Constant movement of since I left nearly 10 months ago on this round the world trip has finally caught up with me. My time in Europe these past weeks has been an opportunity to slow down and sink into a slower pace of travel. Instead of racing through sights as I did in Southeast Asia, I am keen to find unique towns and cities and then delve deeply into that one place. It’s a practical way to combat the weariness creeping into my days. Which is how I found myself with many weeks to hunker down in Amsterdam and “live like a local” during a housesit where my only job was to feed a cat and bike the streets of Amsterdam to my heart’s content.
Getting to Amsterdam was a bit of a debacle. Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic charmed me in every way. Although I had intended to stay a couple of nights, I cozied into a cute hostel and stayed for a week while I ate my face off and rafted down the Vltava River. When it was time to leave, I booked a flight—the trains prices were Europe expensive since we hadn’t booked ahead, the difference was a 50 euro flight versus a 135 euro train ride. My cousin and I hadn’t bought a Eurorail pass this time, so the flight was the better deal. The day before our flight, I realized that I had booked the wrong day. Since it was an extra day rather than a day sooner, my cousin and I didn’t miss our flight, thankfully! After a scramble to book another night at our hostel, I knew it would be nice to settle into one place for weeks and dispense with the time-consuming travel planning aspect of a round-the-world trip … at least until it was time to move onward to the UK!
Amsterdam. What a gorgeous city and a true treat that my cousin had a friend who just-so-happened to need a house-sitter so she could visit family in the states over summer break. In exchange for feeding her two cats we had: two bikes, a gorgeous flat, two museum cards, and the opportunity to truly dive into Amsterdam and travel the city like a local.
How to Travel Amsterdam Like a Local
The house-sitting flat served as homebase for my time living like a local in Amsterdam (Update 2018: Airbnb would offer a similar experience now, although it didn’t exist yet on this trip). After 10 months of eating at restaurants and cooking in hostel kitchens, Amsterdam’s incredible farmers’ markets were precisely the boost I needed. During the summer, fresh fruits and locally-grown veggies fill the markets—and there’s a farmers’ market scheduled nearly every day of the week!
Juicy red currants had just come into season when I arrived in late July and they graced my breakfast every single day. Other gorgeous carrots, beans, zucchini, and tomatoes made for a delicious chili one night. And the beautiful veggies and fruits were just one reason to enjoy the farmers’ markets: it’s also the best place to find locals. I ultimately spent much time uncovering the best things to do in Amsterdam as a traveler, and the food aspect is one of the best ways to actually see what it feels like to live in a city. Few Dutch people eat in Central Amsterdam every night of the week—instead they shop for food, cook, and enjoy the bounty of locally-grown foods. So, around all of my time exploring Amsterdam, I cooked my meals and ate like a local whenever possible. Then it was on to using my newfound bike, museum card, and local tips from friends to dive into the city one step at a time.
Step One: Rent a bike and navigate Amsterdam like a pro.
Amsterdam has a reputation as one of Europe’s most progressive cities. And while a lot of that reputation comes from the “coffee shops” selling a range of legal consumables, there’s so much more to the city. The biking culture is strong, in fact it’s beyond strong—with absolute support from the government Amsterdam has a phenomenal network of safe bike lanes that, in may cases, are given priority over cars. Biking around Amsterdam isn’t just safe, it’s practically required if you want to travel the city like a local. My friend left me an old jalopy of a bike of putter on through the streets as I explored the museums, parks, and markets.
With weeks on my side, my bike and I explored all the nooks-and-crannies that I could find in the city, and I whittled down the list of things to do in Amsterdam to my core favorites—those things that you could feasibly visit with just a few days, in fact. Because although I loved deeply exploring, that’s a lot of time for most travelers and Amsterdam is often just a stop along a longer backpacking trip through the city.
Rent a Bike
To properly undertake the next steps, you need to rent a bike in the city. It’s not only the preferred transport for locals, it’s faster and way more fun than either walking or public transport. There is no shortage of bike rental companies, so pick one near your accommodation.
Once you’ve rented a bike, ease yourself into learning to navigate. There are rules to the road here, and biking is pretty serious—locals whiz past at top speed and the bike lanes have their own traffic lights, too. Don’t let this scare you away though, because the city’s streets are designed to accommodate a lot of bike traffic and bikes have the right of way. When my friend took me around the city before she left for the states, she pointed out the most commonly misunderstood bike riding rules.
