Experts Weigh in on How to Spend Time in Amsterdam Like a Local
Amsterdam’s reputation for being a marijuana paradise with relaxed escort laws surely precedes it. But what you’ll see if you visit is that these two elements are almost afterthoughts compared to the stunning beauty and friendly personality of this unique, capital city of the Netherlands.
In Amsterdam, you’ll find that the Dutch approach to life is easygoing, friendly and full of comforts. You can find locals nestled in one of the city’s hundreds of “brown bars,” drinking beer and laughing over a basket of fried snacks. Snacking — especially with cheese — is a way of life. And when cycling is your main mode of transportation, you deserve all the snacks you can get.
To get a colorful, well-rounded take on this historic city, we spoke to three local experts to give you some tips on experiencing Amsterdam the right way next time you visit.
Meet the Local Experts
Gezina Plumb is a native Ohioan who, after completing a four-year pastry education in New York City, moved to Amsterdam to work in the city’s restaurant scene. Tristan Spits is a native Amsterdammer, born and raised, and he’s the CEO of bright and beloved local brewery and tap room Oedipus (pictured), located in the hip neighborhood of Amsterdam Noord.
Last but not least, Nate Abernathy is a Texas expat living in Amsterdam with his dog, Gypsy the corgi. He works in the Dutch craft beer scene with local breweries and importers alike, curating “super lekker biertje!” (Translation: “super tasty beer!”).
Explore It Via Bike
Before we get to the Q&A with our experts, we wanted to point out that there are 1.3 bicycles per person in the Netherlands, and in Amsterdam, more than 72,000 people commute by bicycle during morning rush hour alone. So, you really need to hop on some wheels to get the feel of how most locals see the city.
Luckily, the city is the perfect size for this. It has everything you want from a big European city, like world-class museums, amazing architecture and culture, while still being manageable enough that you can easily walk or cycle from one end of the city to the other. There’s nothing better than meandering along Amsterdam’s famous 17th-century canal ring, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010, through neighborhoods like Jordaan, De Pijp, Oud-West, Oost and Zeeberg, all of which have their own quirky personalities.
And yes, Amsterdammers absolutely do know how to have a good time. Even if the Red Light District or some special brownies at a “coffee shop” aren’t your thing, you’ll find 16 Michelin-starred restaurants, dozens of edgy music venues, a buzzing LGBTQ scene, dance clubs and chic wine bars when visiting Amsterdam.
Quite simply, it's a city that a traveler can visit and never, ever want to leave. And our experts will tell you why in their answers to our questions about the best things to do in Amsterdam...
What Tourist Trap Would You Never Be Caught Dead At?
Plumb and Abernathy immediately point to the Madame Tussauds wax museum in the historic (and touristy) Dam Square. Plumb says, “It just seems like literally the stupidest way a person could spend time in a beautiful old city,” while Abernathy has only two words: “Just, why?”
Spits would steer you away from the gimmicky and “sad” Amsterdam Dungeon, which is owned by Merlin Entertainment, the same owner of Madame Tussauds’ locations as well as a number of other tourist attractions in major cities.
What’s the Tourist Trap That, You Admit, Is Really Cool?
Plumb and Spits agree that taking in Amsterdam via the omnipresent boat tours along the city’s famous canals is one tourist activity that’s more than worth it. “The city looks totally different from the water,” Spits says.
Plumb even offers a dreamy tip: “If it’s the weather for it, renting [a boat] and attempting to captain it (bringing along some wine, of course) is just about as fun as life gets.”
Abernathy, meanwhile, points out that, despite its “Disneyfication” — it’s packed with cheesy gift shops, tourist experiences and even families during the day — the city’s infamous Red Light District is a great part of the city for people-watching. More than a few Brits come to Amsterdam on the weekends to wild out on stag and hen parties, and you can be guaranteed an entertaining evening if you make it your mission to just “relax, sip a beer and pull up a seat on a terrace to watch the mayhem unfold.”
Where Do You Go to Eat When You Want to Feel Fancy?
Spits has a great list of culinary hotspots, including the local, organic fine dining of Choux, the cozy Gebroeders Hartering and the contemporary German restaurant Scheepskameel.
For Plumb, the answer without a doubt is Bak Restaurant on the River IJ, which offers a “romantic view over the harbor” and “feels like you're eating in someone’s sweet attic living room.” Plumb promises, “You can fall in love over a table in that place.”
Abernathy, a native Texan who prefers a burger and beer to some Michelin stars, recommends the tucked-away Coba in the borough of Amsterdam-Noord. The Mexican restaurant (“the only and I mean only good Mexican food in all of the Netherlands,” according to Abernathy) has a very romantic and gezellig (a popular Dutch descriptor roughly meaning pleasant, cozy and convivial) atmosphere.
What’s Your Favorite Stop for Street Food?
