Guide to Visiting Amsterdam
Updated: May 18
Amsterdam was somewhere I'd always wanted to visit, and as is usually the case with most of my travel, the opportunity to go came at a totally unexpected time when my amazing sister gave me the trip as a birthday present last year (I know right, get you a sister like Lydia!). We went in January 2020 for 3 days, and it absolutely lived up to the hype as a must-visit location. Of course, there is way too much to do in Amsterdam to fit absolutely everything into 3 days, but we managed to fit in the perfect amount to both fill the Amsterdam-shaped hole in our lives and make us want to go back again! The hotel we stayed in was the Lancaster (absolutely recommend) and we flew from Bristol.
We started the morning with a walk around Vondelpark, the largest park in the city. It wasn't quite at its height of beauty in early January, but still very pretty all the same with plenty of routes to take and a lot of ponds which were stunning in the sunlight. The park is massive, so we weren't able to do all of it, unfortunately, but it's something I'd like to go back and do during the spring or summer I think.
The other part of my surprise was to go to the Anne Frank House with an introductory session beforehand. I was absolutely elated when Lydia told me we were going (which she kept secret until the day before), as I'd studied Anne Frank's Diary in year 8 English and, of course, I'm a historian at heart. Despite having known the story of the Frank family fairly well already, I can wholeheartedly recommend the introductory session. It's very informative, situating the story of the family against the background of Nazism growing in Germany and the subsequent invasion of the Netherlands, and it also tells you a lot about the attic itself. The tour of the attic and museum is done via audio guide which is excellent, and again, it is very detailed and informative. The feeling you get when you're actually up in the attic itself is a strange mix of amazement, reverence, and sadness. To stand where the Franks, the Van Pels, and Fritz Pfeffer were confined in such a tiny space for a whole two years almost feels like an invasion of their privacy - I don't know whether this is just me, but when I go to historical sites I always try to imagine myself observing people going about their daily lives in that place. Even just going up the ladder is a surreal experience, thinking that seven of the eight inhabitants of the annexe only ever used it twice in their lives. The rest of the museum after the annexe is very well put together, and you get to see the original diary at the end. I was surprised to learn there was a gift shop, but it's all done with the utmost sensitivity and nothing is tacky or disrespectful.
I absolutely recommend the experience of going to the Anne Frank House, it's definitely worth it. However, going to sites related to the Holocaust is not an easy thing to do, and certainly not something that should be done for the sake of visiting a 'tourist attraction', which is definitely something to keep in mind if you get the chance to go. By all means, be keen to visit, but don't let your only motivation be an Instagram photo!
In the afternoon we went on a free walking tour of the city with Sandeman's New Europe tours. Walking tours can be a bit hit and miss, but we saw good reviews before booking it and it was great. It lasted about 3 hours (with a break in the middle) and gave us a really good insight into the city's history. There aren't many 'big sights' in Amsterdam, so the tour focused more on Amsterdam's story which was really fascinating, but you still walk around a fair bit of the centre so it still gives you a good idea of where everything is.
Going on a boat trip in Amsterdam is basically compulsory, so we did exactly that in the evening. One thing that Lydia didn't know when she booked the trip was that we would be there during the annual Light Festival, where artists from across the world are invited to contribute pieces that use light to be placed along and in the canals of Amsterdam. 2020's theme was 'Disruption', so there was everything from an explosion frozen in time, to a sinking city as a comment on rising sea levels, to huge butterflies on the surface of the water. The audio guide on the boat was timed to tell you what each piece was supposed to represent as you sailed past it, as well as pointing out the city's important buildings when they were in sight. It was freezing, but the boat had blankets you could use, and I know that a lot of boat tours have food and drink available. Again, I can't recommend it highly enough!
Of course, no day abroad would be complete without cocktails at the hotel bar, which we obviously took full advantage of! Yes, they were bright blue, and no, I still have no idea what was in it...
When booking the trip, Lydia had tried to book us in to have tea at the smallest house in Amsterdam (yes, that's a thing you can do!), but she had no idea it had actually gone through until she got a reminder about it the day before! Thankfully we hadn't booked anything for that morning and had left it open for exploring, so it worked out really well and honestly, I think it was the favourite event of the trip for both of us. The whole experience was an utter delight. We were greeted by possibly the nicest woman I have ever met, who took us upstairs from the tea shop (which both looks and smells incredible) and sat us down at the table which looks out onto the street. It really is tiny - each floor is only one small room - but the decor is so cosy and you don't feel at all confined.
