At a Glance
Amsterdam is one of the world's best hangouts, a canny blend of old and new: radical squatter art installations hang off 17th-century eaves; BMWs give way to bicycles; and triple-strength monk-made beer is drunk in gleaming, minimalist cafes.
The city seems to thrive on its mix and, despite hordes of tourists, still manages to feel quintessentially Dutch. The old crooked houses, the cobbled streets, the tree-lined canals and the generous parks all contribute to the atmosphere.
When To Go
Amsterdam peaks with people around Easter and July-August but both of these times have their pros. April to May sees daffodils and tulips come to life through the cracks in the crowds. The beautiful summers are a great time to grab a bite and a drink alongside a canal. While winter can be a bit bleak it's rarely extremely cold, and sheltering in the cosy-hearthed pubs will give you a chance to meet 'real' Dutch. Also around this time accommodation is cheaper (except around New Year) and the best sights are all but deserted.
220 sq km
85 sq miles
+1 (Central European Time)
Daylight Saving Start
last Sunday in March
Daylight Saving End
last Sunday in October
The language of the people of the Northern Friesland province.
Electric Plug Details
European plug with two circular metal pins
One of the best reasons to visit Amsterdam is for the gezelligheid, a term variously translated as friendliness, or informality. You can feel gezellig just about anywhere – in a cosy cafe or bar definitely, but even a supermarket queue to a rush-hour train will do.
Amsterdam's centre is enjoyably small-scale, though finding your way around the canal belt can be confusing. The old city is contained within the ring of concentric canals dating from the 17th century that form the crescent-shaped canal belt bordered by the Singelgracht. Think of it as half a bicycle wheel: the medieval city around Centraal Station is the hub, and several main roads, minor canals and the Amstel River function as spokes.
Dam Square, five minutes' walk south of the station, is the centre of town, but there are several other happening 'centres', all within walking distance: Leidseplein, with much of the city's cultural life and nightlife, Rembrandtplein (nightlife), Spui ('intellectual' life) and Museumplein (culture) are just some of the focal points that make the city a joy to explore on foot or by bicycle.
Centraal Station, the central train and bus station, lies on the south bank of the IJ. The airport at Schiphol is 18km (11mi) southwest of the city centre..
GMT/UTC +1 (Central European Time)
Start: last Sunday in March
End: last Sunday in October
Weights Measures System
Tourists from Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, USA and most of Europe only need a valid passport – no visa – for a stay of up to three months. EU nationals can enter for a stay of three months with just their national identity card or a passport expired less than five years ago.
If you have a Schengen visa for one of the countries that is a member of the Schengen Agreement, it may be valid for the Netherlands also. Double-check with the embassies or consulates of the countries you're visiting though, to make sure the Schengen visa conditions still apply.
Tourist visas can be extended for another three months maximum, but you'll need a good reason and the extension will only be valid for the Netherlands, not the Schengen Agreement areas.
A three-month Dutch visa can take a little while to process, so don't leave it until the last moment; fees vary depending on the country in which you apply, but expect to pay around 35.00. Most types of visas also require that you show sufficient means to support yourself during your stay.
EU nationals can bring virtually anything they like into the Netherlands, provided it's for personal use and local tax in an EU country has been paid. Residents of non-EU European countries can bring 200 cigarettes or 250g (8.75oz) of tobacco, 2L (0.5 gallons) of wine plus 1L (0.25 gallons) of spirits or 2L (0.5 gallons) of sparkling or fortified wine, such as sherry or port, 50ml of perfume and 250ml of eau de toilette.
M J Cohen – Mayor (city leader)
Doing Business Overview
Amsterdam is a popular place for trade fairs and conferences, hosting hundreds of international and national events every year. Amsterdam's luxury hotels, as well as Schipol airport, all offer business services; some house complete business centres. If you're doing business on a budget, Kinko's is now operating in Europe and can provide some facilities.
For meetings, the major hotels, such as the NH Grand Hotel Krasnapolsky, the NH Barbizon Palace or the Okura Hotel can accomodate groups of 25 to 2000 people. Amsterdam RAI, the largest exhibition centre in the country, has 21 conference rooms, and the World Trade Centre also has meeting rooms and a full range of business facilities and support services.
