What to do in Amsterdam: Tips from a Local!
What should I do while I’m not in GALA Amsterdam conference sessions? That’s a tough question. Even though Amsterdam has less than a million inhabitants and is much smaller than any major city in the world, it has a lot to offer.
And the big advantage is that everything is close by. You can walk almost anywhere, and if you don’t want to walk, you can take a bike, one of many buses/trams or a taxi. The latter being clearly the most expensive option.
I’ll give you an executive summary of the various categories of worthwhile things to do when you are in our capital. I will list the most popular destinations and some of my personal favorites, so you can choose. For most of the categories there are plenty of other options, but you will have to rely on your own exploration skills to discover them. Simply walking about the town will probably give you great hints for places to visit or things to do. There are some excellent websites which provide loads of information, most notably www.iamsterdam.com, which is authored mostly in English and is elaborate with a lot of good tips. Many of the below links point to it.
DISCLAIMER: The below are just suggestions and personal opinions of the author. No guarantees of a fabulous experience, great service or wonderful food can be given. Hopefully, you will have a great time in Amsterdam and this short guide will help you achieve that.
Before we start with the where to go, let me point you to some info on how to get there. I wrote a little piece on getting from Schiphol Airport to the city in one of the Conference Community discussions. More information on how to get around Amsterdam is available here.
Bike riding: Although it seems like loads of fun to rent a bike, please only do so if you are very experienced at riding one. The traffic (especially from cyclists) can be very tricky in Amsterdam, with lots of people forcing themselves through narrow streets and pedestrians and cyclists usually ignoring traffic lights. Taxi drivers don’t like tourists on bikes and they’re not afraid to show it.
What to do in Amsterdam
1. Drinks and Food
OK, where to start. There are hundreds, if not thousands of restaurants and bars in Amsterdam. Ranging from chic to folksy, and from very expensive to downright cheap.
Best thing to do is to describe some places which offer something special, from an architectural, atmosphere or historical point of view.
Let me start off by saying that coffee bars (not to be confused with coffee shops which sell soft drugs!) and lunchrooms are so plenty, it’s impossible to name them. Just walk into the De Pijp area around Okura or head over to the museum district and you will find dozens of places for breakfast, coffee, and lunch.
Good old-fashioned ‘brown’ bars
Don’t be mistaken by the name if you are a German speaker. A brown bar is actually a good thing in Amsterdam. It’s a bar that hasn’t changed in decades (sometimes centuries) and has the old, “Jordaan” atmosphere, usually with sand on the floor for some reason. If you want to catch some authentic Amsterdam vibe, try places like:
- Rooie Nelis (Laurierstraat 101): One of the best know brown bars in Amsterdam.
- Hoppe (Spui 18-20): Serves a range of typically Amsterdam liqueurs…and beer or course.
- Oosterling (Utrechtsestraat 140): Centuries old and still is both a liquor store and a bar.
- Café Chris (Bloemstraat 42): Oldest bar in Amsterdam (1634!) and a stone’s throw from Westerkerk and Anne Frank House.
- Café Bolle Jan (Korte Reguliersdwarsstraat 3): Warms up at night with live Amsterdam singing, which the locals really enjoy, and can be ‘interesting’ for tourists (if they let you in).
Brasserie-style cafés which serve (good) food
- Americain (Leidsekade 97/Leidseplein): Iconic art-nouveau brasserie right in the heart of the city.
- De Jaren (Nieuwe Doelenstraat 20): Spacious, minimalistic ‘grand café’ which serves some great lunch dishes. Nice terrace on one of the canals. Very close to ‘Kalverstraat’, Amsterdam’s busiest shopping street, and the Flower Market.
- Vondelpark 3 (Vondelpark 3): Wonderful location on the East side of Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s “Central Park”. If it’s busy, service can be awful, but if the weather’s good, this place is really cool.
- Amstelhoeck (Amstel 1, Amsterdam): Great location next to the Opera House/City Hall, just off the Waterlooplein flee market and across the Amstel river from busy Rembrandtplein.
- Café Luxembourg (Spui 24): Elegant, spacious café in the heart of the main shopping district, very close to the wonderful ‘Begijnhof’ and its historical, still active English Reformed Church.
Chic (cocktail) bars
- Momo (Hobbemastraat 1): Chic (ie pricy) and trendy yuppie hangout, between the big museums and Leidseplein. Also a restaurant.
