Exploring the pretty streets and canals of Amsterdam was just as fabulous the second time as it was the first.
Although there were nearly six years between my two visits, they both happened to be during the colder months – the first trip was mid-February when there were hints that spring was just around the corner, and the second trip was mid-November when the last amber leaves were falling off the trees to settle on the cobblestone streets.
To be honest, I really enjoyed exploring the city in the chilly months. I may not have had the quintessential summer city break that most visitors to Amsterdam have, but the reduced number of tourists made it way more relaxed than in peak season.
Seeing as Amsterdam is still a popular European destination year-round, my hot tip for travellers is to spend as little time as possible in the tourist hotspots. Centraal, the Red Light District, and Nieumarkt can get crazy busy with tourists and as a result these areas aren’t the best places to really enjoy Amsterdam.
Instead, stick to the Canal District (the belt with four canals that surrounds the city centre), Jordaan, Museumplein, and De Pijp. This is where you can really make the most of the city and enjoy these classic Amsterdam experiences!
1. Rent a bicycle
Amsterdam is known for being packed with bicycles – there are actually more bicycles here than there are residents! This is the preferred mode of transport for Amsterdammers as the city is mostly flat and there are bike paths on almost every street.
Renting a bicycle in Amsterdam is both easy and fun. There are bike rental services all over the city, and some hotels even offer bike rentals for guests. Rob and I rented our bicycles from MacBike in the Museum District which cost about €10, then we spent the day riding around Vondelpark and the Canal District.
If you’d feel more comfortable bicycling around Amsterdam with a guide to help you navigate the streets, book a spot on an Amsterdam city bike tour.
2. Explore the canals
Amsterdam’s Canal District has some unbelievably picturesque spots. The UNESCO-listed canals with their countless arched bridges are so photogenic that you won’t want to put your camera down.
Walking along the canals to find the best photo spots is probably the best option for getting some great Instagram pics. You can also do this by bike (as I did!) or do a canal cruise.
There are many companies that offer cruises through the canals, their boats just short enough to fit underneath the bridge arches crossing overhead. Most of the companies are pretty touristy, so a canal cruise on a traditional salonboat might be a more unique choice for this activity.
3. Visit a market or two
Amsterdam some amazing markets – it’s very likely that you’ll stumble across one while you’re exploring the city.
Albert Cuyp Market in the De Pijp neighbourhood is the most popular market in the Netherlands and is also the largest daytime market in Europe. The stalls offer a variety of different products catering for both tourists and locals and are open 6 days a week (closed on Sundays). Even though Saturday is the busiest day, I’d actually suggest going then as the market has a bustling atmosphere and is packed with the most stalls.
Lindenmarkt is another popular market held on Lindengracht in Jordaan every Saturday. This street is built on a former canal, which is kind of cool to think about as you wander the stalls. It has a wide range of vendors selling street food, cheeses, produce, flowers and souvenirs.
4. Eat a freshly made stroopwafel
This is a popular winter activity in the Netherlands, but you might enjoy stroopwafel in other seasons, too! Unlike their Belgian counterparts, traditional Dutch waffles are made by placing 2 thin waffles together with a filling of gooey caramel syrup in the middle.
You’ll probably spot tins of pre-made stroopwafels available for sale at various stores. These are great to take home as minimalist souvenirs, but nothing beats eating a fresh stroopwafel made by a market vendor. I picked up one at the Albert Cuyp Market and was extremely impressed with the warm Dutch treat, which had filling that oozed out a little every time I took a bite.
If you’re interested in learning the process of how these are made, try baking your own at a stroopwafel workshop in the Canal District!
5. Sample some Dutch cheese
Gigantic yellow wheels of Dutch cheese are easy to spot in store windows or at market stalls around Amsterdam. The Netherlands is actually the world’s biggest exporter of cheese, with Gouda and Edam being some of the most popular types.
If you want to taste some of the local specialties, head into the Henri Willig store in the Canal District to see their walls stacked with wheels of cheese (and try a few free samples!). You can also learn more about the traditional flavours on a cultural Dutch cheese and wine tasting around Centraal.
6. Admire the colourful tulips
It’s common to see Dutch people riding through Amsterdam with a bunch of blooming flowers in their bike basket. Often, those flowers will be tulips; the Dutch have been obsessed with these flowers since they were introduced from Turkey in the 16th century.
A must-do activity for seeing tulips is visiting Amsterdam’s Bloemenmarkt, which is the world’s only floating flower market. Located on the Singel Canal, the market has vendors selling thousands of tulips in a variety of colours.
The best time to see tulips is during tulip season (March to May) or on National Tulip Day (held on the third weekend in January) where Amsterdam’s Dam Square gets turned into a giant tulip garden. If you’re travelling outside of these dates, you may still spot a few tulips throughout the city though it’s more likely that you’ll see bunches of fake tulips or painted wooden tulips.
7. Visit a museum
Amsterdam’s museums are some of the most interesting museums I’ve ever visited. Most first-time visitors to Amsterdam will stop in at the Anne Frank House, which I would highly recommend to learn what it was like to be a Jewish family in hiding during WWII.
I also visited the Van Gogh Museum, which tells the story of the famous artist and displays some of his best works, and Moco, which has modern and contemporary artworks (including some incredible pieces from one of my faves – Banksy!).
The Rijksmuseum is another most popular art museum with historic masterpieces (it’s actually the most visited museum in the Netherlands), although I didn’t have time for it this time around. If you decide to visit Rijkmuseum, be sure to order your tickets online a few days in advance as lines at the entrance can get massively long.
8. Find a windmill
Windmills are a symbol closely associated with the Netherlands – these iconic mills are often featured in images depicting the country. There are over 1000 windmills scattered around the Netherlands and a handful are situated in Amsterdam.
I sought out the De Gooyer windmill, mostly because it has a brewery underneath! Drinking craft beer under the blades of this 16th century national monument was a unique way to spend an afternoon. Another windmill near to Amsterdam’s city centre is Molen de Otter, which is one of the few windmills still in use.
Most of the mills in the Netherlands are closed to the public so you’ll likely have to admire them only from the outside, but if you happen to be in Amsterdam on National Mill Day (the second weekend in May), many open their doors for visitors to explore.
9. Seek out the prettiest buildings
Amsterdam has some unbelievably pretty streets with totally gorgeous architecture, especially around the Canal District. The narrow canal houses with their historic brick facades are so lovely that you’re nearly guaranteed to swoon.
Aside from the buildings that line the canals, the 9 Little Streets area is a perfect spot to get some ‘grams of adorable houses and shopfronts with festoon lights hanging overhead, and the Zevenlandenhuizen (Houses of Seven Countries) near Vondelpark is another great place to see some unique European architecture.
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