How to Plan a Perfect Trip to Amsterdam

Bicycles on a bridge in Prinsengracht canal, Amsterdam

 George Pachantouris/Getty Images

With its 17th century Renaissance architecture and stunning network of canals, the city of Amsterdam has Old World appeal mixed with parks, museums, restaurants, and other activities that make it a thoroughly modern city. Yes, the city's Red Light District and coffeeshop culture both are magnets for boisterous crowds, but from street markets and stroopwafels to bicycle tours, breweries, and canal tours, there are plenty of tamer activities to enjoy in this capital of the Netherlands.

Read on for when to visit, things to do, where to eat and drink, where to stay, getting there, and tips for saving money on your next visit to Amsterdam.

Planning Your Trip to Amsterdam

  • Best time to visit: The most popular tourist season in Amsterdam is from April through September, when the temperatures are mild, flowers are in full bloom, and days are long, making it easier to take advantage of the city's daytime activities and vibrant nightlife on foot or by bike. But don't discount other times of the year. During the holidays, elaborate light displays on homes, businesses, and the city's canals make it a winter wonderland, while in late fall and early spring, streets and main attractions are less crowded and hotels and airfare are less expensive. For more about the weather in Amsterdam, read our seasonal guide to the city.
  • Getting Around: The historic parts of Amsterdam are compact and easily walkable. The city also has an extensive public transportation network consisting of trams, ferries, buses, and metros, which all use the same public transport chip card (OV-chipkaart). Bicycles, residents' transit of choice, are also available for rent at several outfitters throughout the city.
  • Travel Tips: Because of its location on the North Sea, Amsterdam is notorious for its frequent rain showers and temperature shifts, so come prepared with closed-toed, water-resistant shoes and a waterproof jacket, hat, or umbrella (or all of the above!). Note that currently, citizens of the European Union, United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand do not need a visa if visiting for three months or less as long as they have a valid passport.

Things to Do

From museums and historical sites like the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Anne Frank House to parks, street markets, canal and bicycle tours, and the rich culinary history of its multicultural residents, Amsterdam has a variety of activities to occupy visitors.

While the city has dozens of attractions, here are the can't miss ones:

  • Take an evening canal cruise. Declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2010, the city's network of 165 canals provide a unique vantage point for viewing Amsterdam's most notable architecture, from the historic homes that ring the most central canals to the modern buildings along the Amstel River. From November through January, the city presents the annual Amsterdam Light Festival, with dozens of art installations from renowned Dutch and international artists in and along the water.
  • Tour the Anne Frank House. See the secret annex where Anne Frank, her family, and four others hid during World World II as well as entries from her famous diary and other moving remnants of the impact of her short life and the horrors of Nazi occupation in this museum on Prinsengracht. Note that entry is ticketed and must be secured a few months in advance, so plan ahead.
  • View the work of the Dutch masters at the Rijksmuseum. With works from Vermeer to Van Gogh to Rembrandt, this museum houses the largest collection of Dutch and Flemish art in the country. Follow your visit with a picnic on the Museumplein or stops at the adjacent Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk Museum of contemporary art, or the Concertgebouw, the city's performing arts hall.

Explore more of the city's best with our articles on Amsterdam's top attractions, how to spend 48 hours in Amsterdam, and 50 More Things to Do in Amsterdam.

What to Eat and Drink

From traditional local dishes like stroopwafels, raw herring, and pancakes to international imports like Indonesian Rijsttafel ("rice table," or a meal with several small plates), Indian, and more, Amsterdam's food scene is varied and offers something for every taste.

To sample the best of the city, visit De Foodhallen, which has over 20 food stalls offering everything from Dutch bitterballen (deep-fried beef smothered in breadcrumbs) and hot dogs with sauerkraut to Spanish pintxos, Vietnamese banh mi, and Indian street food. Don't miss the spot's gin and tonic bar, or sip on the unofficial city drink at Razmataz, which offers 50 different variations on the classic. To learn about gin's predecessor and the native spirit of the Netherlands, genever, visit the House of Bols distillery and museum.