- College Hotel (Roelof Hartplein): Beautifully re-decorated former school. Now a hotel, bar and restaurant. 5 minute walk from Okura.
- Conservatorium Hotel’s Tunes Bar (Van Baerlestraat 27): Design award winning hotel, that used to be Amsterdam’s music academy (“conservatorium”). Luxurious and pricy, but definitely worth a look just for the interior design and architecture of the hotel…
- Madam: Cocktail bar/restaurant based in the new, very trendy Adam tower, in Amsterdam North. Fantastic views of Amsterdam, which is across the IJ river.
Beer, wine and shisha
- Gollem: Chain of 4 beer bars, the biggest is in Daniel Stalpertstraat 74, close to Okura.
- Troost (Cornelis Troostplein 21): A pub and a brewery, 100 meters away from the hotel.
- Bubbles and wines (Nes 37): A few feet from the Dam Square. Great, upmarket champagne and wine bar in a wonderful little street called Nes, which also has some great restaurants.
- Glou Glou (Tweede van der Helststraat 3): Cosy, unpretentious little wine bar close to Okura.
- Cedars (Heemstedestraat 80): Lebanese food and shisha. Nice spacious place by the water, best reached by taxi as it’s just outside the center, but pretty close to Vondelpark.
Needless to say there are dozens of other specialized wine and beer and many more normal bars in Amsterdam, with rather a few of them in De Pijp, the district in which Okura is located.
Let's move on to food. Again, there is so much to choose from, that it’s hard to make a selection, but I tried anyway, with a bunch of different categories. Unfortunately, most of the places I recommend are not really cheap, but there certainly are some more affordable ones in my list as well.
Easy Peasy: Scheldestraat and De Pijp areas
When you get to the end of the driveway of the hotel, turn left to check out Scheldestraat/Scheldeplein has over a dozen decent to very good bars and restaurants, some of which are featured in other categories. 5 minutes on foot.
If you turn right, you go down Ferdinand Bolstraat, which is the start of the very lively De Pijp (yes, The Pipe) district. Ferdinand Bolstraat already has many bars and restaurants (more and more as you walk towards the center), but if you go into the side streets on the right or left – especially Ceintuurbaan (try hip & spacious CT – Coffee & Coconuts for breakfast, coffee, lunch & dinner eg) and Albert Cuypstraat – you will discover even more.
Albert Cuypstraat (the ‘Cuyp’ as the locals call it), is a daily market bustling with shoppers during the day, but the stands are gone at night and the street gives way to a broad variation of restaurants. Most restaurants are not very expensive. The area has some of the best Surinam and cheaper oriental restaurants in town. Also some excellent pizza places like District 5 (Van der Helstplein 17, very close to Okura, very Italian) and the Pizzabakkers (Eerste Swelinckstraat 16, off Albert Cuypstraat, Dutch chain, but great pizzas, no cash!).
All places in De Pijp are between 2 and 10 minutes on foot from the Okura Hotel.
Hip and Happening
- Bo Nam (Lange Leidsedwarsstraat 57): Hip Vietnamese place, serving more than the standard dishes.
- Bajes (Rembrandtplein/Utrechtsestraat 11), place packed with street art from various artists. Good drinks & food.
- Izakaya (Albert Cuypstraat 2): Bar and Japanese restaurant of the Sir Albert boutique hotel. Great-looking place for Amsterdam’s young and beautiful where they buy overpriced food and sip wonderful cocktails.
- Moon (IJpromenade 1): Revolving restaurant with spectacular views of Amsterdam from the ADAM tower in Amsterdam North. Book well ahead, especially for Friday and Saturday night, as it’s really popular. Try Madam one floor above if it’s full and you really want to go here. It’s pretty far from Okura. You have to cross the IJ river by ferry behind Central Station to get there or take a taxi.
Organic, Vegetarian, Vegan
- Moer (Amstelveenseweg 7): Local organic food (also meat).
- Deshima (Weteringschans 65): Macrobiotic, vegan lunchroom.
- Betty’s (Rijnstraat 75): 3-course vegetarian/vegan surprise dinner, been around for 30 years
- Saravana Bhavan (Stadhouderskade 123): Vegetarian-only Indian restaurant, part of global chain
- Le pain quotidien (Cornelis Troostplein 4): Global chain of organic breakfast/lunch restaurants, which started in Belgium in 1990. Great for healthy breakfast/lunch.
