Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands. With more than one million inhabitants in its urban area, it is the country's largest city and its financial, cultural, and creative centre. Amsterdam is colloquially known as Venice of the North, because of its lovely canals that criss-cross the city, its impressive architecture and more than 1,500 bridges.
Weather in Amsterdam
Amsterdam is a large city and a major tourist destination, so you can visit it all year round. However, in winter the days are short (8 hours daylight around Christmas), and the weather may be too cold to walk around the city comfortably, let alone cycle. January and February are the coldest months, with lows around -1°C and highs around 5°C. July and August are the warmest months, with an average temperature of 22°C (72°F).
What to see in Amsterdam
Amsterdam has one of the largest historic city centers in Europe, with about 7,000 registered historic buildings. The street pattern has been largely unchanged since the 19th century — there was no major bombing during World War II. The center consists of 90 islands linked by 400 bridges, some of them beautifully lit at night.
The inner part of the city centre, the Old Centre, dates from medieval times. The oldest streets are the Warmoesstraat and the Zeedijk located in the Nieuwmarkt area of the Old Centre. As buildings were made of wood in the Middle Ages, not much of this period's buildings have survived. Two medieval wooden houses did survive though, at Begijnhof 34 and Zeedijk.
There are several large warehouses for more specific uses. The biggest is the Admirality Arsenal (1656-1657), now the Maritime Museum (Scheepvaartmuseum) at Kattenburgerplein. Others include the former turf warehouses (1550) along the Nes, now the municipal pawn office; a similar warehouse at Waterlooplein 69-75 (Arsenaal, 1610), now an architectural academy, and the warehouse of the West India Company (1642) at the corner of Prins Hendrikkade and 's-Gravenhekje.
The most prominent synagogue is The Esnoga (or The Portuguese Synagogue), built in 1675 in an austere Classicist style.
Oude Kerk (1306) is the oldest of the five main churches in the historic centre. You can climb the tower from April to September on Saturday & Sunday, every half-hour.
Amsterdam has an amazing collection of museums, ranging from masterpieces of art to porn, vodka and cannabis. The most popular ones can get very crowded in the summer peak season, so it's worth exploring advance tickets or getting there off-peak (eg. very early in the morning). Some of the quality museums that you can't miss:
Anne Frank House — dedicated to Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who kept a diary while hiding from Nazi persecution in hidden rooms at the rear of the building (known as the Achterhuis). It's an exhibition on the life of Anne Frank, but also highlights other forms of persecution and discrimination.
Rijksmuseum - absolutely top-class museum that has a large collection of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. Some artists you can't overlook are Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Frans Hals and Jan Steen. The must-sees are Rembrandt's Night Watch and Vermeer's Milkmaid. The museum also boasts a substantial collection of Asian art. The Rijksmuseum is under heavy construction until at least 2013. Until then, there is a limited collection on display called 'the Masterpieces', showing all the highlights that are absolutely worth a visit.
Van Gogh Museum - even someone with little knowledge of art must have heard about Vincent van Gogh, the Dutch Post-Impressionist painter whose work had a far-reaching influence on 20th century art for its vivid colors and emotional impact. This museum has the largest collection of Van Gogh's paintings and drawings in the world.
What to do in Amsterdam
With world-class museums, quirky festivals, theatre, live music, laid-back bars and delightful restaurants, there's never a shortage of things to do in Amsterdam. Browse these inspiring suggestions and start making plans!
- Urban beaches - Strand West is open all year round, though the outdoor activities only get going when the sun shines. On a broad sandy expanse with a panoramic view of the IJ, laze in a hammock, sip a cocktail, snack on tapas or play some beach volleyball. On the opposite side of the city, Blijburg aan Zee is one of the few city beaches where you can actually swim.
- Zandvoort - One of the most famous beaches is at Zandvoort. Together with the sea and dunes it forms a wonderful nature reserve where you can enjoy water sports or just relax. Zandvoort is about 20 minutes by train from Amsterdam Central Station.
- Take a canal cruise - Canal cruises are one of Amsterdam’s most popular attractions – and with good reason! If you’re visiting for the first time, it’s an excellent introduction to the city’s many sights. There are a number of departure points throughout the city and the tours are available in a multitude of languages.
- Bike hire - Amsterdam is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. Amsterdammers are born on bikes and you’ll see them whizzing by at breakneck speeds. Thanks to the many bike paths in the city, pedal power is all you need to uncover the city’s gems on your own, or as part of a guided bike tour. You can do that too!
Shopping in Amsterdam
The main central shopping streets run in a line from near Central Station to the Leidseplein: Nieuwendijk, Kalverstraat, Heiligeweg, Leidsestraat. The emphasis is on clothes/fashion, but there are plenty of other shops. They are not upmarket shopping streets, and the north end of Nieuwendijk is seedy. Amsterdam’s only upmarket shopping street is the P.C. Hooftstraat (near the Rijksmuseum).
