Thoughts on Amsterdam from a First-Time Visitor’s Perspective
Trip report index:
- Introduction & Photo Essay
- Thoughts on Amsterdam (this post)
- Hotel Review: Crowne Plaza Amsterdam City Centre
- Hotel Review: InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam
- Hotel Review: Holiday Inn Express Amsterdam-Schiphol
Having never been, I didn’t know what to expect of Amsterdam.
On one hand the city is known for gorgeous architecture – lovely buildings woven between graceful canals – and aptly nicknamed Venice of the North.
On the other it’s a place where drugs are (sort of) legal and prostitution is not only legal but prominently displayed.
Indeed both “faces” of Amsterdam are prominent. But the seedy side is easily avoided if desired. You can just forgo visiting the Red Light District and spend your trip happily oblivious to much of the city’s…what’s the word – “alternative?” – culture.
But to forgo the alternative side is to miss a huge part of what makes Amsterdam…Amsterdam. As I write below, the Red Light District is a not-to-be-missed part of the experience.
With that, here are thoughts on Amsterdam from this first-time visitor’s perspective.
The Anne Frank House is riveting
Even if you’re not deeply interested in the historical aspects, it’s impossible to visit without being moved. Since I am interested in the history, I was transfixed.
During the self-guided tour you can walk through the actual rooms that served as home and hiding place to three families for over two years during the Nazi occupation. While the rooms are now unfurnished, many traces of life in the Secret Annex remain – including walls covered with pictures of celebrities pasted there by the diarist herself.
In addition to the actual diary, also on display are original manuscripts and correspondence written by Anne Frank and others before and during their time in hiding.
Most heartbreaking to me was a large photo of the family’s patriarch and the house’s sole Holocaust survivor, Otto Frank, returning to the annex decades later. While the photo can be found online, seeing the life-sized version in the house itself can make one quite emotional; the expression on Mr. Frank’s face is now indelible in my mind. (When you see it, you will understand.)
Unfortunately photos are not allowed inside, but one of the exterior is included in my photo essay.
- Be sure to watch all of the videos sprinkled throughout the tour. There are many but each is short and well done.
- In one of the rooms there is a trap door leading to the attic. While you can’t climb up, strategically-placed mirrors afford an almost-panoramic view into the space. Many visitors seemed to miss it, but the attic is definitely worth taking a good look into.
- Pre-buy tickets online if possible and as soon as your plans are set (online tickets often sell out). The on-site ticket line can get very long and is exposed to the elements. (A 45-minute wait in the rain isn’t fun.) With an advance ticket, I went right in through a designated, albeit hard to find, door (it’s to the left of the main entrance and has a button for you to ring).
- There is a small café inside the museum. While the food selection is limited, the setting is very nice. The dining room is a glass-walled sunroom and looks out onto one of the main canals, the Prinsengracht (“Prince’s Canal”). Definitely worth sitting down for a coffee or snack before moving on with your agenda.
The Rijksmuseum is enormous; the Van Gogh is more manageable
Amsterdam’s three main museums – the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, and Stedelijk Museum – are conveniently clustered around the Museumplein (“Museum Square”). Not being a big museum person, I skipped the Stedelijk and made only short visits to the other two.
I hit up the Van Gogh first and made a beeline for my favorite Van Gogh work, The Potato Eaters. Thankfully it wasn’t swarmed with people so I could linger and admire for a bit before moving on.
After a quick round to see other pieces – Sunflowers and Bedroom in Arles among them – I moved on to the Rijks.
The Rijks is huge. I again just made a beeline for the dozen or so specific works I wanted to see, but even then I was in there well over an hour.
As anticipated, Rembrandt’s masterpiece The Night Watch was swarmed – and quite vigilantly guarded by several museum staff. It is a mesmerizing work and I’m glad I had put it as the very first item on my list of things to see at the Rijks. Halfway through my list, I was museum’d-out and decided to forgo the remainder in favor of lunch.
If you are a museum person, you could probably spend days there and still not feel as if you savored everything. With 8,000 works on display (and a collection exceeding one million works), I’m not sure how one could really see even a sizable portion of it in a day.
- Advance tickets to all three museums can be purchased online. Not wanting to commit to pre-purchasing tickets, I skipped that step. Fortunately, the hotel’s concierge had them on hand so I bought tickets from him the morning of my visit. There was no markup, I avoided ticket lines at the box office, and I earned points by putting the tickets on my hotel bill.
