Until last year, I lived in Amsterdam for over three years. These are my tried and tested tips for visiting Amsterdam based on advice for my friends and family visiting me. I’ve structured in the form of 31 tips (in the form of Dos and Don’ts) in response to the most common questions
Although I have plenty to write about living in Amsterdam, I’m most often asked for tips about visiting Amsterdam by friends and strangers. I hope that these tips help you plan your Amsterdam trip!
Note: These are a quick run-down of tourist tips that are helpful to keep in mind while visiting in Amsterdam. I’ve now written an ultimate guide to Amsterdam with FAQs, your perfect Amsterdam itinerary, the best day trips from Amsterdam, including where to stay in Amsterdam, what Dutch foods to try, and the top sites to see (from one biased local).
Do not stand or walk in the bike lane
Do walk on the sidewalk
You can figure out what is the bike lane–and what is not the bike lane by looking for a bike icon. In many places, the bike lane has a red color–and you will see bicyclists on it. The sidewalk is typically the bit next to it that is white. If you’re jaywalking, it’s likely that you’ll be passing the bike lane.
To be fair, bikes are supposed to stop when you are in a crossing bit, but it’s good to be careful. The worst thing that you can do is to stand in the bike lane taking pictures without looking behind you and/or backing up. Bicyclists don’t want to hit you–and it’s dangerous!
Expect to be dinged a lot by passing bikes if you enter the bike path and be sure to keep children close to you. Bikes in other parts of the Netherlands tend to be less aggressive, however many of my friends visiting Amsterdam for the first time are often surprised by this!
Don’t bike on the sidewalk or do a bike tour.
Bike tours in Amsterdam really annoy the residence as many people don’t know how to ride and it’s often hard to get around a large group of 20 that isn’t paying attention.
There is a reason why there are bike lanes: to prevent people from biking on the sidewalk. It’s very easy to hit people and if you do, you’re liable for injuries as you’re in the wrong here. I realize that many people start biking on the sidewalk after they are intimidated by the bike lane, but just park your bike and somewhere–and walk instead.
Also, try not to gawk at the babies/kids on the bikes; that’s normal here. There’s a lot of things that are normal on bikes here, including texting, talking on the phone, and carrying large objects/people.
Do rent a bike to see Amsterdam like a local and bike like a local.
- Be on the right side of the street. [Same side as car traffic AND where you see the blue bike sign in the direction you’re going if you’re unsure!]
- Stay on the right as possible to ensure that others can pass.
- Use your hands to signal which way you’re turning before you get to the turn.
- Follow the lights. Amsterdam has bike stop lights!
- Avoid having a friend ride on the back of your bike. You might see a lot of Dutchies doing this, however if you’re not used to biking, it’s much harder to stop with someone on the back of your bike as they also need to brace for the stop.
- If you see an upside-down triangle, you need to yield to traffic and pedestrians.
Be careful of scooters, mini cars, and other cyclists. Scooters are the biggest danger to you as they’ll often cut close to you–and it’s very easy to get knocked off your bike by mistake. Stay to the right and let them pass.
If someone is walking in the bike lane, ding once at them to let them know and go around them. You don’t need to ding more than once, unless they’re not paying attention. 😉
Use BOTH bike locks and try to secure your bike to a metal object. The bike thieves are ruthless here. Click for more tips for bike riding in Amsterdam.
Skip the Heineken Experience
Try craft beer
You can buy 8 Heinekens at a bar for the price of entry to the Heineken Experience. You could also buy 4 craft beers AND tour a microbrewery for the same price.
Amsterdam is full of amazing microbreweries with incredibly delicious beer and lovely old cafes dating back to the 1600s. Try delicious beers from Oedipus, Jopen, Gebrouwen door Vrouwen, Brouwerij ‘T Ij, Butcher’s Tears, and De Prael at cafes like the Arendsnest or the breweries themselves.
If you’re after understanding Dutch culture, step into an old Dutch brown bar (due to the large amounts of brown wood) for a fresh mint tea or beer. I recommend Café Papeneiland and De Blaffende Vis in the Jordaan. Click for an insider’s guide to beer in Amsterdam with all the microbreweries that you’ll want to try.
Don’t be naive when it comes to drugs and crime
Do be careful
Know that soft drugs are tolerated, but illegal. Hard drugs are completely ILLEGAL and please do not buy from street dealers or hesitant to contact police/an ambulance if something goes wrong (112).