Other concentrations of shops in the centre are Haarlemmerstraat / Haarlemmerdijk, Utrechtsestraat, Spiegelstraat (art/antiques), and around Nieuwmarkt. There is a concentration of Chinese shops at Zeedijk / Nieuwmarkt, but it is not a real Chinatown.
The ‘interesting little shops’ are located in the side streets of the main canals (Prinsengracht / Keizersgracht / Herengracht), and especially in the Jordaan - bounded by Prinsengracht, Elandsgracht, Marnixstraat and Brouwersgracht. The partly gentrified neighbourhood of De Pijp - around Ferdinand Bolstraat and Sarphatipark - is often seen as a 'second Jordaan'.
Fashion & Museum District. Located in Amsterdam Zuid, this is considered the chic area for shopping in Amsterdam, close to the Museum district, the PC Hooftstraat and the Cornelis Schuytstraat have some of the finest designer shops in the city, including designer shoes, health and well-being specialists, massage, fashion boutiques, designer interiors, designer florists and specialist shops.
In the older areas surrounding the centre, the main shopping streets are the Kinkerstraat, the Ferdinand Bolstraat, the Van Woustraat, and the Javastraat. The most ethnic shopping street in Amsterdam is the Javastraat. There are toy stores and clothing shops for kids in the centre, but most are in the shopping streets further out, because that's where families with children live.
You can find plus size clothing in the centre of Amsterdam. C&A, and H&M are both on the main shopping streets from the Central station. A bit further from the city centre you can find Mateloos, Promiss, Ulla Popken as well as several stores by chain M&S mode.
What to eat in Amsterdam
There is a large diversity of restaurants in Amsterdam, especially if you are looking for Asian cuisine, although much of it is tailored to the fairly bland local tastes and might not have the fire you would expect. The influence of the Dutch colonial past is apparent, as can be seen in the wide array of Indonesian restaurants.
Nieuwmarkt Most Asian restaurants are clustered at the Zeedijk in Nieuwmarkt, for this reason often dubbed as Amsterdam's Chinatown. It's also home to many tokos, small Asian grocery stores that sell Eastern food and spices. Indonesian restaurants are usually of excellent quality, but Indian ones can be expensive. Chinatown also offers plenty of Chinese, Thai and Japanese restaurants.
Damstraat Is a fairly busy road filled with small and cheap Chinese and Middle Eastern restaurants - expect sticky tables, but it's definitely a good place for budget travelers. The numerous falafel bars have a good value, often sporting a "all you can pile" salad bar.
Local cheese Buy some at the Albert Cuyp market, Dappermarket or at specialist cheese shops found around central Amsterdam. Dutch cheese is traditionally firm, and is made in large wax-covered wheels, and falls into two main categories - Young and Old. Within those categories, there exists a rich variety. Among the more unusual young cheeses is cumin (Komijn) cheese, which is particular to the Netherlands. Sheep (Schapen) and goat (Geiten) cheeses are also common. Old (Oud) cheese can be made of any sort of milk, and is often reminiscent of Italian parmesan in consistency and sharpness of flavour.
Ossenworst A raw beef sausage with nice spices. Originally from Amsterdam.
Amsterdam has several small local beer breweries, like Brouwerij 't IJ, Bierfabriek, De Bekeerde Suster and De Prael. They make very good beers. At Herengracht 90 you'll find Proeflokaal Arendsnest, serving a large collection of Dutch beers, including those from Amsterdam.
Also check out bitterballen, a kind of fried meatball, and the kroketten (the same, but shaped like a cylinder). Last but not least, don't forget to try a traditional herring or a broodje haring (herring sandwich), available from fish stalls around the city. Herring in Amsterdam is usually served with onions and pickles. A good try is the fish stand on the Koningsplein near the Flower Market. If you're visiting in late November or December, you can enjoy oliebollen, which are round blobs of sweet fried dough embedded with raisins (sultanas) and dusted with powdered sugar.
Nightlife in Amsterdam
The nightclubs in Amsterdam are not as rough as one might think. Many nightclubs are grouped at Leidse Square and Rembrandt Square in the Canal Ring. As these two squares are also the typical tourist traps of Amsterdam, prices are relatively high and there are lots of scams. You can't go wrong at Melkweg, Sugarfactory and Paradiso, three live music venues that usually have a large queue in weekends. Paradiso has the best interior, as it used to be a church, while Melkweg feels more like a nightclub. Sugarfactory is a little more intimate and is a multidisciplinary platform for young talent. Jimmy Woo is an impressive VIP-room, but their dress code is very strict. There are also some nightclubs in Eastern Amsterdam (notably Panama) and near Westerpark. Techno/minimal lovers go to Trouw in the Wibautstraat, just outside the city center, named after the newspaper that used to be printed there.
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