on for insider tips from a local – from the best places to go, to budget-saving hacks!
Amsterdam, Netherlands – Travel Guide
Amsterdam Map & Resources
Best Time to Visit Amsterdam
Amsterdam has tremendously (almost comically) fickle weather. Often featuring wind, hail, rain, and blinding sun in 5-minute intervals, the weather is a constant topic of conversation among locals and visitors alike.
It is an absolute necessity to pack a rain jacket no matter when you visit, as well as waterproof or water-resistant shoes comfortable for walking.
The best advice is to download Buienradar, a weather app, and check it every few hours. Rain often comes and goes quickly, and sometimes waiting even five minutes can prevent you from getting drenched.
Although summertime is considered to have the best weather, this can be a bit subjective – while largely mild, recent years have seen increasingly high temperatures. With air-conditioning still not considered a common amenity, this can make for some hot nights (and not in a good way)!
However, summer is certainly still the peak tourist season due to it having the most sun and deliciously long hours of daylight – perfect for those after-dinner drinks outdoors. While no time of year is a bad time to visit Amsterdam, fall and spring can be very rainy, and winter is very dark and gray. However, the temperature rarely falls below freezing, and the lack of tourists means you’ll save quite a bit of money visiting in the off-season.
Note that if it’s a dream of yours to visit the Keukenhof tulip gardens, spring is the time! While not an exact science when they will bloom, Keukenhof is only open from March to May, and the tulips usually bloom somewhere in the middle, in mid-April. This makes the Netherlands a fantastic destination for a spring break in Europe – if you’re not afraid of a few showers!
Where to Stay in Amsterdam
When looking into your lodging options, It’s really important to keep in mind that Amsterdam has a severe housing shortage. While this has led to the Dutch government imposing pretty strict limitations on Airbnb, it’s worth doing your due diligence to ensure you’re not staying in an illegal one. In particular, consider staying in a spare room rather than a full apartment, or looking into hostels or apartment swaps.
Wherever you stay, it’s critical to book your accommodation early. The interplay between low supply and high demand is manifested in visitors’ wallets, with eye-popping prices for last-minute bookings, even in the most no-frills places.
Here are a few popular areas for visitors:
- De Wallen (the Red Light District): If you’re looking to party all night and perhaps avail yourself of the legalized marijuana and prostitution on offer, this is the place for you. Note that this area is loud, and not for those looking for a quiet night’s sleep!
- Jordaan and the Grachtengordel (canal area): If you want to be in the center of everything, but perhaps somewhere a bit less crazy than the Red Light District, the Jordaan neighborhood or the concentric semicircles forming the canal area is a great place for walkability and ease of access. Downside – it’s not so light on the wallet.
- Oud-Zuid and the Museum Quarter: If museums are your scene, the area around Museumplein is a great place to stay. While still quite close to the city center, it’s a bit quieter and more family-oriented. Price-wise, it won’t be much cheaper than the city center.
- De Pijp: Hipsters, unite – this is arguably Amsterdam’s most hip neighborhood, and very popular with visitors. While cheaper than the city center, you’ll likely find mid-range accommodation here due to the area’s popularity.
- West: For the best bang for your buck, check out Amsterdam West. Oud-West is a bit pricier, but crossing the bridge into de Baarsjes and Bos en Lommer offers more spacious and cheap options. They also tend to come with more traditional hotel amenities and easy connections to public transit.
Best Hostels in Amsterdam
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- Euphemia Old City Canal Zone (€-€€): Located in an old monastery, Euphemia is very highly-rated for solo travelers looking for proximity to the city center. Ranging from about €25 to €100 per night (depending on whether you want a dorm or a private room), this isn’t the cheapest hostel in the city but offers great bang-for-your-buck in terms of location.
- Flying Pig Downtown (€-€€): Easily one of Europe’s most popular hostels, Flying Pig is the place to be for those seeking to party, make new friends, and have a great time. The downtown location is located right near Centraal and the Red Light District and offers DJ nights, indoor smoking, and round-the-clock partying. There’s also a location uptown near the Vondelpark which is a bit quieter but still lots of fun. Beds start at around €20.
- Meininger Amsterdam City West (€-€€): Located right by Sloterdijk train station, this Meininger is one of central Amsterdam’s most budget-friendly stays. Featuring surprisingly spacious rooms and quiet, this isn’t necessarily a place for party animals but is perfect for those wanting to get an early start to see the sights. Dorms start as low as €20 per night, and family accommodation is available as well.
