Ok, I have to admit it. In my younger days, the only thing I knew of Amsterdam was the red-light district. No, I never went. In fact, in those days I had never left my home state. Then as I got a bit older, it was that in Amsterdam drugs were legal. As I got older, I learned more about the history of the city, the architecture and the museums. Amsterdam in reality is all of that, and more.
Amsterdam is the capital of The Netherlands and is also one of Europe’s biggest tourist destinations. The city is quite unlike many others around the world with its iconic canals and architecture but even with all the tourists coming in every year to check out its famed coffeeshops and nightlife, there is more to the city than a lot of people give it credit for.
Amsterdam is one of the country’s oldest settlements with its humble origins dating back to the 12th century when it was essentially nothing more than a fishing village. However, by the 17th century, the country then grew to become one of the largest and most important trading centers in the world. The city is home to some amazing culture that may be at times overlooked in favor of the city’s more “popular” attractions and despite some of the reputation the city has, Amsterdam can be a pretty family-friendly destination as well. With gorgeous canals, amazing nightlife, and plenty of history, Amsterdam is more than just legal vices. Here are some of the more off the beaten path things to do in Amsterdam.
Hop on a Bike and Get to Know the City
The people of Amsterdam love their bikes, and when we say they love their bikes, they really love their bikes. There are over 80,000 bikes in Amsterdam which means that there are just as many bikes in the city as there are people. Cycling in Amsterdam is not only a means of getting around but it is essentially a way of life. The city is quite dense and there are bike paths all around the city to accommodate a large number of cyclists so because of this, getting around the city by bike is a way better option than doing so by car. If you’re the type of person to want to explore with a group, there are tons of options for people who’d like a tour of the city by bike with a professional tour group or you can always just rent a bike for a few hours or days and head out on your own. Renting a bike will only cost you a few Euros per day so it is already way more affordable than paying for an Uber or Taxi. Cycling through the tulip fields around Haarlem in the spring or if you really want to feel like a local yell at other tourists standing on the bike path as you speed past them.
Ditch the Map and explore Jordaan
If there is one truly great way to get acquainted with a new city, it is to simply ditch the map and your plans and walk around to explore it. Jordaan was originally a working-class neighborhood and although maybe it’s been a little gentrified in the last few years, the charm of the place still remains. Nestled among some of the city’s oldest buildings are now shops, boutiques, cafes, and microbreweries. The neighborhood is artsy and cool with a little bit of “chic-ness” to it. Jordaan is old-Amsterdam at its finest so ditch the map, don’t look at Yelp, and pick a place at random to pop into as your road the narrow streets of Jordaan. The “Nine Streets” area is where most of the action happens so bring some money and hit up some of the city’s hippest boutiques, vintage stores, and quirky cafes.
Let out Your Inner Child at the De Ton Ton Club
When you tell people that you’re going to a club in Amsterdam, they’re probably not imagining this type of place. The De Ton Ton Club essentially put the word “kidulting” in the dictionary. In a world where we have to pay bills on time and do our taxes, sometimes one just wishes they were a kid again. Now you can be a kid again, but this time you’ll be a kid with money! De Ton Ton Club is pretty much a playground for adults to play arcade games with your friends like Mario Kart or Mortal Kombat, hit the pool tables, or pinball machines, or if you’re up to it dive straight into their adult-sized ball pit. What sets this place apart from any other arcade is that it is adults only and you can drink alcohol while you play. Grab a craft beer, a snack, and jump into the ball pit like you’re Scrooge McDuck.
Grab a Snack at Foodhallen
Amsterdam is a foodie city. There are tons of different cultures that call Amsterdam ‘’home’’ all with their unique cuisines. Foodhallen is the place to go when you’re not sure what you’re in the mood for but you know you want to eat something. Foodhallen is located in an old tram station in the Oud-West area of the city. There are over 30 different food destinations and that doesn’t even account for the beer and bar options also available here. If you’re in the mood for something small and snackable, try out the dim sum or the tacos, or if you’re looking to satisfy that sweet tooth the donuts are impeccable. Take a stroll through the stalls and the stores and sit outside and enjoy your food or head to one of the many other boutique shops in Foodhallen. Bring some cash and a bag, because you’re probably going to end up leaving here with some things.
Have Some Laughs at Boom Chicago
For ex-pats and locals heading to Boom Chicago is basically a right of passage for the English-speaking community of Amsterdam. The comedy scene in Amsterdam is, excuse the pun, booming with comedy shows and improved theaters popping up here and there. One of the originals is Boom Chicago. For over 25 years, Boom Chicago has been delivering laughs and even counts a few famous names like Seth Meyers and Jason Sudeikis as former members.