Amsterdam's healthy conference scene is centred around the World Trade Center and the Rai Exhibition Centre, both located in the south, quite close to Schipol airport.
Amsterdam's summer months are wonderful, as the weather turns soft and balmy and the whole city seems to live outdoors. From mid-October to mid-March the climate is miserable, with so much rain you'll have trouble distinguishing street from canal. Spring is pretty damp too, but redeemed by the delightful profusion of bulbs in the window boxes and markets.
Average Annual Hi/Low Temperature
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Average Annual Sunshine
Most of Amsterdam's telephone booths are the pert green models operated by telecoms giant KPN, and tend to take phone and credit cards rather than coins. Located in and around railway stations, Telfort's orange-grey booths take coins as well as phonecards. The minimum charge is 0.10. Post offices, GWK exchange offices and tabacco shops sell phonecards of both companies.
All calls are time-based. On weekdays, from a private phone, calls cost from 0.029 per minute but from public phones, the tab jumps to 0.30/min. Charges drop after 7pm.
For local directory information, call tel 0900 80 08. This service knocks you back 1.15 from a private phone but is free from a public phone.
Mobile Phone Overview
The Netherlands uses the GSM cellular phone system. Compatible phones include those sold in the UK, Australia and most of Asia, but not those of Japan or North America.
Check with your service provider before you leave home that it has a roaming agreement with a local counterpart.
The major Dutch newspapers are fairly conservative. European editions of English newspapers are available at most newsstands. Dutch radio offers an eclectic mix and can be very rewarding. Dutch television, on the other hand, is generally a great cure for insomnia.
Het Parool (newspaper)
An Amsterdam evening paper with a 'What's On' Saturday supplement that can be useful even if you don't read Dutch.
Het Financieele Dagblad (newspaper)
The top business and finance paper.
Expats Magazine (magazine)
This English-language magazine serves up lifestyle, arts and how-to content to the foreign business community.
De Volksrant (newspaper)
A one-time Catholic daily with leftist leanings.
De Telegraaf (newspaper)
The nation's mass broadsheet, sensationalist but vaguely respectable.
The Amsterdam Times (newspaper)
A fledgling English-language newspaper.
Radio de Vrije Keyser – 96.2 FM
Proudly rebellious station good for politics, punk music and squat news.
Sky Radio – 101.2 FM
News, chat and the latest megahits from Rupert Murdoch's Dutch outpost.
Classic FM – 90.7 FM
Plays lightweight classical and opera music all day long.
Radio 2 – 92.6 FM
Vintage oldies ('60s to '80s) with a smattering of Dutch evergreens.
Radio 538 – 102.1 FM
Most popular Dutch station thanks to its eclectic mix of Top 40, special events and manic presenters.
My Dam Life
Sean Condon (non-fiction)
Witty true-life tale of three years in the Dutch capital, where the Australian and his wife spend much of their time looking for work and trying to define the Dutch character.
Culture Shock! Netherlands
Hunt Janin (culture)
A very readable, realistic and genuinely humorous appraisal of Dutch customs, attitudes and idiosyncracies.
Amsterdam, A Short History
Dr Richter Roegholt (history/politics)
A good, concise summary but few insights.
Diary of Anne Frank
Anne Frank (non-fiction)
A young Jewish girl's poignant account of years spent in hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.
RH Fuchs (culture)
A good introduction to the city's art work.
Herman Janse (non-fiction)
A fascinating account, with clear pictures, of Amsterdam's evolution from a swamp to a metropolis.
Television and DVD
DVD zoneZone 2: Europe, Japan, South Africa, Israel, Lebanon, Middle East
Over 80% of the population are Dutch (Germanic and Gallo-Celtic stock); most of the rest are Indonesian, Surinamese, Moroccan, Turkish or Antillian.
Equality of the sexes has long been taken for granted in Amsterdam, although far fewer women than men are employed full-time, and fewer still hold positions in senior management. In terms of safety Amsterdam ranks among the safest major cities of Europe. There's little street harassment, even in the red light district, although it's best to walk with a friend to minimise unwelcome attention.