- ClinkNoord (€): For the backpackers doubling as digital nomads, this is the spot for you. Formerly a laboratory, this 1920s-era building has a library, designated workspaces, and a spacious atrium area, as well as a café and bar. Word on the street is that musicians can get a free night’s stay in exchange for a performance, but dorms for the less talented among us start at €15. Noord in general is a great off-the-beaten-path area to visit.
- Ecomama (€): Just a stone’s throw from the Red Light District is a boutique hostel that is totally focused on sustainability. Particularly popular with couples, this hostel prides itself on waste reduction and fair-trade amenities. Dorms start at about €19 per night, surprisingly budget-friendly for how beautiful and centrally-located the hostel is.
13 Things to Do in Amsterdam, Netherlands
1. Go Crazy for Museums
You could live in Amsterdam for years and not visit all of its world-class museums, but there are a few that are worth prioritizing.
Stedelijk: This museum, nicknamed ‘the bathtub’ in Dutch for its distinctive shape, is dedicated to modern and contemporary art, quite a departure from the Rijksmuseum. It features works by artists like Kandinsky, Chagall, and Mondrian.
Rijksmuseum: The national gallery of the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum showcases Dutch art and history, including stunning works by Dutch Masters Rembrandt and Vermeer as well as lots of historical artifacts, furniture, and more.
Van Gogh Museum: Home to the largest collection of native son Vincent van Gogh’s paintings in the world, this museum is a must for fans of his work. It also gives visitors an in-depth peek at his life, with letters and photographs also forming part of the exhibits.
Our Lord in the Attic: Ons’ Lieve Heer Op Solder in Dutch, this museum is a huge treat. Here, spread across the top floors of a 17th-century canal house, is a secret church! Catholicism was banned by the Alteration of 1578, so they had to worship in secret. A wealthy merchant constructed this jaw-dropping church in his home, totally invisible from the street below.
NEMO Science Museum: Located in a huge, bright-green, boat-shaped building, NEMO is packed with five floors of science fun for kids and adults alike. Its neat location in the Oosterdokseiland neighborhood and the gorgeous views from its roof make it well worth a visit for anyone with a curious mind.
Artis Zoo, Groote Museum, and Micropia: With three museums in one, the Artis complex is great for families or those interested in wildlife and life’s big questions. While the zoo isn’t huge, it’s one of Europe’s oldest, and the Micropia museum is the first of its kind – the only museum in the world dedicated to microbes.
Anne Frank House: Dedicated to the life and legacy of Anne Frank, you can visit the Secret Annex where she and her family hid during World War II. The museum includes exhibits about the Frank family and the friends who helped them hide, as well as the history of the Holocaust. An absolute must-visit in the city, be sure to get your tickets as far in advance as possible, as it’s quite small and visitor numbers are limited.
Tropenmuseum: Located about five minutes from the Artis complex, the Tropenmuseum is dedicated to world cultures, and features exhibits about different history, customs, and traditions from around the world in a sprawling historic building.
Amsterdam Museum: Dedicated to the history and culture of Amsterdam, this is a must-see to learn about the city in depth, featuring exhibits about the city’s development over time as well as its cultural heritage.
2. Take in the Red Light District
It’s not all prostitutes in red-curtained windows, though this is certainly one of the main attractions. De Wallen is actually the city’s oldest neighborhood, home to sweeping churches, lovely canals, and quaint cafés.
Note that it’s really important to be respectful of the privacy of the sex workers and never take photos of the windows. If you’re caught doing so, you’ll be roundly scolded and forced to delete them immediately.
This area gets really rowdy, particularly with stag parties. If you’re looking to party, this is one of the best places to be in the city.
3. See a Show
Whether it’s a ballet at the Nationale Opera & Ballet, a musical at the Koninklijk Theater Carré, or an evening of symphony music at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam has fabulous venues for live performances, often at super reasonable prices and with discounts available for those under 30. If drag shows or indie music are more your scene, check out venues like Paradiso and Melkweg.
4. Take a Canal Boat Tour
The city’s concentric network of canals is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a canal boat tour is a great way to see Amsterdam’s beautiful architecture and learn about its history. There are many tours on offer at a variety of price points, but a cheap and cheerful option costs about €20 and picks up passengers by the Anne Frank House. There are covered options for rainy days, but this is definitely an activity best undertaken when it’s sunny if possible.
5. Sample Some Pints at the Heineken Experience or Brouwerij ’T IJ
The huge Heineken complex offers tours and tastings and is a great place to learn about the history of Heineken beer, arguably the most famous Dutch export. If you’d rather skip the (pricey) tour and check out a more local treat, take a tour of the historic windmill and brewery at Brouwerij ’t IJ – also a great photo op.
