The Locals-Only Guide to Amsterdam
Amsterdam brings a whole new meaning to “living on the water.” A city on canals, the area offers waterway systems that make exploring by foot, boat, or bike a one-of-a-kind experience. Spend a weekend in this magical little city and you’ll find yourself wanting to return for a week—or a lifetime—to discover all of the delicious eateries, charming boutiques, and incredible museums that make this a world-class destination. We’d be remiss not to mention that Amsterdam is also known for its “naughty” side; pot is legal (but highly regulated), and the same goes for companionship in the Red Light District—also highly regulated! Here are a few must-visit spots to explore while staying in this Dutch destination… Don’t forget to take your canal selfie while you’re there too!
Amsterdam is full of hostels for backpackers, and most well-known hotel chains, but if you’re looking for a luxury experience that is unique to this city on the water, Waldorf Astoria sits above the rest. The building itself is a renovation of the original, high-end row houses that line the canals, so from the outside it blends right in with the neighborhood’s traditional architecture. Wake up right on the canals, hop on a complimentary bike, and return later for a cocktail at Vault Bar.
In most cities, staying “on the water” generally means a great view, but in Amsterdam, you have the opportunity to rent one of the many houseboats that permanently live on the canals. If the weather is nice, enjoy wine and cheese outside on your deck and wave to the many passenger boats that float by. Many of the houseboats are in an ideal location for accessing museums, local shops, and restaurants. Airbnb is a great place to find your home away from home on the water—learn more about the one featured above.
If you’re not looking, you might walk right by Guts & Glory, a culinary treasure in the heart of the city. I recommend making a reservation, but when we stumbled in around 9 p.m., the staff was able to keep us busy with a bottle of wine on the front patio while we waited for a table. After sitting down, the waitress promptly asked, “Do you know about our concept?” The concept is simple, and the food is divine: You choose the number of courses (four, five, six, or seven), the server tells you the main focus of the moment (during our stay, it was fish), and then the food just keeps coming. Dish after dish of different creatures of the sea, each plate was an adventure and provoked a great conversation around the table of our favorites and expectations of what we might get next.
Hopefully you’re in Amsterdam for a vacation, which is also a code word for “off the diet,” because this city is full of foods that only check the boxes on a few food groups. Stroopwafels top this list, and on Saturday you should head to Lindengracht Market, where you’ll find this delicious waffle-turned–caramel cookie served fresh, warm, and gooey. Ready for the savory equivalent? Try bitterballen. Many cafés and pubs have them on the menu and serve up these fried balls of goodness with a side of mustard. What’s in them? Best not to think too hard on it, but it’s some combination of broth or gravy, herbs, and meat. Order with that beer you’ve been craving and consider it an essential way to partake in a Dutch tradition.
Amsterdam is home to the Amstel and Heineken breweries, and a great local beer is never more than a block away (same goes for a good piece of cheese). If you’re in the mood for cocktails and want to keep it interesting, head to Tales & Spirits, adjacent to the famous Red Light District. The cocktail menu is like a short novel, and every drink competes for your attention, both in flavor and looks. Bourbon lovers should order the General Lee, but don’t be surprised when the waiter delivers your glass inside a Dukes of Hazzard toy car, complete with the signature sound of the honking horn ringing out through the bar. On second thought, there are plenty of other cocktails to be enjoyed without sound effects, so feel free to go with something a bit subtler.
Stepping into the Wynand Fockink tasting room is like transporting yourself to the end of the 17th century, but I promise that you shouldn’t leave Amsterdam without a taste of what gin was really meant to be (according to my very persuasive bartender). At this tasting room, you’ll be drinking jenever, which is made with the signature ingredient of the gin we know today—juniper—but in a much, much smaller quantity. This means jenever is better sipped neat like a whiskey—don’t dare ask about adding tonic to this one. Try a few varieties and then get a full pour to take outside or around the distillery. Don’t worry when you get a full pour (this is a Dutch tradition); it means you need to bend over and slurp the top of the drink so that you’re able to carry it without spilling.
If you’ve been searching for a windmill, look no further. This one is now a brewery and open certain days of the week as a bar. Brouwerij ’t IJ is always lively, and I suggest ordering a flight so you can taste all of different varieties. Don’t worry if you need a little nibble with your brew… The establishment serves one snack: Gouda, of course.
There are many streets to shop international brands and familiar retailers, but the boutiques in Amsterdam are just as charming as the stroll you’ll take along the canals to get there. The area is called De Negen Straatjes, or “The Nine Streets,” but essentially it covers the small streets that run perpendicular to the canal rings, connecting the city. Pop over to Pick & Spend, a large boutique with an eclectic selection from European designers, including both clothing and home goods. Or head to Cottoncake to enjoy a healthful lunch before perusing its latest curation of clothes from Dutch designers and beyond.
Similar to the neighborhood watering hole, you’re only ever a few blocks away from a cheese shop, where the Dutch Gouda reigns supreme. Many serve a quick and simple sandwich or smaller helpings to enjoy during your stay, but don’t miss out on bringing some delicious Gouda home. Many cheese shops will ship to the States, and vacuum-sealed packaging ensures a safe journey. I popped into De Kaaskamer and enjoyed perusing my cheese options and learning about the farms that create each of the cheeses.
No matter what kind of art piques your interest, Amsterdam has a world-class museum for you. The recently renovated Rijksmuseum will give you the variety you may want on a short visit, so download its app and go on a quick guided tour through your favorite collections, separated by century. The gift shop is also full of fun take-homes, from servings trays featuring your favorite works of art to abstract jewelry inspired by famous Dutch artists.
If you prefer to focus on one beloved Postimpressionist, head to the Van Gogh Museum and walk through the largest collection of Vincent’s masterpieces. The good news is that it neighbors Rijksmuseum, so it’s easy to jump between to maximize your visit. If you feel like ditching the traditional museum experience, head to Foam, an internationally operating photography gallery.
Even a charming city like Amsterdam needs a green oasis, and its most famous spot is Vondelpark. Grab some Gouda and head outside for a few hours of sunshine between museums (the location also happens to be adjacent to Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum, so it’s not hard to follow the plan). When the weather is nice, hundreds of people gather outside to talk, read, or enjoy a picnic, and outdoor events aren’t unusual.
You can’t leave Amsterdam without taking to the water, but I understand the dread of getting on a large tour boat and having to listen to a guide drone over the loudspeaker. The good news is that private boat charters are readily available and not as costly as one might think. Your boat comes equipped with your own private captain—Thank you, Skip, for the tour. Yes, my captain’s name was Skip! You can have your own Skip dial the historical facts up or down to your liking. It’s also quite easy for these boats to pull up to a nearby eatery, and then you’ll be floating down a canal, drinking rosé, and eating oysters, realizing it may not get much better than this.
Have you ever visited or lived in Amsterdam? What spots would you recommend to your fellow travelers?