This story was first published on 20 March 2018. It is now updated with the latest information on travelling to the Netherlands under the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL).
To me, Amsterdam was – and still is – full of winding canals, romantic bridges and many, many surprises. Over the five months I have and studied in the city (this was years before Covid was even a thing), I began to collect different insights, tips and tricks on how to best avoid falling into the canals. Just kidding.
Now that quarantine-free travel is possible under the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) scheme, here are some useful tips and things to do if it’s your first trip to Amsterdam! One of the latest VTL destinations that we can now add to our travel options, among others like Germany and the United States. Know how to get the best value for your money, experience the best of the city, and prep yourself to catch some curveballs Amsterdam may throw your way.
1. Enjoy Dutch snacks on the cheap at Albert Cuyp market
After invariably playing host to friends and family who came to visit, I soon realised that traditional Dutch food came at a heavy price in most establishments in the city. If you want them cheap (and good!), visit the Albert Cuyp market, Amsterdam's largest and most popular street market, and a popular tourist attraction!
Indulge in freshly baked stroopwafels (caramel-syrup-filled waffle biscuits), raw herring sandwiches (if that's your cup of fish), piping hot poffertjes (mini pancakes), bitterballen (fried meatballs), kibbeling (bite-sized pieces of fried fish)… the list goes on.
The prices in Albert Cuyp market are amongst the lowest in Amsterdam, so have your fill without forking out your dollars!
Opening Hours: Mondays to Saturdays, 9:00am - 5:00pm
Address: Albert Cuypstraat, 1073 BD Amsterdam, Netherlands
2. Purchase online tickets to the Anne Frank House
If there is one thing I have learnt during my travels around Europe, it is that all top tourist attractions share one thing in common: the queue. The Anne Frank House – a museum dedicated to WWII Holocaust diarist Anne Frank – is no exception.
But now, due to Covid-19, queues at the Anne Frank House are no longer an issue as tickets are only sold online. Tickets are only valid for a specific day and timeslot, so please arrive on time. The Anne Frank House is strict about timing, for good reason and for everyone’s safety.
Opening Hours: 9:00am - 8:00pm from Mondays to Thursdays and 9:00am to 10:00pm from Fridays to Sundays
Address: Prinsengracht 263-267, 1016 GV Amsterdam, Netherlands
3. Discover marvellous city views from the top floor of the Central Library
Why pay for panoramic views when you can have them for free? The view from the top floor of the Openbare Bibliotheek Library near Central Station is quite literally priceless.
To get the most stunning views of Amsterdam, plan to visit during sunset. This view is easily a sightseeing favourite for many. Make sure you have your tripod with you to capture some beautiful memories!
Opening Hours: Mondays 2:00pm - 10:00pm, Tuesdays to Fridays 8:00am to 10:00pm, and weekends 10:00am to 8:00pm
Address: Oosterdokskade 143, 1011 DL Amsterdam
4. Go on a free walking tour through the city
Amsterdam has a deeply intriguing past. Think fishermen determinedly trying to set up a village in the middle of marshland – and succeeding. Why read the city’s history off Wikipedia (yes, I admit I have done this) when you can truly appreciate and experience it on a free walking tour?
Your tour guide – typically an experienced volunteer who truly enjoys their work – will bring you around the city's significant landmarks and districts, tell you interesting facts and stories, throw in some personal anecdotes and give you useful travel tips on where to eat, drink and party. It is customary to leave a tip at the end of the tour to thank the guide for their effort. Occasionally, when I feel particularly moved, I leave TripAdvisor reviews.
There are plenty of free walking tours around Amsterdam. Sandemans, for instance, can always be trusted to bring you on funny, interesting and thought-provoking tours. They aren’t limiting group sizes, so I recommend booking a private tour (capped at 15 people) instead for a safer sight-seeing experience.
If you’re willing to invest a little more in understanding Amsterdam’s historical and cultural roots, you can choose from a wide selection of themed tours. These tours range from cycling tours to in-depth tours in specific districts of Amsterdam and typically cost €15 - 20. Wearing good quality shoes can help you endure much longer walks!
Personally, I would recommend visiting the Red Light District on a guided tour. Although the area is renowned for its liberal displays of the sex industry, it is by no means just a bunch of windows to gawk at. In total, I’ve been to the Red Light District about four times, but I only truly understood and appreciated Amsterdam’s history of political strife when I visited it on a guided tour. It was an eye-opening experience worth every cent.
5. Make time for day trips from Amsterdam
I’m not kidding. Whether it is beaches, theme parks, windmills or tulip fields, the Netherlands has it all (with the exception of mountains).
Consider purchasing the Amsterdam Region Travel Pass when travelling out of Amsterdam. Most of the time, this will be the cheaper option – but please do your own calculations beforehand just to be sure!
Efteling is something of a hidden treasure in the Netherlands, located about two hours from Amsterdam. If, like me, you're one of those travellers who make it a point to visit a theme park in every country you visit, Efteling is a must. I personally enjoyed it more than Paris Disneyland, but I could be biased.
Get there as early as you can – Efteling is so huge it is almost impossible to cover everything in one day. Believe me, I tried.
Address: Europalaan 1, Kaatsheuvel, The Netherlands
If you’re a fan of windmills, Zaanse Schans is the place for you. Located about half an hour from Amsterdam, Zaanse Schans is a popular tourist attraction, and for good reason.
To be totally honest, I initially thought Zaanse Schans was a tourist trap – but it turned out to be one of the coolest experiences I’d had on exchange. After all, it’s not every day I get to see windmills up close and personal.
