Amsterdam’s spring weather while we were there was cold and blustery. That didn’t stop us from exploring and enjoying the city. Unlike many cities I’ve been to (Paris and New York come to mind), Amsterdam doesn’t have a lot of big-ticket sights. Instead, we decided to get a feel for the culture and people of this lovely city.
Getting Around Amsterdam
Like much of Europe’s bigger cities, Amsterdam has an excellent rail and bus system. My advice here will be complex depending on what you want to do.
Walk or Cycle
Bicycles are Amsterdam’s main mode of transportation. It is pretty awesome to watch the morning rush, as dozens of bikes with well-dressed people crisscross the streets. They have all sorts of attachments for the bicycles: pallet-type things with wheels to tow things, baskets for groceries, even metal carts for children to ride in. Do not drive in Amsterdam; streets are narrow and there is hardly any parking.
It’s also a small city, so walking won’t kill you and you will definitely get a feel for the city and the people. We logged over 10,000 steps every day during this trip, which was awesome! Most of the time we didn’t even notice, because there was always something interesting to look at (plus it was the 20,000-step days that really bothered us =D).
Public Transportation in Amsterdam
If you’re only traveling in Amsterdam (and not the rest of the Netherlands), you can get an unlimited ride pass for the GVB, which runs metro, trams, and buses. The passes range in price depending on how many days they’re valid for: 24 hours is 7.50EUR and 7 days is 32EUR. Note that these passes will not work on trains operated by NS (these usually go all over the country versus operating just inside the city of Amsterdam).
For NS, you need an OV chipkaart. This is a loadable plastic card similar to what many major cities have. You pay 7.50EUR for the anonymous kind (the other kind, you have to apply for, and would only make sense if you’re staying for a while). Note that you can also load the unlimited ride passes onto the chipkaart, which can save you some money. The chipkaart is usable on any transportation system in the entirety of the Netherlands.
If you flew into Schiphol Airport, there are ticket machines by where you exit the airport to get to the trains. Sometimes they don’t work at all. There are cashiers at the far right end of the station (if you’re facing into the airport and away from the doors) who will take cash if your card doesn’t work on the machines. There, I just saved you the 20 minutes of panic that we endured; you’re welcome.
Things to Do in Amsterdam
Day One: Exploring the City
We wanted to get to know Amsterdam, and we started with Dam Square, purportedly the center of Amsterdam. Historically, this is where the river Amstel was first dammed (I see what they did there). The Royal Palace, Nieuwe Kerk, and the National Monument are located here.
The Royal Palace used to be the city hall, and then a royal residence. It’s now open to visitors as a museum. The Nieuwe Kerk, despite its name, was built in the 15th century. These days, it’s not actually used as a church anymore. Instead, important events and exhibitions occur here. The National Monument is a World War II memorial that is now also a popular spot for demonstrations and gatherings.
For the interested visitor, there’s also a massive Madame Tussaud’s (Wax Museum) and a shopping mall in Dam Square, so you could conceivably spend a lot of time here if you chose to visit everything.
However, there is more to Amsterdam and not much more time, so off we went to the Jordaan. This is one of Amsterdam’s up-and-coming neighborhoods. It was a delight to walk the streets and canals, window-shopping and people-watching. We hung out at a café (not a coffee shop — there’s a difference, when you’re in Amsterdam!) and tried some Dutch snacks like frikandel (sausage) and bitterbal.
Day Two: Culture
Our second day in Amsterdam was quite action-packed. We started with the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. Art is a great way to get to know the soul of a city, and this was no exception. The Rijksmuseum is quite massive and has famous works by many artists, notably Rembrandt and Vermeer. The Van Gogh Museum illustrates different eras of Van Gogh’s work, portrays his controversial life and letters, and features the works of some of his friends and contemporaries, as well as works inspired by the great artist.
You can buy tickets (17.50EUR and 17EUR respectively) to both museums online, or at the museum shop on Museumplein between the museums (can I say museum one more time?).
After all this, we checked out the other famous cultural part of Amsterdam: the red light district. No first timer to the city can miss this.
We paid a visit to the Hash, Marijuana & Hemp Museum, which was really educational and quite evangelical in their support for the hemp plant. We then walked the canals surrounding the red light district, peeking into windows and doorways, observing the bright lights and shady interactions. It was all very interesting, to say the least.
I find that reactions to the red light district are largely informed by your personality and upbringing. Some people find it to be a playground. Some find it disgusting. I was personally amused by some of the things I saw (signs for day use of hotel rooms, for instance — probably because they didn’t need to bother advertising at night?) and quite fascinated by others (how much do the ladies in the windows actually make per night?).
Other Things to See in Amsterdam
Yes, I can hear you say, “But you didn’t go to –this!”
We intentionally skipped a few things, as they weren’t quite what we wanted to experience on this trip. However, here are some other points of interest in the city:
- The Anne Frank House – The line is always incredibly long to this tiny apartment where the famous Anne Frank spent the last years of her life writing in her diary. It’s one of the important sites from World War II. You can buy tickets online; we failed to do this and were not interested in spending hours around the block, and we had been to the Memorial in Berlin, which is arguably the most unforgettable World War II memorial I’ve been to in my life.
- The Heineken Experience – We are just not that into Heineken. Funny enough, of all the sights in Amsterdam, this was the closest to our Airbnb.
- Quite a lot of other museums – Rembrandt, Stedelijk, and National Maritime are just some examples.
There is a lot to see and do in Amsterdam, and we enjoyed experiencing a little of the city during our time there. If we’d had another day, we would have checked out some of the things above… or perhaps spent some time walking a different neighborhood, perhaps De Pijp or De Plantage. There’s plenty for a return trip for sure!