The capital of the Netherlands is famous for its waterways and those narrow 17th-century canal houses. It's also famous for its laid-back and liberal approach to life.
Its list of attractions is long. Major museums include the Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt House, and Van Gogh Museum, which has the world's largest collection of works by Vincent van Gogh. The Anne Frank House, where Anne wrote her diary, is now a popular museum.
The de Wallen area, in the centre of the city, is where you'll find the red-light district and many "brown cafes" (the "brown" refers to not only the smoke stains, but a Dutch word, gezellig, which translates as something approaching cosy).
This year, the Amsterdam tourism board is keen to highlight some of the city's lesser-known cultural gems. These include the secret attic church (Our Lord in the Attic - Ons Lieve Heer op Solder), the Museum of Bags and Purses and the Amsterdam Tulip Museum.
Amsterdam is a great city to see on two feet or on two wheels. Bicycle rentals are readily available. Several low-cost airlines including easyJet and bmibaby offer cheap flights to Amsterdam, touching down at Schiphol Airport, just 20 minutes from the city.
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Amsterdam has a mild, damp climate but the weather can be variable with temperature extremes even in summer. Spring and autumn especially bring changeable, unsettled weather. In the winter months clear, frosty days are the norm, the coldest months being December to March. Rain is likely all year round.
When to fly to Amsterdam
The most popular time to take flights to Amsterdam is from the start of the warm weather, when the tulips bloom, through to early autumn. In spring and summer the weather is usually good, with open-air dining on sidewalks and canal boats. Consequently, hotels are hard to come by and the city is very crowded. Try to avoid the height of the summer if you can. If you do take a flight at this time, be prepared for both cool and very hot weather. September and October are less crowded than the summer, the rates are lower, and the weather is often quite lovely. This is an ideal time for the beautiful low-angle light depicted in Dutch landscape paintings.
The most crowded and expensive time to visit Amsterdam is tulip season (April to mid-May) and July and August.
Most cultural events are scheduled from September through June, so if you go in the cold winter months (the coldest weather is December-March), there will be plenty to do and fewer people trying to do it. And if you’re there during one of the winters when the canals freeze, you can join the Amsterdam residents on skates, a lovely way to see the city.
Getting around Amsterdam
It’s easy to walk around Amsterdam in just a few hours. You need to keep an eye out though – cars have the right of way and bikes, trams and buses crisscross the city. Rent a bike to speed up your pace without turning the city into a blur.
Amsterdam is a very bike-friendly city. Bike lanes and bike racks are plentiful. Make sure the light on your bike is working; you can be fined for riding without a light after dark. To travel beyond the city, it’s easy to take the train or bus. It’s cheaper to rent your car in the city. The Netherlands road network is very good.
Amsterdam insider information
- Vereniging voor Vreemdelingenverkeer (Association for Foreigner Travel), abbreviated to VVV (pronounced fay-fay-fay), is nationwide. VVV Amsterdam provides information, has brochures and maps, makes reservations for hotels and tours, and sells reduced-rate passes for attractions.
- You can buy an all-day pass for the Canal Bus, which takes you to Amsterdam’s major attractions and provides historical commentary along the way. If you have less time or want to spend a day going only to museums, the Museumboot (Museum Boat) takes you to most museums, and the ticket includes half-price entry.
- Museumplein and Vondelpark are the area where you will find the three major museums — the Rijksmuseum, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Stedelijk Museum — as well as the Concertgebouw concert hall, a variety of restaurants, Amsterdam's most elegant shopping area, and its best-known park. There are also small hotels that are a much better bargain than those along the canals and in the centre of the city.
- The Anne Frankhuis, the building where the Franks and two other families hid from the Nazis for two years, is just as they left it, and remarkably like the descriptions in Anne’s diary. The adjacent building contains exhibits about the occupants of the hiding place, including the original diary.
- If you walk along the canals after dark, you will see Amsterdam at one of its loveliest times. Subtle lighting bathes many of the 17th-century houses, and bridges are festooned with lights.
- The Jordaan is an up-and-coming area of Amsterdam that still houses artists and students but is home to an increasing number of trendy restaurants and boutiques.
- The tour of the Heineken brewery gives you a good view of beer-making, and the entry fee entitles you to some of the product.