- Vis aan de schelde (Scheldeplein 4): This legendary fish restaurant is a 5-minute walk from Okura.
- Bridges (Oudezijds Voorburgwal): Chique, 1-star restaurant inside The Grand Hotel. Pretty but pricy…
- The Seafood Bar (Ferdinand Bolstraat 32): Close to Okura. Like the name says, seafood is their thing. There are two other branches of this chain in Amsterdam
- Brut de Mer (Gerard Douplein 8): Oyster and fish restaurant in De Pijp. Close to Heineken Experience. Two shifts on Friday and Saturday night: 6 PM-8.30 and 8.30 till closing time.
- éénvistwéévis (Schippersgracht 6): Next to Maritime museum, cosy little fish place, great reviews! Be sure to book on time, as this is not a big restaurant.
- Roast Room (Rotisserie) (Europaplein 2): Beautiful room, great service and pricy steaks, charged by the gram. Tell them how much you want and they show you what they have. Located opposite sister fish restaurant Aan de schelde, ie close to Okura, and a personal favorite of mine.
- Burgermeester (Albert Cuypstraat 48): Daily home-made variety of hamburgers (all less than EUR 10).
- Uptown Meat Club (Van Baerlestraat 7): Similar to Roast Room, but less chic, pricy, and beautiful.
- Loetje (Ferdinand Bolstraat 188A): Legendary chain of steak houses. This one is right across the road from Okura. Not my personal favorite, but a household name in Amsterdam. No reservations.
Exquisite (and pricy) Dining
- Okura Hotel: All restaurants at the Okura are great. Two places are Japanese (Yamazato and Sazanka), both have a Michelin star. There is Ciel Bleu (2 Michelin stars, very expensive) on the top floor, and the very nice Serre restaurant on the ground floor. It has a very limited menu of tasty classical dishes. The star restaurants are expensive, Serre is reasonably priced.
- Vinkeles (Keizersgracht 384): In beautiful boutique hotel The Dylan. 5-course dinner at EUR 90, excluding wine. Lovely, chic atmosphere. Great French-style food. 1 Michelin star.
- Rijks (just in front of Rijksmuseum, to the left): Just received its first Michelin star, and is in a wonderful location, adjacent to the Rijksmuseum. 10-15 minutes on foot from Okura.
- MOS: Spectacular location overlooking the IJ river. Spacy restaurant, recommended to go there by taxi. 1 recent Michelin star.
- Sinne ( Ceintuurbaan 342): Relatively small, cosy, 1 Michelin star restaurant close to Okura. French and Mediterranean cuisine. Reasonably priced (if you don’t go crazy on the wine). No English website.
NOTE: If you want to go to any of the above place on the weekend, please book (well) in advance. There is a very good chance that all of them are fully booked on weekend nights otherwise.
2. Culture and Nightlife
If you are interested in culture, you’ve come to the right place. Amsterdam has not only some world-renowned big museums, but also a host of smaller museums. I will list only the most famous ones, as the smaller ones are too numerous to mention. But again check out www.iamsterdam.com for more information. And then, of course, there is music. The city has a series of music temples for anything from opera to improvised jazz.
Tip: for most places it’s best to book your tickets online upfront, it can save you waiting in queues for quite some time in some cases.
- Van Gogh Museum: Arguably the best known museum in Amsterdam. If you like Van Gogh, you’ll love his place. It’s in the museum district right on Museumplein, next to Rijksmuseum and the “Stedelijk Museum”.
- Rijksmuseum: Museum for classical Golden Age art: Rembrandt, Potter, Rubens, Vermeer, that type of thing. Very beautifully renovated a number of years ago. The building is probably the prettiest in Amsterdam. Most famous painting: the Night Watch by Rembrandt.
- Stedelijk Museum: Amsterdam’s world-renowned museum of modern art. Next to Van Gogh, with a modern, white extension which looks like a bath tub and houses the museum café.
- Amsterdam Hermitage: This branch of the famous St. Petersburg museum hosts various exhibitions every year, mostly taken from the Russian Hermitage collection. The address is Amstel 51, which is a beautifully renovated old monastery right on the Amstel river.
- Anne Frank House: Though this is a very small museum, it attracts over 1 million visitors a year. There is always a long queue, but if you buy your ticket online in advance, the waiting times are apparently a lot shorter! It’s at Prinsengracht 263-267 next to Westerkerk.
