Visiting Amsterdam: 5 first-time mistakes to avoid
Amsterdam can be a breeze for first timers to Europe in many ways. Everyone speaks English, and the city is small enough to get around by foot. At the same time, the streets are curvy and confusing, taxis are expensive and the Dutch language is a mouthful.
It’s also important to find a good location to stay and know how to navigate the city’s biggest attractions, so you don’t get stuck in long lines for half your trip. To help shrink your chances of starting an Amsterdam adventure on the wrong foot, here are five rookie mistakes to avoid.
1. Sleeping in the Red Light District
No, we don’t mean literally on the streets or benches of course, because there are a handful of hotels that offer acceptable rooms in the Red Light District. But many accommodations here can be a grim experience. The stairs to your room are small and steep. Some staircases have handles on the walls to pull up with. Add the mission of carrying your suitcase, and it becomes a fearful climb up Jacob’s ladder. Rooms in the Red Light District can be cramped, damp and in need of serious renovation. Why? This is the oldest part of Amsterdam, and there are strict laws on modernizing historic sites from 500 years ago.
Check our hotel list for some great finds inside and outside the Red Light District. Don’t be afraid to venture outside the center for comfort and contemporary; neighborhoods like Museumplein, the Jordaan and De Pijp are just as scenic and enjoyable.
2. Long waits in the Anne Frank House line
As a guide in the summer, most of my tours ask to end at the Anne Frank House. Like clockwork, as soon as we arrive at the entrance a disappointing sigh falls among the group. Their eyes set upon the long line, and I hear startled mumbles of “Oh no!” and “I can’t believe it!” It’s so bad, people actually post YouTube clips about this line. By summertime it’s a crazy wait that averages about 2 to 3 hours, and that’s on a weekday.
My advice: don’t do it. I know that’s a taboo tip, and Anne Frank’s diary is an important WWII story, but there’s more than the Anne Frank House that commemorates Jewish culture in Amsterdam. The Jewish Historic Museum, The Dutch Resistance Museum, the National Holocaust Memorial, the Portuguese Synagogue and even a Children’s Jewish Historic Museum are all located in the Jewish Quarter of the city. These museums exhibit in English and are brimming with educational experiences. They are worth a visit and probably a better use of your time if you’re only in town for a short time.
If you can’t be persuaded, or if Anne Frank is your only chance for a famous WWII monument, there are ways to avoid the wait. Buying your tickets online will send you to a shorter line. Otherwise get there an hour or two before closing. In July and August the museum stays open until 10 PM and until 9 PM in April to June, September to October.
3. Taking a bus tour
Amsterdam, Brussels and Bruges are the most walkable cities in Europe. They’re small, quaint and impossible to sightsee by bus. Okay, maybe not impossible, but definitely unnecessary and incongruent to the city layout. The Amsterdam center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mostly intact from the 1600s and 1700s. Trying to absorb this vibe via a 21st century tour bus just doesn’t mesh. The buses don’t fit, and you’ll end up sightseeing in circles around Amsterdam.
Opt for renting a bicycle before a bus. If you are into the “hop on hop off” strategy, there are boat tours that offer the same service as a bus would, but by beautiful canal cruises. Need to take a seat for a while? The electric tram system here runs all throughout scenic routes. And for €2.80, the tram is a lot cheaper.
4. Using a credit card for groceries
It sounds crazy but it’s true: you can’t pay by credit or debit in supermarkets here. If you’re from the EU, your Maestro debit card works fine, but North Americans have a different debit system that won’t match. Luckily most Albert Hein supermarkets (our main grocery chain) stock an ATM or two inside. Withdrawal before you shop: the best exchange rates are via ATMs anyway.
5. Going to the Amsterdam Dungeon Museum for the kids
This attraction isn’t really special to Amsterdam, nor is it cheap. And yet families wait for hours because they can’t think of another “kid friendly” destination. Try NEMO, the hands-on science museum that’s doubles as a playground of interactive stands. In addition, the Artis Zoo is a huge deal for kids in The Netherlands. Equipped with a planetarium, insectarium and aquarium, it’s not the average zoo. (Not to mention the unusual additions of black spider monkeys, penguins and zebras.)