Visit one of the 250-plus food stalls at Albert Cuyp Market in the De Pijp neighborhood, for stroopwafel, fresh herring, produce, flowers, and other goods, then stop into nearby Glou Glou for natural wines and snacks like cheese, bread, and more. For rijsttafel, try Blauw Indonesian south of Vondelpark or Sampurna on the Singel canal in Jordaan. Beer lovers will want to tour the Heineken Experience or visit Brouwerij 't IJ, an organic brewery located next to a working windmill.

Where to Stay

Amsterdam has a variety of accommodations, from five-star hotels to budget-friendly hostels. The most convenient and expensive options are in the inner canal belt, which is bordered by Amsterdam Centraal to the north and the Museum District to the south. Options range from luxury boutique hotels like the Kimpton DeWitt, Canal House, and the Pulitzer Amsterdam to standard chains like the Hyatt Regency, the Marriott, and the Hilton. For more affordable hotels, Oud Zuid (Amsterdam South) as well as De Wallen (Red Light District) in the east offer hostels, Air BNBs, and reliable brands like Hilton and Marriott.

Read more on the best hotels in Amsterdam here.

Getting There

Over 108 airlines fly to and from over 300 destinations worldwide to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, which is Europe's third busiest by passenger volume, a KILM hub, and located about 11 miles (19 kilometers) southwest of the city. Amsterdam Centraal train station is about a 15-20 minute ride from the airport. A one-way fare is 5.50 euros, which includes a 1 euro surcharge for a disposable ticket. Fares for the seven-minute ride to Amsterdam Zuid (south part of the city) are 3.80 euros, and from there, you can connect via the city's metro system to other parts of town.

Taxis are also readily available at the airport, with fares into the city center averaging between 45-50 euros, as are rideshares like Uber.

Amsterdam is also a short train ride from other points in Europe, like Paris (3:18 via Thalys), London (3:55 via Eurostar), and Cologne (2:38 via ICE international railways).

Culture & Customs

  • Bicycles are a huge part of Amsterdam's culture and often outnumber cars. Avoid standing or walking in designated bike lanes.
  • Restaurant service is different than in the United States. As is common in Europe, service is slower, and you will often have to flag down wait staff to place an order or ask for a check.
  • Tipping is optional at restaurants, as service is built into prices, but if you want to leave extra, rounding up to the nearest Euro or up to 10 percent of the total bill is appreciated.
  • There is a difference between a coffee shop and a coffee shop or café. A coffeeshop (no space) is a place that sells marijuana and related products, while a coffee shop or café is where one sips coffee.
  • Photos are forbidden in the Red Light District to protect the identities of the workers.

Money-Saving Tips

  • Purchase an I amsterdam City Card. Available for 24 (50 euros), 48 (80 euros), and 72 (93 euros) hour periods, the card includes a city map, free canal cruise, and free access to top museums like Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum.
  • Pack a picnic for a park. From the 120-acre Vondelpark in Amsterdam-Zuid to Oosterpark, the city's first planned park, Amsterdam offers ample green spaces perfect for a picnic. Shop at nearby markets and food stalls to save money on expensive sit-down meals.
  • Take advantage of the Last Minute Ticket Shop, which offers same-day, deep discounts to local theatre productions, comedy shows, and concerts starting at 10 a.m.
  • Walk, bike, or utilize public transportation. Taxis and rideshares can be expensive, so explore the city on foot, via its extensive public transportation network, or as the locals do: by bike.
  • Purchase an unlimited one, two, three, or seven-day tram pass, starting at 2.50 euros for children and 7.50 euros for adults for a single day of rides.
  • Book a hotel or hostel outside of the city center. De Pijp, Plantagebuurt, and Haarlem are all neighborhoods that offer high quality, but less expensive accommodations and easy access to public transportation.

For more additional money-saving tips, read our guide for visiting Amsterdam on a budget.

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