Amsterdam is completely charming. The city is characterized by narrow townhouses, beautiful canals everywhere you turn, and a ridiculous number of bikes (Fun Fact: Amsterdam actually has more bikes than people). Amsterdam is also home to a fascinating culture unlike anything I’ve ever seen. We had an incredible time in Amsterdam this past weekend, making it one of my favorite cities I’ve visited so far.
I want to preface by saying that this post is a little bit longer than some of my others, but I felt it necessary to explain some of the most interesting aspects of Amsterdam’s culture. Read on to learn more about this fascinating culture, delicious Dutch food, and tourist must-sees.
According to my fabulous tour guide Renee, Amsterdam’s culture can be summed up by one word: Tolerance. Amsterdam has always been a completely tolerant city: tolerant of other religions, sexual preferences, prostitution, and soft drugs to name a few. The Dutch view is that if something isn’t hurting anyone and actually benefits the city (or economy) in the long run, there’s no harm in turning a blind eye, even if that something is slightly illegal (I’ll discuss The Red Light District and “Coffee Shops” in-depth later on). With this in mind, one can easily understand and make sense of Amsterdam’s unique culture.
Amsterdam Must-Sees & Dos
The Anne Frank House
The Anne Frank House is a testament to the World War II horrors that plagued Amsterdam and is a definite must-see. The House is actually a museum intertwined with the Annex that the Frank and van Pels families lived in for two years while in hiding. The tour through the house is powerful and quite sobering. It’s unbelievable to me that something so awful could happen even in a place like Amsterdam, a city known for its tolerance. Tip: You absolutely must buy your tickets in advance, otherwise you’ll be waiting in line for hours.
A Canal Tour
While in Amsterdam, take a boat tour down one of the city’s many canals. This is a great way to take in some of the city’s most beautiful views. You can drift down the canal in a larger, covered boat OR (if you’re feeling more adventurous like we were) you can take a self-guided paddleboat tour down the canal instead. Although it was pretty exhausting (since we realized too little too late that our boat didn’t have a motor), it was a beautiful day, and we had a blast.
A Walking Tour
A walking tour is a great way to see and learn more about the city you’re visiting. Bonus: you can find wonderful walking tours for free! We used FreeDam tours and our guide Renee was great. This tour is how I learned everything I know about Dutch history and Amsterdam culture. I highly recommend.
The Rijksmuseum is the largest museum in the Netherlands. It was a little pricey for us college students (17 euros lol), but it’s definitely worth seeing. It’s famous for its original Rembrandt paintings, specifically “The Night Watch.” You’ll need a few hours there, but if you only have an hour and a half like we did, you can download the Rijksmuseum app and take a 90-minute, self-guided tour of the Rijksmuseum highlights.
“Coffee Shops” & The Red Light District
Both “Coffee Shops” and the Red Light District are the result of Amsterdam’s tolerant values. Even if cannabis and prostitution aren’t your thing, it’s worth it to at least check out both while in Amsterdam since the city is one of the few places in the world where both are legal(ish).
As you walk around Amsterdam, you’ll notice an unusually large number of “coffee shops.” While you can walk into one of these shops and order a cappuccino, you can also order joints, space cakes, and the like. This is one of Amsterdam’s trademarks and it attracts visitors from all over the world. As I mentioned before, cannabis doesn’t hurt anyone and its sales actually improve the economy, so the Dutch turn a blind eye. If cannabis isn’t your thing, it might still be worth your time to look around one of these “coffee shops” just to get a feel, since cannabis-use is an important part of Amsterdam’s culture.
The Red Light District
The Red Light District is just a few streets long and quite the experience to walk through at night. Amidst bars and clubs that offer live sex shows, you’ll find red-lit doors with girls waving and beckoning you to come inside. At first glance, a non-Dutch visitor might pity or feel bad for these girls. However, sex work is not frowned upon in Amsterdam. Prostitutes there are considered independent businesswomen who are using sex work as a stepping-stone to help them gain their footing. It is regulated by the government, meaning every prostitute pays taxes and rents their rooms/red-lit windows for about 200 euros a night depending on location. The women set their own prices and have the right to turn away any potential customer. Prostitution is so accepted in Amsterdam that a sex worker would even put it on her resumé! Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, and it isn’t going away any time soon. With this in mind, I appreciate and respect Amsterdam’s contemporary way of regulating the business and protecting its women.
For the sake of time, I can’t cover in-depth all of Amsterdam’s must-see places. So I’ll just list them instead:
- The Van Gogh Museum
- Dam Square
- I Amsterdam sign
- Heineken Museum
- “Over the Edge” (aka a giant swing that swings you over the edge of a lookout building. Worth the 15 euros)
I’m slightly ashamed of how much money I spent on food this weekend (and how much weight I gained) but when in Amsterdam, eat like the Dutch, right? Here are some must-try Amsterdam foods so that you too can lose significant amounts of money and dignity.
So as it turns out, they aren’t really pancakes. They’re actually giant crepes topped with stroopwaffel cookies (the national cookie of the Netherlands), cinnamon ice cream, whipped cream, and chocolate shavings. They’re also ridiculously expensive and take several years off your life. Worth it though.
Tiny pancakes soaked in butter and coated in powdered sugar. So bad but so good. We got them at the same place we got our Dutch Pancakes (The Pancake Bakery). So if you’re wondering, the answer is yes: We did order pancakes with a side of smaller pancakes.
You’ll find Dutch cheese stores all over the city. And great news: They have tons of free samples!! You can go inside and try pretty much any of their cheeses. Although after a certain number of free samples, I do recommend actually purchasing some cheese.
Love ’em or hate ’em, you have to try Amsterdam’s famous fries. They’re your typical French fries but topped with mayo, peanut sauce, and onions. I couldn’t take a picture because my fingers were too messy, so instead here is a picture of a beautiful milkshake I had this weekend from Bulls and Dogs.
Congratulations! You made it to the end of my blog post! I hope you enjoyed learning about the most interesting and fattening weekend of my life. In all seriousness, Amsterdam really is a fantastic city and has something for everyone. As with every other city I’ve visited (you might be noticing a pattern), I highly recommend you go!