Tulips in front of townhouses and canals in Asterdam's old centre | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Everything you need to know before you visit Amsterdam

Heading to Amsterdam? It always pays to do a little planning ahead of your stay. Here’s a few tips to help you make the most of your stay – from which attractions to book in advance to where to find the best craft beer in the city.

There are always surprises to be found when you visit a country for the first time.

There might be many things about Europe that are similar, but set foot somewhere new and there are always things which immediately jump out. Whether it’s how people get about or what everyone’s drinking, it’s these small details that define our unique cultures and landscapes. Knowing a little about the preferences, traditions and quirks of your destination helps you to feel at home, enjoy a new place more like a local and be a considerate tourist (something we could all do with talking about a little more).

If I’m honest, I’m sometimes a little too laid back about these things. I’ve winged my way through a few European cities over the years. I’m rather fond of turning off the WiFi and trying to be spontaneous. But our recent trip to the Netherlands reminded me that a little forward planning never goes amiss.

Without checking ahead of time, I wouldn’t have been able to book tickets to the Rijksmuseum – which I was desperate to visit. And I might not have had a chance to drink some of the fantastic beers brewed in the city or survived it’s cycle lanes (only joking).

So here’s a few tips for planning your trip to Amsterdam. The things I’m thankful I knew before I arrived, and a few we discovered as we explored the city. I’m going to share how to make the very most of your trip, feel at home and enjoy the highlights of this magnificent city. Shall we get started?

Getting around Amsterdam

Be bike aware

There are many reasons why I love the Netherlands. One of them is the national obsession with cycling. As someone who spends a lot of hours on my bike at home (in a country where it’s not so popular), arriving in Amsterdam felt like arriving in cycle-commuter heaven.

But be aware that bike traffic takes priority in this city.

This is useful whether you’re on two wheels or two feet.

There are bike lanes everywhere in Amsterdam, both in pedestrianised areas and alongside most roads. Always check for cyclists before crossing the road, and acknowledge that bikes take priority over pedestrians. Also, keep an eye out for mopeds. They’re not supposed to be ridden in bike lanes any longer, but you’ll come across a few. Keep your eyes peeled and keep safe.

Take the tram

When it comes to getting around the city, if you can’t beat them, join them. It’s really easy to hire bikes here and a good way to get around – especially if you’d like to explore areas further from the centre, such as Vondelpark and Amsterdam Bos.

But at times when this is less convenient, like when you’re carrying luggage, it’s the tram you’ll want to take. Quick and easy, you can buy either single tickets or travel cards for 24, 48 and 72 hours at vending machines at stations. Your ticket or travel card will also need to be validated every time to use you use it. Simply tap your ticket on the sensor by the door when you board – and do the same when you hop off. The easiest way to work out what to do? Follow everyone else’s lead!

If you’re staying outside of the pedestrianised centre, I’d recommend choosing an apartment or hotel close to a tram line. This makes it as easy as possible to get about.

Find out more about public transport routes and tickets on the GVB website.

That Iamsterdam sign

The one that’s all over Instagram?

It’s not there anymore. Sorry.

You won’t have to get up at the crack of dawn to try and grab a photo outside the Rijksmuseum without any crowds. But I promise you, this is no big deal. There are so many beautiful places to see and interesting things to do in this city that you’ll be glad you had more time for them.

Roof of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Visiting museums and galleries in Amsterdam

Know that everything happens early

Mostly, museums close early in the Netherlands. If you’ve ever pootled round the Prado at 8pm or nipped into the National after work, that’s not how it works here. It’s best to arrive not long after opening, or early in the afternoon, to allow yourself plenty of time to enjoy the exhibits without rushing.

(Which, by the way, you’ll want to do. The museums here have an incredible wealth of things to see. It’s worth taking your time to enjoy everything your ticket offers).

Book, book, book

Secondly, it’s really important to book tickets in advance. And I don’t mean the day before.

We visited in early April, in the week leading up to Easter. A popular time to visit. We were able to book tickets to the Rijksmuseum a week before we arrive, but not the special Rembrandt exhibition – it was sold out. Out of curiosity, we checked the availability for the Van Gogh museum. It was early April, the earliest tickets we could find were for early May.

