Amsterdam: How to avoid crowds at the city’s most popular attractions

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Van Gogh museum Amsterdam
Head to the Van Gogh museum early to avoid the crowds. Photo: Olivier Bruchez

The Netherlands is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Almost 17 million people live in an area about the size of the Maryland, and Amsterdam has a constant “pile up” atmosphere. Mass crowds and long lines are regular features of the most touristy spots, so here are some tips to avoid the waiting game.

Anne Frank House Museum

You and everyone visiting Holland knows the tragic and inspiring story of Anne Frank. Even in the heaviest of rain, the line for the Anne Frank House Museum is a constant feature of the building’s exterior. Luckily, the museum has a few tricks up their sleeve to help curb this well-known issue.

One big win is the option to buy tickets beforehand on the museum’s website, and bring a print copy along to skip the line and head straight to the “special entrance.” Visitors can order up to 14 tickets online, and the payment system is credit-card friendly (but not student-discount friendly!).

On top of that, the museum’s opening hours stretch into the evening. Spring and summer closing time isn’t until 9 p.m., and high season closing (July and August) is 10 p.m. Try your luck after 7 p.m. for the lowest waiting time. If you plan to visit during the low season, stroll by around 5 p.m. to scope out the stand by scene.

Jood Historisch Museum Amsterdam

Amsterdam’s Jood Historisch Museum offers an interesting alternative to the Anne Frank Haus. Photo: Museumnacht

Skip it and head to the Jewish Historic Museum

Amsterdam’s Joods Historisch (Jewish Historical) Museum is a great alternative if lines look hopelessly long at the Anne Frank House, especially if your interest lies within Jewish culture and history in Amsterdam. About 11,000 art and historic artifacts are housed here, and the museum offers deep insight into Nazi occupation in Holland from 1940 to 1945.

The museum entry is €12, but it includes admission to the Portuguese Synagogue next door, and the nearby Holandsche Shouwburg.

Van Gogh Museum

Situated in the middle of Museumplein, the Van Gogh Museum is the most visited art museum in Amsterdam. And after paying a not-so-cheapo fee to see Van Gogh’s work, it’s all the more frustrating when the charge includes a wait in the rain.

From September 2012 to late April 2013 the museum’s collection is being temporarily housed in the Hermitage Amsterdam museum, which might diminish the number of visitors, simply due to the inconvenience. If that’s not the case, timing is of the essence. While Anne Frank Huis is a better visit in the evening, Van Gogh is roomiest right at the opening.

Give yourself about an hour at the Van Gogh once you’re inside. If things get busy, take a break at the cafe and try the packed areas again later. The museum is good at keeping people moving. It’s easy to wait out the waves of large groups by just stepping aside for a few minutes.

Skip it and head to the Stedelijk Museum

The more die-hard art lovers might prefer the newly-renovated Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, full of modern and contemporary art and design from the 20th and 21st Centuries. Late Greats like Andy Warhol and Henri Matisse are exhibited there, along with even a smaller Vincent van Gogh collection.

The Stedelijk is located just around the corner from the Van Gogh, and well worth the admission if Vinny’s “Sunflowers” are taking forever to get to.

Red Light District crowds

The Red Light District attracts tourist throngs most nights. Photo: Jburgin

Red Light District

As early on in the week as Wednesday evening, Amsterdam’s Red Light District looks more like a maze of wall-to-wall tourists ogling and snickering as they shuffle by beautiful blondes in moodily lit windows. By weekend things are packed, people get pushy, and drunk bachelor parties are downright ugly. The last place you want to be is between a prostitute hurling a bottle at some idiot taking her photo (which, it goes without saying, you should never, ever, do!).

Still, the Red Light District offers a big barrel of traditional Dutch charm. It’s the oldest part of the city with buildings dating from the 14th and 15th Centuries, and it’s should most definitely not be overlooked. Stroll early afternoon. Even by 10 a.m. a few brown bar cafes are open and ladies are running the “morning shift.” The canals are just as dazzling by day, and the mood is quiet.

Avoid getting sucked into tourist streets like Warmoestraat and Damstraat. These streets make up the borders of the Red Light District, offering a mess of low-quality coffeeshops and tourist bars. Stick to the main veins of Oudezijds Voorburgwal and Oudezijds Achterburgwal for the ultimate Red Light District view (but remember, snap pics at the canals and clearly away from any windows with women in them!).

Skip it and head to the Jordaan

The Red Light District isn’t the only area in Amsterdam with woman selling services under red-lit windows. An area near the Singel canal, just before the Jordaan, exhibits the same setting on a smaller scale. Plus the Jordaan offers just as much character in its buildings as the Red Light, with impressive canals, churches, gardens and alleyways.

About the author

About the author: Audrey Sykes hopped across the pond from the US eight years ago for a Masters degree in global journalism. Since then, she’s lived all over Europe, reporting and editing for music sites, snowboard mags, and travel media. She’s also the Amsterdam author for Party Earth, a guide to nightlife across Europe.

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One thought on “Amsterdam: How to avoid crowds at the city’s most popular attractions”

  1. I live in Amsterdam and have had many guests over the last 10 years. Most of the above is very good information. A few additonal notes:

    Best advice on Anne Frank House is buy your tickets online and in advance of your arrival in Amsterdam. If you wait until you arrive in Amsterdam, they will probably already be sold out online. We see this all the time. Then you have no option but to go and wait in line (in the evening is best).

    There are red light houses in every neighborhood but the largest and most famous area is the red light district (RLD) and that’s partly because there are also a lot of bars, cafes and restaurants in the RLD so it’s a real party area in the evenings. The other red light area discussed is not a big party area although there are a couple of bars nearby. It is also not in the Jordaan, it is in the area of the Nieuwezijds Kolk and is between the Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal and the Singel so would better be described as the canalbelt. The Jordaan borders are the Brouwersgracht, the Prinsengracht, the Elandsgracht and the Lijnbaansgracht. If it isn’t between those 4 canals, it isn’t in the Jordaan. Note: the Elandsgracht is a canal that has been filled.

    There are only a handful of true ‘brown cafes’ still left in Amsterdam and they are not attached to women in the red light business–even if the women are working nearby. Most are not even in the red light district. They are called brown cafes because of the nicotine stained walls which are mostly wood and nicotine ‘yellow’ paint (it used to white, but over the years nicotine stained the walls to a very mellow yellow.) But, don’t assume that because the walls are wood and yellow that it is a brown cafe. There are only about 6-8 authentic, historic brown cafes. Others just try to be look like one because it’s a style the Dutch like.

    Finally, although the Jewish Historic Museum is good, many guests say it isn’t very well organized and often there isn’t much, if any, information as to what you are looking at (one of my Jewish friends thought it was probably better for researchers than for a museum experience–note to staff: could be an area of improvement?) But without fail, all of my guests have loved the Resistance Museum which is very close by the Jewish Historic Museum. (no reason not to see both!)

    Finally, Amsterdam is a fabulous city for walking. Unless you have mobility issues or are staying outside of the Centrum (the historic city center), don’t bother buying a OV card/transport pass. You can walk across the Centrum, north-south or east-west in 30 minutes or less–and virtually all of the sites are either in the Centrum or at the edge of the centrum. You won’t ride public transportation frequently enough to make it worth the cost.

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