Pre 20th Century History
The oldest archaeological finds in Amsterdam date from Roman times – coins and a few artefacts suggest there were people around, but there's no evidence of human settlement. This isn't surprising, considering the region was a delightful mass of shifting lakes, swamps and soggy peat. Amsterdam's earliest settlers were dam-building 12th-century farmers and fisherfolk who tamed the marshlands around the Amstel with ditches and dikes.
The city grew rapidly after 1300 as a key player in trade between the North and Baltic seas and southern Europe. But as the money flowed in, class struggle intensified – the Reformation grew out of a struggle for power between the emerging merchants and the Catholic-sanctioned aristocrats. Calvinism, a form of Protestantism, gripped the hearts and minds of Amsterdam's nouveau riche, with its emphasis on sobriety, hard work and community-based worship. The Calvinists took on the imperial power of Spain's Catholic Philip II, and in 1578 they captured Amsterdam from him. The following year Amsterdam and seven northern provinces declared themselves an independent republic – Holland – led by William of Orange, the forefather of today's royal family.
Amsterdam's Golden Age (1580-1740) kicked off when trading rival Antwerp was taken by the Spanish and its access to the sea restricted. By 1600, Amsterdam's ships dominated seaborne trade and fishing in Europe, extending their horizons through the 17th century as Dutch overseas interests were established. During the 18th century, money gradually overtook trade as the city's biggest industry. Amsterdam's trade and fishing came to a complete halt in the early 19th century when the city was occupied by the French and then blockaded by the British. By the time the French trooped out in 1814, Amsterdam had become a local market town and Britain ruled the seas.
In the 20th century, Amsterdam turned its back on the sea and restyled itself as an industrial centre: rail links were established, steel production thrived and the population expanded. As capital of a neutral Netherlands, Amsterdam managed relatively well in WWI, and the 1920s were boom years, crowned by the Olympic Games hosted in 1928. Unfortunately, the depression of the 1930s hit the city hard, with unemployment peaking at 25%, and tensions rose between socialists, communists and fascists.
The Netherlands tried to stay neutral in WWII, but Germany invaded in May 1940, and for the first time in 400 years the city's population experienced the grim realities of war first-hand. The occupying forces slowly introduced measures against Amsterdam's large Jewish population, often with the complicity of local authorities, and although workers went out on strike in support of their Jewish compatriots in 1941, things had gone too far. Only one in 16 of Amsterdam's Jews survived the war, the highest proportion of Jews murdered anywhere in Western Europe. Throughout the occupation the city's populace had largely knuckled under and tried to make do as best they could, but when the invaders began rounding up Dutch men to work in Germany, a resistance movement, founded by an alliance of Calvinists and communists, began operating. The country's south was liberated by the Allies in 1944, but isolated Amsterdam suffered horribly in the severe winter of 1944-45, and thousands of residents died. The city was finally liberated in May 1945.
Postwar Amsterdam gathered itself quietly until the early 1960s, when people began to question the status quo and Amsterdam became the radical heart of Europe. The Provos kicked it all off, with a series of anarchic street 'happenings', while students and women campaigned for greater rights and hippies started arriving in the 'Magic Centre' of Europe, the city where anything was possible. The riotous squatter movement stopped the demolition of much cheap inner-city housing, the lack of which is a continuing problem, and many residents protested against thoughtless city planning, developing the policy of an inner city where people can live, work and shop. By the early 1980s, consensus had settled in, and with it progressive planning and social policies like the neighbourhood councils, a tolerant approach to drugs, building of affordable housing and legal recognition of gay and lesbian couples.
During the 90s family businesses and small industries were replaced by tertiary-sector professionals and the service industry that sprang up resulted in the inner city becoming a very pleasant melange of pubs, coffee shops, restaurants and hotels. The ethnic makeup of the city changed too, with Surinamese, Moroccans, Turks and Antillians making up 25% of the population, and an influx of higher-income expats thanks to the city's success in attracting foreign business.
Partly as a result of these economic, social and cultural shifts, it seems that money is back in favour in 21st-century Amsterdam and anything is possible – so long as it's 'sensibly' planned and all stakeholders are consulted. The city is a livable place (if you can find anywhere to live) and tourists keep flocking to see what it's all about: Amsterdam is fourth in line for Europe's tourism crown, behind London, Paris and Rome.
