Like many, I’d always dreamed of traveling for work to glittering destinations. In June, I started a new job for a company specializing in student exchange programs, and thanks to this internationally minded position, I’ve had the chance to live out this dream of traveling for work. Most recently, our company headed to Amsterdam for our annual staff retreat. When we weren’t in meetings or giving presentations, we explored the tranquil city of Amsterdam. From biking to exploring museums, here are some of the best things to do in Amsterdam.
This article may include affiliate links. Full disclaimer.
An overview of Amsterdam
There’s no hiding it: Amsterdam has a reputation. The Netherlands’ capital is known for its weed and Red Light District. To each his own, but personally, these activities aren’t really my speed or reasons compelling me to travel. I came into this trip with an idea of Amsterdam. Although it’s true that these two activities are prevalent, there’s certainly so much more to Amsterdam.
I was struck as to how calm the city was. There are bikes literally everywhere; there are nearly 900,000 bikes in Amsterdam, according to I Amsterdam. That means less noise and pollution from cars. Add in the tranquility of the canals, Amsterdam has a very calming presence. I was honestly shocked at how calm it was for being the country’s capital.
All over Amsterdam, you may see three red Xs on buildings and objects. These Saint Andrew’s crosses are Amsterdam’s city symbol. And legend has it each X representing one of the following tragedies that struck the city: fire, flood and Black Death. As you’re exploring some of my favorite things to do in Amsterdam, see how many of these Xs you can find.
Where to stay
Our group stayed at the Ambassade Hotel, which was conveniently located and had everything we needed. The hallways were decked with modern art, and the rooms were tastefully decorated. They also had a breakfast area available.
Just a heads up, Airbnb is severely restricted in Amsterdam. Properties in this city can only be rented out 60 nights per year. So this may restrict availability if you tend to stay in Airbnbs while traveling.
What to pack
Amsterdam isn’t known for its superb weather. Read: chilly and rainy. So be sure to prepare for your trip with all the essentials, like good rain boots, rain jacket, etc.
Rent a bike
It would just be wrong to visit Amsterdam and not ride a bike. Although biking in a big city may seem stressful, Amsterdam is truly catered to bikers with many dedicated bike lanes. If you’re not comfortable riding on the streets, there are plenty of parks where you can ride comfortably. Our group rented our bikes from A-Bike Rental & Tours.
Snack on stroopwafels
The Netherlands created this wonderfully delicious cookie called a stroopwafel, a thin waffle-like cookie sandwich with caramel in between. In other words, amazing. When in Amsterdam, you must snack on one of these treats. There are speciality shops sprinkled throughout the city, but we grabbed ours at the grocery store at a very reasonable price. And bonus, I even found gluten-free stroopwafels!
Take a walking tour
One of the best ways to see a new place is with your feet. Our group enjoyed a leisurely walking tour of Amsterdam, strolled past the canals and got the lay of the land. Take a look at these free walking tours available.
Eat Dutch pancakes
I mean, I don’t know why I’d need to twist your arm to eat pancakes anyway, but Dutch pancakes must be on your list. Dutch pancakes are larger, thinner versions of their American counterparts. We ate at none other than Pancakes Amsterdam, a restaurant serving up a wide variety of Dutch pancakes, including gluten-free ones. I opted for a simple ham and cheese gluten-free Dutch pancake, and I might as well have licked my plate clean.
Visit the Anne Frank House
Amsterdam is also home to the the Annex, where Anne Frank and her family hid during World World II. It’s certainly not the most “fun” thing to do in Amsterdam, but this sobering memorial pays honor to Anne Frank and the three quarters of Dutch Jews who were killed during World War II. I remember reading Anne’s journal as a girl, seeing the play and studying her work at school. And when I learned I’d travel to Amsterdam, I knew that the Anne Frank House was a must.
It was chilling to see the very bookcase that hid her from the rest of the world, to hear the church bells of Westerkerk, to climb the steep stairs that she tiptoed up and down. I’ve visited the Holocaust museums in Washington, D.C., and in St. Louis, but I felt that the Anne Frank House wasn’t as dark and heavy. Although it’s not one of the lightest things to do in Amsterdam, I highly recommend a visit to the Anne Frank House. But be sure to book your tickets in advance, as they sell out quickly.
Explore the Van Gogh Museum
From Starry Night to sunflowers, the Van Gogh Museum walks you through the highlights of Vincent Van Gogh’s tumultuous life and work. I enjoyed strolling through this museum and listening to the interactive audio guide.
I didn’t have time to explore the Rijks Museum, which holds the haunts of Vermeer, Rembrandt and other artists. If you have more time and love art, be sure to add this to your list of things to do in Amsterdam.
Have a drink at Dante
Looking for a spot to enjoy some appetizers and a fancy drink? Enjoy the chic ambience and perfect location of Dante. My coworkers and I enjoyed a drink at Dante after a long day of walking around the city.
Smell the tulips
The Netherlands are well-known for their tulips, which are in their prime season around April and May. We visited Amsterdam in October, so certainly not tulip season. But even still, tulips and fresh flowers fill the city of Amsterdam. Enjoy the gorgeous bouquets and flower markets while visiting Amsterdam.
Eat the fries
Hear me out: I live in France, I’ve been to Belgium, so I know fries. But there was something different about the fries in Amsterdam, something that made them notably better. There are street vendors selling fries, and they just lob sauce onto your order of fries. If you want to try a specialty, order the Dutch satay sauce, which has a peanut base.
Take a canal cruise
Everything looks better from the water, right? Even in cold, rainy Amsterdam. Our group took a canal cruise through the “Venice of the North.” Add a couple glasses of wine and a few appetizers, seeing Amsterdam by canal is great way to explore. You’ll even get a close look at Amsterdam’s various houseboats. Explore canal cruise options.
Amsterdam surprised me with its calming ambience, shocking bike-ability and intricate history. From eating Dutch pancakes to street fries, from visiting the Van Gogh museum to Anne Frank House, Amsterdam has no shortage of things to do to explore its rich culture.