We were then asked what kind of tea we liked and given a selection based on our preferences, then instructed to put it into a tea bag and let it infuse. The tea was very nice, but the homemade apple pie was fantastic. The lady (I wish I'd caught her name, sorry!) then gave us a short history of the house, which was more detailed than I assumed was possible for a residential building but nonetheless really interesting. It cost us 7.50 euros each but both of us said we'd have more than happily paid 10 given the quality and uniqueness of what was on offer, and of course, we both bought ourselves some tea as we came away!
Any trip to Amsterdam is incomplete without a walk around the Bloemenmarkt, the city's flower market. I'd heard about it, but the sheer amount of plants and flowers, real and fake, is still pretty great when you see it for the first time. It's also literally on a canal which is quite cool. Our walk around it felt very relaxed as we weren't at all pressed for time, which I think is a good way to explore it as you're able to fully appreciate it and take it all in without looking at your watch all the time. You don't need a particularly long time, but it's nice not to be limited.
I'd promised Lydia that I would take her out for dinner in the evening as a thank-you for the trip on the condition that we had Dutch food. After a fair bit of looking up various places online, we found the Pantry, a Dutch food restaurant with a great-looking menu and really good reviews. It is an understatement to say that it did not disappoint. It's quite a small place, but cosy and lively, and the menus had a mini Dutch phrasebook on the back for about 6 different languages which was quite fun. The staff were really friendly and so helpful even though the restaurant was completely full, the atmosphere was relaxed, and the food was genuinely amazing. We shared a starter of bitterballen, then for the main course I had stamppot and Lydia had a salad (which she still talks about as one of the best she's ever had), and we shared a plate of poffertjes for dessert. 10/10, 5 stars, top-notch, phenomenal - however you can think of to say that it was fantastic will probably do.
We were due to fly home in the afternoon, so the morning was ideal for a trip to NDSM-Werf. NDSM -Werf is an area currently under construction, and street artists have been given free reign to paint around the neighbourhood, resulting in some really impressive pieces! It's absolutely worth going for a walk around; the ferry over the river is free from behind Amsterdam Centraal train station, and even if it's a grey day, the artwork still looks amazing.
Tips for visiting Amsterdam
Be careful of bikes! You can look both ways as many times as you like and still get hit by one as soon as you step onto the road.
Use maps - a lot of the streets on canals in the city centre look exactly the same. Pretty, but exactly the same.
Cafés = coffee, coffee shops = cannabis. Learn the difference so you don't get caught out! Also, sorry to disappoint you but it's only legal to smoke cannabis in the 'coffee shops' and you have to be a Dutch citizen. Then again, the smell is so strong just outside them that you could probably get high if you stood still for too long...👀👀
Make use of the trams. Trams are a great way to get around in the Netherlands, and particularly in Amsterdam. The tram network is quite big and not overly expensive to use. You can use your ticket on any tram route and as many times as you like within the time limit you buy for. Make sure you scan your ticket at the doors when you get on and off - this tells the staff on board that you have a valid ticket. If not, you can always buy one once on board.
Try Dutch food. Dutch food is said to be the Netherlands' best-kept secret, and it's seriously good. It's the kind of food that is hearty, with a lot of carbs and protein, and it's super tasty. I highly recommend bitterballen (meat, potato, and gravy croquettes), stamppot (potato mashed with one or more vegetables and often served with sausage), stroopwafels (caramel syrup wafer waffles), frites (double-fried chips with frites sauce), and poffertjes (mini pancakes eaten with icing sugar and butter). Also, the cheese is top-notch and there are cheese shops everywhere, so go get you some gouda!
Amsterdam has a city tourism tax, so you may have a couple of extra charges added onto tours or your accommodation. They aren't big charges, but be aware if you're on a budget.
Speaking of budgets, I don't know how much our accommodation or flights were (my sister very kindly paid for everything as the birthday present part), but it is definitely possible to do Amsterdam on a shoe-string. There are plenty of hostels if that's your thing, and I recommend visiting a local supermarket (we went to the Albert Heijn supermarket close to our hotel) which was fairly inexpensive.
If I went back I would go to...
The Van Gogh museum
The Ice Bar
Corrie ten Boom's house
Keukenhof Tulip Gardens
Amsterdam is absolutely a must-visit, I would say especially so if you're in your twenties or thirties but then again, no age is the wrong age given the sheer amount of possibilities available. It's a beautiful city, and if you're yet to go then I hope you have as great a time as we did. Happy travelling!
P.S. If you have any more questions then I'd love to hear from you - get in touch via the contact form at the bottom of The Classicist with an Atlas homepage or on Instagram @theclassicistwithanatlas.