Amsterdam doesn’t require much justification for why it is one of Europe’s top city break destinations. A conveniently compact city that is stunning to look at and pleasant to walk around. Golden Age canals, lined with misshapen buildings create the idyllic backdrop for Amsterdam’s many museums, trendy coffee shops, craft beer hotspots, a hip art scene, historic architecture and vintage-filled independent shops.
This Amsterdam travel guide will provide all the information you need to know to plan and experience a fantastic city break in Amsterdam. From when to visit, where to stay and what to see and do, to where to eat and how to make the most of the city’s nightlife. So, let’s get started!
Amsterdam City Break Travel Guide
A Brief History of Amsterdam
The Early History of Amsterdam
Amsterdam was founded as a fishing village around the 13th century. The city was built around a dam in the Amstel River, hence the resulting name Amstelledamme, which first occurred in the toll concession of Floris V, Count of Holland in 1275. During the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Amsterdam underwent a period of rapid development, which laid the foundation for the coming Golden Age.
The Golden Age of Amsterdam
The Golden Age (1585-1672) represents the hey-day of Amsterdam’s commercial success. During this booming period, the characteristic cityscape that we know today developed. Many of the city’s most important historic buildings date back to this period, including the town hall in the Dam Square, the Westerkerk, Zuiderkerk, as well as a large number of canal houses.
The Recession & Decline of Amsterdam
Unfortunately, this period of growth and prosperity didn’t last too long. In 1795, the government of the patrician oligarchies was overthrown and the old Republic ceased to exist. As a result, from 1795-1813 Amsterdam suffered from an economic recession. Many houses in Amsterdam were vacant and some even collapsed due to a lack of maintenance.
The Recovery & Expansion of Amsterdam
The period between 1813 and 1940 was marked by economic recovery and, from 1870 onwards, the city benefited from expansion. Increasing wealth within the city ultimately led to rapid population growth. This period of development was largely triggered by the Industrial Revolution that began a New Golden Age. Not only did the city expand in wealth and population, but in size too. Amsterdam started to stretch into the area beyond the Singelgracht, where large, poorly built working-class neighbourhoods sprung up.
When to Visit Amsterdam
Amsterdam is ideal for a short city break all year round, but the city’s peak season is during July and August. However, this is also when the city is at its busiest and most expensive.
The weather in Amsterdam is always fairly mild (even during the winter months), and visiting during the off-season or shoulder season makes for a much more budget-friendly trip. Mid-April to mid-May is a great time to visit Amsterdam as you’ll get to see the iconic tulip fields in bloom just outside of the city. Alternatively, Christmas season is another lovely time to visit the capital of the Netherlands as the city lights up and markets and festivals are frequent.
Where to Stay in Amsterdam
Unfortunately, accommodation in Amsterdam is on the steep side. If you want something centrally located (which you probably do) you should expect to be paying between 20-40 euros per night for a bed in a hostel dorm with eight or more beds. However, if you’re not keen on sharing, then a basic private room with an ensuite bathroom can cost anything from 90 euros per night during peak season. If you visit in the off-season, private rooms will cost around 68-77 euros per night.
If you want something a little more luxurious than a shared hostel dorm room, then your next option is probably a budget hotel. Nightly rates for a budget 2-star hotel room start at around 115 euros in peak season. While in the off-season, budget hotel rooms can start from 95 euros. Perhaps a better alternative would be an Airbnb apartment which Amsterdam has plenty of. A shared Airbnb room will cost you around 53 euros per night, while a private room will be around 75 euros per night. If you’re lucky, you might manage to find a whole apartment for under 145 euros per night.
What to Do & See in Amsterdam
With over 800 years of exciting history to discover, Amsterdam is rich with fascinating attractions and sites to see. From ancient castles to unique museums, secret courtyards to narrow cobbled streets, and of course the city’s world-famous canals. No city break to Amsterdam is complete without visiting the obvious classics, but I have also included some of the lesser-known attractions on this list of things to see and do in Amsterdam. Go ahead and take a look!
The Van Gogh Museum
Now, the Van Gogh Museum is an absolute must-visit in my opinion. I found my experience of visiting this museum incredibly moving as it traces Van Gogh’s life and development through the world’s largest collection of his magnificent works. Here, you will be lucky enough to see both well-known and familiar paintings along with wonderful lesser-known pieces that are definitely worth discovering. I found it fascinating to see his work change from tentative beginnings to outlandishly bright sunflowers, and on to his wild frenzy of creative brilliance as he neared the end of his life.
Besides providing a brilliant backdrop to the city’s historical centre, leisurely floating down Amsterdam’s famous canal network is one of the most memorable ways to discover what the city has to offer. The history of Amsterdam is intimately connected with water – in fact, its 165 canals were built over centuries to stimulate trade and transport and reclaim land to expand the city. Today, the maze of canals continues to define the city’s iconic landscape and, in 2010, Amsterdam’s canal ring was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One thing is for sure, Amsterdam’s tourist industry certainly takes full advantage of its canals, employing a veritable fleet of glass-topped cruise boats shunting along the city’s waterways. You can hop on board for a quick hour-long excursion or even go all out with a fully-fledged dinner cruise.