How to Follow Local Biking Norms
Cars yield to bicycles but buses and trams do not yield—you had better GET OUT OF THE WAY asap if you’re in the path of one barreling down on you. Just as you’d expect, the red bike lanes run alongside major roads and work just like roads—you bike on the right side of the street with the flow of traffic.
Bike traffic signals rest at eye level at every intersection, and you know it’s your signal because the lights are in the shape of a bike! Call me lame, but this delights me. I quickly learned that you must only use the bike signals right next to you, not ones across the intersection (picture the screeching and squealing of car tires as I figured that one out!).
Anyhow, you will grow to love your rented bicycle and you can rest assured that locals will help give you wide berth—tourist bikes are painted bright yellow and red and locals stay well clear of floundering newbies (I didn’t have that benefit on my crusty-rusty bike). Once you’re at a stop, lock your bike securely. Truly, pay attention. The couple that I was house-sitting for had me using the jalopy bike because of the high rate of bike theft. Locals secure every part of their bikes and I had to use between three locks on the bike every time to ensure its safety (one each for the frame, tire, and seat).
So, you’ve secured your rental bike and now everything that you could possibly want to see in Amsterdam is bike-able—from the Museum complex to the Anne Frank House to the Red Light District). By renting your bike you’ve now parted with the only money you’ll send on transportation until you need to leave the city.
Step Two: Spend the morning lost in the city’s best museums.
There are roughly 26 museums and/or places of interest in the city (and there’s a great free-map of them all at the tourist office/museum information desk). Another score for the house-sitting hookup was a museum card to use to my heart’s content.
I visited quite a few of the museums and really, the two most obvious were clearly the best, the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. The Anne Frank House is also worth a visit. I did the Flimmusem and the Theatre museum and thought them largely skip-able – in fact, wholly skip-able unless you’re in the city for weeks like me.
The Van Gogh Museum though is worth every penny of a visit so don’t scrimp and skip it. Seriously, don’t. I was actually here about four years ago and also paid a visit; the museum is larger now and has a whole other exhibit with works of art and masterpieces from Van Gogh’s contemporaries at the time. The works chronicle Van Gogh’s life and I thought that the works from Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard were just as neat and interesting.
There is also an interactive portion on one of the upper floors for those wanting to get in touch with their inner geek (read: me) and learn more about the restoration process and about how they even know that some of these paintings are actually authentic Van Goghs.
And I cannot leave out the Rijksmuseum- also well worth a visit and has some amazing silver work the likes of which I have never seen in addition to a whole lot of china and various objects d’arte…a different experience than the V.G.M. where it’s all about looking at the paintings.
And here is the supremo piece of advice I can offer you about the various museums…you don’t have to like it all. And! you certainly don’t have to stand in front of every painting.
In my most humble opinion, unless you are an art-buff, it is perfectly acceptable (and much more enjoyable) to gently stroll through the museums and stop at something that catches your eye. Every single thing and piece of art is just not that interesting. It just isn’t. I much prefer to spend 10 minutes each staring at several paintings that I like/find intriguing than two minutes rushing around to see them all.
Skipping some and focusing on what catches your eye truly takes some of the chore out of visiting and cuts down on burnout. Just give yourself a free pass and say “hey, I don’t have to like/get this, I think I will walk onward.”
Step Three: Visit the markets and eat all of the things!
Delighting in the copious amounts of organic food markets in Amsterdam is the subject for this third installment of the Amsterdam series. While I was pretty lucky to have a home with a fully stocked kitchen, backpackers with a hostel kitchen and hotel travelers should also take part at least with fresh fruits.
The city of Amsterdam is one of the most progressive and green cities I’ve visited so far on the trip…and in addition to biking around the city instead of cars, the locals have a huge selection of organic fresh outdoor food markets. I often hear travelers rave about sampling the exotic treats at food markets in Asia; just because the city is Western doesn’t mean the outdoor markets should be skipped!
A wander through the local bustling markets was just as enlightening in the Netherlands as it was in Laos. I wandered through the stalls taking in the crisp scent of every vegetable imaginable – and it was all fresh and in-season! Instead of buying the Washington green apple shipped in from the US’s Pacific Northwest the local farmers bring in juicy blueberries, currants, and other seasonal delicious delights – that is both eco-friendly and more fun!