Amsterdam has many fascinating neighbourhoods to explore, from red light sleaze to bohemian chic to stately grandeur. The landscape is riddled with graceful bridges and eccentric churches, the air laden with carillon chimes. Most attractions are within the canal belt, so sightseeing is a breeze.
Amsterdams Historisch Museum
From Swamp to City
This museum will help you understand how Amsterdam grew from a fishing village on the banks of a stagnant swamp to a bustling metropolis. It makes you realise just how implausible it is that this town ever got built without bulldozers, electric pumps or mosquito repellant.
The engaging displays, housed in a labyrinthine monastery building dating from the 17th century, begin with a slick techno-aged aerial map of Amsterdam showing how the city was developed section by section, canal by canal. You can then take a three-part tour of the city's history that moves from the mid-14th century to present day. By the time you leave you'll realise what an astounding place Amsterdam is and how fitting it is that there's such a wonderful museum to eulogise it.
Hours: Mon-Fri 10:00am-5:00pm, Sat-Sun 11:00am-5:00pm
Anne Frank Huis
museum ; significant house
More than 80,000 people a year cram into Amsterdam's most famous canal house and, with precious little space for visitors, it might rank among the lowlights if not for its towering subject matter: the ordeal of a young girl who documented the horrors of WWII like no one else did. Expect long queues and lengthy delays, particularly in the middle of the day.
Anne Frank received a diary for her 13th birthday, three weeks before she went into hiding, and the attic in which she wrote that diary is the focus of this moving, often upsetting place.
By July 1942 the Germans were tightening the noose around the neck of Amsterdam's Jewish population and Anne (13) and her sister Margot (16), along with their parents, went into hiding in the family's business premises. They survived there, hidden in the attic, until betrayed to the Germans in August 1944 – a date tantalisingly close to the capitulation and defeat of the Third Reich. No one knows who betrayed them.
The Franks were among the last Jews to be deported. Anne died in the Bergen concentration camp a few weeks before liberation. Otto, Anne's father, was the only surviving family member.
Hours: Apr-Aug 9:00am-9:00pm; Sep-Mar 9:00am-7:00pm
kids ; zoo
Plantage Kerklaan 38-40
With 8000 animals, a planetarium, a wonderful aquarium and acres of gardens, Artis should satisfy the most jaded tourist. Founded in 1838 and laid out in the former Plantage Gardens, it's the oldest zoo in Amsterdam. The zoo grounds, with ponds and plant-lined winding paths, also serve as an important botanical garden.
Besides the usual zoo attractions, there's an artificial savannah where zebras, gazelles and other African species roam a couple of islands in a bird-filled artificial marsh. The aquarium, built in 1882, is another highlight. One tank shows a cross-section of an Amsterdam canal, complete with sunken bicycle corpses and eels.
Happy Herbal High
Plantage Middenlaan 2A
This botanical garden was established in 1638 as a herb garden for the city's doctors and moved to the Plantage in 1682. It became a repository for tropical seeds and plants brought to Amsterdam by the West and East India Companies' ships. Coffee, pineapple, cinnamon and palm oil were distributed from here throughout the world.
The herb garden itself, the Hortus Medicus, is renowned for its research into cures for tropical diseases.There's a lot to see: the wonderful mixture of colonial and modern structures includes the restored, octagonal seed house; a hyper-modern three-climate glasshouse with subtropical, tropical and desert plants; a monumental palm house with a 300-plus-year-old cycad, claimed to be the world's oldest pot plant (it blossomed in 1999, a rare event); a butterfly house that's a hit with kids and stoned adults; a newly refurbished cafe with a very pleasant terrace; and of course the Hortus Medicus, the medicinal herb garden that attracts students from around the globe. Catwalks in the greenhouses allow you to see the plants from below and up close.
Hours: Mon-Fri 9:00am-5:00pm, Sat-Sun 10:00am-5:00pm
museum ; significant house
Named after the millionaire's widow who bequeathed this monolithic mansion to the city in 1889, the Willet-Holthuysen is decorated in the high-camp neo-Louis XVI style. It features a series of authentic period rooms and an annual programme of exhibitions. The garden out the back is a grand place for a rest.
