Off the Beaten Track in Amsterdam

The city of Amsterdam, HollandWhen people think of Amsterdam, they usually think of three things: coffeeshops, red lights, and canals. And for most travelers, that’s all they’ll ever see. Young travelers tend to frequent the coffeeshops or wander the Red Light District, while older travelers take bike tours, canal trips, and frequent the museums. Then, after three or four days, they move on to their next destination.

I fell in love with Amsterdam in 2006 and have been back to the city five times since then. Each time I get to explore more of the city and realize just how much it has to offer. It always saddens me when I hear other travelers talk about what they did because it’s always the same, and yesterday in Berlin, a traveler said he hated the city because it was all coffeeshops and red lights. I told him he hadn’t seen the city and gave him a list of things to do next time.

After visiting the city so many times, I find myself always doing something off the beaten track. I keep ticking off the list of things to do and finding ones I never knew existed. Amsterdam has much to offer travelers. When you’ve grown sick of coffeeshops, stoned backpackers, creepy old guys in the Red Light district, and crowds at the Van Gogh museum, visit some of these quieter and more local places:

The Amsterdam History Museum
The Amsterdam History Museum on a cloudy day
Though not exactly off the beaten path, this museum surprisingly sees few people yet does a great job of telling the history of the city. The museum is fairly big, so budget a few hours for it.

The Jewish History Museum
The Amsterdam Jewish History Museum from the city street
Located near Waterlooplein, this museum has an excellent section on World War II, the Holocaust, and how the Dutch dealt with the guilt of the mass deportations after the war.

The Tulip Museum
Outside the Amsterdam Tulip Museum, a view from the street
Located in a room inside a tulip shop, this little place does an interesting job of telling the history of tulips in Holland and the infamous tulip craze. Best of all: you’ll never find a crowd.

The Jordaan
The Jordaan canal, covered with trees, going through the streets of Amsterdam
I’m always amazed at how few tourists visit Jordaan since it’s right next to the city center. This former working-class district is now a maze of cafes, little shops, and restaurants. During the summer time, it’s a popular spot for people to go to eat. I absolutely love wandering around here.

An interior view of the FOAM Amsterdam photo gallery
The photography museum houses wonderful pictures and sees few crowds despite being in the main part of the city. It’s a must for any photography lover. I really enjoyed all the black-and-white photographs and the outdoor garden.

The Houseboat Museum
The Amsterdam Houseboat History Museum on a canal in Europe
Not much of a museum, but this decorated houseboat is gives you an interesting glimpse into what living on the canals are like. I walked away with one impression of life on the canals: a bit cramped.

The water in Oost, Amsterdam with blue skies
The area east of the city has an amazing park, a zoo, and lots of good Middle Eastern eateries. Wandering around here, you’d be hard pressed to find more than a handful of tourists, most of whom are probably lost.

Rembrandt Park
Rembrandt Park's path on a crisp autumn day
Not to be confused with Rembrandtplein in the city center, this park west of the city is a good place to wander. The area around it is pretty working class and a bit more modern—a good contrast to the historic center. You’ll know you’re there when signs suddenly stop being printed in English.

And while you’re in Amsterdam I recommend staying at the Flying Pig Hostel, my second-favorite hostel in Europe (Kabul in Barcelona is still #1 for me). I’ve stayed there three times now, and this time, thanks to IKangaroo, I got a few nights free. The Pig is an Amsterdam institution. It may not be the cheapest hostel in the city, but there are no push-button showers, the pillows are comfy, and, because of its reputation, it’s always full. I always meet a lot of people while I’m there, and the staff (backpackers who simply didn’t leave) are very social. I’ve stayed in three different hostels in Amsterdam, but I always return to the Pig—it lives up to its reputation.

Amsterdam has so much to offer that pigeonholing it as a place of hookers, marijuana, and a canal tour is a crime against humanity. There’s so much to do, it’s an architectural wonder, and the locals are super friendly. When you visit, get out of the tourist city center, see the hidden gems and local neighborhoods, and find out that Amsterdam is everything you didn’t think it would be.

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  1. Great article. I just came back from Amsterdam. I didn’t go to all the places you suggest but I did go to Jordaan. I liked Vondelpark too. What’s with the parrots there? Are they wild or bred especially for the park?

  2. So true!

    I most definitely share your love of the city and have been there many times.

    My first time, we stayed near Rembrandt park. Loved it there. It’s minutes to city center by bus but you have the conveniences of supermarkets, cash machines without long lines (and they actually have money).

    The last time, we stayed in Edam which was perfect. We biked around the area, saw the cheese making, and met a lot of local people too. There’s an easy bike path that goes directly into the city, and it’s a lot more fun finding your way around without a tour.

    I will say, though, I have and will always be in love with the Stedelijk and Rijksmuseum. They are fantastic, no matter how on the beaten path they are.

    I’ve had a chance to read a few of your Amsterdam articles (saw a couple on Matador too), and it seems like we like it for many of the same reasons.

  3. People were a bit surprised when we took a family vacation to Amsterdam. I guess they had the stereotype in their minds and couldn’t believe we’d bring a 2.5 year old and 3 month old to wander around such a place!

    We had the best time and found Amsterdam to be very child-friendly. We stayed on a houseboat in the Jordaan. Hotel Acacia,, they have a modern and classic houseboat and also regular hotel rooms. We loved the neighborhood and felt like we got a glimpse of local life. There was a fresh market right outside our houseboat!

  4. I like all of the different options. I have never been to Amsterdam, but it is at the top of my European destinations list. Quite a few of those places look pretty cool.