- Eye Museum (IJpromenade 1): Located opposite the back of the Central Station, across the IJ river, this is the Dutch national film museum. It’s in a beautiful modern building that looks like a spacecraft. If you decide to go here, follow it up by a visit to the ADAM tower, which is right next to it. You can go up to the top and have a drink at MADAM or eat at the rotating Moon restaurant with great views of Amsterdam. Make sure to book a table well in advance, it’s usually very busy!
- Amsterdam Museum: For those interested in the history of Amsterdam, this is the place to go. It has the interactive Amsterdam DNA tour in a whole bunch of languages, which gives you the history of Amsterdam in about an hour. Nice old building located at Kalverstraat 92.
- Concertgebouw (Concert building): Located at Museumplein, just across from the three big museums. The acoustics of this place are astounding and there are some interesting performances on at the time of the conference if you are in to classical music.
- Melkweg: Famous venue for lesser known artists and non-mainstream music. Check out www.melkweg.nl for the program. Youssou N’Dour plays her Sunday 26 March.
- Paradiso: Another famous Amsterdam music temple. All the great musicians in the world have played here before they became famous, and often even after they became famous. The atmosphere and acoustics are great. It’s located just off Leidseplein.
- Ziggodome: Since this opened in 2012, all the world’s biggest artists have performed here. On Tuesday 28 and Wednesday 29 March, the rap artist/singer Drake performs here. There are still a few tickets available. Located next to the Amsterdam Arena, home of Ajax football club, the ziggodome can hold 15,000 spectators.
- AFAS Live music hall: Smaller music hall, but still holds 5,000 people. On Sunday 26 March, there’s a concert by singer-songwriters Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds for which there are still tickets available through https://www.afaslive.nl/agenda/dave-matthews-tim-reynolds. There is an Emeli Sandé concert on Wednesday night, but it appears to be sold out.
- Bimhuis: The place to be for hard-core jazz fanatics. This is where famous and aspiring jazz artists from around the world come to do their thing, and jazz fans come to listen. Located in a modern building next to the Central Station and the Cruise Terminal, there’s something going on most every night. Check out http://bimhuis.com/home for the program.
- National Opera & Ballet (Amstel 3): Combined venue for opera and ballet performances. Check out the program if you are interested in world-class (modern) opera or ballet.
- There is a bunch of small live music places in Amsterdam where you can listen to rock, blues, jazz, hiphop, latin, etc. Check out http://www.iamsterdam.com/en/visiting/whats-on/music for the latest. Amsterdam also has a lively salsa and tango scene, with dances open to the public most every night.
- Holland Casino (Max Euweplein 62): Just off Leidseplein, this is the only official casino in Amsterdam. Here’s the dresscode: https://www.hollandcasino.nl/en/onze-spelregels/dresscode. Open from noon till 3 AM.
- ABE club & lounge (Amstelstraat 30): Nightclub for the hip & young, located near Rembrandtplein, one of two major going-out areas in Amsterdam. Open till 4 or 5 AM.
- Jimmy Woo (Korte Leidsedwarsstraat 18): Another hip and happening nightclub right off Leidseplein, the other going-out area. Don’t forget your credit card and make sure you look smart, otherwise you don’t get in (fair chance of that anyway, especially on the weekend).
- Escape (Rembrandtplein 11): This is the only big discotheque in the center of Amsterdam. Like other night clubs you likely won’t get in with sneakers or as a man alone.
- Bourbon Street: Live jazz and blues music, 7 nights a week.
- Red light district: Place where men go to meet a certain type of women. But even families visit there as the atmosphere is quite relaxed. Don’t take photos of the women!
- Reguliersdwarsstraat: Place where men go to meet a certain type of men. Very small street, but legendary in gay circles.
Both Rembrandtplein and Leidseplein have a lot of restaurants, bars and clubs that are open till late. Be a bit careful in these areas after the midnight hour, people get drunk and may be unfriendly. Same as in other cities, I guess.
3. Daytime Activities
Many of you will be in Amsterdam on the weekend. Of course, you can spend all Saturday and Sunday in the many bars and restaurants, burn the credit card on an endless shopping spree or visit one of more of the many museums, but you may want to do something else. Here are a few tips:
- Canal boat tour: My favorite way of exploring the city. You get to see all the highlights of the city from the quiet of a tour boat. Several starting points, eg behind the Rijksmuseum. A night-time tour – with or without dinner ‑ is also very special, if it’s not raining... Tip: Combine the tour with a visit to the Rijksmuseum if you are interested in the Golden Age of Dutch painting.