Founded by two Americans, Pep Rosenfield and Andrew Moskos they petitioned the Dutch government for a subsidy to start their own theater. The government essentially told them that tourists “don’t want to watch shows” and locals don’t “want to watch a show in English” but that didn’t stop Rosenfield and Moskos from getting the money elsewhere and starting Boom Chicago. So it turns out the government was wrong and for over two decades Boom Chicago has been delivering laughs (in English) almost nightly to the city of Amsterdam.
See All the Museums
While not necessarily an “off the beaten path” suggestion, you’d still be amiss if you didn’t at least visit a couple of Amsterdam’s most iconic museums. The area of the Oud-Zuid is a museum lovers paradise and in a similar vein to museum island in Berlin, the Museumplein is a small district dedicated to museums in a leafy and quaint 19th-century neighborhood. Not only is the area full of the city’s biggest museums but it is also home to tons of other festivals and gatherings throughout the year in the open-air square that separates the museums. Free open-air exhibits and markets are common in the summer and the winter, the area becomes a large skating rink. For guests looking to check out, a few museums buy the “I Amsterdam City Card” and gain access to all the museums, free bike rental, free public transit pass, and even a boat cruise. The card basically pays for itself.
Explore the Iconic Red Light District
Despite its reputation worldwide as being seen as a sort of playground of debauchery, the famous Red Light District is so much more than a neighborhood of drugs and prostitution. And while again, this isn’t very much “off the beaten path” there are a ton of things to do here that aren’t prostitutes or drug consumption (but yes, there is that too). The neighborhood is officially named De Wallen and there’s a reason why prostitution is known as the “world’s oldest profession”.
The neighborhood’s proximity to the harbor attracted prostitutes and sailors or migrants looking for work, so the area has historically been the center of this kind of economic activity. Since the Medieval era, the neighborhood was known to have pubs and parlors though prostitution itself was still an underground activity. Parlors remained hidden and the women would go out to get men from the local bars to bring back to these “hidden parlors”. By 1811, the ban was lifted and compulsory health checks were introduced to protect the spread of diseases to soldiers (who at this time were the most frequent guests). In addition to sex work, legal use of cannabis started to pop-up in the 1970s in the neighborhood and while there was some action taken by local police, by 1976 coffeeshops were allowed to stay open as long as no hard drugs were being sold.
If you’re going to explore De Wallen, there are some things to take into account before you go.
- Know the difference between a “coffee shop” and a “coffeeshop”. A coffee shop sells coffee and a “coffeeshop” sells marijuana.
- While coffeeshops can be found all throughout the city, prostitution is limited to the Red Light District
- Smoking of tobacco is not permitted indoors though smoking pure marijuana is permitted inside of coffeeshops
- Quantities over 5grams are not permitted for sale.
- Under no circumstances should you be taking pictures of the girls
The neighborhood is a pretty big tourist destination but there are things to do that are a little more esoteric and quirky.
The Oude Kerk: Located right in the middle of the Red Light District is this 13th-century church. Built by the Catholics of the city, the church has seen every major important event in Amsterdam’s history. Today it serves as a cultural center for the area and brings in international artists to display their work.
De Koffieschenkerij: Attached to the Oude Kerk is this relatively new coffee shop serving up some of Amsterdam’s best pastries and coffee. In an otherwise super busy and bustling neighborhood, this cafe has a little private courtyard area by the church where you can take a little break, have a caffeine fix, and watch the world go by. Just don’t sleep on their apple pie.
Brouwerij de Prael: This old-school brewery is much more than just an average place to get a beer. The owners are committed to helping the community and people down on their luck find meaningful employment. Their large dining room is great to have some craft beer with friends in the charm of an old beer hall complete with dark furniture and vintage knick-knacks.
Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum: Offering a little something for stoner’s and history buffs alike this museum is dedicated to showcasing the turbulent history of marijuana. From its prehistoric origins to American anti-marijuana propaganda and “reefer madness”. Highlights include samurai armor made from hemp and thought-provoking exhibitions
Hangover Information Centre: So maybe you’ve had a little too much to drink and you’re dreading the next day’s hangover. Well the HIC has the cure for you! At 5€, their secret formula will cure what ails you if you take it before bedtime. If it sounds too good to be true, maybe it is, but it’ll only cost you 5€.
It’s not exactly hard to see why Amsterdam is such a popular tourist destination. The city encompasses what modern Europe is. Environmentally friendly transport, tons of culture and museums, great food, and tons of amazing and interesting history to explore. Whether you’re into Van Gogh, artisanal donuts, or the history of marijuana. Amsterdam has a little something for everyone.