Currants just came into season when I arrived and these bulging juicy red berries topped off my yogurt and museli every morning – easy enough for hostels and hotel travelers too! Fresh oranges also packed up well and naturally don’t require cooking and I found them the perfect anti-dote to my craving for fresh Florida oranges – not the same but lovely :-)
And perhaps one of the best reasons to take a wander through the daily and weekly markets is to interact with the locals and have some authentic dialogue and a bit of fun while sussing out the perfect apple for an afternoon snack. Every person in Amsterdam pretty much speaks English and if they started speaking in Dutch, I just asked for English and they flawlessly and immediately switched languages.
Beyond just seeking out some fruits and snacks in the markets cooking up a feast for yourself using all of the local ingredients is a great way to feel like an authentic part of Amsterdam…after all, the locals don’t eat out every night! I cooked up a feast in Italy using fresh local pasta, fresh organic tomatoes and top-quality olive oil and it was a lot of fun to shop around and dodge locals picking out their weekly produce.
So, the same holds true for Amsterdam – pick out some gorgeously fresh veggies, pop into the local bread shop for fresh bread, and cook up the local flavors.
And just for fun, a little find in one of the huge flower markets? Cannabis seed starter packs. You know, it’s just one of those things that you’re likely only going to see while wandering the streets in Amsterdam really and cracked me up.
Step Four: Pick a park and enjoy a picnic lunch.
The final installment of my tips for enjoying the best of Amsterdam is to take a break and relax. The city has a lot of green park space and it’s fairly tourist-free actually.
Relaxing and taking it slow is supremo tops on the list for a lot of travelers making their way to Amsterdam – and in addition to allowing “coffee shop” purchases the city does not have the restrictive open container laws that are in effect in the United States.
That means that a top recommendation once you’re burnt out on the sightseeing is to stop by a market and pick up some treats for park consumption. One of the best parts of my visits to Amsterdam was getting out of the house once it started to get claustrophobic and heading to Vondel Park.
For visitors already renting a bike for traveling around the city, the trip to Vondel Park is a cinch – it’s extremely close to the Rijksmuseum and the whole museum complex. There is a delightful little bread shop and grocery store on Overtoom (on the left side of the street if coming from the train station side of town). This street is just around the corner from Vondel Park and the bread shop has the freshest bread in the city according to my friends allowing me to house-sit.
Whenever I needed a break I would just peddle over to this small market, lock the bike up tight and go on a mini shopping indulgence. Though I could wander the shop for a very long time I instead picked out a loaf of bread, chose a temptingly expensive chunk of exotic cheese, grabbed a bottle of wine (H was with me for this) and headed lakeside at Vondel Park to people watch and relax.
I will warn that you have to hold a high tolerance for juveniles at some points in the day. The high schoolers frequently also sat by the lake and on the park benches laughing obnoxiously and a whole lot…if you get my drift.
But again, watching them was half of the fun because really, where else can you find that precise environment? Couples on spooning on the grass, ducks napping on the grass near the lake, a chill breeze in the air, and teenagers acting like…well…like teenagers.
All told I found it brilliant way to relax, read my book, and feel like I just might have found a little bit of the local flavor of Amsterdam.
A special treat upon arriving in Amsterdam? A care package from Jenn! She was appalled by how run-down some of the items I carry are (my headphones have been missing one ear bud for about four and half months…since India really) and sent a package of goodness to the house. One of the most random parts of the package? A tub of the most deliciously nasty Fritos fake nacho cheese product…that was a special little gift to appease my bizarre yearning for Taco Bell nachos…and it worked!
Quick Tips: Plan Your Trip to Amsterdam
Where to stay: Use Airbnb to find the local flats where you can either rent a room in a local’s flat, or have an entire place to yourself. Many of these places are a bit outside the city-center, but they are close. If you’re keen to be in the think of things, Booking.com is my go-to for assessing hotels and hostels.
Travel insurance: Travel insurance is essential for any trip, and I have never traveled without it. Although biking in Amsterdam is safe, because you won’t instinctively know the biking rules of the road like a local, there are inherent risks. Take cautions and be prepared by insuring yourself. I use World Nomads and IMG, depending on the trip (here’s how I decide which travel insurance is right for my trip).
Additional tips: High season in Amsterdam is busy. There is very little affordable last-minute accommodation throughout the summer, so plan your trip months out if you hope to find the best hostels, private rooms, or even rental flats. Activities are easier to plan at the last minute, and you can easily either explore solo or find local tour companies offering sight-seeing tours not only in Amsterdam, but to surrounding areas of the Netherlands, as well.