Easy to reach by train and plane, Amsterdam is very much an international city and visitors should encounter few practical problems when planning and embarking on their trip. The Dutch are characteristically helpful, and the vast majority speak English more or less fluently. This simple guide provides a few tips and hints that will help you on your way.
All citizens of the EU, as well as citizens of the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, do not need a visa to enter the Netherlands if staying for three months or less, but they do have to have a current passport – and one that is valid for longer than their anticipated visit. Travellers from South Africa and most other countries need both a passport and a tourist visa before arriving in the Netherlands for a visit of any duration. Tourist visas are available online.
Make no mistake, it rains a lot in Amsterdam, so taking an umbrella is a good idea. The driest time of year is the summer – from June to August – but this is when the city is especially crowded with tourists. The best times to visit are in spring – May is ideal – and autumn, about mid-September, when the tourist crush is diminished, the days can have a crystal-clear light and hotel prices are often discounted. Winter in Amsterdam has its charms, too – with the murky light that hangs over the canals adding an air of mystery – but if the north wind blows, it doesn’t half feel cold.
The Netherlands is in the eurozone and its currency is the euro (€), with one euro divided into 100 cents. The most useful notes are the €10 and €20; there are also €50 euro notes, but these can be hard to change or be accepted, as many are thought to be forged. An increasing number of places are cash-free, but will accept an international range of major debit and credit cards. ATMs are common.
Almost all of Amsterdam’s main attractions are squeezed into the city centre, a compact zone that only takes about 20 minutes to walk across. That said, Amsterdam does have an exemplary public transport system, comprising a dense network of trams and buses that reaches into every corner of the city.
There is also a small metro system running from north to south. A single fare on any part of the system costs €3.20, but there are more economical options, with an unlimited travel ticket costing €8 per day, €13.50 for two days and €19 for three. This does not, however, include the price of the rail ticket between Amsterdam Schiphol airport and Centraal Station (€4.50 each way), a 20-minute journey.
Another option is to hire a bike – Amsterdam is very flat, cycle lanes are ubiquitous and there are lots of cycle hire shops with costs beginning at about €14 a day for the more basic type of bicycle.
The most popular city pass is the widely available I amsterdam City Card, which provides numerous savings, including a free canal cruise, a city map, free access to most of the city’s museums and unlimited use of the public transport system. It costs €50 for 24 hours, €80 for 48 hours and €93 for 72 hours.
Amsterdam has scores of hotels and in all cases advance reservations are strongly advised. Try to avoid staying in or near the red-light district and head instead for either the museum district near the Rijksmuseum, or on the western side of the city centre along the three main canals – Herengracht, Keizersgracht or Prinsengracht.
Many businesses close and public transport operates a reduced service on New Year’s Day, Easter Monday, Liberation Day (5 May), Ascension Day (mid-May to early June), Whit Monday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day. On King’s Day – 27 April, or 26 April if 27 April is a Sunday – don’t expect to get any sightseeing done as the whole city goes wild in the knees-up to end all knees-ups.
Canal trips are big business in Amsterdam, with an armada of passenger boats waiting to shuttle you around the city. Many visitors love these trips, but others find the multilingual commentary irksome. There are alternatives, most notably the hop-on, hop-off boats that dock at around a dozen key points around the city centre; Lovers Canal Cruises are one of the best operators. There are also a handful of free passenger ferries that chug across the River Ij to the northern side of the city from behind Centraal Station – and an enjoyable trip it is too.
As you might expect, there is excellent coverage for mobile phones across the city, on the European GSM network. Some non-European phones may not be able to access this network, so if in doubt check with your service provider before you leave home. Phone cards are widely available across the city, starting at €5.
Tipping is a little confusing – or at least it isn’t quite as straightforward as it is in some other places. Most locals round taxi and restaurant bills up to the nearest number of whole euros, but some customers will still add 10 or 15 percent to the bill to show their appreciation. Some places add a service charge, in which case you don’t need to worry about leaving anything extra.
To avoid some of the potential mishaps that can befall you in Amsterdam, you need to know about cannabis. Licensed coffee shops are indeed allowed to sell dope, but that’s not the end of the story: perhaps surprisingly, cannabis is not technically legal in Amsterdam, but is tolerated as long as you buy very small amounts for personal use only: coffeeshops are allowed to sell each person up to five grammes (about a fifth of an ounce) per day.
This article is an updated version of a story created by Tom Coggins.