Nederlands Scheepvaart Museum
museum ; ships
It's not surprising, really, that an old sea-dogger from the East India Company is permanently dry-docked somewhere in Amsterdam. The Dutch got rich sailing the high seas and their relationship with water is fundamental to the national psyche. This museum also owns what is probably the world's best collection of shipping memorabilia.
The museum is housed in the imposing Admiralty's Store building, where in the 17th century the East India Company loaded their ships before embarking on the nine-month journey to Jakarta. On the top floor, enjoy city views the way most landlubbers don't – through a periscope. Or, if you're a real salty, watch an engaging re-enactment of a trip to the East Indies in the film room. Sadly, the collection is difficult to navigate for visitors who can't read Dutch; you may be frustrated by the pitifully small number of translations provided for the huge array of exhibitions.
Hours: Tue-Sun 10:00am-5:00pm
art-related ; art gallery
If you've only got time to visit one museum, Amsterdam's answer to the Louvre is it. Even with most of its rooms closed for a lengthy renovation (scheduled for completion in 2008), the Rijksmuseum still offers a stunning feast for art lovers, with 17th-century masterpieces, silverware, Delft pottery and icons of Dutch history to be admired.
Hours: Sat-Thu 10:00am-6:00pm; Fri 10:00am-10:00pm
Van Gogh Museum
Art Lover's Mecca
art-related ; art gallery
Paulus Potterstraat 7
Art lovers should brave the crowds to view the treasures of the Van Gogh Museum, which holds many of the artist's most famous works. Five hundred drawings, 200 paintings and over 700 letters make up the collection. Any visit to this museum brings the genius and vision of this tortured artist to life.
From the dour lumpen-life of The Potato Eaters to the bright, childlike colours of The Yellow House in Arles and the sombre beauty of Starry Night, the Van Gogh museum has curated the strongest ever showing of the artist's works. Born in 1853, Van Gogh had a short but amazingly productive life. He didn't begin painting until he was 28 years old, and produced most of his work in the last four years of his life, spent in France. Already predisposed to mental anguish, a virulent argument with his friend the painter Gaugin tipped him over the edge and caused him to cut off his ear. This self-mutilation was only the beginning of a steep spiral into madness, exacerbated by (as some have suggested) tertiary syphilllis. In 1890 he died by shooting himself in the head to escape institutionalisation.
Hours: Sat-Thu 10:00am-6:00pm, Fri 10:00am-10:00pm
kids ; garden
In the 1970s the Vondelpark used to be a haunt for hippies; these days it's less of a political hotbed but still one of the city's most beautiful green spots. Laid out as a green belt for the bourgeoisie in the 1860s, the English-style Vondelpark offers a wealth of ponds, lawns, thickets and winding footpaths to while away the hours.
The elongated park was named after the Netherlands' Shakespeare, poet and playwright Joost van den Vondel.
In the 1970s word spread that Amsterdam had tuned in and turned on, and hordes of hippies hit the Vondelpark to drop out. The park became famous worldwide as an open-air dormitory for those seeking an alternative way of life. These days it's illegal to sleep here. The park is now a mecca for joggers, frisbee throwers, children chasing ducks or kites, couples in love, families with prams and football players.
Angel's Eye View
views ; religious/spiritual
Rembrandt is buried in an unmarked pauper's grave somewhere in the Westerkerk; the church also boasts the loudest carillon in the city and sweeping views from its 85m (279ft) tower. Built for the western canal gentry, the Westerkerk was the world's largest Protestant church when finished in 1631 (until St Paul's in London surpassed it in 1710).
The huge nave is covered by a wooden barrel vault – the marshy ground precluded the use of heavy stone. The enormous main organ (1686) bears panels of biblical scenes by Gerard de Lairesse, some of the few decorations in the scant interior.
Hours: Apr-Sep: Mon-Sat 11:00am-3:00pm
It doesn't happen every year, but when it does it's legendary: if the canals freeze right, you can't miss the 'Eleven Cities Journey' (www.elfstedentocht.nl), a gruelling skating marathon through the countryside of Friesland, held in January. In March, Catholics walk along the Holy Way in the Silent Procession, which commemorates the Miracle of Amsterdam.