6. Visit a Coffeeshop
If you’re less of a beer fan and more of a fan of other indulgences, Amsterdam is a great place to be. Though rules are tightening a bit, it’s still very easy to acquire a variety of marijuana products at shops widely called coffeeshops: not to be confused with cafés, which just sell the usual coffee and pastries! Some of Amsterdam’s most famous include Boerejongens, Grey Area, and Dampkring.
7. Meander Through the 9 Streets (9 Straatjes) of the Jordaan
Jordaan is a super charming area packed with narrow streets, cute cafés, and small locally-owned shops. Many consider the Jordaan to be the most authentic Amsterdam neighborhood, and its prime location in the city center makes it easy to explore by foot.
8. Stroll Through the Grachtengordel Canal Area
In addition to a boat tour, it’s a great idea to just explore the canal area, winding around its small, cozy streets, shopping on Kalverstraat, or sitting by the water and admiring the architecture.
Don’t miss the Begijnhof, a ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ walled-off courtyard home to medieval houses built for the Beguines, unmarried religious women who were not nuns but lived together under vows of chastity. Admission is free if it’s open, and the oldest house dates back to the 1400s.
9. Marvel at Street Art in NDSM
Amsterdam Noord is fast becoming one of the city’s most hip areas. A short (free) ferry ride from the city center is NDSM, a former gritty industrial area turned street art hub. While you can pay to enter the STRAAT Museum, there’s loads of art to see outside for free.
10. Enjoy the City’s Lovely Parks
While Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s largest park, often takes a lot of the credit, Amsterdam has wonderful green spaces in each neighborhood, from Rembrandtpark, Westerpark, or Erasmuspark in West, Sarphatipark in de Pijp, Flevopark in Oost, or Amstelpark in Zuid.
Perfect for picnicking, pickup soccer, tossing a Frisbee, or just relaxing, don’t miss the variety of cool cafés and breweries located nearby. A few favorites include the Westergasfabriek in Westerpark, a former industrial complex turned into a hip collection of arcades, cafés, and event spaces; the adorable pondside Nieuwe Diep Distillery in Flevopark; or Proeflokaal ‘t Blauwe Theehuis in Vondelpark.
11. Bike Around Amsterdamse Bos
Bet you didn’t think there would be an entire forest within Amsterdam city limits… but there is! Often overlooked by tourists, this is a fabulous way to spend a day. Featuring breathtaking forests, loads of bike trails, an organic goat farm, canoe rentals, and more, this is arguably the best way to get away from the crowds and enjoy some nature.
12. Soak Up Some Sun at Blijburg Aan Zee
The Netherlands is famous for its mastery of nature, and the man-made islands and polders are one of the best ways this is showcased. While Amsterdam isn’t quite a beach locale (nearby Zandvoort is your closest bet for that), you do have a cool swimming option if you visit in summer.
Located on the artificial island of IJburg, Blijburg ann Zee is just a short tram ride from the city center and a great place to catch some rays or take a break from the frenetic pace of city life.
13. Bonus! See the Windmills at Zaanse Schans
While not technically in Amsterdam proper, this free open-air museum is located just outside the city, and features working windmills, traditional Dutch houses, and more, in stunning forest green colors.
People still live here full-time, and there are lots of cute cafés, craft workshops, and more to check out. You can bike there in about 1.5 hours, or take the train to nearby Zaandam and connect to Zaanse Schans from there. It’s definitely one of the best day trips you can take from Amsterdam!
Food and Drink in Amsterdam
Like any cosmopolitan city, Amsterdam is packed with cuisine from all over the world. A remnant of the country’s unsavory colonial past can be seen in the wide variety of delicious Surinamese and Indonesian food, usually served to-go at tokos like Ram’s Roti, Tjin’s, Kok Kita, or Bersama. For Syrian-style toko, check out Tigris & Eufraat in Oost. This is quite budget-friendly and filling, though decidedly no-frills.
Dutch food is not the most sought-after cuisine out there, but it’s worth trying at least once. In particular, no visit is complete without sampling the variety of fried bar bites on offer – some favorites include bitterballen (meatballs, sort of), kroketjes (croquettes), and kaassoufflé (cheesy dough).