The Jordaan is probably the most famous neighbourhood in the whole of the Netherlands. A former workers’ quarter, this once working-class bastion was renowned for its tight community feel, radical politics and heavy drinking. However, decades of gentrification has attracted a whole host of atmospheric galleries, restaurants, speciality shops and cosy pubs, all crammed into a grid of scenic streets.
This trendy neighbourhood begins at Brouwersgracht, just west of the Amsterdam Central Station and loops around the western side of Canal Ring before ending at Leidsegracht.
The Anne Frank Huis
The Anne Frank Huis is one of the most popular visitor attractions in the whole of Amsterdam, drawing around 1.25 million visitors each year. Any visit to the Anne Frank Huis is going to be a powerful one – with Anne’s melancholy bedroom and her actual diary sitting along in a glass case. Yet, the main focus of the museum is the achterhuis (rear house), also known as Secret Annexe. This is a dark and airless space where, for over two long years, the Frank family and others observed complete silence and read Dickens novels before being arrested by the Nazis in 1944 to be sent to concentration camps. Only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, survived the ordeal.
Vondelpark was a private park for the wealthy up until 1953. Today, the park occupies a special place in Amsterdam’s heart. It offers a magical escape, but also a busy social scene, with pristine cycle paths, well-groomed lawns, swan-filled ponds, quaint little cafes, footbridges and winding pathways. On a warm day, you will experience an open-air summer party atmosphere as tourists, cyclists, skaters, pram -pushing parents, playful children and hungry picnickers all get together. If you’re looking for a tranquil park to relax or read your favourite book, then this probably isn’t the place. The Vondelpark attracts over 12 million visitors each year, so it is rarely quiet, but always a lot of fun.
The Rijksmuseum is amongst the world’s finest art museums. The works of many local heroes, including the likes of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Van Gogh, span the walls of this 1.5km gallery. Intimate paintings by Vermeer and De Hooch expose every day life in 17th-century Amsterdam, while Rembrandt’s The Night Watch (1642) is the real showstopper. Other must-sees include the Delftware (blue and white pottery), intricately detailed dollhouses and the Asian Pavilion. Make sure you also leave time to wonder through the sculpture-studded gardens that surround the museum – they are free to visit and just as much of a masterpiece as the artwork inside.
The Tulip Museum
Located in a canal house in the charming neighbourhood of Jordaan, and set amidst a collection of intimate shops and galleries, restaurants and hip cafes, the Tulip Museum offers approximately 2,200sqft of exibition spaces. These include exhibits by local artists that trace the iconic flower’s journey from its origins in the wild highlands of the Himalayas to its arrival at the court of the Ottoman Sultan Süleiman the Magnificent to its popularity in many household gardens today.
The Waterlooplein Flea Market
Waterlooplein is not only the oldest flea market of Amsterdam but also in the whole of the Netherlands. Established a whopping 133 years ago, this outdoor bazaar is open six days a week, comprises around 300 stalls and is run by some of the friendliest people you will meet. Take all the time in the world to wonder through all the uniquely magnificent stalls and marvel at all the things you can buy there – you’re sure to find something you didn’t even realise you needed. From vintage cameras and used books, to handmade jewellery, trendy t-shirts and posters galore.
Where better to get back on your bike than the city of Amsterdam. With around 515km of dedicated cycle lanes, Amsterdam is routinely rated as the world’s second most bike-friendly city, just behind Copenhagen. In fact, cycling is truly deeply ingrained into the Dutch psyche at each and every level of society. The Netherlands has a population of 17.1 million people and of those, 4.25 million cycle every single day.
Thanks to Amsterdam’s love of cycling, there are plenty of bicycle rentals and bike tours around the city for you to make the most of. A bike tour provides the ideal opportunity to explore the city and see what other sites and attractions you might want to see while you’re there.
Where & What to Eat in Amsterdam
You will find every kind of dining experience in Amsterdam, from mid-range and high-end restaurants to budget-friendly fast-food spots and even specialities served straight from a vending machine. While Amsterdam has a diverse culinary scene that is a treat to explore, I would definitely recommend trying to sample as many Dutch specialities as you can.
Bitterballen are essentially Dutch meatballs and serve as a very popular bar snack in Amsterdam. These delicious, deep fried crispy balls of goodness are the ideal snack for when those 8% Belgian beers are beginning to take their toll. Traditionally served with mustard for dipping, they’re the ultimate in Dutch pub snacks and can be found on the menu at most of Amsterdam’s drinking establishments.
The famously delicious sweet treat in Amsterdam. If you have a sweet tooth, then make sure you try this tasty snack. Consisting of two super-thin waffles stuck together by a layer of sweet syrupy goodness, these delectable delicacies are best enjoyed straight out of the oven from a street market or bakery. For the best stroopwafels in the city, take a trip to Lanskroon or Rudi’s Original Stroopwafels.
Thick Dutch Fries
These Dutch fries aren’t like other fries. These super-thick cut fries are traditionally served in a piping hot paper cone, slathered with all kinds of tasty toppings. Whether you like to pair your fries with mayo and onions, dip them in peanut satay sauce or to drown them in a delicious mixture of curry ketchup, mayo and onions, Amsterdam won’t disappoint. For the best fries in Amsterdam, visit Grizzl, Vleminckx de Sausmeester or Freddy Fryday.
