From cannabis-clouded coffeeshops to lovely parks and cycling lanes aplenty, Amsterdam is a European city with a delightful, vibrant vibe that’s entirely its own. It certainly makes for amazing travel escapades, but there are also some useful things to understand about this city and the local culture. 

So, what do you need to know before visiting Amsterdam for the first time? Here are our top tips for newcomers.

1. Amsterdam is not a 24/7 city

Amsterdam establishments keep very regular hours. Opening hours in shops are generally from about 10am to 6pm, and 8pm for supermarkets. Many shops and grocers do not open on Sundays (with the exception of busy tourist areas like Nieuwendijk and Kalverstraat). Coffeeshops tend to open in the morning and close around midnight, while bars and clubs go much later until 3 or 4am.

2. Pre-purchase tickets where possible

At museums and galleries, it’s best to plan for long queues – especially during the high season from June to August. Ticketed time slots (most can be downloaded to your phone) are available at popular sights like the Anne Frank Huis and Van Gogh Museum and should be booked at least six weeks prior.

3. Book accommodation and restaurants in advance

Similarly, lodging should be secured at least four months before your trip, especially if you’re visiting during the summer or on the weekend. Seats at your must-visit restaurants are best squared away at least two weeks in advance.

The best time to visit Amsterdam

Cargo bike bicyclists - woman with children - in Amsterdam.
Cycling is a popular mode of transport, but be aware of where you can securely park your bike © kavalenkau / Shutterstock

4. Lock your bike… twice

Cycling is one of the most popular ways to get around Amsterdam. Most rental bikes come with two locks – it’s best to use them both! Bike thieves in Amsterdam can be very capable. Use one lock for the front wheel (attached to the bike frame) and the other for the back, preferably attached to a post, bike rack or some other structure mounted to the ground.

Also, pay attention to signage regarding bike parking. Bicycle racks near tram and train stations and in certain public squares are usually best, or you may risk a removal by the police.

5. Pack layers of clothing

Practical clothing will get you far in Amsterdam. It’s a city where people dress hip but casual (jeans and nice sneakers or boots, for example) and mix-and-match layers since the year-round weather is unpredictable. A light trench coat or windbreaker jacket is essential for all seasons besides winter when a proper coat and warm gear are needed.

6. Buy an OV-chipkaart for travel around the city

The OV-chipkaart is highly recommended for public transport since it’s more convenient than single tickets and is easily reloadable by cash at machines or by an app. It's available for purchase from places like ticketing machines and supermarkets. Note: you need to touch on and touch off, including when you're getting off trams. Otherwise, you'll pay a hefty fee. 

7. Carry a mix of cash or cards

In Amsterdam, there is a growing movement of cafes and restaurants going cashless – while some of the more traditional, older haunts like bruin cafés (brown cafes) may not take cards at all.

Amsterdam Gay Pride Parade in the canals
Amsterdam knows how to party, although inconsiderate behaviour is not tolerated © Salwa Afef / Shutterstock

8. Be respectful on the streets

Dutch locals are tired of Amsterdam’s reputation as a destination for bachelor parties and bad behaviour, therefore authorities are considering steps to curtail the effects of rowdy visitors. To avoid disapproving looks and humiliating conversations, acting sensibly on downtown streets is a must.

Smoking marijuana and drinking in public is illegal and considered poor etiquette by Amsterdam natives. Similarly, taking photos of sex workers in the Red Light District is strictly prohibited.

9. Haggling at flea markets is okay

When shopping at Amsterdam’s famous rommelmarkt (flea markets) like IJ Hallen, the first price given by the seller is usually not a firm price but a starting point. This rule applies more to secondhand items than artisan-made goods. Use your best judgment.

10. Mind the Dutch mentality

The Dutch are known for being extremely direct. If a local shares a blunt, unvarnished opinion with you, it comes from a place of honesty as opposed to being impolite. In Dutch culture, it’s gracious to speak your mind and keep it short – don’t be surprised to find "no" is a complete sentence!

11. Certain topics are cultural taboos

Despite the brutally honest Dutch mentality, there are certain talking points that are considered too close to comfort and should be avoided – for example, asking very personal questions, for instance about income. 

Tulip flowers for sale at a Dutch flower market.
Tulips bulbs can be taken out of the Netherlands but need proper customs certifications © JeniFoto / Shutterstock

12. Make friends by wearing orange

At sporting events in recent years, the Dutch are known for the oranjekoorts (orange fever) or oranjegekte (orange craze). If you want the Dutch to know you’re cheering for them, wear the royal family’s traditional color. The more outlandish and over-the-top – we’re talking wigs, feather boas and face paint – the better.

13. Can I transport tulip bulbs home?

Tulip bulbs purchased at Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt can be shipped back to countries such as the United States, but an official certificate is needed for customs. Look for the sticker that says, “To the Plant Protection Service of the United States and Canada.” The additional certificate must be dated within six weeks of travel (otherwise, it’s best to have the seller ship them).

14. Can I bring cheese back home from the Netherlands?

Most varieties of Dutch cheeses will make it through customs, although typically unpasteurized and raw cheeses may not. The cheese should also be vacuum-bagged. 

A couple bikes down a road in Amsterdam
Biking is one of the cheapest ways to explore Amsterdam © Drazen_ / Shutterstock

15. Mind the cyclists – and cycling lanes

Cyclists in Amsterdam mean serious business. Never walk in a cycling lane, or you'll risk the wrath of an angry local on wheels. Always take a good look both ways before crossing. Bicycles are silent, but an accident can be very serious for cyclists and pedestrians. 

16. Don’t rent a car – rent a bike instead

Driving in Amsterdam is notoriously difficult, especially in the city center. Narrow cobblestone alleys and canals make maneuvering tough, plus parking is scarce and pricey (and usually unavailable, even at hotels).

17. Rent a helmet

Helmets are not legally mandated but strongly recommended. Most bike shops rent them for as little as €2.50 a day.

Beautiful view of Amsterdam canals with bridge and typical dutch houses.
Amsterdam's canals are beautiful, but be mindful not to fall in while admiring them © Veronika Galkina / Shutterstock

18. Be careful around canals

Almost none have barriers, and yes, tourist drownings have happened.

19. Watch out for pickpockets

Amsterdam’s compact downtown, chock-full of foot traffic and often folks who are under the influence, is the perfect recipe for pocket thieves – especially in busy squares and typical visitor areas. Be aware and don't keep all your documents and valuables on you. 

20. What to do if you need medical care in Amsterdam?

Amsterdam has an abundance of English-speaking doctors and medical care services targeted towards travelers, such as Hoteldoc and Amsterdam Tourist Doctors. For urgent medical care, dial 112 for emergencies or +31 20 570 9500 direct for an ambulance.

This article was first published December 2021 and updated July 2022

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