The Dutch city is far more than ‘brown’ cafés and the red light district, with impressive art museums, gabled houses lining its famous canals, great shopping in quirky boutiques and plenty of history, from the Dutch colonies and maritime past to the Nazi Occupation and Anne Frank’s story. Despite being one of Europe’s great cities, with almost 2.5 million inhabitants, its laidback atmosphere and easily walkable centre make it very appealing.
It’s a perfect year-round destination, ideal for relaxing by the waterfront and in the parks during summer but just as good for a city break during the colder months. Gin, pancakes and ‘vlaamse frites’ – chips drenched in mayonnaise – are traditional but there’s an impressive restaurant scene to discover as well.
The city is divided into eight main areas, split into islands by the canals. Wander the Southern Canal Belt to see some of the grandest old canal-front houses, or the Museum Quarter with the sprawling Vondelpark, while the medieval heart of Amsterdam remains its city centre. Historic working-class Jordaan is great for strolling, browsing and drinking, and bohemian De Pijp is known as Amsterdam’s Latin Quarter, while the edgier harbour area has a mix of attractions and unusual architecture plus free ferries across the waterfront.
There’s more historic streets and green space around Plantage, home to the botanic gardens and zoo, or wander off the beaten tourist trap to diverse Oosterpark. Start with a canal tour to get a taste of the whole city, then it’s easy to tailor your trip with an efficient tram network to whisk you around, along with plenty of places to hire bikes.
Where to stay
With stylish and designer hotels in converted old buildings, it’s easy to stay somewhere unique on any budget. Enjoy 17th-century Dutch colonial influences at The Dylan and several former canal houses, including new The Hoxton Amsterdam and stylish Canal House in the Jordaan.
The stylish waterfront Hotel Pulitzer is another cool residence. The hotel is set within 25 restored 17th- and 18th-century houses that once set the scene for prosperous business deals between trade merchants and played home to the decadent and flamboyant lives of Dutch aristocrats.
The Lloyd Hotel was originally designed for travellers awaiting their ships, with rooms ranging from one to five stars, along with houseboats galore to rent for a quirky budget stay.
For local classics, Moeders has sampler dishes so you can taste several options under the kitschy gaze of photos of mothers on the walls, or head to Pancakes! for (unsurprisingly) great pancakes. – D’Vijff Vlieghen combines contemporary Dutch dishes, works by Rembrandt and the celebrity seal of approval, while Balthazar’s Keuken and organic De Kas each have one set menu, always so popular you’ll need to book ahead. For the best place to try a gourmet Indonesian rijsttafel, head to Blue Pepper.
Sixteen different tram lines link the districts, most of them terminating at the hub of Centraal station. Buses fill the remaining gaps, along with metro and ferry, but it’s easy to get around on foot as well – or hire a bike and join the throngs of cyclists.
The city is popular year-round, with the best weather and highest temperatures during the summer peak season. But you can see the tulips in bloom during spring, when the Netherlands celebrates Queen’s Day, or wrap up warm for cheaper prices, ice skating and hot chocolate during autumn and winter.
Beware of the bikes! The city is home to an estimated 881,000 bicycles and the majority of Amsterdammers cycle every day – it’s not always obvious where the pedestrian pavement ends so keep a wary eye out for speedy cycles until you get used to them.
The Anne Frank Huis – no visit to Amsterdam is complete without seeing the Secret Annexe where the Dutch teenager lived and hid during the country’s Nazi Occupation, before her family were betrayed and deported. More than a million people visit the moving memorial to their story every year, so it’s worth booking tickets in advance.
The quirky museums – Amsterdam specialises in some very offbeat collections, whether it’s cats in art at the Kattenkabinet, handbags through history at the Tassenmuseum, colonial treasures at the Tropenmuseum, bibles, fluorescent art at Electric Ladyland, the tattoo museum and the Sex museum – not for the easily embarrassed.
The markets – the Albert Cuypmarkt is the biggest, ideal if you’re shopping for cheese or people watching, but stop off for bulbs at the canalside Bloemenmarkt flower market, and haggle for bargains at the Waterlooplein flea market too.