- If you plan to do a lot of sightseeing, there are a couple of bundled-ticket options to consider: the Museumkaart and the I Amsterdam Card. Neither made sense for my short trip, but the cards cover a lot of attractions and would be a good value if well used. (There’s much overlap so see which card is a better fit with your plans and just buy one or the other.)
The Red Light District felt totally safe…at least to me
Amsterdam actually has several red light districts, but the famous one is in the city center just a few blocks from Central Station.
I debated whether to go, but hotel staff assured me it was perfectly safe. Their only caution was to watch your bags as pickpockets work the area. I left my few valuables in the hotel safe and made the short walk to the district in the early evening.
Though I’m sure the vibe is much different late at night, in the early evening even families with young children are out sightseeing. (I am not suggesting it is an appropriate place to take young children to; merely saying I saw some while there.) However, I was advised against going after 10:00pm as the area gets “uncomfortable” after most tours leave.
On one hand it was sad, knowing what the area is about and seeing prostitutes clearly advertising their services. On the other hand, perhaps because the activity is not only legal but plainly visible, you almost feel as if it’s a “normal” job, like any other job.
In fact, even though the ladies put themselves on display for all to see, honestly I think there’s just as much skin to be seen on any given episode of The Bachelor (which I watch only for the travel 🙂 ).
Anyway, while I think it’s sad, this is a travel website so I’ll withhold political commentary.
From a purely travel-advice point of view, I would consider the RLD a must-see when visiting Amsterdam. It is part of the city’s character.
The Houseboat Museum is nothing special
My visit to this tiny museum was purely opportunistic – it was a short walk from the Anne Frank House and since I was several hours ahead of schedule for the day I decided to pop in.
For a €3.75 fee, you basically get to go into a dark-ish houseboat, walk through its tiny rooms, and watch a short video about houseboats. If you have a particular interest in houseboat life you might find it interesting. Otherwise, you’re probably better off spending the time enjoying a stroll along the canal instead.
The public transportation system is confusing
When it comes to sense of direction, I’ll readily admit I’m not the crispiest chip in the bag. But when a city’s transit system confuses even the locals, I want to believe it’s more than just “user error” on my part.
For the life of me I could not figure out which platform I needed to wait on to catch the train from the airport to Central Station. I asked the people next to me – who turned out to be Amsterdam residents – and they were equally lost. Eventually we sorted it out, but not easily.
A day later, I was nearly crushed by a tram’s on-board gates.
To make a short story long, I didn’t have a tram ticket but intended to buy one on board. I even had exact change in hand. The tram arrived, the doors opened, and I got on…only to have two steel gates abruptly slam shut in front of me. Not wanting to remain trapped standing in the small space between the exterior doors and the gates while on a moving tram, I squeezed myself through and headed for a seat. Well that didn’t go over well with the conductor, who very loudly berated me.
I learned that if you don’t have an existing ticket you’re supposed to embark only through the door by the conductor so you can buy a ticket immediately. If someone without a ticket enters through another door the gates suddenly snap shut, presumably to prevent the person from trying to snag a free ride.
Okay, it was completely my mistake. And to be fair, perhaps there were instructions posted, but I can’t read Dutch (and I understand that that is my problem, not theirs). But I can totally see someone being injured from having heavy metal gates suddenly slam shut in front of them.
They scared the daylights out of me and missed my abdomen by mere centimeters. For a young child, whose head would be at the same height as an adult’s abdomen, getting hit could be very problematic. (I hope there’s a sensor to prevent them from actually slamming on a person and the sensor never, ever fails.)
Otherwise, the public transit challenges didn’t bother me much because…
…the best Amsterdam “experience” is simply walking around
Picturesque flower-lined canals, charming houseboats, stunning architecture, a highly walkable city center – all free to be enjoyed.
I chose walking over motorized transportation whenever possible, even if it meant taking twice as long (or longer) to reach my intended destination.
Finally, the city is compact enough to make even a short visit worthwhile
Given one more day on the ground I would have considered a day trip out of the city. But, much as I would have liked to have seen tulip fields and windmills, with only two full days I thought it best to focus on the city.
Even though my days started late (I’m not a morning person) and ended early (I worked in the evenings) I was still able to see everything I hoped to – without frantically running around. I didn’t see everything in the entire universe of Amsterdam sights, but certainly enough to not feel as if I missed out.