The most elegant area within the city center, Grachtengordel South (also referred to as the "Southern Canal Ring") features opulent residences, mansion-lined streets and a hot nightlife scene. The area boasts both Rembrandtplein (the city's one-time butter market) and Leidseplein (a former horse and buggy drop-off point). Both squares have been reborn as hot spots for bars, clubs, restaurants and no small number of tourist traps.
Choosing a hotel in the southern canal ring will make things convenient when visiting Amsterdam, as you'll be close enough to the train station, and within an easy walk of most of the city's big sights. You should also consider hotels in the Western Canal Ring (or "Grachtengordel West"), which tends to be quieter.
Grachtengordel West, also called the "Western Canal Ring," is an expansive area in the center of town, near Dam Square and the Old Center. The neighborhood is home to gorgeous 17th-century canal houses, along with some of the city's most interesting sights, including the Westermarkt, the Homomonument, the Westerkerk (Amsterdam's grandest church and the final resting place of Rembrandt) and Anne Frank's House.
Sleeping in the Western Canal Ring is, in our opinion, a breeze, as it's a quick stroll (or an even quicker tram ride), to the train station and most of the city's main tourist attractions. It's also quite lovely and romantic, lined with canals, floating houseboats, and, generally speaking, not popular with roving stag parties.
During the 17th century, Jordaan represented the outskirts of Amsterdam—and the smelly, squalid home of the city's immigrants and working class. Despite a gritty past, today it's a sought-after 'hood, replete with trendy restaurants and leafy canals. But the alternative community spirit for which Jordaan has always been known is still very much intact, in everything from eccentric architectural details to funky shops and galleries.
There aren't many tourist sights here, with the exception of the Houseboat Museum and Electric Ladyland, a quirky museum of fluorescent art. The former is situated across from a colorful square (Johnny Jordaanplein) that pays tribute to a popular 1950s singer (Johnny Jordaan) whose songs extolling the neighborhood's poor but spirited community can still be heard in local cafés.
Cheap hotels in the Jordaan aren't easy to come by, although we have managed to find and recommend one (below). For more inexpensive options, we'd recommend walking just a few minutes to the Western Canal Ring (Grachtengordel West).
The most popular neighborhood outside the city center, the Museumplein is a residential area crowded with museums, parks and 19th-century buildings. The Rijksmuseum possesses an impressive collection of Dutch paintings from the 15th through the 17th centuries (including an enormous Rembrandt collection), the Van Gogh Museum is (surprise) devoted to Van Gogh, and the Stedelijk Museum houses modern and contemporary art. Meanwhile, the nearby Concertgebouw offers world class concerts at reasonable ticket prices.
The vast green space that is Vondelpark was the celebrated playground of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll in the 1970s. Today, however, Museumplein & Vondelpark is an upscale commercial area, full of pricey little boutiques and shops.
Sleeping near the museums and Vondelpark is a great option for travelers who expect to spend a lot of time taking in the city's art, concert, and shopping options. The area is a quick tram ride straight south through the city center from the central train station, while most of the city's main tourist sights can be reached by foot.
The Old Center is home to many of Amsterdam's main tourist attractions, with the notable exception of the most important museums (located south in the Museumplein). The Red Light District, Dam Square, the Royal Palace, Nieuwmarkt, and a seemingly endless supply of "coffeeshops" keep the area packed with eager—and often gawking—tourists.
Sleeping in the Old Center: This is the city's touristy nerve-center. It's dirty, chaotic, crowded and, for some, enthralling. Choosing a hotel in the Old Center is certainly convenient for sightseeing, and it makes getting to and from the central train station a snap. However, it's also quite noisy, and certain areas (especially in the Red Light District) are frequented at night by roving groups of merrymakers. If you're up for the fun, by all means, join the fun!
De Pijp may sit just to the east of Museumplein, but it's very different in temperament and culture. While Museumplein is upscale, De Pijp is scrappy. It was Amsterdam's very first suburb, and today it's home today to large numbers of immigrants from Suriname, Morocco and Turkey. The neighborhood is also quite trendy, and home to one of the city's best bar scenes.
De Pijp also boasts the Albert Cuyp Market, which is not merely Amsterdam's largest and best-known public market, but also the largest public market in all of Europe. Another must-visit attraction is De Pijp's Sarphatipark, a lovely green oasis of a park plopped down in the center of the neighborhood.
Sleeping in the Pijp is a great option for travelers looking to stay in a "real" residential neighborhood, amongst the homes, shops and schools of actual residents. The area's restaurants and bars are among the city's most popular, and offer some real deals for budget travelers.
Located 10 minutes from the center of Amsterdam, the Plantagebuurt is a quiet, green neighborhood with a troubled past. A Jewish neighborhood from the 16th century until World War II, the Plantagebuurt was once bustling with factories and commerce. But its location, completely surrounded by canals, allowed German forces to isolate the area and create a Jewish ghetto.
During the cold winter following the war, many of the tragically deserted homes were dismantled for firewood. The area was renovated in the 1970s, and today only the synagogue and the Jewish Museum remind visitors of the its troubled past. Plantagebuurt is, however, home to several museums (including the Rembrandt House Museum) and a zoo.
Amsterdam's (in)famous Red Light District lies within the Old Center, and is a short walk from the city's Centraal Station. True, the area is home to those notorious red windows, live sex shows and marijuana-peddling coffee shops, but it's hardly a dangerous free-for all. A heavy police presence and corner cameras keep the area safe.
As night falls, the narrow streets become increasingly crowded (and increasingly noisy) with roving gangs of happy-go-lucky tourists out for a fun night. Perhaps ironically, the Red Light District also boasts some traditional attractions, such as the Oude Kerk (The Old Church) and some cool shops.
Sleeping in the Red Light District is recommended only for tourists up for the fun. While the neighborhood includes lots of budget hotels, many offer just the bare basics, and many are located above pubs and coffeeshops. From your window you'll be able to survey the steady stream of tourists. If this sounds appealing, go for it!