Aim to reach Zaanse Schans before 10:00am to avoid the zombie horde of tourists.
Address: De Zaanse Schans, Schansend 7, 1509 AW Zaandam
This was a great family trip I embarked on with my mother, aunt and brother. We travelled out to Haarlem for a leisurely, traffic-free cycling excursion through the Zuid-Kennemerland National Park to the beach at Bloemendaal aan Zee.
The views of the North Sea, underscored by high-rise buildings looming on the horizon (reminiscent of the opening scene of Inception), were truly breathtaking. I was blown away, not only because of the spectacular views but also by the really strong winds.
6. Waterproof everything, even in the summer
Rain, shine, wind, hail, snow, you name it – Amsterdam has it all. Sometimes on the same day. (I can attest to this. There is nothing stranger than cycling under a raincloud by accident when the sun is still shining). A general rule of thumb is to always expect rain, even when the skies are blue.
In the summer, dress light but bring out a raincoat (see: rain) and a light jacket because it might get chilly at night. Leave your umbrellas at home, as strong winds in Amsterdam more often than not result in inverted umbrellas.
During spring, fall and winter, wear water-resistant coats (with hoods!) and waterproof shoes. Trudging through slush in wet shoes is Not Fun, and might also result in you meeting the ground up close and personal in a way you never expected.
7. Cycling is not the only way to get around the city
Despite what Google might tell you, cycling is not the only mode of transport around Amsterdam.
Please avoid cycling in the city centre if you are not confident on a bicycle. Traffic can get messy, and you might have to dodge everything from trams to cars to motorbikes.
Instead, try taking public transport! The public transport system in Amsterdam is very extensive and comprises the train (which travels between cities in the Netherlands), metro, tram and bus. The metro and tram are similar in that they travel within Amsterdam; the main difference is that the metro goes under and over ground, while the tram is restricted to the roads.
There are various public transport passes you can purchase. This will save you tons of money and migraines. Hoard your coins if you decide not to get a public transport pass because most ticket machines in Amsterdam only accept cards or coins as payment.
That said, cycling around Amsterdam definitely is a wondrous adventure of its own. Have fun, cycle safely, and look out for the canals! Thankfully, I have never actually cycled into a canal. I won’t say I haven’t experienced close calls though.
8. Don’t text and walk
When visiting Amsterdam, pay attention to the roads. This applies to everything from bicycle lanes and zebra crossings to normal roads and tram tracks. Traffic here, especially in the city centre, can get quite crazy, as I mentioned before.
More often than not, tourists confuse bicycles lanes with pedestrian paths. I did it all the time in my first two weeks. Bicycle lanes in Amsterdam are typically a dull brick red-orange colour and can be distinguished by its transportation of bicycles, motorbikes and the occasional electric car (yes, you read that right). If a disgruntled cyclist rings their bell at you, you know you’re in the wrong lane.
Travel tip: Always keep right and follow the correct traffic light (the one with the walking man). Keep in mind that bicycles have different traffic lights, distinguished by the bicycle symbol, and different traffic rules.
9. Coffeeshop =/= cafe
This is an important but often overlooked distinction. All establishments displaying green-and-white sign boards that say “coffeeshop” or “coffee shop” in the entrance sell cannabis (weed). Cafes sell coffee.
Use your nose if you’re unsure – the distinctive smell of weed will give you the heads-up you need.
10. Hydrate from the tap
A normal bottle of water in town can sell at exorbitant prices. Bring your own bottle around and refill it when you get the chance (e.g. in restaurant toilets). Tap water in Amsterdam is very clean and definitely drinkable – I lived on it for five months.
Last but not least, the most important tip for your first (or second or third or fourth) trip to Amsterdam is to enjoy the city with an open mind and an open heart. Do I miss it? Of course. Will I return? Definitely.
Things to note while travelling in Amsterdam
Restrictions have been largely lifted across the city: social distancing is no longer required (but still wise), restaurants and bars can open to maximum capacity, and all events (concerts, festivals, etc) are allowed with a Covid-19 entry pass.
Face masks aren’t mandatory outdoors but will have to be worn at the airport, on aircraft, trains, trams, buses, metros and in taxis. In stations and on platforms you do not need a face mask.
To gain entry to most indoor venues — bars, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres, events — an EU Digital Covid Certificate (DCC) is required as proof of vaccination or proof of recovery from Covid-19.
All other proof of vaccination or proof of recovery, like digital vaccination certificates from the Ministry of Health, are not considered valid without a DCC.
Tourists from outside the EU will have to get tested no more than 24 hours before gaining access to an event or activity in the Netherlands for which a DCC is required. There are over 400 locations across the country to get tested for free, and confirmation of the negative results can be converted into a digital COVID certificate that remains valid for 24 hours. More information here.
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Best Time to Visit
Summer in Amsterdam (June – August) is the peak tourist period, so prepare yourself for huge crowds and long queues. Visit Amsterdam in the April – May or September – November periods to enjoy fewer tourists and air-con weather.
Public transport in Amsterdam is one of the best in Europe. The metro, tram and bus are the main modes of local transport, and run at high frequencies of about 5 - 10 minutes.
Other cities outside Amsterdam can be easily accessed via the inter-city train from major stations like Central Station.
Amsterdam’s local currency is the Euro (EUR, €).
Please keep in mind that some shops are cashless and only accept payment by debit or credit card.
There are several flights daily from Changi Airport to Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport. Book your trip now.