Maybe you are somewhere in the world and you think to yourself: “Hmm I would like to visit Amsterdam and the lovely (and not so lovely) places you write about”. (You can check out those places on the map now.) Well then here is some practical information when you do visit our wonderful city.
The official language in Amsterdam is of course Dutch, but most people speak English as well. Especially the younger people who had obligatory English lessons in school. So in most places it is not a problem to speak English. Actually most dutch people in Amsterdam start speaking English to you if they hear you are foreign. Some people might also speak French, German or Spanish, but it is not so common as English.
Weather and Time
The weather can be often quite windy and rainy. Amsterdam has a moderate climate, influenced by the proximity of the sea. The winters are quite mild with rare days of freezing and snow (and getting even rarer now). The summers are warm, but not too hot. The average summer temperature is about 21C. Sometimes it can be hotter if we have a heat wave, but it doesn’t happen often. Dutch people get crazy at the first signs of warmth and sunshine, wearing shorts and flipflops and overcrowding the terraces of the cafes or going to the Vondelpark.
The time in Amsterdam is one hour ahead of GMT, as Amsterdam resides in the Central European Time Zone.
As with almost all the European Union countries the currency in Holland is the Euro. There are several ways of changing currency in Amsterdam. The best rates are usually offered by the post offices (there is a large post office in the city hall on the Waterlooplein), but you can find several change offices throughout the city, the GWK for example.
Most places will accept credit cards, although in Holland it is more common to use a debit card (pin pas), so always ask before if it is possible to pay with credit card. Albert Heijn, one of the big supermarket chains in Amsterdam, does not accept credit cards for example. You can also use Cirrus and Maestro cards to withdraw Euros from the ATMs (pin automaat).
Most public phones are card operated. Telephone cards can be bought at post offices, tobacco stores, several tourist offices and almost all newsagencies. The international access code to call abroad from the Netherlands is 00. When calling Amsterdam from abroad prefix 0031 and 20 for Amsterdam.
Some useful numbers are (local numbers):
- Emergency (police, ambulance, fire): 112
- Police: theft and other inquiries: 0900-8844
- Collect calls: 0800-0101
- Amsterdam Tourist Information: 0900-4004040
- Taxi: 020-6777777
General opening hours
Shops are open generally Monday to Saturday from 9:00 till 18:00. Some shops in the center deviate from these hours and stay open one or two hours longer, some Albert Heijn supermarkets even till 22:00. And especially on Monday morning most shops are closed till 13:00. On Thursday it is koopavond (=buynight) and all the shops stay open till 21:00. On Sunday many shops in the center of Amsterdam are also open from around 13:00 till 17:00.
Most businesses operate between 8:30 and 17:00 from Monday through Friday. Banks are open weekdays from 9:00 to 16:00.
The 220 volt, 50 hertz current is the standard everywhere. Plugs and sockets are different from British and American ones. American 110 volt equipment will require a transformer.
Arriving at Schiphol
When you arrive with the plane at Schiphol Amsterdam Airport, there are several options for getting to Amsterdam. You can rent a car or grab a taxi. Beware of people offering a taxi in the Arrivals hall. They are illegal and you will probably get scammed. The official taxi stand is outside. Try to get a “Schiphol taxi” or make an agreement about the price. A taxi ride to Amsterdam centrum should cost about € 30-35.
A cheaper option is taking the train. Amsterdam has metros, but none go to the airport, only trains do. But not to worry it still only takes about 10 minutes for getting to Amsterdam Central Station. Train tickets can be bought from the big yellow machines, but you can only pay with debit or credit card and sometimes they refuse foreign credit cards for some reason. There are also ticket desks where you can buy a ticket with cash, but you pay a small surcharge. The train platforms are down the stairs, check the screens which platform you need. Be sure to get off at Central Station. Some trains also stop at Amsterdam Lelylaan and Amsterdam Sloterdijk, but you don’t want to get off there.
Alternatively you can also take the bus. Outside the airport is the bus station and you can take the Schiphol Sternet bus 197 to Amsterdam, Marnixstraat. It stops at Museumplein and Leidseplein among other places.
(Map of Schiphol arrivals - click to enlarge)
Getting around Amsterdam
When you arrive at Central Station, you are in the heart of Amsterdam. Downtown Amsterdam does not have a grid layout, but is more laid out like a spiderweb with Dam square being in the heart of the spiderweb and the canals being the threads around the heart and the prependicular streets the supporting threads. When you get out of Central Station and walk down the big street you will end up at Dam square. Another advice is if you ever get lost is to follow the tramtracks back to an area you recognize. Most tracks lead back to Central Station anyway. And if the streets seem to get longer and wider you are probably moving away from the historical centre.
(Map of Amsterdam - click to enlarge)
Getting around in Amsterdam is easiest by bike or by public transport. Bikes can be rented from the MacBike or the Yellow Bike (they also have tours), but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are an experienced biker. Traffic in Amsterdam can be quite hectic with the small streets and the cars, trams, bikes and pedestrians making use of it all at the same time. Also native bikers are quite anarchistic. They bike through the red light, bike on the pavement, bike very fast and leave their bike wherever they want.
