Visiting Amsterdam: 5 first-time mistakes to avoid


Before you hit the ground in Amsterdam, check out these tips to help you save time and money. Photo: Werner K

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.

Related: Simple tips for finding affordable hotels in Amsterdam

Anne Frank Line

There’s usually a very long line at the Anne Frank House, so plan accordingly. Photo: Lauren Rauk

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.

Amsterdam Boats

A boat tour along the canals is a much better way to see the charming streets of Amsterdam than a bus ride. Photo: Moyan B.

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.

Related: The perfect weekend trip for the first-time visitor in Amsterdam

Albert Hein

Grocery stores don’t take credit or debit cards in Amsterdam, but Albert Hein stores do have ATMs. Photo: Alix G

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.

Amsterdam Dungeon Museum

The Dungeon Museum is touristy fun, but there are several other spots that you and the kids will enjoy as well. Photo: Edwin Hermans

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.)

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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3 thoughts on “Visiting Amsterdam: 5 first-time mistakes to avoid”

  1. Regarding credit card usage, with many new american cards getting the EMV Chip+Signature, you can easily use your card to buy almost anything in Amsterdam. Heck, even the Marq grocery stores ONLY accept credit or debit (no cash at all).

  2. Begin your day at the Anne Frank House. I arrived half an hour before opening, and the wait was about forty minutes.

    They have open WiFi that reaches far outside, to help you waste your time, or you can have a pleasant conversation with the other people waiting.

  3. Big mistake, Audrey! To try to dissuade people from waiting to enter the Anne Frank House is to deny an important part of human history. You have one job only: to help people travel, which includes educating them. You’d have been much better off to take the positive approach, encouraging folks to use the online reservation system (I did this last year, and walked right in the side door) while omitting the negative editorializing.


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