With one of Europe's largest and best preserved medieval cores, Amsterdam is a stunning capital known for Golden Age mansions, world-class museums, and a well-established counterculture that blurs boundaries and lowers inhibitions.
More than 18 million tourists are drawn to the city every year. Some come for the enchanting canals (which outnumber those in Venice), tolerant vibe, and historic landmarks. Others come for tulips, cheese, and windmills. Some still are lured by Amsterdam's reputation for easy sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll. Whatever brings you to this water-laced capital, Amsterdam will never disappoint in meeting your expectations — just be prepared to still be surprised with what it has to offer beyond the tourist trail.
Every season in Amsterdam is magical for its own reasons. Winter has pop-up skating rinks, spring has tulips, summer has outdoor concerts, and the fall calendar is loaded with cultural events.
Whenever you visit, come prepared for four seasons in a single day. Amsterdam weather is erratic, and it's not unusual for a snowy morning to transform into a sunny afternoon.
Winters are cold, but the temperature rarely drops below freezing. From November to mid-January, the city glows with holiday lights and festive markets. Amsterdam Fashion Week sashays through town in the first month of the year, drawing international style-makers. Tulip season also kicks off in January, when Dam Square becomes a giant picking garden on National Tulip Day.
February is the coldest month, but airfares, accommodations, and tourists are at their lowest levels. Spring starts in March as tulips bloom and Keukenhof's flower garden opens for eight weeks. Amsterdam becomes party central in late April, when King's Day provides an excuse to drink, dance, and strut along streets and canals clogged with orange-clad revelers.
It never gets too hot in the summer, with temperatures hovering around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. June has Open Garden Days, when many canal houses open private courtyards for viewing, while in July there are outdoor concerts, urban beach outings, and festivals. In September, the cultural season debuts, with new museum exhibits, concerts, dance performances, and operas.
As in most European Union countries, the euro is the Netherlands' currency du jour. Both cash and card are widely accepted; however, payment policies differ from establishment to establishment. If you don't have a Dutch bank card, watch out for those with a Pin Only sign. Your cash, Visa, or Mastercard will be useless at these. Cards from foreign banks don’t work at the city's ubiquitous Albert Heijn supermarkets. ATMs, called geldautomaats, are scattered throughout town. Find many around Schiphol, Central Station, Dam Square, Leidseplein, and Rembrandtplein.
Tipping isn’t common in the Netherlands, as waiters, baristas, and bellhops earn good wages and don't rely on tips to survive. That's good news for hospitality workers, but it can translate into more “relaxed” service than you'd like. However, it's nice to round up a bill or leave a few coins on the table if you've been served well (and to share a bit of your own culture).
Dutch may be the official language of the Netherlands, but it's easy to get around in Amsterdam without knowing a single word of it. Almost everyone under 50 speaks English (as well as a few other languages), and many are keen to show off their linguistic skills.
While pronunciation can be difficult, it's satisfying to learn a few Dutch words before visiting the Netherlands' capital. The most respectful phrases may be Spreekt u Engels? (Do you speak English?) and dank u wel (thank you). Look for the ingang if you want to enter a venue and the uitgang when you're ready to exit.
A waitress may urge you to eet smakelijk (enjoy your meal) before you dig in. If it's delicious, you can declare it lekker (yummy).
Amsterdam is easy to explore on foot, bike, or public transportation. From the airport, a train journey to Central Station takes 20 minutes. If you're staying closer to Vondelpark or the Oud-West, catch the Airport Express (Bus 397), which terminates on Marnixstraat, just west of Leidseplein, after a 50-minute trip from Schiphol.
GVB operates the trains, trams, metros, busses, and ferries that connect the city's neighborhoods. With a door-to door journey planner, you can figure out which routes work best for you. The most expensive public transport option is a single-use ticket, available from GVB vending machines or directly from tram and bus drivers for €3 and change. If you're buying one onboard, you'll need plastic, as drivers don’t accept cash. Your ticket is good for multiple transfers within one hour.
A day- or multi-day pass is a more affordable option if you're planning to use public transport for more than a few trips. Passes are available from drivers or at GVB service points, as well as online and at Amsterdam Tourist Offices. Alternatively, purchase a rechargeable OV-chipkaart, good for all public transport in the Netherlands, and add credit as needed.
In a city with excellent public transport, taxis make little sense. If they're your only option because trams aren't running or you're in a rush, look for an inside meter that will display your fare based on the length of your journey. Alternatively, hop on Amsterdam's version of a rickshaw — a bike taxi.
As good as public transport is in Amsterdam, your feet are your best ally in this imminently walkable city. Cycling is popular with locals, but the bike lanes are too crowded for unconfident riders.
Crime is so low throughout the Netherlands that numerous prisons have been converted into housing in recent years. In Amsterdam, you're far more likely to fall victim to a pickpocket or bike thief than to anyone trying to inflict serious harm. That said, like in any large city, keep your valuables close, carry minimal cash, and watch out for scammers trying to distract you.
With normal precautions, a solo adult can feel safe walking alone at night anywhere in Amsterdam — even the city's infamous De Wallen, which is heavily patrolled and festooned with cameras. Nevertheless, Warmoesstraat and the dark alleys surrounding it still attract drug users and illegal drug peddlers in the wee hours, despite the city's best efforts to gentrify the red-light district. Never buy drugs from street dealers.