Despite the assumptions of a good many people who know me (and, frankly, should know better), the fact that I live in the Netherlands does not actually mean I live in Amsterdam.
Actually, I live on the other side of the country from the Dutch capital city. How do you like that?
Of course, if you want to get nitpicky (and really, who am I to talk?), the “other side of the country” is only an hour and a half away by car, inevitable traffic notwithstanding. I visit Amsterdam fairly regularly; and while I’m hardly a local, I have learned a few lessons that — being a sympathetic fellow tourist — I’d like to share with you. (I think this is the small-town-influence kicking in. Enjoy it while it lasts).
Wear good walking shoes, regardless of how much you plan on walking.
Amsterdam may be one of the flattest cities on earth, but it’s also full of uneven stone streets and hole-ridden pathways. Not to mention, you frequently have to make a bit of a run for it between bicycles, trams, and carts full of Heineken. Think carefully before you throw on your paper-thin flip flops or attempt to break in your new heels.
Granted, I may be out of my league here. I grew up in Minneapolis, where the streets are not only flat and level, but lined up in a neat and orderly fashion. Evaluate your own feet yourself — but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Look out for the bicycles, but don’t let them boss you around.
Look, I get it. Cyclists in Amsterdam have it rough. They’re just trying to get from A to B and live their lives, but they constantly have to worry about hitting people who’ve got their heads stuck in a map, or their phones, or a camera. I implore my fellow tourists to pay attention — most streets in Amsterdam have a designated bicycle path in between the pedestrian walkway and the street, and it’s almost never a good idea to stand in the middle of it.
That being said, cyclists in Amsterdam can have some seriously unnecessary attitudes. There are times when it’s perfectly reasonable for you to cross in front of them, and their eye-rolling ass can deal with it.
It’s probably not a great idea to play chicken with the bicycles, but don’t just stand there all day waiting for someone to let you cross — they won’t. If you’re know you’ve got the right of way, go. They’ll get over it. (One day.)
When it comes to museums, hope for the best but expect the worst.
I thought maybe going to museums on a weekday, or first thing in the morning, would keep wait times short. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t. As far as I can tell, it’s a crapshoot. There is no strategy I can offer besides crossed fingers and great deal of patience.
On the upside, if you go with someone(s) else, it’s a great time to run errands. I once left my sister in line at the Anne Frank House and went to Hema to buy socks.
Of course, you’re probably never going to completely avoid all lines and crowds while visiting a city like Amsterdam — what fun would that be? If you are vehemently against such nonsense, there are other options.
Edited on 30/12/2016: The Anne Frank House has introduced a new ticketing policy. Between the hours of 9am and 3:30pm, only visitors with tickets will be allowed entry. Please plan your visit accordingly! For more info on tickets, see the website here.
Try out your Dutch, but don’t be upset if people switch to English.
I certainly don’t want to discourage you from attempting to speak Dutch to people in Amsterdam. Everyone you encounter in cafes or shops will almost certainly speak near-fluent English, but that’s no reason not to learn a few basics and give it a go. Like basically everyone on the planet, the Dutch appreciate when you make an effort with their language, even if it’s just “dankjewel” and “alsjeblieft.”
Just be aware of two things: 1) they might switch back to English, anyway, just to make everything easier (and/or put you out of your misery); and 2) they might not even be or speak Dutch. There are foreigners working in Amsterdam and Dutch is not always a requirement, depending on the business.
Make sure to distinguish between a “cafe” and a “coffee shop.”
A coffee shop is where you buy weed; a cafe is where you have coffee — or tea, or lunch, or a glass of wine. Dutch cafes are generally pretty all-purpose…except for weed, which you’ll have to buy at a — pop quiz! — coffee shop.
Coffee shops don’t make a secret of their designated purpose, so it’s pretty easy to tell them apart from cafes on sight. That said, make sure you’re clear about which one you’re looking for if you ask a local for directions or a recommendation. In Amsterdam, there are just as many tourists looking for drugs as there are tourists looking for cappuccinos; it might not be immediately clear which one you’re after.
If you’re still planning on going to Amsterdam after reading this, I commend you and wish you a safe, happy, and bicycle-hit-and-run-less trip.