Of course, these taste best paired with a few Dutch beers, from world-famous Heineken to local Oedipus, Brouwerij t’IJ, or Troost, available at bars or at their brick-and-mortar breweries in Amsterdam. Speaking of beer, a relic of times gone by can be found at Amsterdam’s brown bars, featuring wood-paneling and delicious beers on tap. A few to check out include Café ’t Smalle, Café Chris, Café Gollem, or Proeflokaal Arendsnest.
Note that eating out is quite expensive in Amsterdam, with most main courses at restaurants costing upwards of €25. Those seeking to remain on a shoestring budget are advised to primarily shop at grocery stores, with many premade meals, salads, sandwiches, etc. available at chains like Albert Heijn and Jumbo, as well as fresh fruits and veggies and ultra-cheap beer and wine.
You can also check out markets like Albert Cuypmarkt in de Pijp and Ten-Kate Markt in Oud-West for food stalls featuring everything from empanadas to loempia to fresh stroopwafels oozing warm caramel.
Getting Around Amsterdam
Amsterdam (and the Netherlands broadly) has international fame for its bike infrastructure – something you will see immediately as you explore the city! While the city has ample public transit (buses, trams, and a metro), the easiest way to get around by far is to bike or walk.
Bike is by far the most popular mode of transportation and there are maroon-colored bike lanes almost everywhere. Renting a bike can cost as little as €7-8 per day if you research rental spots outside the city center. Note that you do have to be a bit aggressive while biking, but with a bit of confidence, you’ll be just fine!
If you do choose to bike, here are a few tips to follow:
- Follow the rules of the road. At intersections, follow the illuminated stoplight shaped like a bicycle. Usually at eye level, these work just like traffic lights – when it’s red, stop. If you see a set of triangles at an intersection pointing towards you, yield. While you will likely see many people running red lights, cutting off trams, or making illegal left turns, it’s not smart to do so yourself.
- Keep right, and only pass on the left. Use your hands to point to the right or left when turning to avoid getting rear-ended, and use your bell if you need to, just like you would use a car horn.
- If you’re biking with friends or fellow travelers, don’t take up the full lane. This traps traffic behind you and slows everyone down. Don’t bike on sidewalks, and be very wary of pedestrians stepping into the lane unexpectedly.
- Always lock your bike, preferably to something sturdy or in official parking. Bike theft is by far the most common crime committed in the Netherlands, and you definitely don’t want to be on the hook for paying to replace a rental bike.
How to Get to Amsterdam
Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport is one of the biggest hubs in Europe, with flights coming in from all over the world daily. Located less than half an hour from the city center by public transport, Schiphol is a great place to kick off a standalone visit to the Netherlands or that bigger European backpacking trip.
If you’re coming from or heading to the UK, Belgium, France, or Germany, your best bet is likely to travel by train. NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the Dutch rail company) has both domestic and international arms with ample connections – both to hubs like Paris or Berlin as well as the tiniest Dutch towns.
In Amsterdam, there are two major train stations: Centraal, which drops you off right in the city center, and Sloterdijk, on the western side of the city. While definitely still a large station, Sloterdijk is much calmer than Centraal, which is often packed with tourists. However, note that pretty much any international train goes to Centraal.
Where to Go Next:
Utrecht: Located about 45 minutes from Amsterdam by train, Utrecht Centraal is the country’s most important and most transited rail hub. The train station is situated inside the glittering Hoog Catharijne shopping mall, about 15 minutes from the quaint medieval town center. Known for double-decker canals, museums, and a chilled student vibe, Utrecht is a great place for shopping, dining, and swooning at Dutch architecture in a less chaotic environment than Amsterdam. If you’d like to add on a few more small cities, other examples of gorgeous Dutch architecture can be found in Delft, Leiden, Gouda, Haarlem, and Dordrecht.
Rotterdam: If you’ve perhaps had enough of the Golden Age, never fear – Rotterdam is entirely different. Leveled practically to the ground during World War II, the city was rebuilt in the post-war years in a funky and bold ultra-modern style truly all its own. It’s also the second-largest city in the Netherlands, home to Europe’s largest port, and a hub for business activity as well as hip nightlife, international cuisine, and trendy exhibits at its many museums.
Maastricht: Venturing down to the southern tip of the country, about two hours from Amsterdam, is lovely Maastricht. Perhaps best known for the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, which founded the European Union, Maastricht has a distinctly Belgian feel, with fabulous waterfront walking paths and laid-back streetside dining and cafés. Its city center also dates back to medieval times and is well worth a leisurely stroll to admire its Gothic architecture. Don’t miss a peek inside the Boekhandel Dominicanen, a medieval church turned bookstore with soaring ceilings.