There have been some high profile deaths where tourists purchased drugs on the street and died/had to be hospitalized as a result of ingredients that were harmful within the drugs. More info about doing drugs in the Netherlands if you’re into that. Otherwise click for coffeeshops in Amsterdam with cute cats.
Amsterdam is a pretty safe city (especially compared to US/UK), however you still need to be aware of yourself. Don’t leave your stuff out unsecured, especially your bike. Pickpocketing is an issue really only in the most crowded parts of Centre/the Red Light District, however you’ll be fine 99% of the time.
Be more concerned about scam artists–and obvious cons. Centraal station has lockers to store your items in, so there’s no need to walk around with all your items. (I also like to check my luggage at a 4* hotel for a day for added peace of mind when walking around with a lot or in a city for less than 10 hours!)
If you need emergency assistance, call 112, which is the emergency number for the Netherlands. Walking into the police station IS NOT a thing here for minor crimes [yes, that includes theft] and you will be told that you need to schedule an appointment or file a report online.
Don’t only stay inside of the ring
Explore other areas of Amsterdam
Most tourists see Prinsengracht as the invisible border of where they should stop walking. However, there are some incredible areas with fantastic food, shopping, and things to do that you would miss if you only stay in the tourist areas. You can click for my Secret Jordaan walking tour as well as my Secret Amsterdam guide!
I think that Amsterdam West is a great neighborhood to explore with some really cool attractions, including a food hall.For a local guide to some areas that tourists don’t typically explore, click here for my guide to 5 neighborhoods to explore, eat in, and stay in.
Don’t be an a**hole
Tourists have a terrible reputation among the locals as many of us have had bachelor parties waking us up early yelling on the sidewalk. It’s hard to sleep during summer as many of us don’t have air conditioning and need to leave the windows open, so try not to yell at night.
Similarly, don’t smoke week on a public sidewalk. There are special cafes catered to this interest, including some with friendly cats. 😉
Everyone speaks English, so don’t insult the Dutch in public as everyone can understand you. (I saw this happen once on a train.)
Do know the difference between a coffeeshop and a café.
Coffee shop / Café = A shop that sells coffee.
Coffeeshop (no space!): A shop that sells marijuana. Some of these shops are really only counters where you can purchase marijuana for consumption later. (Some have a small room in the back for smoking purposes.) Some coffeeshops in Amsterdam are more like cafes for marijuana consumption with no tobacco. Don’t be that person asking for weed in a shop that sells coffee.
You are not allowed to smoke cigarettes in coffeeshops or normal cafés (unless outside). They do weed tours of Amsterdam if you’re curious about this side of Amsterdam
Don’t take photos in the Red Light District
Be respectful of others
Don’t take photos of people doing their jobs, especially in the Red Light District. You’re not allowed to take photos in order to protect the identities of the sex workers and their security will take away/smash your camera if they see you doing so.
Don’t forget your allergy meds
Pet all the cats!
If you’re not a cat person, tough luck as cats are everywhere. Most of the cats here that you will see on the streets (or in shops) belong to locals who let their cats roam during the day.
Some are more friendly than others, so approach cats with caution. I love cats so much that I wrote a guide to the best places with cats in Amsterdam.
Don’t eat tourist food
Try Indonesian and Surinamese food!
Due to the Dutch colonial legacy, there’s a large number of Dutch people of Indonesian and Surinamese descent who are amazing cooks.
You can find Indonesian take out restaurants and “tokos,” which are take-out places where locals often pick up a quick dinner to go. Click to read about what to order at a Surinamese restaurant.
Just be aware that most local restaurants have kitchens that are closed by 10pm and many places really don’t serve much food past 8pm without reservations. Plan carefully, otherwise you’ll need to look elsewhere as supermarkets generally close by 9-10pm.
Snackbars in Center are basically 24/7, but if you plan well, you’ll pay about 8-9 euros for fantastic portions of food that you’ll remember long after your trip. Click for tips for delicious and local cheap eats in Amsterdam.
Don’t forget how dangerous the canals are
Take lots of canal photos!
I have watched the garbage boat clean the canals and lost things due to dropping them in the canals. If it falls in the canal, it is gone forever.
If you are drunk, please be careful and don’t pee in the canal. For men, there are free urinals all over the city streets that you can use… I write this as people actually die this way. (People actually swim in the canals, but it’s pretty rare to see!) I’d definitely recommend going out on a canal cruise to enjoy the canals from a different perspective!
Don’t forget to leave the coffeeshop
Take in culture and history at the many museums!