So another piece of advice when you are walking around Amsterdam. Watch out for the bikes (and the trams) and stay off the bike lanes. You can recognize them, cause they have a different color from the rest of the street and there are little bikes painted on the lane. It’s not adviceably to walk there. Also when you are crossing the street and there is a tram, bike or car coming at you. Keep moving, don’t hesitate. Bikers will take you into account and trams won’t hit you unless you stand still. A few years ago there were three tourists killed by walking under the tram, so please watch out.
So a better way to get around is using public transport. Then at least you are inside the tram For public transport we used to have a ’strippenkaart’. It was quite an illogical thing which has now been replaced by the OV-chipcard. It’s a credit card sized card on which you load money and then use in the tram, but and metro to pay by holding it against the card reader. You have to buy the card for €7,50 and then load money on it, but fortunately the public transport company of Amsterdam, the GVB, also has unlimited tickets for up to 7 days. When you buy this card you have unlimited use of the GVB buses, trams and metros for the duration of the card. You can buy the cards in the GVB ticketmachines (they are grayish unlike the yellow ones for the trains) or at the GVB ticket office at Central Station. It’s outside the main building, next to the Tourist Information, to the left side when coming out of the station. The rates for these tickets can be found here.
(Map of Central Station area - click to enlarge)
I Amsterdam is the promotional effort for our fair city. There is a big sign at Museumplein saying so. Combined with this effort is the I Amsterdam card. This card gives free access or discount to several museums, restaurants, etc. But it’s also a public transport ticket. So if you have one of these, be carefull not to make it overlap with a GVB ticket you might buy. Because then you would be paying twice for the same thing. More information about the I Amsterdam card can be found here.
Summer 2007 was the first year we saw these strange red buses showing Amsterdam to tourists. First they were the 2 level open roof buses. But the city hall forbade those, because they were afraid people might electrocute themselves on the power lines for the trams Then this year they came back with American school buses in red and with a glass roof that slides open. Being only one level, no electrocution risk.
Anyway the Amsterdam Touristbus is an easy way of seeing all the major sights the city has to offer. They offer an 1-hour city tour where you get to see all the sights or a 2 hour tour which also includes a visit to a diamond cutter factory. You can see the circuit of the bus here. There is also a version of the Amsterdam Touristbus where you can hop on and off at each stop you want, instead of having an hour long tour. The bus is a little less flashy though.
Next to a normal bus, you can also take the Canal Bus. The Canal Bus takes you through the canals of Amsterdam to all the major sites of Amsterdam, like the Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt house and Anne Frank house. There are 3 lines with 14 stops and you can buy a day ticket that is valid till noon the next day. Check out the prices and the routes on the Canal Bus website.
The same company of the Canal Bus also offers the rent of small 4-person pedal boats. You can rent a pedal boat and pedal around the canals of Amsterdam by yourself. Just be careful of the other boats! You wouldn’t be the first to crash into one Check out the details at the Canal Bike site.
Major squares of Amsterdam
The city centre of Amsterdam is quite small, so you can walk most of it if you want. There are several squares that form the referential points of Amsterdam.
- Dam square - the heart of Amsterdam with monument to commemorate the second World War, or the great fallus as we like to call it. And the palace where the queen doesn’t live. She lives in Den Haag. Behind the palace is a converted old post office. It’s a mall now, called Magna Plaza.
- Nieuwmarkt - the major square in the red light/chinatown district of the city centre. Around here you can find seedy bars, sexshops, chinese shops and restaurants.
- Rembrandtplein - called after the famous dutch painter. Here you can find a statue of him and his most famous painting ‘De nachtwacht’ in statues. At the moment the statues have been removed, because the square is being refurbished. It is not sure at his moment if the Nightwatch statues will return. So far they have not returned, although the refurbishment of the square is now finished. Lots of bars and restaurants in this area and also some clubs (Escape, Sinners, Rain).
- Leidseplein - doesn’t look like a square much, especially in summer when half of the place is occupied with tables from the bars and the other half with streetartists. There are also a lot of bars and some clubs (Jimmy Woo, Melkweg, Paradiso) here like Rembrandtplein. And of course the tourist trap. Two parallel streets full of restaurants where people in the door try to lure you in to have dinner with them. Be sure to get a free bottle of wine before sitting down somewhere
- Waterlooplein - here the city hall and city operahouse are located. Quite a boring square, which has a market in the daytime.
- Museumplein - located behind the Rijksmuseum, this grassy windswept square features a small fountain and a pond. And of course the I Amsterdam sign! All the major museums are located around this square. Although the Rijksmuseum is at the moment only partialy open, because it’s being refurbished at least untill 2013 and the Stedelijk museum has temporarily closed for refurbishment as well We still have the Van Gogh Museum here though.
Where to stay
I recommend doing a good search on Internet for a place to stay in Amsterdam. You can use the form below for example. After you find a hotel you like, you can check its location here. Just type in the postal code or address and it will show on the map where the hotel is located. This can save you some grieve when you find out your hotel is in Osdorp (the far west side of Amsterdam!). A nice alternative to a hotel is an appartment. There are private appartments to be rented, so you can cater yourself and most of the time is the same price as a hotel. It’s good value for money and you get to stay in a typical dutch house or even a house boat!
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