  5. Thanks for these Matt. If you love seeing the world, which I know you do, then you should really check out the Tropen Museum. It is also rarely busy (the two times I’ve been) and has something interesting every time.

  6. Hi Matt, nice write on Amsterdam. My one and only visit to this beautiful city was back in 2002 on route to Helsinki and Lapland. I really enjoyed the museums, canal tours and the nightlife there. I hope to make it back there one day with my proper camera equipment.


  7. Those three things were exactly what I thought of in the past whenever I heard Amsterdam – although not anymore, and especially not after reading this post. Joordan sounds like a cosy neighborhood to visit (wonder why it’s called Joordan though). I’m sure I would love FOAM too.

    And yes, life on the canals does seem a bit cramped. That photo of the houseboats reminded me of a blog I came across a few months ago: Pia Jane Bijkerk, the woman behind the blog, is a stylist who lives on a houseboat in Amsterdam – when she’s not in Sydney or Paris. Well worth reading – especially for the beautiful photos.

    Nice new theme by the way. Much cleaner design than the last one.

  8. Great post about a wonderful city Matt – thanks for all the tips and details!

    I have been there a few times, but that was long time ago – now I am tempted to go back.

    There is tight connections between Amsterdam and Norway, even from the Viking period and we’re both known as shipping nations you know.

    Btw: Any chance to see you at the Oslo Blog Gathering 2010 ? It will be a great opportunity to meet bloggers from all over the world and to explore Oslo in a compact three days program!

  9. Thanks for the tips on Amsterdam. I was there once about 6 years ago and saw a few of the museums but loved the city itself, especially the brilliant urban planning and design. Next time I will definitely check out some of the things you mentioned.

  10. hannah

    I couldn’t agree more with this! I do go to coffeeshops when I’m in Amsterdam, but I smoke in my everyday life anyway so it’s just an easier way. But the city has so much more to offer than that, and it’s one of my favourite cities I’ve ever been to. It’s a beautiful place and the people are so friendly; when I was first there at the age of 18, I asked a Dutch man for directions to a supermarket, and he just told me to hop on the back of his bike and he would take me there! And you’re so right about the Flying Pig – I’ve only ever stayed in their uptown location, and the staff are brilliant and it’s a really social hostel. It’s nice to see Amsterdam getting a write-up that shows it’s a much more diverse city than people realise.

  11. I have been to Amsterdam numerous times, and I don’t smoke shit and I’m not into paying for sex. I find it an amazing city for wandering around in, eating, drinking and just relaxing.

    Each and every time I go to Amsterdam I stay in the Jordaan area, which has an amazing buzz to it, there are so many great bars and places to eat in. I especially like going to Amsterdam in the winter time around December/January when there are less tourists.

  12. Ciara

    So right about the flying pig! Def one of the best hostels in Europe! Thanks for all the extra suggestions of places to go, went in Jan and already want to go back!

  13. Johnathan

    Three tips, slightly more “off beat”.
    1. The Concertgebouw. World famous for its accoustics and home-base for the Royal Concertgebouw Ochestra. They have cheap sunday morning / lunch concerts in the beautiful “small hall”. For the more affluent twenty-something hipsters: they have a regular series “Tracks” which consists of shorter concerts performed by young artists and, more importantly, the Bols-cocktail bar afterwards.
    2. When you are riding the bike and weather permits, take a bike tour outside Amsterdam. To the north: take the Durgerdammerdijk, through Durgerdam and Ransdorp. Or to the south: follow the Amstel to Ouderkerk, pass “Rembrandt’s mill” and do the “Ronde Hoep” which winds through the amazing green fields and canals next to Amsterdam. Great picknick opportunities, and you will certainly have breathtaking views.
    3. The “Krijtbergkerk”. Dead center of town, always overlooked. One of the few Catholic churches (Jesuist) that was untouched. You will never see more beautiful lightbeams falling through the stained-glass windows. They have free concerts every now and then.

  14. I absolutely loved the tulip museum – quirky and yet so… Dutch! My favorite activity in Amsterdam, however, remains strolling around and admiring the buildings and architecture. No museum can beat that!

  15. MillValleyGirl

    Matt: Great suggestions, and Vanderhelst, I second the Concertgebouw. We’ve been to AMS 3 times. Last time we had public transit cards. If you go to the Centraal Station out on the ferry docks you can hop on any of the ferries free w/the card. It’s a great way to get out on the water in that harbor. There were no tourists, just a lot of regular Dutch folks commuting. We took several different ferries and wandered new cities and neighborhoods. Wonderful. Also, the restaurant up on the second floor of the Centraal station has incredible atmosphere and good food. Our whole family is going back in summer 2013 for a house exchange for several weeks. Can’t wait because the light in the Netherlands is indescribably beautiful.

  16. Amsterdam is my all time favorite city in Europe. I went there in 2008 during the holidays and found the city to be mind-blowingly clean despite having a reputation of being quite seedy in parts.

    One word of caution for those looking to partake in the Cannabis scene. You can really only smoke in designated areas in the red light district. My travel companion and I decided to partake outside of the Van Gogh museum and…lets just say…its highly frowned upon.

  17. dutchgal75

    My husband and I visit one a year. I feel so at home over there. My Husband is from the Netherlands, and we have been back 7 times now in 9yrs. Each time we find new and amazing things to see! The albert cuyp market is one of my favorites in de Pijp. Something not to miss!! The food and the wonderful things to see.
    We go to Germany for a day or two .. but have to be “back home”(what we call the Netherlands) cause it feels like home to us!

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