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Lonely Planet Writer

First time Amsterdam: top tips for your first visit to the Dutch capital

Golden Age canals lined by gabled houses, candlelit cafes, whirring bicycles, lush parks, monumental museums, colourful markets, diverse dining, quirky shopping and legendary nightlife make the free-spirited Dutch capital one of Europe's great cities. With so much on offer it can be overwhelming knowing where to start. Here are our top tips to help you find your bearings and get the most out of your first visit to Amsterdam (which inevitably won't be your last).

canal
One of Europe's great cities, Amsterdam's museums, canals and nightlife are just the starting point for what's on offer to first-time visitors. Image by Frans Lemmens/Photostock Getty

Must-see sights

Museums

Amsterdam has over 60 museums (the world's highest concentration). Its big three fan out around the grassy expanse of Museumplein, in the Old South neighbourhood. A cache of Dutch masters cram the mighty Rijksmuseum, the country's premier art repository. The Van Gogh Museum harbours the world's largest collection of the Dutch artist's work, while the Stedelijk Museum showcases modern art (Monet, Matisse et al) through to edgy contemporary installations.

Stop in Nieuwmarkt at the Museum Het Rembrandthuis to admire the impressive collection of etchings by the master. From 1639 to 1658, Rembrandt lived and worked in the canal house that now contains the museum.

In the Western Canal Ring, poignant history comes to life at the Anne Frank Huis, where the Frank family hid from the Nazis in a secret annex for over two years, and Anne wrote her immortal diary (displayed here in a glass case). Other powerful museums covering WWII include Nieuwmarkt's Joods Historisch Museum (Jewish Historical Museum) and the Verzetsmuseum (Dutch Resistance Museum) in the Plantage neighbourhood.

The city's seafaring heritage is celebrated at the Eastern Islands' Het Scheepvaartmuseum (Maritime Museum), just across from the green-copper, boat-shaped NEMO science centre, a kid favourite, with panoramic views from its deck-like roof. Learn about the Netherlands' famous blooms at the Amsterdam Tulip Museum in the gentrified Jordaan neighbourhood.

Gawp at Amsterdam's carnal side at the Medieval Centre's light-hearted Sexmuseum Amsterdam or the Red Light District's Erotic Museum.

rijksmuseum
No art lover should miss the Netherlands' premier art museum, the Rijksmuseum, home to thousands of masterpieces. Image by Merten Snijders/Photostock Getty

Royalty

Overlooking lively Dam square, where the city was founded, is the Koninklijk Paleis (Royal Palace), the official residence of King Willem-Alexander and his family (although they usually reside in Den Haag), which hosts regular tours.

The biggest event on Amsterdam's calendar is Koningsdag (King's Day) on 27 April. If you're in town on this date expect to get caught up in the giant, orange-clad street party.

Churches

For an aerial perspective, you can scale the heights of three of the city's most beautiful churches: the Zuiderkerk (Southern Church); Oude Kerk (Old Church), Amsterdam's oldest building (circa 1306); and Westerkerk (Western Church), with panoramic canal views.

Two churches hide within the storybook 14th-century Begijnhof courtyard of almshouses; the perfect place for respite from the city crowds.

Parks

Amsterdam's best-loved escape is the 47-hectare Vondelpark – English-style gardens with ponds, footbridges, winding footpaths, and sculptures including Picasso's The Fish.

Other urban idylls include De Pijp's Sarphatipark, and, on the site of the city's former western gasworks, Westerpark, adjoining the post-industrial Westergasfabriek cultural complex.

Historic structures shelter thousands of species at the 1638-established Hortus Botanicus gardens.

park
Vondelpark is the city's playground and a great spot to experience a bit of local life in Amsterdam. Image by Merten Snijders/Photostock Getty

Where to eat

Try traditional Dutch dishes at Bistro Bij Ons, La Falote or old-school kroketten (croquettes) specialist Van Dobben; or contemporary twists at Greetje or Hemelse Modder.