Unlike the thick and fluffy version you might have tried in America, Dutch pancakes are much thinner – a bit like crepes. This means they have more surface area to heap on more of all your favourite pancake toppings. Order yours covered in fruit or laden with cream and syrup. For some of the best Dutch pancakes in Amsterdam, head to The Pancake Bakery or, for a slightly more unique pancake experience, why not head to Carousel Pancake House or The Pancake Boat.
The Dutch version of apple pie is deep – very deep! This deep-dish Dutch take on apple pie is infused with cinnamon, dotted with raisins and served with a generous helping of whipped cream. While this treat tends to top the dessert menu at most Amsterdam restaurants and cafes, Winkel 43 is said to serve one of the best.
Raw herring might not sounds that appetising at first, but every visitor to Amsterdam should give it a try. You’ll spot haringhandels (herring carts) serving up this Dutch delicacy all across the city. You can even ask for ‘broodje haring’ to get the fish served in a small sandwich with pickles and onions. The herring is said to be at its sweetest between May and July so if that’s when you’re visiting Amsterdam then you’re in luck.
Vending Machine Croquettes
We’re not talking about Michelin-starred cuisine here, but these vending machine croquettes are the utlimate in convenience – and they don’t taste too bad either. These hole-in-the-wall cafes make it onto this list of must-try Dutch snacks on novelty alone. All you have to do to get your hands on one of these tasty balls of deliciousness is put some coins into the slot and bingo; dinner is served!
Literally translated as ‘oil balls’ it’s quite easy to let the name alone put you off trying this Dutch snack. But, don’t judge them too soon; they are essentially deep-fried sweet dumplings, dusted with powdered sugar. These tasty snacks tend to come out around New Year’s Eve, just in time for when the January diet kicks in.
Cheese is serious business in the Netherlands and it is definitely worth sampling while you’re in Amsterdam. You will find all the best cheeses at Amsterdam’s many ‘kaas’ shops or markets, where you can taste some Gouda, Geitenkaas or Maasdammer. For a great introduction to a range of the most popular Dutch cheeses, stop by one of the Henri Willig Cheese and More shops.
Nightlife in Amsterdam
You will be spoilt for choice when it comes to nightlife in Amsterdam. Take your pick from trendy bars, dance festivals and club nights of all kinds. DJs get the crowd going with everything from techno, dub-step and trance to hip-hop, funk and deep house.
Bars in Amsterdam
Visitors to Amsterdam have been taking advantage of its thriving bar scene since the 1600s, when sailors would drop by for a goodbye shot of jenever before taking to the seas once again. Some of the bars they frequented then are still around and running today. But, there is also an ultra-cool, modern side to some of Amsterdam’s best bars. The city offers everything from upmarket lounges and world-class cocktail bars to cutting-edge craft breweries.
Hiding in Plain Sight
Entering this classy speakeasy-style bar is like walking into a secret clubhouse. Conveniently close to the city centre but tucked away enough to avoid the crowds of tourists, Hiding in Plain Sight is a treat for anyone who walks through its doors. With its creative cocktails, wise bartenders and luxurious lounge-style seating, this bar truly is a delightful place to spend an evening after exploring Amsterdam.
Taking a seat at this waterfront hotspot will instantly make you feel like you’re on holiday. With bright picnic-style tables, boats pulling up to the dock, swimmers jumping in to cool off and locals meeting up for drinks as the sun goes down, this is a relaxing place to spend any evening. But don’t worry, if you’re visiting Amsterdam in the winter, you can still experience Hannekes Boom from a cottage-like space made from salvaged materials and heated by a large fireplace.
Named after writer Charles Bukowski, this trendy hangout is dedicated to both liquor and literature – what more could you want? When it comes to drinks, this neighbourhood hotspot serves up classic, no-fuss cocktails and a well-rounded selection of beers. As for literature, there is a typewriter-inspired light installation above the bar and plenty of Bukowksi quotes on the menu.
Nightclubs in Amsterdam
Being one of the world’s greatest exponents of dance music, Amsterdam’s vibrant clubbing scene covers all bases. From glitzy nightspots to raw warehouses, industrial buildings and tucked-away basements, Amsterdam is overflowing with places to dance the night away.
Chin Chin Club
Music, drinks and dancing are serious business at the Chin Chin Club. It is a true social clubhouse, complete with a karaoke room, arcade games, a restaurant and an impressive events lineup. Three distinct bars shake up signature cocktails infused with flavours inspired by Hong Kong, London and Amsterdam.
Home to a theatre, a restaurant, a club and creative worksplace all under the same roof, there’s always a lot going on at this Amsterdam club. Enjoy a mouth-watering meal at Graceland BAR-B-Q restaurant before dancing until dawn.
This Amsterdam nightclub adopts a truly inclusive approach to clubbing, with affordable club nights and raw, industrial-style decor. This warehouse club strips clubbing right back to the basics, with a focus on good music and even better times.