- Jordaan: Walking or cycling through the most famous part of Amsterdam, the ‘Jordaan’ is simply wonderful. I would recommend cycling only if you are a very experienced cyclist, as it can be pretty hectic on the streets of Amsterdam. Strolling along Singel, Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht and Herengracht is a walk back into time. Be sure to visit not forgetting the Nine Little Streets (‘Negen Straatjes’) for boutique shopping and great food and drinks. You can combine Jordaan with visits to Anne Frank House, the Royal Palace/Dam Square or Kalverstraat, which are very close by.
- Artis Zoo: opened its doors in 1838 and is the oldest zoo in the Netherlands.
- Heineken Experience: on the corner of Ferdinand Bolstraat and Stadhouderskade, a 10-minute walk from the Okura Hotel.
- Vondelpark: This is Amsterdam’s version of Central Park. It’s right in the heart of the city and it’s a great place to go jogging, skating (skates for rent) or cycling (also for rent). If the weather is good enough, you can enjoy one of a series of bars with terraces or simply stroll around.
- Flower market: Nice place to go if you are into flowers. You can go stop by here if you are on a shopping spree around Kalverstraat or after visiting the Jordaan.
- Amsterdam Arena: Home of Ajax Football Club, the greatest soccer/football team in the world. You can visit the stadium and spend a fortune at the fan store, if you’re into that type of thing. There is a friendly game between Holland and Italy on Tuesday 28 March. See https://gala2017.pathable.com/discussions/676685 for more info on that one.
Outside of Amsterdam (but not so far):
- Zaanse Schans: For windmills and wooden shoes, head here. There are many tours that will take you there, but you can also take a train from Central Station to Zaandijk (17 min) and then walk (10 min). Don’t be surprised if you bump into other tourists here.
- Keukenhof: Famous flower (tulip) park which is open only two months a year. It opens just before the conference! I recommend you book a tour for just Keukenhof or combine it with Zaanse Schans for a full day of very typical Dutch highlights. Companies like Tourcompany offer these excursions.
If you have decided to bring your spouse to Amsterdam, there is a good chance you may end up spending the Saturday or Sunday doing some serious shopping. Well, you’ve come to the right place for that.
Amsterdam has a wide variety of shops and shopping areas. Opening hours are generally between 9/10AM and 6/7PM, although some shops close late. In most of the city center, shops are open on Sunday as well, usually between 12 and 5 PM. Here are the most obvious places to go.
- Nine Little Streets (Negen Straatjes): Wonderful boutique shopping area where you will find no big retail chain outlets. Beautiful and cozy shopping area with lots of nice places for lunch or coffee.
- Kalverstraat / Nieuwendijk: Amsterdam’s ‘High Street’. Filled with branches of national and international retail chains. Prices are mostly reasonable. Also home to the Amsterdam Museum.
- Bijenkorf: This is to Amsterdam what Harrod’s is to London. The biggest, most luxurious department store in the city. Home to shop-in-shop luxury labels and a wide array of other, more affordable brands. On Dam Square, meters away from Kalverstraat / Nieuwendijk. Open until 8 or 9 PM.
- PC Hooftstraat/Van Baerlestraat: The (small) luxury shopping area of Amsterdam. This is where you find the upmarket shops from brands such as Hermes, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Burberry, you know what I’m talking about. Just behind the big museums and very close to Vondelpark, where you can sleep under the bridge after buying a Gucci handbag in the “PC Hooft”.
- Waterlooplein: Famous flee market where you will find antique, jewelry, vintage clothes and second-hand stuff. Smells like it too. Famous place in Amsterdam, next to City Hall. Closed on Sunday.
- Albert Cuypstraat: Close to Okura, this is the biggest Amsterdam market for daily shopping, with vegetables, fish, spices, cheese, (cheap) clothes, snacks, etc. After the stands are taken down at the end of the day, it turns into a restaurant street. Don’t forget to buy a delicious fresh “stroopwafel”! Closed on Sunday.
There are many other shopping streets in Amsterdam, that you may come across when going around town, but the above are the most interesting for most people.