Don't leave town without experiencing a spicy rijsttafel ('rice table'; Indonesian banquet of small dishes); Tempo Doeloe does one of the best. Tuck into a Surinamese roti (flatbread wrap) at Tokoman.

Lively international eat streets in this multicultural city include Utrechtsestraat, near Rembrandtplein, and Amstelveenseweg, along the Vondelpark's western edge.

Where to drink

Discover how home-grown Heineken is made at the entertaining Heineken Experience. Admission includes beers and a canal-boat ride to the Heineken Brand Store. Tours are also available at the wonderful independent brewery Brouwerij 't IJ, at the foot of the 18th-century De Gooyer Windmill.

Jenever (Dutch gin) is also a must-try, especially at tasting houses such as Wynand Fockink.

Party hubs Rembrandtplein, Leidseplein, the Medieval Centre and Red Light District are renowned for their pumping nightlife, with a plethora of pubs and clubs. But to truly experience the unique Dutch quality of gezellig (conviviality/cosiness), head to a history-steeped bruin café (brown cafe, ie pub, named for the nicotine-stained walls). Hoppe and Het Papeneiland are two of countless gems.

'Coffeeshops' (cannabis cafes) famously sprinkle throughout the city; popular ones include Dampkring and Abraxas.

cafe hoppe
Wood-panelled brown cafe Hoppe has served as a watering hole for more than 300 years and still pulls in the crowds for an Amsterdam night out. Image by MollySVH/CC BY 2.0

Where to shop

Snacks such as frites (fries, typically smothered in mayonnaise), haring (raw herring, served with diced onion), and stroopwafels (caramel-syrup-filled waffles), as well as Dutch cheese (gouda, edam, et al) are staples at street markets, including the Jordaan's Lindengracht Market, and the city's largest, De Pijp's Albert Cuypmarkt.  They also sell everything from clothes to fabrics, bike locks and flowers. Tulips in spring and bulbs year-round fill Amsterdam's 'floating' flower market, the Bloemenmarkt.

For off-beat, individual boutiques, including famed Dutch design homewares and fashion, crisscross the nine small streets making up the Negen Straatjes.

cheese
Taste-testing Dutch cheese is a must for any trip to the capital. Image by Doug Steakley/Photostock Getty

Where to stay

The Medieval Centre, Red Light District and Nieuwmarkt are in the heart of the tourist action but can be noisy, as can parts of the Southern Canal Ring (particularly around Rembrandtplein and Leidseplein). Quieter local but still central neighbourhoods include Vondelpark, the Western Canal Ring, the Jordaan and De Pijp.

Getting around

For a fabulous introduction to Amsterdam, cruise its Unesco World Heritage-listed canals. Options include trips with commentary, such as the Blue Boat Company cruise, to the hop-on, hop-off Canal Bus, or go your own way with an electric rental boat such as Canal Motorboats or pedal-powered Canal Bike paddle-boat.

This compact city is easily explored by foot or bicycle: rental outlets, such as MacBike, are everywhere, and guided bicycle tours, such as Orangebike, abound.

Amsterdam has a comprehensive tram and bus network; plan journeys with 9292 (9292.nl). Buy disposable OV-chipkaart tickets on board where available, or refillable cards at the GVB Information Office across from Centraal Station, adjacent to the main VVV tourist office.

Top tips

  • Avoid massive queues at popular museums/attractions by pre-purchasing tickets online for fast-track entry.
  • If you're hitting a lot of museums, invest in an I Amsterdam Card (iamsterdam.com), which includes a canal cruise and public transport.
  • Amsterdam is a safe city but watch out for pickpockets, especially where there are crowds of tourists.
  • Look both ways when crossing bike lanes (marked with white lines and bicycle symbols) and never walk along them.
  • Many businesses don't accept non-European credit cards – check first.