The Netherlands is a snack food oasis. For all the Dutch snacks you could want, straight from market stalls, Abernathy points you to the city’s historic Albert Cuyp Market. He says “You could try some herring, a Dutch delicacy, or poffertjes, adorable tiny pancakes. But why not have a classic? Go for a gooey and warm stroopwafel and then realize you need to move to the Netherlands. Lekker!”
Plumb cops to occasional joyful stops at a FEBO, one of the city’s many fried-snack vending machines (yes, you read that right). “Go on, judge me,” she jokes, but it’s hard to beat the joy of popping in a few coins and pulling out a warm, greasy croquette.
Spits’ snack bar of choice is at the Bird on the Zeedijk, and he also points out that they have great Thai food.
Where Can You Get the Best Cup of Coffee in Town?
Spits shouts out Sagra Food & Wine in the Weesperbuurt en Plantage neighborhood “because they actually know how to make an Italian espresso.”
Plumb relies on Scandinavian Embassy, which is not an actual diplomatic presence but rather a charming Scandinavian breakfast and lunch spot in the chic neighborhood of De Pijp. “They have got some super awesome coffee geeks in there,” she says approvingly.
For Abernathy, the answer is Expocafe Zamen, “a great little cafe with a killer house blend of espresso” that is “tucked away in an unassuming corner of Noord, easily reachable by the Oostveer ferry.”
And What About the Best Glass of Wine?
Spits once again points to the Scheepskameel, which, in addition to having fabulous food and a beautiful atmosphere, also has a “great selection of German wines.” Plumb is more of a whiskey drinker, so she recommends Whiskey Cafe L&B, “an absolutely dreamy library of beautiful spirits” tucked away right near the more touristy Leidseplein.
And Abernathy answered with one of the sweetest gems in De Pijp neighborhood, Wijnbar Paulus Amsterdam. “I work around beer every day,” he says, “and when I want to switch things up and enjoy a glass of a great natural wine, Wijnbar Paulus is the only place I consider going.”
Where Do You Go to Nerd Out?
Plumb and Abernathy agree that arcade bar Ton Ton Club is the place to go. Abernathy loves the Oost (east) location, which boasts pinball machines, Japanese arcade games, 360-degree ping pong and a Twister-themed rock-climbing wall. But Plumb prefers the accessibility of the Red Light District location: “The ability to go to an arcade as an adult and get as giddy and joyous as you did when you were a kid — it’s a gift.”
Abernathy also throws out another unique option: “If you’re more of a bookworm, head over to the much-overlooked Amsterdam City Archives, where you can pore over the city's history.”
What Venue Has the Best Musical Acts in Town?
Abernathy’s favorite has since closed, but he admits that Paradiso tends to be the go-to. Spits second this choice — “I used to go there for all hip hop classics,” as does Plumb, who points out that it has some great mini music festivals there, like London Calling.
She also shouts out other neat spots, like Bitterzoet and Winston Kingdom.
Where Do You Go for Cool Local Art?
Spits loves one of Amsterdam’s most lauded art galleries, TORCH Gallery, while Plumb says she can’t get enough of Amsterdam’s beloved photography museum, Foam. “Every time I go, there are rich benefits for my mind and my heart,” she says. “Plus, it’s just the size that you can go through all of it and not be drained afterwards.”
Where Do You Go to Learn About the City’s History?
Both Spits and Plumb wholeheartedly recommend the Amsterdam Museum, a standout among city museums in Europe. Abernathy’s recommendation is to let the canals guide you: “You can discover a great deal about the city and its history by just letting your feet follow the water.”
For example, he tells a story of a day he was crossing the Magere Brug (one of the city’s wooden drawbridges) and stumbled across some small plaques in the Jewish quarter along a canal. “Known as De Schaduwkade, these plaques have the names and addresses of those killed in the Holocaust that lived on this street. Look across the water, and you can see many of their homes still standing there.”
What Do You Do on Those Famous Rainy Days?
Rain is a pretty major part of being in Amsterdam. If you’re ever at a loss for something to talk about, you can always comment on the weather — you’ll fit right in. To do a cozy rainy day like an Amsterdammer, Plumb says you should “absolutely stay inside and have a lot of snacks on hand.” She recommends “things with melty cheese … lots of tea and definitely some wine or whiskey.”
Abernathy recommends going to some of the more popular attractions in the city when it’s raining since they’re guaranteed to be less crowded. On a rainy day, the city’s Artis Royal zoo, aquarium and planetarium will be empty of screaming children. As Abernathy says, “It's just me, the animals and the little old ladies art group undeterred by the rain, sketching away under their ponchos.”
Spits agrees that, though rainy days usually mean the fireplace, a cup of tea and a book for him, visitors should hit up a museum. “Definitely go the Stedelijk Museum,” he says. It’s “one of the best modern art museums in the world.”