Plan ahead. If you’re keen to explore the museum quarter, it’s best not to be spontaneous.

You can check opening hours and book tickets to some of Amsterdam’s most popular museums here;

  • Rijksmuseum – open 9am – 5pm daily, 365 days a year with some exceptions. There’s currently a discount for booking online
  • Van Gogh museum – opening times vary depending on the day of the week and time of year
  • Stedelijk museum – also open 365 days of the year, usually until 6pm but later on Fridays
  • Rembrandthuis – opens 10am – 6pm throughout the year
  • Anne Frank Huis – opening times vary throughout the year. Tickets can only be brought online, with 80% sold in advance (and often sold out weeks in advance) and the remaining 20% sold on the day and released at 9am

You might want to pass…

On the I amsterdam City Card.

This is a bit of a controversial view. Investing in this tourist card is by far and away the best value way to explore the museums and galleries of Amsterdam. It entitles you to free entrance at many major attractions and it even gives you unlimited use of public transport.

But it doesn’t come cheap. Starting at €60 for 24 hours, you’d need to slog round three big museums and take a fair few trams in this time if you want to even cover costs.

If you want to check off attractions, this option could work well. However, I’d really recommend choosing one or two museums, booking advance and doing a little research beforehand so you that you can make the most of your ticket and not feel rushed. There’s so much to take in, at the Rijksmuseum for example, that I could easily (and very happily) spend three or more hours enjoying the galleries.

Historic townhouses alongside canal in Amsterdam | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog

Know your coffee shops and cafes

Because there’s a crucial difference.

A cafe is a place to settle down with a latte and a croissant. You know, the sort of place you’d normally go to get a coffee.

Coffee shops are less about coffee and more about smoking. These are places where you can buy and consume cannabis, which as you probably know, is legal here.

You shouldn’t have any trouble spotting the difference between the two, as they’re always named according to this rule.

All about the Bloemenmarkt

I want to talk about the Bloemenmarkt because what I’d read online didn’t match the reality.

The Bloemenmarkt used to be Amsterdam’s floating flower market, where traders sold cut flowers to the Dutch public. Still in the same location, the modern market doesn’t trade in cut blooms. Instead, it sells silk flowers, tulip bulbs and souvenirs – and in April 2019, there were just two stalls selling cut flowers. If you’re expecting armfuls of colourful tulips and wholesaling of one of the Netherland’s most beautiful exports, you might be a little disappointed.

Never fear though, there are other ways to discover the heritage of flower-growing and trading in the country. I’ve got a whole post on our day trip exploring the nearby tulip fields.

Read more: Blooming beautiful: Exploring tulip fields by bike from Amsterdam

In the city of Heineken, choose something else

I know, that sounds all wrong.

Amsterdam is a proud to be home to Heineken, and the Heineken experience is a pretty big attraction here.

But rather excitingly, there’s also a burgeoning craft beer scene in this city. And sticking to an old-favourite might mean that you miss out. If you like trying something a little different, check out any of the new breweries actually brewing in the city (there are many!). And keep an eye for their names on taps everywhere here. Most independent bars and restaurants we visited stocked a great selection of local beers.

Here’s some that we tried out for ourselves;

  • Brouwerij ‘t IJ – A exciting selection of beers brewed in an old bathhouse with an unmissable windmill next door. The huge beer garden is perfect for spring and summer evenings. Look out for their seasonal beers, I loved their Easter Bock that’s only available during Lent
  • Brouwerij Troost – Check out their unassuming-looking taproom in De Pijp for comforting bar food as well as a range of beers (you’ve got to try their bierballen!). Their smaller batches are brewed at this site
  • Brouwerij de Prael – Tucked away in an unexpected spot in the narrow streets of central Amsterdam, the taproom of this brewery is surprisingly cavernous

Card is king in Amsterdam

Much of the time that I’m away from home, I’m in southern Europe. Here, all retailers take, and many prefer cash. Pop into a small bar in Spain for a few beers and a small tapas or a French cafe for your morning noisette, and there might not even be an option to pay by card. But in northern Europe, the convenience and security of card payments is increasingly popular.