I especially enjoy the Rijksmuseum for the Dutch masters. For modern art lovers, I really enjoy the Stedelijk museum. For architecture/history lovers, there’s Our Lady in the Attic, a fascinating hidden Catholic Church built within the attics of 3 different canal houses. Many of these museums are included with the iAmsterdam card.
Of course, there’s the Anne Frank museum, but you need to purchase tickets way ahead of time, or come late in the day (around 7-8pm). I love Vondelpark and Westerpark the most and they’re perfect for runs/picnics! Click for information about the best museums in Amsterdam
Don’t bother checking the weather beyond 1 hour ahead; Wear your raincoat (it will rain!)
Don’t plan on using your debit/credit card (except in touristic places)
Do hit up an geldautomaat (ATM) to take cash out
If you see PIN graag (like at the popular grocery store Albert Heijn), it usually means that they may only accept cash or a Dutch debit card. If you don’t have cash, you will need to go to an ATM, which should accept other cards.
The situation IS improving and more places are allowing credit cards (mainly Visa/Mastercard/Maestro), however many smaller shops don’t accept non-Dutch cards.
You’ll find shops in the airport, Amsterdam Centraal station, and those close to touristic places (including museums/restaurants in the Centre) will accept credit cards. Some shops have even gone as far as “card only” to minimize the cash on hand, but always carry a little cash on you.
Don’t invalidate your train, bus, or tram ticket
Use public transit in Amsterdam. Remember to check in and tap your card on the way out!
Before you board the Metro or any train, you’ll see a a little raised reader that people are tapping their cards against. If you have an IAmsterdam card or OVChipcard, tap your card against the little raised reader and you’ll see it turn green/beep. Ask if you’re not sure.
Be sure to do the same on the way out. For buses or trams, you’ll tap your card against the reader in the front and tap your card on the way out towards the back of the bus/tram. You’ll exit in the back.
You cannot pay for the bus in change anymore. You’ll need to buy a ticket (which comes with the iAmsterdam card) or OV chipcard at Centraal Station. The 24/48/72 hour daypass is worth it if you’re in Amsterdam for three days without a bike.
Don’t stay in Amsterdam the whole time
See more of the Netherlands!
Amsterdam is not representative of the rest of the Netherlands. There are so many Dutch cities that have a fraction of the tourists are more beautiful, more charming, and have lots to do. There’s even castles that are easy day trips from Amsterdam!
Do take the fantastic trains to somewhere besides the airport or Zaans Schans [always a favorite for the windmills]. Leiden, Hoorn, Delft, and the Hague are only thirty minutes from Amsterdam by train! Shown above is Amersfoort.
Definitely lookup when there are “markts” or local markets on the day you’ll be there. You’ll be charmed by the plazas where the locals sit outside, drink beer, and eat bitterballen, something that is harder to find in Amsterdam. Click for the best day trips from Amsterdam.
Don’t be afraid to ask locals
Amsterdam is such a lovely city with super friendly people. You’re most likely to meet locals at smaller neighborhood cafes/eetcafes/bars/coffee shops once you leave Centre.
People are happy to give advice or help you. For the record, almost everyone speaks English fluently, however it’s always polite to say Dankjewel [Thank you in Dutch].)
Books to read before you visit Amsterdam
These are the books that I have found the most insightful as a tourist and as a resident that I’ve actually read. Amsterdam’s history is absolutely fascinating and I strongly recommend reading about its rich history as it will make you appreciate this city more. Click for my favorite books about Amsterdam.
I have used the Lonely Planet Guide for the Netherlands since I arrived here and it’s full of useful advice for food/accommodations/attractions advice. Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City is nonfiction about Amsterdam’s history.
Anne Frank’s Diary is a must read if you intend on visiting the Anne Frank House.For Fiction, I recommend The Miniaturist, a historical fiction novel takes place in the Golden Age of Amsterdam. The Dinner is by famous Dutch author Herman Kochs. (It is sharp, biting, typical of Dutch humor, and dark!).
People who have visited Amsterdam, anything you wish anyone had told you? Fellow residents, anything I missed?
If you found this helpful, I have a few more posts about Amsterdam…Wondering what Dutch foods to try while in the Netherlands, what are the best museums in Amsterdam to visit, or what you should do before you visit Amsterdam?
If you’re interested in getting off the beaten path in Amsterdam, I have a list of 25 secret places in Amsterdam to visit! Want to read more about Amsterdam or the Netherlands?