Queen's Day, on 30 April, is the day to be in Amsterdam – there's a free market, street parties, live music and lots of beer. National Windmill Day is in May and open garden days are held the same month. The Holland Festival (www.hollandfestival.nl), the country's biggest arts festival, runs throughout June, and in August local theatre groups and orchestras perform free throughout the city.
September hosts the Flower Parade (www.bloemencorso.com/aalsmeer, in Dutch), and in November Sinterklaas arrives by ship from Spain. Also in November, the Cannabis Cup (www.hightimes.com) celebrates the sacred herb. Sinterklaas, the traditional Dutch Christmas, is held on 6 December, although gifts are handed out the evening before. The standard-issue Christmas is also celebrated on the 25th.
Amsterdam's public holidays include New Year's Day (1 January), Good Friday, Easter Monday, Queen's day (30 April), Ascension Day, Whit Sunday (Pentecost) and Monday, Christmas and Boxing Day (25 and 26 December).
Amsterdam's massive Schiphol airport, one of the biggest in the world, has connections and services galore. Buses are the best budget way to travel, but train is very pleasant – Centraal Station is both beautiful and efficient, and you can take the Eurostar train to Britain. Ferries run from Amsterdam to Britain and Norway. The roads in the Netherlands are characteristically well-maintained; if you want to continue your love affair with the bicycle, there are loads of bike paths, and the Dutch make popping your treddly on a ferry or train cheap and easy.
Many of the world's airlines fly directly to Amsterdam, but it might be cheaper for you to fly to a nearby city such as London and get to Amsterdam by bus or train. Many airlines will offer you a free side trip within Europe, so ask around and see what offers are available. Departure tax is included in the price of your ticket. Amsterdam's Schiphol International airport is 18km (11mi) southwest of the city centre. An inexpensive train service to Centraal Station leaves every 15 minutes, taking 15-20 minutes. The more expensive KLM bus connects the airport with 15 or so city hotels every half hour. If you've got money to burn, a taxi takes 20-45 minutes.
Amsterdam is well connected to the rest of Europe, including Britain, by long-distance bus. Buses are consistently cheaper than trains.
Amsterdam's main train station is Centraal, which has regular and efficient connections throughout the country and to all neighbouring countries. There are train-ferry services to Britain, or you can catch the Eurostar train through the Chunnel. Eurail passes are valid in The Netherlands. Ferries also run between Amsterdam and Norway.
Freeways link Amsterdam to The Hague, Rotterdam and Amersfort – it's about a six-hour drive from Paris to Amsterdam. Standard European road rules apply.
The Netherlands are very amenable to cycling – this is one of the flattest places in the world, and there are dedicated bike paths throughout the country. Bikes are allowed on trains for a nominal charge and on ferries for very little if any charge.
The best and most classically 'Amsterdam' way to get around the city is by bicycle – make sure you get a lock, as theft is rife. Of course, the city is of such manageable size you can reach most places on foot, but there's also an efficient public transport system. It covers almost the whole city (though the canal belt can be tricky as trams and buses stick to 'spoke' roads). Centraal Station is the hub of it all, where tram, bus, train and metro lines converge. Trams are good for the inner city, buses go farther out, while the train is most useful for getting to the airport and the metro is best for getting to the international bus station.
Parking problems, Byzantine one-way systems, narrow canalside streets and thieves mean you're better off parking your car outside the city and riding in on public transport. Amsterdam taxis are among the most expensive in Europe and drivers are rude – though it's no wonder when you consider the conditions under which they drive. In theory you're not supposed to hail cabs on the street, but in practice no-one seems to mind.
Amsterdam has 550,000 bicycles and this is an ideal way to get around, although you need to get used to the idea of having your bike stolen. If you're going to be around for a while, consider buying a secondhand bike and make sure you buy a lock (or two) as well.
All the bicycle traffic means there's not much call for mass river transport – the closest you'll get are the overpriced water taxis. A free ferry crosses to Amsterdam North from near Centraal Station, and a variety of canal boats run organised tours.