A lot of places in the Dutch capital only accepted card payments. These included restaurants, street-food stalls at Foodhallen and pretty much every independent business we came across. Tourist spots in the centre mostly seemed to accept both cards and cash, but explore a little further out and you’ll need your card.

It’s just good to know before you go. If you don’t bank in Euros yourself, a debit or credit card that doesn’t charge a commission fee is ideal. You might also want to reconsider how much currency you buy as cash before you go away – as you may not need it.

I hope you’ve found these tips help. Amsterdam’s a fantastic city to visit, but if you’ve got limited time it’ll really pay off if you do your research in advance.

And if you’ve been to the Dutch capital recently, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you have any tips for first-timers?

Want to know more about our trip to Amsterdam? I’ve written a short break city guide that shares our favourite finds from the Dutch capital.

Read more: Two tales of one city: On and off the beaten path in Amsterdam

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Everything you need to know before you visit Amsterdam | Girl with a saddle bag travel blog
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Alice
girlwithasaddlebag@gmail.com
12 Comments
  • Mercedes Domenech
    Posted at 08:51h, 25 May Reply

    I’m going to Amsterdam for the first time in 3 weeks, and I can’t wait! Thanks for sharing your tips and advice, it’ll definitely be useful.

    • Alice
      Posted at 13:40h, 25 May Reply

      Thank you Mercedes! Hope you have a fantastic time (I’m sure you will) and that the advice is useful.

  • Rachel
    Posted at 12:02h, 25 May Reply

    A whole bunch of genuinely useful tips here (good to know the difference between cafes and coffee shops, and which beer to go for!). Amsterdam is one of those places fairly close to home that I’ve somehow skipped over thus far – I’ll definitely have to try to get there soon!

    • Alice
      Posted at 13:41h, 25 May Reply

      Thank you Rachel! I can’t believe it took me so long to go to Amsterdam but it was so worth it. Hope you make it here one day, and that the advice is useful if you do 🙂

  • Tina
    Posted at 14:13h, 25 May Reply

    Finally a blogger who can write about Amsterdam without recommending the I amsterdam City Card! Hahah 😀 .Love this post, it’s very informative for any first-time visitors. Thanks for sharing!

    • Alice
      Posted at 14:41h, 25 May Reply

      Thank you Tina! If I’m honest, the I amsterdam card wasn’t for us. We prefer to explore on foot and take our time and find budget options where possible. We loved the city, and I hope this post is useful for anyone else visiting for the first time.

  • Christine
    Posted at 14:48h, 25 May Reply

    Beautiful photos and such useful tips. We loved Amsterdam when we went a few years ago, but I would love to go back and see more

    • Alice
      Posted at 15:19h, 25 May Reply

      Thank you so much Christine! I’m really keen to return as well. There are just so many interesting things to see and do in Amsterdam.

  • Clazz - An Orcadian Abroad
    Posted at 16:34h, 25 May Reply

    These are great tips! I love that you’re just like “this is the popular opinion BUT…” I agree with you about the card, and it’s the same reason I haven’t done that in London – because I don’t want to rush from place to place just to get my money’s worth. Like you said, if there’s lots you actually want to see and don’t mind packing it in, then it could be worth it.

    • Alice
      Posted at 07:08h, 26 May Reply

      Thank you so much! I’m a firm believer in quality over quantity when it comes to travel. I’d rather do fewer things but really immerse myself in them and enjoy them, rather than try to pack too much in. I figure that I can always return in future if there is more I’d like to see. I actually love re-visintg places as you get such a different perspective the second time around.

  • Sophie van der Meulen
    Posted at 23:36h, 25 May Reply

    So funny to read about what other travelers think about my home countries capital 😉 Glad you liked it there.

    • Alice
      Posted at 07:09h, 26 May Reply

      Thank you Sophie! I hope my observations about Amsterdam seem fair to you 🙂 I loved this city – and would really like to return to the Netherlands again soon. I’m just always amazed at how different neighbouring countries are, and as a Brit I think of the Netherlands as our next-door neighbour 🙂

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